Know Your Base (How to Engage and Retain Athletes During COVID-19)

Back in January (you know, back when we had big events and large crowds), I participated in a panel at Endurance Exchange with Coach Stacey (I moderated; she was a member of the panel) about how to grow your triathlon coaching business.  One of the themes that was reiterated by multiple panel members, including Stacey, was that you really need to know your target athlete and work to meet that athlete where they are. That rings more true than ever given the disappearance of most racing due to COVID-19.

While some athletes are fully internally motivated and will adhere flawlessly to a training plan day after day regardless of whether or not there is an immediate race on the horizon, most athletes are not.   In our experience at Sonic Endurance we’ve found that most athletes have a combination of internal and external motivators, plus there’s also peer pressure and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).  With races canceled, many athletes have lost their external motivators, as well as the drivers of peer pressure and FOMO.  It’s really easy for a lot of people to sit on the coach and mope when it feels like there’s nothing going on that’s worth training for.

As coaches, and as a coaching company, we view our responsibility as two-fold.  First, to provide our athletes with structured training and advice to help them achieve their goals and second to help create a team environment that makes training more enjoyable and encourages increased participation in sport.  We feel that one part of the job is no more important than the other.

For our Sonic Endurance athletes, let’s call it our base, having external motivators is important.  Because we understand this, since the commencement of the COVID-19 era we’ve worked hard to expand on the team environment we previously created and establish new engagement opportunities for our athletes in the absence of racing.  As an aside we understand that there are coaches that completely disagree with this philosophy, and that’s okay.  We know our base.  We assume they know theirs.

So, the nuts and bolts — what have we done to keep athletes engaged?

Challenges

Each month since March we’ve done at least one large group challenge per month.  These have ranged over a variety of topics and disciplines. We run them through Google Sheets.  In late March / early April we did the Virusman Triathlon; in May it was a Virtual Bike Trip Across the US stopping in each state where a Sonic Endurance athlete lives; in June we played Run BINGO; in July a Bike Elevation Challenge where we climbed the ten highest peaks in the continental US; and in August we doing a Get it Done Challenge where we track total number of training minutes.

For most of these challenges there’s a group element (hitting a certain number as a Sonic Endurance team) and an individual component.   For example, in the bike elevation challenge, the group challenge was to climb a combined 223,152 feet with a gift card drawing if we succeeded. When people hit individual challenge levels ranging from 1,000 to 40,000 feet they would receive a sticker.  I’ll be honest.  I love stickers.  Plus they’re fairly inexpensive to buy (Etsy is an amazing place) and to mail to athletes.

We don’t just put the spreadsheet out there and say go.  We continually post updates and shout outs in our Sonic Endurance Facebook Group.  I probably post about challenges in the group somewhere between 5 and 10 times per week.  People like to be recognized for hard work (there’s a reason finisher medals are such a big deal) and something as simple as a shout out on social media can go a really long way.  Plus with all the challenges directly connected to training they help athletes stay focused and get their training done.  Win – win.

Free Public Events 

In addition to numerous challenges, we’ve also hosted two free virtual races this summer: one for Global Running Day in June and one for the Fourth of July.  These events were free.  Runners received a custom bib and were encouraged to post pictures on social media.  For each race we randomly selected several winners to receive prizes such as BOCO Gear hats and Goodr sunglasses.  In both cases, we had over 100 athletes participate.

For our Sonic Endurance athletes, the races gave them an opportunity to show their team pride and to share us with friends and families.  For non-athletes it helped to introduce them to our brand and our community.  Endurance industry-wide we are seeing a decrease in numbers, whether it be athletes (coaching companies), members (USA Triathlon) or registrants (races).  Businesses that survive COVID-19 are going to have to find new and creative ways to recruit and retain athletes.  We think events like these are a really good start.

Newsletters

While our number one method of communication as a whole is our Facebook Group (we have 125 members– both one-on-one coached athletes and team members — and over 2,000 engagements — posts, comments and reactions — over the last 28 days) we also use Constant Contact newsletters to engage with our athletes.  These newsletters go out on a weekly basis and provide updates on athlete accomplishments (we’ve strongly been advocating that athletes #FindYourOwnFinishLine during COVID-19 — you can check out some of our posts on this here, here and here), upcoming events, sponsor and partner information interesting tidbits we find during the week.  Our newsletter open rate is about 70% and our clickthrough rate is about 30%.  These numbers let us know athletes are opening the newsletters and finding what we have to say interesting enough to click on it.  Again, a really good sign of engagement.

Amping It Up With Our Partners

In a normal year we put a lot of effort into engaging with our partners, particularly our charitable partners.  We know donations are down for lots of charities in 2020; in fact, we cancelled all of our in-person races this year due to COVID-19 concerns. So we’ve created a virtual progressive half marathon, marathon and 50 miler — The Hedgehog Hustle — to support our charitable partners. How does this relate to athlete engagement?  It shows our athletes we are more than just a coaching company and that community is essential to what we do.  Back to knowing your base, most of our athletes choose Sonic Endurance based on its wholistic appeal.  Being a good community member and partner makes us more appealing to our athletes.

If this sounds like a lot, it is.  In addition to the time I spend coaching, I probably spent 15-20 hours per week on the engagement piece.  This has helped us retain athletes over the last five months and we strongly believe it will help us attract new athletes in the future — referrals from happy athletes are our number one source of new business.  Our plan is to continue doing the things that keep help meet our base where they are.  For coaching is just as much about team as it is about individual development.

Some of the prizes our athletes have won over the past few months.

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