Sonia O’Sullivan: What is it that makes a good coach?

The sharing of knowledge and ideas often results in the better results

What is it that makes a good coach?

I’ve been thinking about that question quite a bit recently, given my own coaching ventures of late, and also given all the talk on this subject particularly in athletics.

It’s not just about what makes a good coach, but a good coach support and a central system or pathway athletes can tap into that also leaves coaches feeling appreciated and supported themselves.

It makes you wonder where do you start when it comes to building a register of coaches and ensuring athletes have access to the good ones? It can be an intimidating environment to navigate and it shouldn’t be that way.


I see it sometimes where the coach has all the power and control of the training and race planning, when it should be a two-way conversation as much driven by the athlete as the coach.

The athlete is the centre point, whether individual or in a group, and everything a coach does should be to help the athlete to grow and develop through the stages and achieve success through the junior ranks, into the senior development stages and on to the European and World stage.

Still there are times when this seems so complicated and misunderstood, particularly with athletics coaches in countries where the sport has evolved downwards through the ages.

Here, old coaching styles and methods evolve through experience and expertise. They’re often unknown because coaches are so passionate about what they do they keep the intricate scientific and physiological details to themselves, afraid they might bore you with the details.

It can be very specific scientific numbers, involving lactic thresholds and VO2 max, but the general interpretation is what most people require to navigate. It’s about a clear understanding of training programs and specific runs on specific days, all with a clear purpose.

Sometimes athletes will latch on to one specific area of training and have that as their focus, something they’ve heard some of the best runners are doing, forgetting all the pieces are required to complete the plan and deliver the best results.

It’s hard sometimes to set out a plan they can stick to because of the urgency to achieve a qualifying time or not miss out on a fast race where you may break a record or simply run a fast time

A simple training plan may seem very basic, but there’s no doubt there will always be some long hours of study, thought and understanding built into each training plan. When you plot things out over and over and plug in different athletes like anything it can easily make sense and just fall into place.

I can remember my first coach Sean Kennedy back in Cobh drawing out diagrams and phases of training, all leading to the biggest goal of the season. This was often lost on me back when I was still a teenager but something that I highly value now, understanding the time involved and the phases of training that need to be passed through each year as athletes build their seasons.

It’s trickier now, with so many races, and the focus so much on times rather than competition. It can be hard to know at times what is the goal and where will the satisfaction be delivered. The slow-cooking approach is being cast aside for the more instant results and ready-made plans, often with pot-luck inconsistent results that can leave both athletes and coaches frustrated.

It’s hard sometimes to set out a plan they can stick to because of the urgency to achieve a qualifying time or not miss out on a fast race where you may break a record or simply run a fast time. The art of racing is sometimes lost too and you sit there and wonder what it’s all about?

The coach is the driving force, the leader with the answers to an athlete’s questions. But when the athlete becomes uncertain and challenges the coach then relationships can change – and sometimes there is reason to change because an athlete is an evolving piece of art. As much as an athlete may need change a coach may need to let go.

This is where if you have a good system of coaching pathways and platforms in a federation so people can work together, share ideas and sometimes even help or challenge each other to help an athlete move forward. Too many coaches are protective of their own patch whereby if they worked together and shared ideas more athletes would benefit.

I have great respect for former Irish athlete Marcus O’Sullivan who is the head of track and field coach at Villanova University. He is not afraid to slow the rush in results and take his time, the slow cooking approach which is extra beneficial in that time between exciting junior prospect and mature senior athlete.

Marcus is patient and understanding of his athletes and what he is trying to achieve but it takes a buy in from all sides and patience. There’s a cycle you have to go through each year, to build one more floor on top of the foundation starting off at a higher level than the year before.

Sometimes there will be vast improvements. More often than not when that happens there will be dramatic dips in form too, and this is where you need the experience of how to pick up the pieces and start again, to regain the confidence and belief and take things slowly.

This is why good coaches need support and respect because when things don’t always follow the linear plan they can be cast aside, the athlete moves on thinking they have found the new magic formula.

It’s not just about the practical day-in-day-out training sessions but the communication between the coach and athlete –the respect and trust is the fundamental base for any athlete to grow with their coach.

There are not as many coaching characters as in the past – some think they know too much and know more than everyone else. But the basics are still there, and if you stick with the basics you will develop good athletes.

There is a lot of repetition; run, eat, sleep, over and over again. The coach’s role is to keep things positive, keep the energy up and sometimes you have to sacrifice some of the physical conditioning with mental stimulation to give a boost of confidence.

It takes a good coach to be able to communicate this at the right time in the right way. There needs to be fun involved and a positive happy environment. It can’t be all serious and intense all the time, at times there needs to be dilution to disguise the hard work and let the athletes surprise themselves, relax and get a boost of energy from a positive training session.

It’s all about the communication, the environment and the gel that keeps the group together. The key component to delivering good coaching structures in Ireland is for there to be a greater sharing of ideas and experiences. Rather than thinking there is some secret formula you have to keep hidden from potential competitors.

Most of the good coaches will probably know that already.