A Running Coach’s Duty

What makes a great coach great?
The North girls xc team had a great coach.

What makes a coach a good one? Are the best coaches the ones with the most technical knowledge, the most popular or trendy training theories, or the ones who get the best results? Or maybe there’s something else that makes a coach truly great.

I’ve been pondering this question a lot lately. I’ve had my share of coaches as a high school athlete and then as an adult. My children are now in sports and have their own coaches. I’ve coached adults and recently I started coaching kids too. Knowing what I’ve experienced, I’ve felt a crushing sense of responsibility and I’ve wondered what I can do to ensure I’m upholding my duty to my athletes.

As I’ve contemplated this I’ve realized there’s a more important question that needs an answer: what is a coach’s duty to his or her athletes anyway?

A Coach’s Power

I have never played soccer in my life, but I figured I knew enough to coach a bunch of six and seven year-old kids. While I won’t go into the embarrassing process of realizing the extent to which I underestimated the learning curve, the struggle was well worth it and I now know when to do a corner kick and when to do a goal kick. Progress!

Despite my lack of soccer expertise, my Mighty Cheetahs have thrived this season!

My seven girls and I are the Mighty Cheetahs. We are one of four girls teams in our league and, as the only female coach, while I might know the least about soccer, I take my duty to my little athletes very seriously.

While the other coaches help them and me with the fundamentals, I’m the coach who knows the most about being an active little girl. When the other coaches tell a player who’s been kicked in the shin to shake it off, I know it’s not that simple. When parents get irritated with their daughter for not being aggressive enough, I know how hard that message is to rectify with the rest of what she hears every day. And when we’re pushed off our field because the boys league scheduled a make-up game during our practice time and didn’t tell us about it, I cringe at how they might interpret that.

I was once a girl with a coach myself.

In high school, my track and cross country coach was a high school phenom who came back to his alma mater as a teacher and coach. As a teenage girl without a father in my life, my coach’s attention and belief in me fostered my love for running. But, shortly after I graduated, when he asked me to have an affair with him, it crushed me. I quit running for years.

In September of 2016, almost two dozen years after I graduated from high school, as I was taking pictures of the North High School girls cross country runners on the starting line of one of their races, I focused my camera and there he was, my high school coach. It took my breath away. Yes, it reminded me of what happened to me, but being with girls who were about the same age I was then, doing the same thing I did then, I was struck by the power a coach has. I could feel the hurt all over again — still. And, perhaps worse, the thought of a coach doing this kind of thing to these high school girls on that very starting line, or to my soccer girls, or my own children in this way, enraged me.

The Coach-Athlete Relationship

A coach and an athlete have a relationship. In any relationship there is a balance of power. Sometimes, one member of a relationship has more power than the other, like the relationship between a parent and a child or a boss and an employee. Other times, relationships are, at least theoretically, among equals, like many modern marriages or friendships or business associates.

As we consider coach-athlete relationships along a spectrum, the power disparity between athlete and coach begins to approach parity. A high school athlete will have more power in a coach-athlete relationship than an elementary student, a college athlete more, and then an adult athlete, theoretically should have equal power in a relationship with her coach. But I wonder how prevalent coach-athlete relationships really are, in which the athlete views herself as an equal in her relationship with her coach. In most cases, a coach tells the athlete what to do; it’s hard not to view a coach as an authority figure rather than a partner.

I think it’s this nature of the relationship between coach and athlete that determines the duty a coach has. As a professional, an authority figure, and as someone who likely has power over his or her athletes, a good coach recognizes the responsibility that comes with this authority — to use it to better athletes’ lives. That means a coach both has a duty to provide his or her coaching services for the purpose of bettering those athletes, and not intentionally or negligently harming them. Also, a coach must never use that authority over an athlete for personal benefit at the expense of the athlete.

Of course not all coaches’ training or methodologies will work for every athlete and sometimes athletes fail to hold up the bargain on their end. And of course, a coach isn’t a psychologist, a doctor, or a miracle worker. A coach’s duty isn’t to produce results in his or her athlete’s sports performance or enhance the athlete’s life, but it is to provide coaching with that aim in mind. In this case, because a coach can’t always control the results, it really is the thought that counts.

A Coach’s Duty

A coach’s duty is to provide a training program and advice for the purpose of improving the athlete’s sports performance, while enriching the athlete’s life (or at the very least doing no harm).

Choosing a Dutiful Coach

While my high school coach story is not nearly as disastrous as others, it echoes a far too common theme. I’ve heard of high school or collegiate coaches secretly (or not-so-secretly) dating their athletes or attempting to. I’ve heard more friends than I can count tell me about high school, college, and even post-collegiate coaches who picked apart their diets, their weight, their appearance, their friendships, relationships, or even their emotions.

Sometimes a coach seems great at first, but over time, that coach seems to disavow this duty. Some coaches seem to coach to prove his or her training theories are right or are better than someone else’s, even when training according to those theories isn’t in the best interest of the athletes. Some coaches seem to coach for the power trip. And then some, like my high school coach, shirk their duty and abuse their authority for immediate personal gratification.

How do we know if a coach will honor this duty? Sure, we can’t always pick our coaches. High school students are pretty much stuck with whatever the school gives them and my soccer kids didn’t really get a say. But if you’re ever in a position to choose a coach, here are some things to consider.

Why is this person coaching?

Is this person out to make some money? Is he or she looking to be respected as an expert? Does he or she love the sport and helping others be the best they can be? It’s ok for a coach to make money and want to be an expert, but are those the primary reasons for wanting to coach or are they secondary to a passion to help others improve?

Of course you can ask a coach this and the coach will probably give you the “right” answer. But thinking about this as you consider these next questions might help you see beyond the sales pitch.

What do athletes say about this coach?

We know to take the reviews on a coach’s own website with a grain of salt. But if you know someone who has been coached by someone you’re considering hiring, ask! If not, google the coach or peruse social media for independent reviews or remarks.

Another more indirect way to assess a coach’s motivation is to consider this: are athletes bragging about the coach all over social media? If so, why? Is the coach enjoying this social media attention or is the buzz created independent of his or her involvement? Some people coach for the attention and the accolades. Again, that alone is not a big deal, but if that’s the coach’s primary motivation, then his or her primary motivation is not about the athletes — it’s about him or herself.

Awesome coaches like Rue want their prospective athletes to ask them tough questions.

How does this coach talk about athletes?

Like any professional, a coach should not share information learned about athletes while coaching! If you see or hear a coach doing that, run!

How does the coach talk about her athletes’ successes? Does the coach take all the credit or do they lavish praise on the athlete? Of course, this alone is not solid evidence, but if the coach praises the athletes, the coach is more likely to coach for the purpose of bettering athletes.

Another important thing to consider is how the coach talks about athletes who have not thrived under his or her care. Does the coach take some responsibility for “failures” or does he or she blame all failures on the athletes?

Sure, sometimes an athlete deserves the blame, but what if there are multiple athletes who have not done well with the coach and the coach blames every one of them for it? Not taking responsibility for any of the failures or non-success stories should be a huge red flag that the coach does not understand or respect a coach’s duty to his or her athletes.


Realizing what my duty as a coach is has helped me gain confidence as a coach, and it’s helped me know what I want in a coach next time I’m in the market for one.

Have you had a great or not-so-great coach? What do you think makes a good coach? 

Sal is a 4 year old 77 hour trail marathoner looking to whittle a few minutes off next time. Being a gastropod, Sal is neither male nor female but will accept either set of pronouns. Sal's spirit animal is the cheetah and Sal's mantra is, "What's slow to some is fast for others." Sal writes about Salty Running news.

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  1. I only loosely participated in sports as a kid — two season of high school track, three seasons of high school soccer. Honestly, the coaches were all well-intentioned but not necessarily knowledgeable. I had the opportunity to play, and really that was enough. They were almost more like chaperones than coaches.

    When I started running as an adult, I worked informally with two coaches here and there. Neither was a great fit — both were used to coaching younger runners, especially boys. They were also people I considered friends, which I don’t think was the best idea. The informal nature of the coaching relationship meant nobody was really getting what they should’ve — I wasn’t getting the schedules when I wanted, they weren’t being adapted to my particular strengths/weaknesses/goals, and I wasn’t doing the work or giving constructive feedback.

    Last year, I decided to hire a coach. I think the exchange of payment for service helps balance the relationship — he’s not “helping me out” by providing a training schedule. And I found a coach who solely focused on adult runners of all abilities, from 5 hour marathoners to OTQs. I could tell just from photos that he was invested in the success of his athletes — for them, not for himself. It’s been a great experience!

    (I wrote about him here — https://www.saltyrunning.com/coaches-matt-ebersol/)

  2. In junior high and high school, I’ve had a range of coaches in sports (didn’t start running really till late 20s). My favorite coach was positive, knew the game, had skills, but was also never a “friend”. She was tough love, but you knew she cared about your development as a player. Now that I’ve coached both of my sons’ soccer teams (I played soccer, so knew the rules ;), my biggest criteria for coaching is to NOT make it about you. The team’s win or loss is not your win or loss, it’s the players. And seriously, keep it in perspective. The point of coaching people is to develop their skills, starting from wherever they are. That’s why I stole a trick from another great coach and started giving the kids “coach points” during the game- for running to the ball, doing a skill, shooting on goal, etc. And emphasize that they are competing against themselves, and pointing out when they did better than last week. It’s a huge psychological shift for them, for the parents, and for me so we stop worrying about wins or losses and start focusing on the long-range development of our lil’ kickers.

  3. I had no idea this happened to you, Salty. Ugh. I’m sorry. How gross. I had a similar experience, but with a theater director. I had just graduated high school, and I was in a community theater production. The theater community was really like a family to me, and I naively looked at the 30-something director as just a friend. When the production was over, he asked the same thing of me that your former coach asked of you. I was appalled and somehow embarrassed and ashamed. I have not been in a production since. :/ Maybe, like you, in time I will become involved again. <3 I also had ambitions of directing something local, but sort of strayed away from that scene after that.

    I coached a season of Girls on the Run in Columbus in 2012. It was lots of fun! And as I start to chip away at marathon times to BQ later on, I hope to work with a coach in the future-- a Saltine of course!

  4. Reading about what happened to you makes me so sad, and nervous. I have always wanted to coach, but being a kinesiology major in college and taking some coaching classes, I realized the huge responsibility a coach takes on, and how much impact you can truly have on someone’s life. From my own experience, I had some phenomenal coaches in middle school, high school, and college… I had 1 or 2 that I wasn’t exactly fond of, though, too. I never had an experience like yours, but I do understand the way a coach can really form your perspective on life. I’ve always believed athletes really live their lives out as they are coached to… we find a goal, reach for it, and form our lives around it, whether it be a career, babies, an athletic goal, or whatever. If you’ve had a bad experience along the way with a coach who screws it up for you, or burdens you with a scary experience, that is just so sad! I’m glad you are able to walk away from your experience and be such a positive role model to your girls!