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How Adding Athlete Services Leads to Maximal Gains

Coach Grant Holicky describes how athletes are impacted by the additional experts and services that coaches make available to them.

Athlete services are valuable pieces of the performance puzzle

Coaching has changed. We used to look at it in a sport-specific way. I’m trying to coach swimming or cycling and many coaches didn’t think outside of that. But we’ve started to see over time that these other pieces of the performance puzzle are, in fact, significant pieces.

There are other services that we can offer our athletes to specifically address the facets of performance in our sports—nutrition, strength training, physical therapy, and equipment. These services can produce big gains when they are aligned with the goals of sport-specific training. For example, we used to be more dismissive about nutrition, “Well, I don’t eat terribly. If everything is working, I’m not going to mess with it.” But whether you are an amateur or a pro, you can start to see the benefits nutrition offers in terms of immunity, inflammation, and recovery. Nutrition factors into almost everything that you do in your sport. And it’s not just the timing of nutrition, but what your daily diet looks like and how your calorie intake compares to your training.

I’ve worked with high school swimmers for years, and I have seen first-hand how these athletes are affected by not getting enough calories in a day. Just getting to the point where they are eating enough food is a huge step in the right direction.

In other words, what we once considered marginal gains—things like strength and conditioning, or sports psychology, or nutrition—they are actually maximal gains. They are a big piece of the puzzle. 

As another example, I help run a professional cyclocross team. One of our riders was getting all wound up about using NormaTec boots for recovery. And one of the other owners of our team, a retired athlete who previously competed on the team, said to me, “This athlete doesn’t need the marginal gains he might get from NormaTec boots, he needs maximal gains. He needs to do all the other stuff that you need to learn how to do as an athlete. Then we can worry about marginal gains down the road.” This sentiment captures the shift I am talking about.

Years ago, when I first started swimming, it was all about the workout, the volume, how many times we were in the water, how much intensity we fit in. We were doing all these things, but nobody ever told us what we needed to do with our diets. There was no talk about being in the proper mental state to be successful. We did some medicine ball throws on the pool deck, but it wasn’t part of a targeted strength and conditioning program to prevent injury or address muscular imbalance.

Athlete services allow for more individualization

I’ve come to see athlete services that address nutrition, strength, and mindset as keys to coaching. It starts with the athlete. What do they need? What are they missing? What are they great at? When you coach 20 athletes, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of coaching them all the same way. We see this all the time. But when you’re really communicating with that athlete, and you understand what it is that they need, then you can target a program specifically for them.

For this athlete over here, nutrition might be a marginal gain. They’re pretty good about eating their fruits and vegetables. Now, we just have to work on how they time their nutrition, we need to look at how they are fueling for racing, and other things like that. But for this other athlete, he is living on Big Macs. In his case, working with a nutritionist is not going to lead to marginal gains—there are maximal, life-changing gains to be had.

Each individual athlete is going to have different things, different gaps that you can fill. If you’ve been with an athlete for 10 years, maybe those gaps are now really small and they start to come into those marginal gains. Or maybe it’s the case that the athlete’s needs are changing as they age. They didn’t think much about mobility when they were younger, but in their thirties or forties it takes on a much bigger role. These needs change over time and over the course of an athlete’s career, and they are unique to the individual athlete.

For change to be effective, it needs to be the athlete’s idea

In sports psychology, we talk about the stages of habit change. There is a study that found that 37 percent of athletes are in a pre-contemplative phase of change, meaning they’re not even thinking about changing yet. They may look at it and see the value of the change, but they haven’t considered how they’re going to change their habits to make it a reality.

In these situations, all you can really do is step back and give the athlete examples of how the change could benefit them—here’s some of the reasons it could benefit you, here’s some of the research, here’s some of the things that you could do. You can’t badger, push, or force when it comes to change, because until they’re ready to make that change, it won’t become habit.  

Even if you are the expert who can help the athlete implement the change, such as sport-specific technique, you know the athlete will have to take a big step back and really buy in. If you’re making that decision for them, the benefit will be fleeting. Present those pieces of the puzzle and allow the athlete to make the decision.

As the saying goes, if you can make it the athlete’s idea, they’re going to be all about it. That’s often what you’re attempting to do as a coach. Sure, it may be your idea, something that you have come to know over 30 years of coaching, but do you really need credit for it? All we really need to do as coaches is find a way for the athlete to feel good about what they’re doing.

So, you lay the options in front of them and allow them to take ownership over the decision, and then they can go for it. And then you’re right there next to them saying “Way to go. This is awesome.”

It might start with switching out Big Macs, for “McSalads.” Whatever it is, really, what it comes down to is presenting options to the athlete that will lift performance. Maybe it’s low-hanging fruit at first: five opportunities for marginal gains. Your athlete may start with the one that’s the easiest to do. And it may not even give them the biggest benefit. But if they go and have success making that change, then you’re on a little bit of a roll, and from there we can introduce something else.

You’re constantly looking for the path of least resistance, giving the athlete autonomy because that drive must come from the athlete for them to be successful in trying something new or making a change. In pursuit of gains, both big and small, as a coach you’re walking next to the athlete, not pushing them from behind.

Find out how Grant Holicky’s coaching company, Forever Endurance, has extended the services available to athletes through a combination of outside partnerships and in-house expertise.

Need help with athlete services?

Fast Talk Laboratories can help extend your coaching business through new athlete services like sports nutrition, testing, and data analysis. Contact us to learn more.