Steve Trew explains why sometimes knowing nothing is better than knowing not a lot.

Some time ago, I was sitting in on a prospective coach practical assessment for middle-distance running. The gentleman concerned already had a strong coaching background, but in swimming rather than track and field. He was given a group of 11- and 12-year-old girls for his practical. They were keen, enthusiastic, ready to achieve. So far, all well and good.

And then he gave them the session: twelve reps of 800m with a 30 second recovery. Not one of the girls was able to finish the session, several left the track crying and a couple never came back. The prospective coach failed. And his rationale for setting such a session?

“I translated the sort of session I give to my swimmers of the same age, 12×200 metres front crawl with 30 seconds in between, similar time for swimming 200m and running 800m; it’s not that tough.”

In swimming terms, it isn’t. Assuming that the particular swimmers have gradually increased the amount of training over the years, that they’re in an appropriate group for their particular standard, that they’re used to the discomfort, effort and pain required to get them through that session. But for running? No way. The impact of pounding the track with each footfall, the prepubescent bodies expected to do that session, the total inappropriateness of that particular session. Everything was wrong.

If, as coaches, we believe that it is more important to know the athlete than to know the sport, then I truly believe that it is more important to know the athlete as an individual rather than just as an athlete.

I was working with two very different athletes a while back; one took a gold and a silver at world age-group championships, the other a silver atas an age-grouper, and then became an Olympian. The double medal winner needed for every single training session to be spelled out exactly for her; every aspect down to the tiniest detail. And the other athlete? Set out the week with general aims; then talk about what was required and a discussion of what sessions would achieve that result. Both tremendous athletes, but totally different mind-sets, and if I’d tried to coach them in the same way, then that coach/athlete relationship almost certainly wouldn’t have lasted too long.

Knowledge and Intelligence
It’s important to take on board two essential aspects in coaching: “never assume knowledge, never underestimate intelligence.” They’re neither mutually inclusive nor exclusive. It would be easy to assume that our first athlete above might not have had the intelligence to work out what each session required, but that would be totally wrong. What she needed were absolutely specific goals that she could aim for in every single session; for her, it worked. Another athlete with whom I’m working right now likes that particular set-up as well. And he is the most astute and intelligent man I know.

Coach: “We’re going to do six by one mile, aim is 5:45 with a full minute recovery.” Then; Coach: “it’s quite a tough set. But I think you can do it” or “it’s quite a tough set. You might hurt a bit” or “it’s quite an easy set for you. You’ll cruise through it”

Exactly the same set, but that’s what an astute coach will say to each of the three athletes doing the set. Why? Because a good coach knows through experience with working with each one how to set the challenge so that each athlete will get the best out of themselves. That’s what coaching is about, knowing the athlete, knowing about good communication.

There’s an old cliché that I love; it goes something like: “People will forget what you did, people will forget what you said but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And it’s only a cliché because it’s true. That’s really what coaching is all about. A trainer might know what to do, but a coach knows why it’s being done and how to communicate it.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

You’ll find loads more blogs from the likes of Steve, Phil Graves and the Triathlon Plus team in’s blogs section