PSA 2001 Business Aspects of Coaching

Diane DeLeeuw and David Shulman co-presented on "Business Aspects of Coaching." DeLeeuw spoke with the "I learned it the hard way" battered wisdom of a veteran coach. Olympic glory is fleeting; coaching is hard.

When DeLeeuw went from pro skating to coaching, she found that it was a drastic drop in income. She recommended that coaches look at their practice as a business if they're going to make a living at it. Customers and your family have to know this. You are not just a "babysitter," she said. I hadn't thought of coaches as babysitters until then, but from the murmur of outraged recognition from the attendees, I gathered that some parents do.

She emphasized that coaches must always teach group classes, because that's where you're going to get your next Olympic champion.

You can expand your business by specializing. If you do choreography or music editing -- she highly recommends music editing on the computer -- you can let people know you offer those services. "Music is part of your image," she said, so it pays to have people notice that your students always have good music. Even how you have your tapes labelled is part of your business image. Do all your labels on the computer, with the name of the skater, their level, even some decorations.

Other special classes or lessons you can offer to expand your business include Moves, stroking, ice dance, conditioning, off-ice training, and nutritional counseling. Coaches can try offering little camps at their rink on dress design, or harness lessons. DeLeeuw said you don't always see a payoff immediately if you give of your time this way, but your students will look better if you focus on these things, and that will enhance your business image.

Business cards are a must. Her rink has a table for coaches' cards, since their services are part of what the rink offers. Brochures done up on your computer are easy and informative. Coaches should have strategic meetings with rink management so they can figure out how to increase the bottom line. Write articles; hold clinics; building up this kind of experience will pay off down the road.

I cheered inwardly when DeLeeuw demonstrated a fearless savvy rare among coaches: "The Internet is a vast, untapped thing," she said. "Offer your services. You don't realize how many millions of people saw it." Yes! A coach who recognizes that the net's anarchic power is deeply exciting!

Set up ongoing communication with your parents, she urged coaches. Phone, voicemail, e-mail, letters, memos -- she said in her rink, folks call her missives "Diane-a-Grams." Every week or two, she lets her students know everything that's happening in the rink, entry fee schedules, when she'll be away, by when they must sign up for classes. Not that this is foolproof, she warned, as there's only so much you can do: that very morning, she got a message on her voicemail cancelling a lesson for that day, when she'd been telling her students for months that she would be at the PSA conference during that time.

You can have event planning meetings at the beginning of the year, asking your students what events they'd like to attend. If you can cluster your students around a few events, it'll be cost-effective for the coach, and the larger number of students means they can each pay smaller amounts to support the coach's expenses.

The skaters can write goal sheets for the year; she gives feedback.

You can never really spend enough time with your students, said DeLeeuw. But if you can make the effort to give that 60-year-old lady 15 minutes of your time each week, that'll make her feel like part of your clientele.

Your cancellation policy must be REALLY clear. She has reminders that she mails out, saying, "Ooops! Did you forget to cancel your lesson?" The reminder has a blank space in which she fills out how much the student owes her. She has her students sign a paper saying that they have read and understood her cancellation policy. She also keeps a two-way alphanumeric pager on her, so students can reach her if there is an emergency cancellation. That way, the coach can see if any other student needs that time slot. If she can't, and the student cancels less than 24 hours before the lesson time, they are charged $5 for a late cancellation fee.

Look the part, DeLeeuw advised. Don't wear worn-out skates; boot and blade manufacturers give discounts for coaches, and your students will look at your feet all day long. If your rink has identifiable jackets, buy and wear one. It identifies you as the coach there.

Are your clients satisfied? Some parents will always feel the grass is greener with some other coach. "We, as coaches, are going to be around," DeLeeuw said sensibly. "We're going to lose skaters, gain skaters. Keep the bulk of your skaters satisfied." The core of your students will be the long-term ones you take out of group lessons, and your adult skaters.

Everyone expects so much of coaches that you must make sure you're getting something out of it, as well. Many coaches find their biggest thrills are in simple things, like teaching beginners how to do a three-turn. "Several lessons that I look forward to are not necessarily the best skaters," said DeLeeuw. "Make sure your day is filled with balance." And make sure to check that you are respected by your peers and rink management.

To improve yourself as a coach, take seminars, read, branch out, learn about how other sports work. One of the websites that's helped her the most is one for diving coaches, she noted. Have a mission statement for yourself, which changes as necessary. Her own is to give each student the best possible experience in skating. She lets the young ones have time to play on the ice, as well as time to be serious and work.

David Shulman told the assembled coaches, "You have no idea the impact you have." It moves him especially when former students come back into the coaching profession.

The most important advice he had was also the most basic. You must have some sort of accounting system, even if it's throwing receipts into a shoebox, along with your lesson notes. Mark down every single student's name, the date, the kind of lesson, and how much you charged. This will protect everybody when there's confusion about who paid for what, and it is infinitely more reliable than memory alone. Keep time slips -- students keep track, and they expect you to do the same. Make a copy of what you do, when you do it. Not later. Keep these copies separate from all your other household notes. And keep hard copies around, so you're not stranded if your computer crashes.

He warned strongly against giving away lesson time, ever. He said before you know it, you'll end up buying them skates, paying their competition costs and airfare..."that creates a very different relationship with the student." If you give away anything to the student, they become an investment to you. This clouds the student-coach relationship, and makes it personal. Shulman stressed, "They don't owe you anything."

You could try getting accounting software, hiring an accountant to take you through setting up a system, keep a separate credit card for business expenses only. On the back of your credit card slips, write "SKATING" and then throw it into your shoebox, separate from all your other expenditures. You could even keep a separate checking account for skating, if you can manage that. "Take a moment to do it," Shulman said. "You will be so happy at the end of the year when it's right in front of you."

Shulman then started repeating everything as if in all caps, sounding like someone who has given this advice for decades and had to bite back the "I told you so"s. "Put the money away," he said; I lost track of how many times. Young coaches have time on their side. Pensions...profit-sharing plans...just putting away $50 a month for 30 years will add up greatly. Check out mutual funds and the stock market, if you have the time.

As something to think about, he said some rinks have parents sign "permission to travel" and release of all claims forms, protecting coaches when they take skaters to international competitions. Many coaches also drive their students back and forth to the rink. Have everyone sign this.

Finally, he touched on collecting outstanding fees. If a customer is not paying the coach's fees, don't let the unpaid bills pile up. Keep written records, of course. If it comes to that, go to small claims court or conciliation court. "Don't be afraid to sue your students," he said, highlighting something so common in this sport -- the coach who ends up, one way or another, paying their students' expenses out of their own pockets. If you're afraid the student will leave you, "well, they're going to leave you anyway, and they'll leave you with a bill. You are running a business."

From what I've seen of coach-student relationships, it can get so emotional and personal, and the expenses can be so difficult to think about, that money confusion can hardly be avoided. Coaches, like so many other creative people, get into the work because they love to do something, only to end up having to spend enormous amounts of time on the business aspect. It's essential that they learn how to protect themselves while doing that.

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