How To Choose Your Competition Prep Coach

Photographer: Pat Hayden

Photographer: Pat Hayden

Bodybuilding competitions have grown quite a bit since the days of Arnold.  Each year, bodybuilding organizations and competitions expand in quantity and quality. A high number of new and seasoned competitors set a goal to step on stage. Some just want to check it off of their bucket-list, and some are out to win with a vengeance. There are more chances now for athletes to earn recognition or a Pro title in this sport than ever.  As businesses, bodybuilding competitions and prep-coaching are both growing rapidly, with more opportunity for everyone. This should be a great thing.
Sadly, I’ve heard too many disappointed competitors talk about their bad experiences with their coaches. I’m appalled to hear of some coaches charging thousands of dollars, only to hand out a one-size-fits all diet and training programs to their clients, and who can’t seem to be reached by their clients in times of need. I’ve watched certain competitors bounce around from one new prep coach to the next, every season, feeling as if their previous coaches “didn’t know what they were doing.”  I’ve seen competitors post on facebook about how they already have their next coach picked out, but that they are going to finish up with the one they have already (in other words, publicly seeking out a new coach before they’ve broken up with their current coach.)
All of these issues could likely have been avoided if the both the competitor and coach had matched and communicated well in the first place. Whether you are a true novice competitor, or a veteran, the chances of using a competition prep coach is very likely. While choosing a coach isn’t always easy, and it can take time to see how well you can work together, here are a few points to help you find your best fit.

1. Do your research.

In this day and age, researching a coach’s background should not be difficult.  A reputable coach should have some sort of bio or credentials on a website, or at least a social media site where it can be found easily. Not every coach out there will have certifications, but at a minimum, they should be CPR certified, and have SOME sort of education in nutrition. It’s almost too easy to take an online course and report being certified in an area of expertise without any hands-on experience.  Or, someone may have a stellar record of letters behind their name for strength and conditioning, but not have experience with competition diet or sports nutrition. Then there are “underground coaches” who may not have a high listing of certs or titles on paper, but they have been experimenting with different methods over the course of many years, and they have a better understanding of body composition manipulation than those who have a fancy degree. A certification does not reflect experience, so my personal suggestion is to find out what they have accomplished and what success they have reached with themselves, and with others. Certifications are a nice bonus, but they do not tell the whole story. Then again, just because someone has stepped on stage once and won a trophy doesn’t mean they are educated or experienced in working with other people’s bodies. This is your health on the line, and finding a good coach is just as important as finding a good physician, a surgeon, or a tattoo artist. You wouldn’t let your friend’s buddy who gave themselves a tattoo with a pen and the motor of a Walkman in their basement give you permanent ink, would you? I sure hope not.

2. Ask their clients.

Another real-life method of choosing a coach, is to ask their past clients about their personal experiences with them. Take this with a grain of salt, as a disappointed client may misconstrue a few things and give their previous coach a bad reputation….but if you hear from more than one or two people how negligent they were,  how their coach was a control-freak, or how they handed out cookie-cutter diets, you may want to reconsider your main choice. I have known quite a few competitors who have decided to leave their coaches after they felt like their needs were not being tailored to, because their coach was overloaded with a large number of clients and was not able to handle each person as an individual. Sometimes testimonials speak more volume than a seemingly well-constructed business plan. Get feedback on other clients’ personal experience about the coach you have in mind (and leave the competition placings, or he-said-she-said out of it.)

3. A Name isn’t everything.

Someone once asked me “if you could work with a big-name coach, would you, and who would it be?” My response to that question was this: “Only if I knew that “big name coach” had the knowledge and integrity to do a good job.”  In other words, just because someone sounds popular, or your idol uses them for coaching, that doesn’t mean that your chances of winning show or earning your Pro card are guaranteed.  Not only does a “big-name coach” have to prove their worth just like everyone else, but you both still have to put in the effort, and also work with your genetics, just like everyone else.
On another note, “you get what you pay for” doesn’t exactly apply to this situation.  I have heard of absurd price ranges for both “no-name” and “big-name coaches,” and ironically, those are the sad stories I hear from competitors who say they were let down in some way or another.  Some coaches really are worth a higher charge, if they have an awesome success record, or their time is in demand.  There are many great coaches out there who charge a reasonable price range for the service that they provide. Just because you pay a lot of money doesn’t mean you will win, and just because you didn’t pay that much doesn’t mean that person’s services are poor. Whatever you pay, remember, you are hiring your coach to do a job. Your coach works for YOU.

4. The interview process.

I find it odd that in friendships, romantic relationships, and employment situations, there is matching process, yet this seems to be often overlooked when choosing someone who you will be working with for 3+ months. You and your coach must both be a good fit for each other and work synergistically in order to succeed. You and your coach are a TEAM.  It is absolutely critical that you two are easily able to talk to each other, be honest, and communicate well. Set up an introductory meeting with your potential coach to ask any and all question you may have, and to get a feel for them in person or on the phone. The way that you would choose an employee for a certain position should guide you in choosing your coach. State what it is that you are searching for in a coach. Discuss expectations on both sides. Ask what got them get started.  What is their philosophy? What are they passionate about? Do they like dogs?  (Okay, maybe that last one isn’t necessary.) The point is to get to know your coach as a person. Sometimes who you want to work with may be extremely knowledgeable and professional, but they may not match up with your personality, or they may use methods or substances that you are not interested in or comfortable with. In that case, be honest with them, and ask if they are willing to refer you to someone else. A true professional will respect your best interests, and not take it personally if you feel that you two may not make a good match. In the end, no one can guarantee a trophy or a win, but you both should be able to look back at your time together and feel that you both had a great experience working together and learning something from each other.

5. The learning process.

No matter who you choose, whether it is your first or your fifth coach, understand that there is always a learning phase for both of you.  No two preps have ever been the same for me. I have also had 2nd and 3rd year repeat clients that I’ve had to re-learn what works for them every season. Your body may change and react differently over the course of several weeks, months, or years, so to accurately decide what works for you may take time. Hopefully you and your coach can get it right the first time, but understand that no one can predict what will actually happen, and no one is perfect. Too many times have I heard a competitor bashing their previous coach, and switching to a new one before either that competitor or coach has had enough time to even learn what worked or what didn’t.  Give yourself and your coach enough time to learn what works before jumping ship or losing faith. On the other hand, if you have both tried enough to realize that it just isn’t working out, it may be time to try something  (or someone) different . Don’t let other people sway your decision…..ultimately, this is only YOUR decision to make.

One more point that I would like to make, is that there is a misconception that you MUST have a prep coach to get on stage.  You, in fact, are not required to hire a coach in order to compete. Many athletes prep themselves for a competition, and do very well on their own.  If you are someone who can realistically monitor yourself and hold yourself accountable, or you feel that you know how your body responds better than someone else could, then you may be better off handling things yourself. But if you lack the knowledge, structure, or need help staying focused, then hiring a coach may be a smart choice. Just be sure to choose wisely.