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Best Practices for Post-Race Debrief and Analysis

How you assess and analyze performance with your athletes can have a huge impact on their progress. Here's our guide to ensuring that post-race debrief goes as smoothly as possible.

USA Cycling coach shares data with a female athlete during a post-race debrief

You’ve been preparing your athlete for this event for weeks, months, or even years. This is the A-priority race you’ve been thinking and talking about for some time. It is very important to the athlete and to you. It will also play a role in the relationship you have with the athlete going forward in their season or perhaps even in their career—and yours.  

Often the key moments for how both of you feel about the outcome of this event happen in the those first few days post-race when both of you are analyzing how it went and why. The first discussion you and the athlete have will be quite rudimentary and perhaps largely based on feelings, good or bad. Then, and in the days afterwards, you need to get a strong sense of how the event went and what your client’s perception of the outcome is. You can influence this perception if you handle the situation well. This task should not be taken lightly.

“Even with a poor performance you can grow the coach-athlete bond—and their outlook for the future—if you manage this interaction well.”

– joe friel

The post-race analysis is certainly a critical time in your relationship with the athlete. Let’s take a look at how to make the most of it.

The initial post-race analysis is best done with the coach and athlete meeting face-to-face in a quiet and private place on race day. That’s probably not going to be the race venue. If this meeting is conducted immediately after the race, the athlete’s level of excitement and the noise of the race venue is likely to hinder the discussion. This is also not a good time to dig deeply into the details. That doesn’t mean you should delay your own analysis of the race outcome. It simply means that allowing two sessions for debriefing is typically more productive.

The first meeting at or near the race venue is likely to be a very short and superficial review of how the race went. Then you can get into all of the topics and questions that follow in a deeper discussion the following day or when things have settled. Again, take care to conduct this conversation with space for privacy and deeper thought. Both coach and athlete will need some time to assess how the event went and how effective the athlete’s preparation was. 

The tables below outline many of the questions and topics that you might want to cover with your athlete in the initial post-race discussion as well as the second deep-dive analysis you undertake. These are strictly suggestions. As the coach, you will have a much deeper sense of what post-race debriefing topics may be needed. This first meeting will more than likely be a rather short and emotional discussion. The second, more relaxed and deeper conversation, a day or so later, should be far more thorough.

Again, customize the list for your athlete and their unique situation. This second meeting is best done the day after the event and in-person. A virtual meeting is the second-best option, and a phone call a distant third. Avoid doing these meetings by email or text as that is much too impersonal to get a good picture of what the athlete is feeling. Emotion usually plays a big role in the athlete’s observations and comments, and it will be a critical component of your analysis. 

If the race goes well

In this case, your primary purpose in the post-race meeting is to celebrate—assuming you both agree on the outcome. If a celebration is called for don’t burden the athlete with questions requiring deep thought. This is a good time to reinforce what the athlete did that helped produce the outcome and give them a pat on the back for (hopefully) following the race plan or for making smart decisions along the way if aspects of the plan were faulty or inadequate. 

If the race does not go well

The primary purpose of this first meeting is to console the athlete while closely listening to what they have to say. Avoid criticizing the athlete with your perception of their errors. Such comments are unlikely to sink in and are more likely to produce a coach-athlete rift. If there are such points that must be made, make them gently at this time then save them for a deeper discussion later.

Also, realize that the athlete is probably in a highly emotional state and may say things that they would not typically say. Don’t take such comments too seriously. Make a mental note of these comments without reacting strongly and save them for a longer, more private discussion the next day (or at the first opportunity to deeply analyze the event). 

If the race is somewhere between success and failure 

A more ambivalent outcome is quite common. If this is the case, let the athlete lead the way in your initial post-race discussion. Limit your comments now to what the athlete did well and let them be in charge of the conversation. Keep things as positive as you can. Be very soft in any criticisms you may have of how the athlete performed, saving the details for the next day (or a later date) to discuss the race in greater depth.

Also, realize that there are often times when it appears that the athlete was unsuccessful, but actually there might be good cause to celebrate. A good example of this would be having stronger competition than was expected. You and the athlete have no control over who shows up. And you have limited control over equipment failures or officials’ decisions. There are a host of things that may explain the outcome and even give you cause to celebrate. 

How to prepare for the in-depth post-race debrief 

In starting to prepare for the deeper discussion with the athlete the following day, the correct order of scrutiny is for you to first analyze the athlete’s race preparation. Did you and the athlete prepare well for this event? This has probably already begun in your head well before the event even started but keep this train of thought in a big-picture overview.

The initial preparation for your post-race discussion with the athlete will likely begin during the race: Are things going to plan? Are there situations occurring which weren’t expected? Are there external conditions such as weather that are affecting the athlete?

When the coach and athlete initially meet post-race, ask the key questions to get a sense of how the athlete saw their preparation and race-day performance. But in this initial conversation don’t attempt to dig deeply into all of the questions and topics below. With success, failure, or something in between, the athlete is likely to simply reflect their emotions in this brief post-race meeting. 

The day after the event is the best time to do a deep dive into how the race went and why. This is the time to find out from the athlete exactly what happened, their perception of how they performed, and their thoughts on the total preparation package you created together (training plan and race plan). If some of these questions are not appropriate for your athlete (or the event) then add some of your own questions to help you understand what the athlete experienced to help better prepare the athlete in the future.

The time you put into preparing for this conversation is extremely important. Don’t meet with the athlete to discuss the race without thorough preparation. You want to come away from this meeting with plenty of data points to help shape future training and race plans—and to help improve chances of success in the future.

Key questions to ask in the first post-race discussion
Describe the key moments in the race. What happened and what were you thinking at the time? 
Did you follow the race plan? Why or why not? 
Were any of the following things crucial to your outcome?  
* Race strategy
* Race tactics
* Nutrition
* Pacing
* Conditions
* Equipment
Key questions to consider as you prepare for the full post-race debrief
What exactly happened in the event?
(The goal here is for the coach to find out details they might not currently be aware of)
Were the athlete’s limiters (and/or event-specific weaknesses) determined, prioritized, and sufficiently improved prior to the event? 
Were the athlete’s event-specific strengths maintained throughout the preparation for the event? 
Was the athlete’s training plan as it should have been for this event? 
How closely did the athlete follow the training plan you both created? 
Was the race plan appropriate for this athlete and this event? 
Was the race plan adjusted as the training revealed new strengths and limiters? 
Did you have the athlete rehearse portions of the race plan repeatedly before the race? 
How closely did the athlete follow the race plan during the event?
What have you learned that will help this athlete with their next event?
Questions and topics to ask the athlete in the deeper-dive analysis
(Note: you might want to revisit some or all of the above questions from the initial post-race discussion)
How well prepared did you feel for the event? 
What could we have done to better prepare you for the event? 
Was the race plan appropriate? How could it have been better? 
Would you do this race again? If so, what would you do differently, either in preparation or on race day?