On the surface, it would appear that SloCoach would be one of those companies that must have formed as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. An online coaching tool where athletes can upload videos of themselves practicing their sports—with professional or Olympic-level athletes or coaches returning a video critique—seems to be tailor-made for the new world of Zoom calls and video chats that society has been forced into during long periods of quarantine.
And while the pandemic has no doubt played to its advantage, the Australian-based company that is about to launch in the United States through deals with USA Volleyball and USA Artistic Swimming began before the world knew about or was worrying about the novel coronavirus.
Founder Luke Jecks, an entrepreneur who had seen success creating the Naked Wines distribution service, made the move from wine to sports in 2019 with the simple idea that amateur athletes around the world would benefit from a relationship with experts in their sport through video coaching. “We wanted to build a platform to give access to people who are the best at what they do,” he said.
After success with the concept in Australia in sports such as rugby, basketball and cricket, Jecks began approaching U.S.-based national governing bodies, which so far have expressed interest in the product to help develop their sports and provide a rare source of extra income for top athletes and coaches.
The fit has been a natural, especially during a time when both aspiring athletes and potential coaches have had to spend so much time at home. “When COVID hit, what we found were a lot of athletes were unable to travel and a lot of coaches couldn’t travel,” Jecks said. “It gave us a context that perhaps we couldn’t have imagined. All of sudden people are on Zoom calls and understood that things needed to get done even though we weren’t face to face.”
Coaching by Video
Under the program, aspiring athletes can book a particular Olympic-level athlete or coach to provide input on various elements of a sport. In the case of USA Volleyball, that could mean advice on specific techniques like serving, setting and spiking in the indoor, beach or sitting versions of the sport. For USA Artistic Swimming, that could mean tips on the sport’s various techniques or even unique aspects of the sport such as the importance of facial expression.
Adam Andrasko, CEO of USA Artistic Swimming, said the timing was right for his NGB to consider the platform. The organization, he said, had been having discussions about virtual coaching versus in-person coaching and the potential value of an online format. Products like Peloton, he noted, have seen considerable success during the pandemic by providing an online coach. But with SloCoach, he said, the coach isn’t a generic trainer that would appeal to anyone: It was someone specific. “And, it’s engaging with a high-profile athlete,” he noted.
At USA Volleyball, CEO Jamie Davis, whose background before the NGB was in business, said he was intrigued when he heard of the service. But he put it up to the people that mattered the most in his organization. “I said, ‘I’m not the person you need to convince, it’s the athletes and the coaches.’” After the athletes and coaches came back with a thumbs up, he said the NGB was in as well.
The concept is simple. Once an aspiring athlete books a coach, they upload a video of themselves practicing a particular technique. The elite athlete or coach then sends back video feedback using the company’s proprietary technology.
“For me, the really good opportunity was to share a way that an NGB is creatively helping their athletes, who we all know struggle financially. With this, they can be their own entrepreneurs.”
—Adam Andrasko, USA Artistic Swimming
The cost of sessions varies by sport and by the prestige or availability of the coach. In the case of artistic swimming, $60–$80 will allow athletes to upload three or four videos of their technique to receive a detailed video response. The elite athletes or coaches get to keep 75 percent of the revenue coming in, which provides a welcome and often hard-to-find source of income for Olympic-level athletes.
“For me, the really good opportunity was to share a way that an NGB is creatively helping their athletes, who we all know struggle financially,” Andrasko said. “With this, they can be their own entrepreneurs.”
Davis saw a similar benefit for his top athletes and coaches. So far, nine have signed up to be teachers with a launch expected in the next few weeks. But the added benefit of the program, he said, is that it could serve as a development tool for the sport itself.
“I think it’s a wonderful way for our members and for non-members too, for anyone, who wants to book a session to have an opportunity to be trained by the best players in the country, our Olympians,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing. And I think it’ll be great for the overall sport as well because it will be providing skill-based lessons.”
Adjusting to the Market
For Jecks, the program had to make adjustments before entering the U.S. market, something he learned at his last venture at Naked Wines. But the plan is to expand to other national governing bodies and other sports organizations outside the Olympic and Paralympic movement.
“At the moment we’re taking a considered approach into the market and that will follow with a quick expansion to as many NGBs as we can provide a good proposition to,” he said.
A new version of the product that will launch soon will provide live feedback, with the chance for other aspiring athletes to listen in to a particular session even if they aren’t the ones specifically being critiqued.
Andrasko said he’s interested to see how the technology can keep his members engaged in the sport as well as with his national team. But the fact his elite athletes can benefit from the program was a plus as well.
“I’m providing an exciting opportunity for our membership to better engage with our national team and have this exciting experience,” he said. “And for our athletes, I’m giving them the ability to be their own entrepreneurs.”
Jecks agreed and said NGBs and other sports organizations could benefit in multiple ways. He added the program isn’t designed to replace permanent coaches that aspiring athletes already have. Rather, it’s aimed at complementing that work.
“Not only is it a way for (elite) athletes to put earning under their control in the thing they’ve dedicated their life to, but it’s a powerful engagement tool for bringing an audience into the sport,” he said. “That’s the part where the NGBs get a double hit. It’s a great way to monetize your athletes and put that pressure of monetization off an NGB into an athlete’s hands, but it’s a great way to keep their audience engaged.”