Thursday, December 20, 2012

Coaches' Corner: Sweat the Small Stuff

The Release (Photo: B. Kitch)
We know that the most talented teams or athletes do not always win. It is part of what makes watching and competing in competitive athletics so much fun. It is when the details are handled better that a team with a little less talent can prevail.

We've all heard the phrase "don't sweat the small stuff" when it comes to managing our jobs, relationships, hobbies, etc. We tend to like this advice, because it allows us to focus on the big picture while letting the details fade off to the side. The idea is to prevent yourself from getting bogged down in the minutiae of a particular problem or pursuit, when the larger scale issues have yet to be resolved, or are the issues of real importance. While this may be valuable advice in many areas of our lives, I believe it can prove very detrimental when it comes to competitive athletics. This is true both for athletes and coaches, but especially for coaches, as they are the individuals responsible for organization and structure. If attention to detail is neglected when it comes to organizing and structuring a program or team and its individual athletes, the team will likely fall short of its maximum potential, and will have trouble performing better than an equally talented team or individual that has managed the details well.

At the top, it's down to percentage points
If you gave all of the top coaches, in any sport, a test on the Xs and Os of their sport, there probably wouldn't be much difference in their knowledge, understanding and command of all of the basic and advanced aspects. In American football, for instance, my guess is that pretty much every top college and NFL coach can sit in a room drawing up a playbook or reviewing film and be at the top of their field in terms of their big picture understanding of the specifics of coaching offense and defense. Despite a very similar ability to understand and manipulate the big picture aspects of their sport, some of these coaches succeed, while some fail or have only moderate success. The same is true in rowing. I don't think there is much separation among the very top collegiate coaches, or national team coaches from one rowing federation to the next, in terms of their knowledge and technical understanding of the basic, fundamental aspects of the sport. They all have a very good understanding of how to move a boat, how human physiology works, etc. It is the valuing and managing of the details that separates the best coaches in the world from everyone else.

I am often very impressed with the knowledge and command of many top coaches who struggle to have winning teams at the highest level. While they have the basic skills and expertise necessary, this isn't a math problem—it's not something that can be solved on paper. There are many more variables, not all of them easily defined, and this is where the details come into play. Details are the reason a coach can come in and have a substantial impact with the same athletes in just his or her first year of working with the same group that was unsuccessful the year or years prior.

A great example of this can be seen with Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL. In just his first year with the team, he led the team to its first playoff appearance in nine years and an appearance in the conference championship game. Perhaps this is a case of the team simply being "ready," and Harbaugh just happened to be the guy who came in at the right time and was made to look good, but frankly, I am skeptical that this is the case (one need only look at the performance of quarterback Alex Smith from 2010 to 2011 to understand just what an effect Harbaugh had on the team as a whole).

Another great recent example of this can be seen in British distance runner Mo Farah, who went to work with well-known American coach Alberto Salazar less than two before the 2012 Olympics, having never won a medal at the World Championships or Olympics. In just his first year with Salazar, Farah became a World Champion for the first time in the 5000 meters while also earning a silver medal in the 10,000 meters, and later became a double Olympic champion for the same distances in London at the age of 29. How did Salazar get it done? "First of all, he is an obsessive stickler for detail who looks at every nuance of his athletes' performances in the restless search for improvement," reports Simon Hart of The Telegraph, UK (read the full article here).

Speech! Speech! Speech!
How do you talk to the athletes. Phrasing matters. How is everything conveyed? Are you setting them up for success? Are you on time for practice? Are the athletes on time for practice? We all know races can come down to tenths of a second after a year or more of training. With margins this slim, it makes sense sweat the details and make sure you do all the little things both for yourself and your athletes.

The other trick when it comes to details is that they are not always formulaic or patterned. In other words, every team and every individual is a little bit different. Similarly, the same team or individual athlete might need something different from a detail standpoint if the details of the situation are different. Perhaps your all-star, national champion athlete is injured or sick for a month or has a psychological problem derailing the training for a bit. Or maybe the crew that you led to success as an underdog last year is now in a different position as the favorite this year, having the target on their backs. Each of these situations calls for the details to be managed differently.

Don't let the phrase "don't sweat the small stuff" be confused with "don't worry about things that you can't control." These are two entirely different statements and I believe the latter to be beneficial, if not necessary for peak athletic coaching and performance, while I believe the former to be a detriment in many instances. International success, as discussed above, has less to do with talent differential and more to do with how these percentage points are managed—one need only look as far as the men's eight final at the Olympics to get a feeling for this idea. It is in the details of how the team is organized, selected and coached.

Sometimes this is a quick fix, sometimes it is over a few years. If the details were in recruiting and getting the right athletes, it will take several years to get the right athletes in place and teach them the right mentality. However, often the athletes are in place and it just takes the optimal management of the details to get it done. When we are talking about the elite level there is very little margin for error. Look at the difference between the German men's squad of the 2008 Olympic Games, and the 2009 world championships (and throughout the rest of the quadrennium leading up to 2012, when they took gold in the men's eight and men's quad). We all know the effect confidence or lack there of can have on your performance. This psychological variable can have a major impact in determining success based on how it is managed.

A few more details
All the training and fitness can be plenty good enough, but if the taper is blown, it can ruin the opportunity to have a peak performance on the day. Sleep & nutrition are also vital aspects that are too often neglected or mismanaged. The erg scores might be good, but how is the blade work? Is the rigging optimal and measured appropriately for the crew? Do all the electronics in the boat work? Has the boat been cleaned and all of the parts checked to make sure the equipment is working as smoothly and efficiently as possible? What time did you eat breakfast before the race? How long is the warm-up? These are just a few examples of the many important "small" things that might get (slightly) overlooked by coaches and athletes who spend all year logging hours and pounding the mileage to ensure maximum strength and fitness. The bottom line: when you spend that kind of time, and give that kind of effort, it's vital to make sure that your work is not undone by what may be as simple or seemingly unimportant as going to bed 30 minutes earlier. When it comes time to race, will you be able to say to yourself on the starting line that you've done everything in your power to achieve your goal?

-Justin and the RR Team

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