5 Lessons I've Learned From My Athletes

On March 31, 2012, two weeks before I ran the Boston Marathon, I officially became a running coach. I completed my first coaching certification through USA Track & Field in Brooklyn, NY. And few weeks after Boston, inspired by running the oldest and most iconic race in America, I completed another certification through the Road Runners Club of America. From these programs, I learned about training theory, biomechanics, running psychology, coaching ethics, and so much more. I was eager to use what I learned not only in my own training but also with prospective athletes training for their first races or personal bests.

I started by creating training programs for friends and coaching friends of friends. I would even run with some of them to correct form, distract them from the occasional pain, and motivate them to run longer and faster. Without a doubt, the greatest reward of being a coach is seeing athletes accomplish goals they once thought was impossible. While the inherent nature of coaching involves helping others learn, in the process I also learn from them. Here are five lessons I’ve learned from runners I’ve coached over the years.

1) Know Your Value
In my first year as a coach, I did not charge for my time. I didn't feel I had the credibility, and I was simply happy to share my passion and expertise and see runners improve. It wasn't until one of my clients told me that he would feel more accountable if I charged. Sure enough, turning coaching into a job made both my athletes and myself more incentivized to do better. Price is often a proxy for quality, so over time, I've been able to become more aware of and confident in my value as a coach and raise my fees.

2) Have a Trusted Network
Despite my desire to solve every problem, I know that I'm not a doctor, registered dietician, or licensed therapist. I've developed an ability to identify and diagnose numerous running-related injuries and health conditions but I’ve also learned when to share my opinion and when to recommend the advice of professionals. As a result, I maintain a trusted network of specialists that I can recommend when I'm not the expert; for example, if there are symptoms of strains, fractures, low bone density or hormone levels, poor eating habits, or mental health challenges.

3) Dance in the Moment
It's easy to transfer knowledge and impart wisdom from experience. But I've realized that good coaching requires being able to "dance in the moment" - what I would define as being present, listening actively, and asking questions to help runners grow rather than just teaching and mentoring. Coaching is about unlocking one’s potential to maximize performance. It requires creating trust, hearing and reacting to the person while noticing energy, mood, and tone, and asking open-ended questions. Dancing in the moment allows athletes to create possibilities and solutions themselves.

4) Let Life Happen
The very idea of a training plan reflects order and structure, but life demands us to be flexible and nimble. Factors such as certain health conditions, personal and work conflicts, and the weather will deter training and racing. I have spent months coaching a runner with significant performance gains and personal bests in the process only to be met with a goal race where it's 80F degrees at the start. Rather than having an athlete play "catch-up" or feel regret, I tell my athletes to focus on what's ahead and what you can control. Strive for progress, not perfection. There will be another day to train and another race to run.

5) Find Inspiration
While I aim to inspire others as a coach and runner, I find my own inspiration from my athletes. Helping others through their challenges and enabling them to achieve success helps me with my own struggles. I am constantly reminded to never take the sport too seriously and instead remember why we run: to test and expand mental and physical limits, to connect with inner thoughts, and to understand ourselves better. Inspiration will help you become more confident and passionate in what you do. When I see others finding joy in running, I know that I have succeeded as a coach.