Here is a situation every coach knows well. You’ve prepared an athlete for an A-priority event. Training seemed to go well for several months. But come race day the athlete has a poor performance, or at least something below what was expected. The athlete is understandably unhappy, as are you. You both want to know what happened. Was it your fault, the athlete’s fault, or just a bad day (whatever that means) and no one is to blame? Or perhaps it was a good result and you are both looking at it wrong.
Regardless, if the athlete is disappointed, you probably feel some responsibility. Could you have done something differently in training or in the lead up to the event to improve the outcome? And just as importantly, how do you move forward with the athlete to train for the next event? You certainly want to do all you can to prevent this from happening again.
The following questions are commonly asked as the wise coach considers why the poor performance happened by evaluating the evidence, analyzing the data, giving critical consideration to the situation, and making a decision about how best to move forward with the athlete.
Was the race plan appropriate for this athlete and this event?
An appropriate race plan outlines how the athlete will execute the goal, detailing intensity (power/pace/effort), how to time accelerations, manage changes in the terrain or difficult segments of the racecourse. It details the preparation the athlete has practiced in training in relation to nutrition, equipment, and weather. A good race plan also anticipates who the competition might be and what could play out—both the best- and worst-case scenarios.
If during preparation for the event you and the athlete considered all such matters in designing a training plan, then you can consider the race plan to have been appropriate.
Was the plan adjusted as the training revealed new strengths and weaknesses?
I have never coached an athlete who went through an entire season without changes to both the training and the race plans. These should always be considered works in progress. They are never complete. And if the athlete is someone you have never coached before, expect there to be a great many changes as you become better acquainted. This, of course, assumes that you are providing considerable attention to the athlete’s training and they aren’t on a program with limited coach-athlete contact. If the scope of the coaching program is limited, all bets are off. The athlete gets what they pay for.
This doesn’t mean you should completely ignore the athlete’s training and race plan updates. If you see something that tells you to make a change to these plans, I strongly suggest that you do so regardless of the athlete’s coaching program. If you make an error here, make it on the side of giving the athlete more of your attention than is being paid for. Remember that successful athletes are at the heart of your marketing.
How closely did the athlete follow the training plan provided?
Of course, you could have put together the best training and racing plans that were ever conceived, but if the athlete didn’t follow the training plan and ignored the race plan then failure is likely. This seldom happens, or at least to such extreme levels. After all, the athlete is paying for your coaching knowledge and wisdom and is unlikely to completely ignore your plans.
But there may be other things that happen along the way that interfere with the athlete’s preparation. These could be unavoidable events such as illness, extreme weather, family emergencies, career problems, and many more. Such training obstacles should be signs that changes to the training and race plans are necessary. This probably means downgrading the athlete’s event goal. But, again, such obstacles are not common. What is more likely to have interrupted training is that the athlete has occasionally missed workouts (for various reasons) or has modified workout durations and/or intensities by doing more or less than was called for in the training plan.
If this was a regular occurrence it should have been detected early and action taken to ensure that the athlete trains more consistently and in compliance with the plan. Come race day, if this has not been corrected then the fault lies not only with the athlete, but also with you, the coach.
How closely did the athlete follow the race plan during the event?
The coach (with the athlete’s involvement) can’t simply create a race plan and then ignore it until race day. It must be rehearsed repeatedly. There are likely to be key events during the race that the athlete must prepare for. This could be related to what a key opponent does, how a particular hill or expected headwind is dealt with, fuel and fluid needs, and everything that makes up the race strategy and tactics as explained above. The athlete should not be expected to do these things on race day just because there is a plan. The closer the athlete gets to race day, the more the strategy and tactics must be rehearsed to make sure they are ingrained and fully understood.
If the race plan was followed as best as the athlete could, then the reason for poor performance is either that the plan was lacking, that the training was inadequate, or that the athlete’s goal was too high. If the athlete trained according to the plan, closely followed the race plan, and produced the best performance they were capable of, then the athlete was successful regardless of race results. You and the athlete do not have control over who shows up as competition on race day, unusual weather, race director decisions, or other unlikely occurrences. When this is the case you should congratulate the athlete for their perseverance and performance.
What should have been done differently?
After having given the athlete a day or so to calm down following an unsuccessful event, one of the first questions you should ask is, “What should we have done differently?” Getting an answer to this question early in the analysis process from the person with the “best seat in the house” may open your eyes to things that may otherwise be overlooked. The athlete will usually have an opinion. Do not disregard this immediately. Instead, ask deeper questions about their conclusion so you can get to the core of why the athlete thinks this is the key. You may disagree. If so, you should soon explain to the athlete why. Do not leave the discussion open-ended.
What was learned here that will help with the next event?
Despite what you may have deemed a poor performance, your priority should now be how you can keep this from happening again. You may need to make some changes in how you interact with this athlete or even with all of your athletes. Or it could be that you and the athlete don’t see eye-to-eye on how to train for competition. In some circumstances, the differences may be too great to continue the coach-athlete relationship. That may mean suggesting to the athlete that you help them find a different coach. This would be fairly extreme, but not unheard of. I’ve been there before and know of other coaches who have too.
Sometimes we are successful, sometimes we’re not. How you move beyond the unsuccessful experiences is to carefully consider and analyze the evidence and make a decision. This is at the heart of the coach’s job and, ultimately, is what will help make you a wiser coach.
You have reached the end of The Craft of Coaching Module 6 // Managing Athlete Performance. Up next is Module 7 // The Versatile Coach: How to Adapt Training to the Individual Athlete.