3 Lessons for Coaches from an Endurance Athlete

Brenda Lockwood | November 2022

You are an Ironman.

Not many people will hear those words during their lifetime. But when you cross the finish line of an Ironman Triathlon, the emcee honors your physical and mental perseverance with these words. In September 2021, I participated in this physical endurance event that challenges its participants to a combined 140.6 miles of swimming, cycling, and running. My body powered my flailing arms through choppy waters, pedaled me up 6,000 feet of hills, and dragged one foot in front of the other over miles of pavement. Finally, after 15.5 hours, I heard the words, “Brenda Lockwood, you are an Ironman.”

Crossing the finish line was overwhelming, trying to take in all that was happening around me and everything that I had done to get to that moment. Mike Reilly, the author of Finding My Voice, coined the phrase “you are an Ironman.” For 30 years, Reilly called people across the Ironman finish line. To him, “Completing an Ironman isn’t just something you do, it’s something you become.” That becoming takes time, commitment, and mental toughness. All three of these qualities relate to mindset.

When training new coaches, we talk about the mindset a coach must bring to the coaching relationship to support and facilitate client growth and change. As coaches, this mindset is about believing in the client and recognizing that our clients are creative, resourceful, and whole. In training for long endurance events, it occurred to me that as coaches we also need to cultivate and support the mindset of our clients, to ensure they bring the mindset they need to be successful in reaching their goals. We need to help them build some mental toughness. Below are three lessons I’ve learned from endurance training that we can apply to our coaching journeys.

Lesson 1: Change is often uncomfortable.

Training for an endurance event is about adaptation. Without getting too technical, training helps your body build resilience and increase efficiency so that it can do what it is you’re asking it to do.  Adaptation does not come easy. First, we must physically stress our bodies to build physical strength. It doesn’t always feel good to physically stress our bodies—it can even hurt! Second, our human brain ensures that adapting (changing) will come with a mental struggle. Our brains are wired to keep us comfortable, so anything that requires us to move out of our comfort zone will encounter a strong response from our sympathetic nervous system, our brain’s fight-flight-freeze function. In order to step outside of our comfort zone, we need to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable (i.e., develop mental toughness). How long it takes to gain that mental toughness will depend on how big the goal is.

Change is often uncomfortable. As coaches, it’s imperative to keep in mind that the change isn’t just about doing something different; it’s also about becoming something different on a cognitive level. Help your clients identify situations or events that can trigger their discomfort and get in the way of their personal growth, and encourage them to consider how they will negotiate with themselves to overcome those barriers. Understand this is about being uncomfortable, not unsafe. There is a difference in these types of risk, and you may want to discuss how they are different for your client. Make sure your clients set realistic expectations about how much time they need to achieve their goals. The bigger the goal, the smaller the steps, which may require more time than expected. Everyone adapts/changes at their own pace.

Lesson 2: Consistency is key.

Change takes time and consistency. Spending time doing something outside of your comfort zone on a regular basis is key to change. For me, that day in September 2021 was long and challenging, but the training on my path to becoming an Ironman—spending time outside my comfort zone—was even more difficult than the actual event. In the time (many months!) it took for me to prepare for the event, there were days when it was all I could do to get myself out the door to do what was on my training plan. There were many days and many hours of training that required a constant negotiation with myself to just keep going during the workout, even though I was feeling like I wanted to do anything but follow the plan for the day. By the time I made it to the start line on event day, my training had ensured that I had the physical strength and mental toughness to negotiate the task before me. The training that led me to the start line on race day was days and hours of grinding, outside my comfort zone, toward my goal. The event was the victory lap.

In order to achieve a goal, a person needs to put forth consistent effort that will move them toward it. This is about doing something, anything, related to their goal as often as possible. In the context of coaching, in most cases related to making a change, it doesn’t matter how much effort, just that there is effort. As a coach, identifying specific steps and accountability measures and/or an accountability partner can help increase consistency in effort.

Lesson 3: Vary the course.

In any change endeavor, spending time outside your comfort zone is important to growth. In training for an endurance event, this means varying intensity and including days for recovery, as well as finding routes with variations in elevation and distance. The path that leads to achieving change should include things that are easy and familiar (maybe even still somewhat within one’s comfort zone at times) and move toward steps that are appropriately challenging and novel. This means moving outside one’s comfort zone incrementally and in a variety of ways.

As a coach, our role in this journey is to encourage our clients to know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable (not unsafe, just uncomfortable), to support them as they step outside their comfort zone at least as often as they stay inside it (more is better, but 50/50 is a good place to start), and to help them consider new and differing ways of moving toward their goal.

Bonus lesson: Ring the cowbell!

There are so many lessons from being an endurance athlete that can be applied in coaching. I’d be remiss if I did not mention spectator energy—the cheering fans and crowds—and its impact on an athlete during an event. The cheers and encouraging signs help keep the athlete present to what is happening in the moment and drown out their brain’s natural tendency to want to call them back to their comfort zone (i.e., stop or quit). Being alongside your client on their journey, and ringing the proverbial cowbell to remind them to stay focused on their goal, will make the variations on their path easier to overcome. 

As coaches, we know that becoming—adapting to a new way of being—takes time. It is an honor and privilege to be invited on a client’s journey of becoming. Make the most of this invitation and your role by doing what you can to help set your clients up for success.


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