Coaches' Corner: How to set your athletes up for success, mentally and physically

Drysdale leads through the enclosures (Photo: B. Kitch)
Whether you are coaching athletes or you are an athlete yourself, it is always important to set yourself up for success. What this means is not putting yourself in a position where your mind or body will fail by trying to do too much, too soon, or biting off more than you can chew, from a training and racing perspective.

Examples of this include trying to handle a larger workload than is practical in terms of training volume, expecting to beat competitors that are several levels of skill and ability above you and trying to make too big of a jump in performance (like a third year rower trying to go from a 6:30 2k to 6:00 in one year). It is, unfortunately, common for athletes, and even coaches, to set overly ambitious goals and to attack them with palpable vigor only to end up too tired, injured, beat up or demoralized having only scratched the surface of their proposed training plan.

Why does this happen? It happens because anyone can say that he/she wants to do 200k per week, and train harder than anyone else in the country, but not everyone is capable of doing that work. This is especially true with young athletes, who are immature physically and mentally in their training. I would rather an athlete say, "I am going to train 5 days a week during the summer by doing 5k a day," and actually do that training consistently than say "I am going to train 7 days a week all summer and twice on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays," and end up only training three-four days a week with little-to-no consistency. There are two reasons I prefer the former to the latter: for starters, clearly, the first scenario will end up with more training, and more consistent training; secondly, the former scenario will result in the athlete staying positive and feeling accomplished, whereas the latter scenario will result in the athlete feeling negative, leading to failure.

When coaching athletes, I always want to know how much they can actually handle, both physically and mentally. It is not my goal to simply push them as hard as possible in an effort to force them to be tough–often this has the opposite effect. My goal is to push them as hard as possible while having them feel like they are successful. Just to be clear, I do not advocate going easy on athletes in order to give them a false sense of success, but rather setting realistic and achievable goals, which build toward their potential. This is where coaching skill comes into play: determining where to place the bar so that it is not out of reach, but isn't so low that it prevents the athlete from reaching his/her maximum. There is an interesting phenomenon in training, whereby if the bar is set too low, athletes will subconsciously place the mental ceiling on their performance potential lower than they should otherwise. This is precisely why I never tell beginning rowers what a 'good erg score' is. Inevitably. when working with novice rowers, they will ask, "What is a good erg score?" It's only natural, as they want to know what to aim for. It is nearly impossible to know what an athlete is capable of physiologically in such early stages of working with him or her, and if you give the athlete too low a mark capability, he/she will subconsciously think there is something special or difficult about that mark, even though it might be relatively easy for that athlete. Conversely, if you give an athlete a number too ambitious for his or her potential/capabilities, there is a significant risk that he or she will get discouraged and go into a negative spiral, which can damage self-belief. When a novice rower asks me how fast he or she should go, I always tell the athlete the same thing– that is, "as fast as you can go." The important thing is to focus your athletes on achieving their personal best, whether that leads to a new world's best time, or the slowest erg score on the squad. In other words, the key is to focus on the individual athlete's maximum performance rather than something external, which is all you should ever ask or expect from an athlete.

The Roman Forum, from the Capitoline Hill (Photo: B. Kitch)
Rome wasn't built in a day.

There is a common problem among athletes that stems from frustration regarding day-to-day improvement: they want to be better yesterday. However, training takes patience, and it takes a mature athlete to understand this process. The closer an athlete gets to his or her physical peak, the harder it is and the longer it takes to make relative improvement. The amount of work that it takes to go from bad to average is not much compared with what it takes to go from average to good. And this is still not nearly as much as it takes to go from good to great. It is common for athletes who are trying to go from good to really good, or good to great, to experience this frustration, which can end up negatively affecting their training. In reality, many times these people simply need to stay patient, and stay consistent, knowing that training takes time and putting faith in their coaches' training plan.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The mind is a powerful thing. We have all seen it and experienced it. When things are going well with training, and, more generally, with life, it is amazing how much better we can get, and how easy it is to have confidence that we will continue to progress. Think about the times when you have had your best training, and I bet there are many times when you just felt so strong and fit that you were training well and knocking out personal records ('PRs') left and right. Rarely does this happen when you are negative/down about your training. Negativity and failure build on themselves, just as positivity and success do. Now, of course, part of why you might be negative is that the performance and training is not going well, but a lot of performance is affected by attitude, and importantly what the athlete and coaches perception is. For instance, if a coach and athlete feel that they are doing well and progressing nicely, they will be more likely to continue the improvement. On the other hand, when things aren't going according to plan, things can spiral out of control, and we can stagnate. Take the following example: imagine a coach tells an athlete that he should be able to go 6:10 for 2k, and the athlete goes 6:14. He would probably be pretty disappointed and feel like he didn't perform. However, imagine the perception and feeling if the athlete went 6:14, but the coach told him before hand he should be able to go 6:16 or faster. The athlete would feel completely different mentally in both scenarios despite having gone the same speed and being in the same physiological shape. His 'mental shape' would be completely different in each scenario.

As a coach, this doesn't just play out if/when you set goals before performance. It is about the language you use after a performance or training session in talking to the athletes about their performance. Let's take the same scenario with the athlete going 6:14 for 2k. If the coach tells him afterwards he should have done better because he only PRs by 1 second, and that he needs to be in 6:08 shape to win anything, it will have a different effect than the same coach being pumped up and excited and giving the athlete a high five for a PR performance even though it was not by as much as expected. As a coach it is easy to get too ambitious in expectations of athletes. Be careful to be realistic and objective in assessing improvement rates.

Sometimes the best way to overcome what appears to be a plateau in training is by dealing with the mental perception of it. If there is a growing frustration resulting from a lack of improvement, try shifting the paradigm of what is deemed successful. Sometimes a perceived plateau is merely an individual having expectations that are too high. If that individual was willing to accept smaller more gradual improvement they would still be positive and improving rather than at a frustrated plateau.

Obviously, you must balance this need to set yourself up for success with realistic bench marks and performance marks. I find it most effective to do this by focusing on individual improvement relative to oneself, rather than focusing strictly on the competition. If you are constantly measuring yourself against someone else, it is easy to get discouraged. Of course, if you completely ignore the competition, then you won't know where the bar is set and you won't know what to eventually aim for.

There is also the danger of making up excuses for poor performances. Sometimes, training simply isn't going well, and it does not help to find a way to tell yourself it is a good performance. So, it is not always easy to tell the difference between poor performances and expectations that are too high. You must have objective standards and be realistic when things aren't going well, and be willing to change things up if the current plan isn't working. Part of successful coaching is having the ability to evaluate performances that aren't good enough. When things aren't going well, the coach needs to know. Going into a race of any kind, the coach should have some realistic expectations of the athletes' ability.

It drives me crazy in all sports when coaches seem overly optimistic at the beginning of the season, even when there are signs that things are clearly not going that great. It seems like every football team in the NCAA is planning on winning its conference championship before the season starts. This immediately sets the athletes up for failure. On the flip side, I love it when, before the season starts, I hear a coach say, "you know what, we aren't very good right now. We have a lot of work to do." If you start to think/hope you are better than you are you will be sure to fail. Instead, it is important to have the ability to objectively evaluate where one stands relative to the competition and take realistic steps, lest risk being constantly disappointed. The point is not to 'lower the bar' or do away with your ambitions–I think it is absolutely necessary to be ambitious in order to have a chance to be the best. But it is also important to be rational and realistic, because if you can't tell the difference between a team that is good and a team that is subpar before going into competition, you can't appropriately prepare your team/athletes for that competition. When things aren't going well, coaches and athletes alike must be able to identify it before it is too late, and apply themselves to better the situation.

-Justin and the RR Team

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