Working With High-Maintenance Athletes
Matt Foreman

Some athletes are really easy to coach. You give them a job to do, they get it done, and everything works the way it’s supposed to. They make your life stress-free and your coaching fun.
And then we’ve got the other kind. (If you’ve got more than two or three weeks of coaching experience, you probably know what I’m going to say next.)
Some athletes are very difficult to coach. Working with them is NOT as simple as giving them a job and letting them get it done. It’s more like… you give them a job to do, and then you have to put in a level of effort equivalent to dragging the Titanic off the floor of the ocean just to get them to do it.
Coaches call these “high-maintenance athletes.”
Right off the bat, we need to break high-maintenance athletes into two categories:
  1. Athletes who require a lot of time and effort because they don’t have the physical tools to do what you want them to do. You basically have to teach them like they’re beginners every time they train and then pray to god they’ve got the ability to execute.
  2. Athletes who have all the physical skills, but they require a lot of time and effort in the mental/emotional department. There’s no shortage of athletic tools, but it’s always a coin toss with them because you never know if they’re going to turn into total head cases. (These are more common.)
I’m not going to spend this article whining about how hard it is to work with high-maintenance athletes because… guess what? If you’re a coach, it’s your JOB to work with them. And it’s your JOB to make them the best they can possibly be, just like the ones who are easy and fun to manage. So we’ll skip the pissing and moaning.
But I have some input on this subject that might help. When you have a high-maintenance athlete, I think you need to ask two questions:
1) Is this an athlete who’s legitimately trying as hard as possible to do the job you’re asking them to do? They want to get it done and they’re giving you everything. They just struggle because they’ve got obstacles standing in the way, either in their bodies or their brains. They’re not trying to be a problem. They just come with challenges.
If this is the case: Be patient, encouraging, supportive, and never stop trying to help these people. They’ll probably produce some success at some point, and they’ll thank you for the rest of their lives. Plus, you’ll always know you were a good human being to them. So all is right with the world.
2) Is this an athlete who’s giving you trouble because… they’re troublemakers? They want to get results from your coaching, but they’re consistently unwilling to go along with the rules and expectations you have in your program. They know what you want them to do. They just refuse to do it.
If this is the case: Have a sit-down with them and make the rules very clear (even if they already know). Communicate your expectations in a way that leaves zero room for interpretation or confusion. And then… give them a chance to straighten up. If they screw up again, give it another shot (if you think it’s salvageable). If the trouble continues, you might have to give some serious thought to terminating your relationship with this person. Brothers and sisters, I’ve seen entire gyms fall apart because of just one bad seed like this. All the other athletes in your program are watching how you handle this one problem child. If you let the atmosphere get ugly enough, don’t be shocked when some of your people start looking for somewhere else to train.
Obviously we’re not talking about screaming “GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!” the first time somebody messes up. If all coaches did that, my weightlifting career would have been over before I turned 20. I was a high-maintenance athlete, for sure. I don’t have a problem admitting that.
But my coach was patient, and he found a way to get the best results out of me as I grew up, matured, and developed into the stunningly perfect person I am today…
If you’re an athlete, take a look inside and ask where you fit into this conversation. On a scale of 1-10, how difficult are you? If your number is high, ask yourself: are you trying to do better? If the answer is yes, think positive! You’ll make it someday!
If your number is high and you’re thinking it’s all somebody else’s fault, it might be time to look inside and fix something. As Kenny Powers once said, “Find a way to change yourself for me.”

Please log in to post a comment

Justin Escalante’
May 27 2019
Thank you, Matt! Striving to be a coach after more time and experience in weightlifting, I will definitely remember this article when that time comes.