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Does Internet Coaching really work?

by Carl Brewer last modified 2010-01-03 16:55
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I've been doing it for years, but am still unsure ...

When I started aboc way back in 2003 I dreamed of, amongst other things, being an 'Internet coach' for cyclists.  I did it for some time, I had some clients who were interstate, some even overseas.  After all, if you're communicating by email, you can be anywhere, right?  And when more people have downloadable HRM's and power meters, it seems even easier. You get their data (when they remember to send it!), slap it into WKO+, check it out and you know everything about the rider's progress.  Write a program, email it out, get the data, send the invoice ... Have a successful cyclist as a client ... Heck, you can probably even bodge up some software to automatically generate training programs based on some simple formula and you don't even have to do any work at all.

But does that really work?

I had some spectacular failures using that method.  Most of the riders I worked with were terrible at communicating with me, I'd get very infrequent emails or none at all from most of them.  They'd do maybe some of their program or none, I had little in the way of regular contact with them despite the best of intentions, I'd send nagging emails to some and seldom get replies.  The failures weren't necessarily the riders faults, I practically live on-line, but that's not how the vast majority of people live, even office deck jockeys don't have time to send regular emails and so on all the time.  Sometimes I'd be too snowed under with work to respond quickly to queries too. Some riders, if I saw them more regularly, I'd have seen that they weren't responding well and we'd have changed things around to suit them better.  Even if a rider has all the fruity bits (HRM, power meter etc) there's still no substitute for actually working with them at training sessions.  You can see so much more when you watch them closely than you can from a load of training statistics.

I don't doubt that for some riders (but I suspect this is a very small minority, at least in my experience) the Internet coach thing can work.  However, in the vast majority of cases unless you actually see your athletes regularly, I don't think a coach can really know what's going on.  I think it's important to see how your riders respond to training, you need to talk to them, face to face, you need to see them on an ergo, on the track, or racing, or in the gym, regularly.

I still do some Internet coaching, but am increasingly uneasy about its overall worth.  For a recreational racing cyclist, some structure and hand holding from a coach developing a program is often useful and a good way to get them started, and a coach in that position can do the 'Internet thing', essentially matching up the rider's available time with a bunch of training sessions and setting some goals.  This amounts to spoon-feeding an athlete Joe Friel's book, with a few variations on style.  It works, kinda, and can get some riders going well, but in my experience as a model for coaching beyond that initial first few months, it doesn't work well.

I know I feel a lot better about working with riders regularly and seeing them regularly at training and racing sessions than I do when I see them very infrequently.  I'm trying these days to structure my coaching such that there's regular contact (actual physical, in the same place at the same time) at training sessions, such as our ergo sessions, sessions in the 'Haus, at DISC and so on.  I think it's far better than just emails and data dumps.  Coaching's not just about the data, it's about understanding the riders and working with them to achieve their goals.

What's your experience and thoughts on this?  I'd appreciate comments on this article, please.

It's all about communication

Posted by Dino Apolito at 2010-01-03 17:55
Internet coaching/training/councelling/advice call it what you will, has it's place but nothing beats face to face hands on contact no matter what your field of endeavour is.

I spend a lot of time using the internet to "coach" and train people on the use of our software via web meetings, Skype, Chats and all sorts of fancy stuff but nothing works as well as sitting with the customer one on one or at the very least holding a training seminar for people to attend.

This stuff is all about communication and humans have a very sophisticated mechanism for communicating - they use Body Language! And we use it all the time both deliberately and sub-consciously. But this important form of communication is absent from Internet Coaching. You can tell a lot about the state of an athlete's body and mind by watching their body language before, during and after training or racing. You can't do this over the internet.



Posted by Carl Brewer at 2010-01-03 20:14
Yes, Dino. In fact, you're a poster-boy for the need for real contact. If we didn't ride together and see a lot of each other, you'd probably have given it all away years ago. We found that track worked for you, and then that you had a killer sprint, only by close contact. If we'd been only doing emails etc, we'd never have discovered that, and also we'd never had discovered how you specifically like training.

The same goes for Em. I know we'd not be nearly as successful with her if it was just 'do this, send me an email'. It wouldn't have worked for her at all. I tailer training for her on the fly dependin on how she's feeling a lot of the time (eg last night with the revout at the finish) - you can't do that online.

Shane makes a very good point about tactical development which is a big issue too. It's easy (relatively!) to have B grade legs and a D grade brain and there's an awful lot of reasonably fit guys, with no tactical clues, who win by brute force but who don't get the subtleties that you need to develop to be successful in higher grades of racing.

Good topic

Posted by gplama at 2010-01-03 18:17
imo - Interweb coaching can give you the ability to ride well, but skill and technique needs to be reviewed/corrected/taught in person. Race tactics too - they need to be put into practice, reviewed, refined. The danger being that people won't ever know what they're doing wrong unless its pointed out... and while cyclists are more than generous in dishing out 'helpful' information to others, to be of any worth (ie, correct) it needs to come from a qualified coach or someone who _does_ know what they're talking about... cutting to the chase, there are 'expert' riders out there who know all about how to win A grade while they're making mistakes in C.

like everything.... it depends

Posted by Neil Robinson at 2010-01-27 18:24
In my experience a coach does more than write programs to be followed.

While it's certainly a part, showing us what we're capable of, and inspiring us to want more from ourselves, is of far greater benefit.

With the aid of the internet we can self diagnose a range of problems (usually that we're a hypochondriac), purchase the latest product guaranteed to make us 15% faster, but the written word has limits.

Dino said it well, we communicate with far more than just words, tone and body language are reputed to be of far more important than what we actually say (I know because I read it on the internet).

Trying to do coaching via the internet requires more honesty than most of us can muster. We must be able to give honest evaluation of our own position and progress, as well as communicate these things to someone else.

I suppose this all comes together as, coaching is far more than just programs. The simplest thing to do via the web is just programs. It would take a person capable of what many of us can't do, to have great success without some form of human contact. I think the key to that is "great success", most will be able to derive benefit from an internet only approach, but it may not be the level they desire let alone "optimal" (seriously can anyone say what's optimal?).

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