Learning About the Biopsychosocial Approach to Training

Dr. Michael Crawley and Andy Kirkland join us to talk about what they’ve learned working and training with top Ethiopian runners.

group run
Photo by: Shutterstock

What the heck is a biopsychosocial approach to training? This was one of many questions we had lined up prior to the recording of this week’s Fast Talk podcast, in which we chat to Dr. Michael Crawley and Andy Kirkland. Both of them are experts in the biopsychosocial approach to training and performance—something we’ve never mentioned before on the show. Call it holistic training, if you’d like, but the concept gets at the fact that while we tend to be very good with the “bio” or physiological side of training, the best athletes also recognize the importance of the psychological and social aspects of training and the impact they can have.  

Nowhere is this clearer than when you look at Ethiopian runners. They have dominated the running scenes for years, but even their best generally don’t know what TSB or CTL mean. Yet all of the runners and the coaches pay close attention and prioritize what’s best for the group.  

Joining us today are anthropologist Dr. Michael Crawley who wrote a book about his time working with Ethiopian athletes called Out of Thin Air and elite Scottish coach Andy Kirkland. They not only talk about what they learned from Ethiopian runners, but why building a training community is important for all of us, how coaches can apply a biopsychosocial approach to their athletes, and perhaps most importantly of all, why making sure our training stays fun is one of the most valuable things we can all do. Just ask elite Ethiopian runners who will still choose the joy of weaving through trees over perfect pacing.  

Related: How the Biopsychosocial Approach Can Benefit Your Athletes 

Joining our two guests, we’ll hear from American coaches Ryan Bolton and Grant Hollicky who have both prioritized building a fun community for their athletes. Neal Henderson and Joe Friel talk about why it’s not enough to just focus on the “bio” side of the equation, while Alan Couzens talks about the value of athletes living together. Finally, podcast host and elite mountain biker Sonya Looney talks about tactics for addressing a negative mindset.  

So, call your friends to listen to this one together and let’s make you fast! 


​Crawley, M. (2022). ‘We Are Burning Ourselves Up’: Ethiopian Runners and Energetic Subjectivities. Ethnos, 1–21. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2022.2120516 

Episode Transcript

Rob Pickels  00:04

Hello, and welcome to Fast Talk, your source for the science of endurance performance. I’m your host, Rob Pickels, here with Coach Connor. When we discuss training and coaching, we often talk about various aspects that coaches and athletes must consider for training to be effective. Some may call this a holistic view of training. One that considers more than just the physiology, but the proper name is the biopsychosocial model of coaching.  Today we illustrate how biological, psychological, and sociological factors intertwine through the training of elite Ethiopian runners. Whether it’s bringing joy to your training, building community, or working with limited resources, there are many lessons to be learned.  Joining us today are anthropologist and author, Dr. Michael Crowley and elite Scottish coach, Dr. Andy Kirkland. Dr. Crowley shares his experiences with Ethiopian runners in his book, Out of Thin Air, and works closely with Dr. Kirkland, who has published significant research in the interaction between coaches and athletes. Coaches Ryan Bolton and Grant Holicky will talk about building a fun community for their athletes. Neil Henderson and Joe Friel will talk about why it’s not enough to just focus on the bio side of the equation, and Australian coach Alan Cousins will talk about the value of athletes living together. Finally, podcast hosts and elite mountain biker, Sonya Looney, will talk about the tactics for addressing a negative mindset. So, call your friends to listen to this one together and let’s make your fast.


Trevor Connor  01:33

Fast Talk Laboratories offers deep dives into your favorite training topics like intervals, polarized training, data analysis, and sports nutrition. Take a look now at our cycling based training pathway. Now is the perfect time to see how to lay the perfect foundation for an awesome season. In our new guide to cycling-based training experts, Joe Friel, Dr. Stephen Seiler, Brian Kohler, Dr. Andy Pruitt, and I, show why good base training isn’t just about writing endless miles. We share how to plan and structure your base season, how to monitor your efforts, and how to track your fitness gain so you start your next training phase with a strong aerobic engine. See more at fasttalklabs.com/pathways. Well, welcome everybody to the show. This is going to be a really interesting episode for me, because we’re just at a coaching conference, and I had several people raise the fact that Fast Talk Labs were really about the science, are really about the numbers. And every time I hear that I’m kind of like, No, we’re not. That’s one part of coaching, that’s one part of riding. But there are other really important elements. This is why we’ve talked about the importance of RPE, the importance of knowing yourself, of coaches, knowing their athletes. And so, we have this episode today that’s got this big, fancy name, biopsychosocial. That sounds very scientific. But I think what we’re really about today is saying, We got to move away from just the numbers. We got to move away from treating athletes just scientifically and look at other important aspects of them. Look at the social side of the sport. Look at the psychological side of the sport. And today, we have two top experts on this topic that we’re really excited to talk to, and Andy Kirkland and Michael Crowley. So gentlemen, welcome to the show.


Dr. Michael Crawley  03:27

Thank you for having us.


Andy Kirkland  03:28

Thanks very much, Rob and Trevor.


Rob Pickels  03:29

Hey guys, it’s great to have you. And Trevor, I’m glad that you point this out because I’ve said multiple times before, I don’t consider myself a coach. I am very much a physiologist. And the reason for that is exactly the topic of this episode. There is so much more to coaching beyond just physiology, training, how the body responds. I know my strengths and weaknesses and one of my strengths is that I can recognize that this is out there, but one of my weaknesses is, how do I incorporate all of these different? How do I incorporate the full biopsychosocial model into coaching? And that’s why I’ve always said, You know what, I’m a physiologist. I’m really good at that side of things. And I hold coaches that can really think about this. And Andy and Mike, I’m really interested to listen to you. I hold people that can focus on all of this big picture. I hold them in such a revered position because in my opinion, it is so difficult to do, that I’m glad we’re talking about it today.

Biopsychosocial Approach

Trevor Connor  04:26

So Andy, why don’t we throw to you and ask you to explain what you mean by the biopsychosocial side of training and coaching.


Andy Kirkland  04:35

I was asked this question just last week and another coach said, Is this not just holistic coaching? So holism we’re looking at the philosophy of complexity and how things fit together. So the biopsychosocial approach looks at the complexity between biological systems, so physiology. I’m a chartered scientist and under a physiologist by profession, so that’s my expertise, as well. But over the years, I’ve considered stuff that I’ve seen, I think stuff’s a really good word because it encapsulate this is lots of things. So, stuff that I have observed in my practice as a coach, as a physiologist, that’s not necessarily explained by physiology. Rather, we’re looking at human behavior. And human behavior is influenced through social interaction. So, social means between two or more people. So the coaching process is a social process, because it involves an athlete and a coach, and the athlete trains, and interacts, and acts within a social environment with lots of other people. So the biopsychosocial model considers these three broad areas in a holistic way. There’s just a different way of conceptualizing how we think about complexity.

Ethiopian Runners

Rob Pickels  06:07

Michael, to throw it to you. So you wrote several papers, where you had spent a fair amount of time with a top Ethiopian running team. And as we all know, I mean, Ethiopians absolutely dominate the running world. And what really struck me in one of your papers is you commented how the psychological, and particularly the social side is more important to them than the numbers, then certainly what we focus on here on the west, but you said somehow focusing on that social side, they’ve come up with, in many ways, a more sophisticated form of training than what we do focusing on the numbers here. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Dr. Michael Crawley  06:47

Yeah, I guess in Ethiopia, most people don’t have access to the numbers, particularly. So, apart from sort of times for running reps and things like that. But there’s not really much in the way of sports science, kind of analysis, of VO2 max and lactate threshold and things like that. I think in the West, we tend to deal with the unit of the individual body as something that can be sort of evaluated and measures. And in Ethiopia, the way that most of the elite athletes tend to think about this is actually in terms of the group and the team. So, people understood energy as something that was transbodily, that could be shared between people. And this meant that, really, they were thinking of the training process in terms of the whole group, as opposed to the individual most of the time. And that I think, you know, really does change the approach to training because the coach tended to see his job primarily as being to create a sense of rapport and cooperation amongst the team members, as opposed to being about sort of addressing the individual needs of the particularly good athletes within that group.


Trevor Connor  07:51

And I loved your one paper about how you’d have these running groups that would go out and train together and they would have one GPS watch. And would get handed to one athlete, and the rest would just kind of follow that athlete.


Dr. Michael Crawley  08:04

Yeah, so I think most of the time, GPS watches and things like that have been analyzed as kind of self tracking devices in the West. And so yeah, I tried to conceptualize them as tracking more kind of relationships between people in Ethiopia. So normally, they would be, they’d be the coach that had a GPS watch, normally, they would give it to one particular runner. And it would be used to sort of share that data within the team. But you know, they’re involved in far more hierarchical relationships than they are in sort of the UK or the US where it’d be, sort of everybody has their one watch and they look at that data uploaded to Strava, kind of make it very much kind of, a data becomes part of the self I think a lot of the time in those contexts. It wasn’t like that in Ethiopia.


Rob Pickels  08:47

Ryan Bolton is a very experienced coach who has worked with Ethiopian runners. He shares his perspective as a coach of what makes their training both unique and effective.


Ryan Bolton  08:56

I’ve worked with East Africans for many years, and I’ve coached them, I’ve coached the Boston Marathon champion before. And I truly think one of the biggest things that is a driving force is it’s cultural. It’s really cultural, it’s socioeconomic. Where they live, the way that they grow up, what opportunities they have in life, like the culture of running, there is a big piece of it. I do think that there are some physiological factors. You know, we talked about leg length, different limb or different bone lengths, and even cardiovascularly and everything. And the fact that, you know, most of the great East African runners grow up at altitude, I think that comes into play too. But I really do think one of the biggest pieces of it is cultural. And that’s what they have going for them. And I honestly worry that as East Africa almost becomes you know, more American-like, you might see them becoming less and less successful runners, ultimately. I’ve spent so much time you know, with Kenyans and Ethiopians, and almost like living with them, and the way that they approach training, the way that they approach life and you know, their views on on running, it’s quite different than working with say, like, you know, a Western or American runner, and they have a very healthy approach to all of it, and a very good attitude with it. And some of the most interesting things from a training standpoint, easy runs are easy, and hard runs are hard. And they’re really, really good at taking it easy and resting when they need to. And when I say resting, like sitting around and doing nothing resting. They’re very, very good at resting. And then like said, you tell them to go for an easy run, they keep it very aerobic, they never push over that. But then when you ask them to go hard, they go hard. And they go very hard. And they’re capable of doing that. They’re not spending too much time in the middle ground, which I see a lot of like, say American runners doing. Another piece of that is they’re like almost like fatalistic with their training and or they’re okay with, if they have a bad day, it’s not a problem, they move on immediately. They’re like todayn wasn’t my day, it doesn’t matter. Tomorrow’s another day, I’ll wake up tomorrow and give it a shot again, and give it a go. And they don’t like corraborate, over having, you know, bad days over and over and everything, they just like let it go and really just focus on you know, getting back and getting back on another workout and everything, they really don’t think about it. And bad races are the same way. They care about not having a good race or not having a good day, but they really don’t dwell on it. And they’ll just like quickly move forward from it. And they don’t stress out about it. And that’s another, and kind of along another thing, along that. If you go to a World Marathon Major, and the day before the race, you see, the East Africans, they’re very casual, they’re very light hearted, they’re very non-stressed. They’re mentally prepared for the race and everything, but they really kind of even with racing, if you ask them, you know you’re like, Aren’t you nervous about tomorrow? They’re like, Well, I did all the preparation that I can and I’m gonna run my best tomorrow. And, you know, so we’ll see, they always say, “God willing, we’ll see what happens tomorrow.” And they’re really, like, really relaxed going into it and they just trust their process. And they trust their bodies. They’re very good at listening to their bodies. And I think that benefits them tremendously.


Trevor Connor  12:13

Yeah, Andy, very interested in asking you about that, because you raised that in an article that you wrote for us that, there is a danger in over focusing on those numbers like CTL and TSS, and that it can actually lead to a need for perfectionism and even disorders. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and the dangers of over focusing on those numbers?

Important Metrics

Andy Kirkland  12:35

Yes, so I talk about something called a measurement induced myopia. So, in endurance sport, in particular, in the West, we tend to focus on things that are easy to measure. TSS, CTL, are relatively easy to measure. Similarly, in a physiology context, VO2 max and blood lactate are easy to measure. But they’re only reflective of metabolism, the mitochondria, for example, not the the brain muscle interactions. So, some of the most meaningful things in terms of performance are very, very difficult to measure, tangibly. I was asked this question, so what do you think the solution is? And I would suggest that the most effective tool I’ve got, as a coach, as a lecturer at a university as well, is to ask people, How are you? And to developed sufficient relationships with these people to get an honest answer. And those honest answers are often far more revealing than a training stress score. It may be that the training stress is only reflective of a session or two. But we know that things like cognitive fatigue, so being mentally tired, has impacts on fatigue processes. So if you’ve had a busy day at work, if you’ve had an argument with the finer half, in my case, where the the dogs bitten my ankle, then my focus and my level of fatigue going into a training session is greater. And that’s not necessarily reflected in any physiological metric.


Trevor Connor  14:30

So this goes back to you. We’ve said this on the show, and I always stand by this, that I think the most important metric and training peaks is the notes section. Because you’re gonna have two athletes execute the exact same workout, both executed perfectly, but one’s describing in the notes that it was a struggle, it really hurts, they were you know, it was hard getting out the door, and the other ones saying that was fun. That was great. Felt really good. It’s actually two very different workouts, even though all the other numbers are the same.


Andy Kirkland  15:00

Exactly. You use an example from the laboratory environment as well. So, I’m a scientist by profession. So a chartered scientist, the physiologist. One of the most meaningful experiences in the laboratory was when I was testing a pro-athlete. And this was for selection into the Commonwealth Games. So what’s that like? The Pan American Games or something. So, it’s both the Olympics, but very, very important in the context of sport in the UK, and the wider Commonwealth. And part of the selection criterion was to achieve a particular power to weight ratio. And the athlete was quite a bit off, maybe 30, 40 Watts off achieving that selection criterion. And he said to me, Well, I want to do this test again, I know I can do better. And I suggest that it came back the next week. And he said, No, I want to do it immediately, I want to do it now. Came in and did another VO2 max test or two absolute exhaustion, or too exhaustion is the definition seeing a plateau in VO2. And they achieved the same plateau in VO2, but improved his power output by about 10%. The reality was that he still did not achieve the selection criterion value. But I argued a very strong case, if we look to erase performance and his ability to do repeat efforts, then he was more than capable of performing at a world level. And secondly, if we looked at the relationship between VO2 max and power output, in relation to overall performance, he was an outlier. The science didn’t make sense, at a metabolic level, in this athletes context. There was something else going on with him that we hadn’t measured, didn’t fully understand. And only through observing him and getting to know him over a number of years that I start to understand that part of it was psychological, as a real drive to be able to push the numbers continually, time after time, that didn’t relate to what we see in the scientific literature.


Rob Pickels  17:25

Coach Grant Holicky cares a lot about the other parts of the equation. The psychological and the social. This is why he’s hesitant to test his athletes. Let’s hear from him now.

Testing Athletes

Grant Holicky  17:35

I personally as a coach, and this is like, some people listening to this will freak out. I don’t use a lot of testing. So I don’t go out and do a lot of testing, I’ll draw it. But I know, my God. I know, I know. But what I tend to do is I draw data from workouts that I’ve pinned in my brain, but I haven’t really said anything to the athlete, or drawn from a race setting or knowing that place that they were really enjoying it. And I believe that the stress of the numbers, probably has more to do with people’s joy, or lack thereof than anything else that we can do. It creates a job-like feeling to going out and training. And so, I’m trying to eliminate that. So if somebody’s coming to me, and they’re saying, I’m not having a fun. First question I’m going to ask him is, “Why are you doing it?” And typically, what I ask is, “Well, are you sick of the sport or are you sick of the training that you’re doing”, you know? Or as I used to say to swimmers, “Are you sick of the sport or are you sick of the team setting you are in?” And nine times out of 10 the answer is, “I’m sick of what I’m doing, I’m sick of the training or I’m sick of the the environment.” So, changing the environment and going out and, I love to do this, like if Rob came to me with this complaint, I would say, “Okay we’re not going to think about your sprint anymore, we’re gonna go focus on something completely different.” I’m gonna go find a way to create a win for that athlete. I might have to try really hard, you know, I may have to find something that is off the beaten path. But if they get a win, they’re going to enjoy that. And they’re going to start to move forward. And then maybe I’ve got a chance to teach them to disassociate happiness from results, disassociate happiness from performance, because the joy of just being out there on your bike, that’s what is going to drive a lot of these great athletes forward. And I think I think we miss some of that. So often that’s masked by anger or revenge or all those other things, but there’s this element of joy. So, that’s generally my first question.


Trevor Connor  19:38

So what would be specific things that you would do to bring some joy and to make it more social? What are some examples?


Grant Holicky  19:44

I try to get them out with other people, even if it’s not a perfect workout, right? Get out there with people and one of the things that I’ll tell people a lot is go out there with people that aren’t as good as you. It’s okay. You don’t need to always be pushed. You don’t always need to be miserable. Choose the C group ride instead of the B group ride, right? Or go on a group ride. Oh I’m faster, no, who cares? Go enjoy people who are like-minded with you. Try a different discipline. This is why I think cross is so great for road riders. Try something, as Trevor, you have said, you’re terrible at, but you can almost laugh your way through the whole thing.


Trevor Connor  20:18

Well, it’s a lot of fun.


Grant Holicky  20:18

Yeah, because it’s different. There’s no expectations. And I think so often expectation is what starts to tamp down fun.


Rob Pickels  20:26

One thing that I found interesting when I was preparing for this, and my apologies, Mike or Andy, I forget whose paper this came out of. But essentially, what we’re talking about is that the combination of the body, right, and that’s a big part of that is the physiological side of things. But it’s the combination of the body, and the mind, and the environment. Those three things taken together, ultimately outweigh or better predict or lead to better performances than just focusing on physiology alone. Can we expand on that a little bit?


Dr. Michael Crawley  20:55

It’s interesting actually listening to all these kind of acronyms TSS and things, I have no idea what they mean. Which is interesting, because, you know, I spent a year and a bit with some of the best endurance runners in the world. Jamal Emos, run 58:30, for a half marathon. Guys who’d run 2:06 for marathons and things, they just have no idea about any of these things. So it’s been interesting to me that more people who are interested in this kind of cutting edge, sort of scientific approach, don’t go to places like Ethiopia and see, you know, how those guys are actually training. But they would definitely see the condition was how they described sort of the state of fitness that was required to run at the highest level. And the way that they tended to evaluate that was in relation to other people basically. It wasn’t really to do with what times they were running, because the way that they got access to go and run races abroad where they could make money, which is what they were interested in, in order to do that they had to be competing or running well, in relation to the other people that they were with. So like, any attempts to measure kind of energy levels, and all that kind of metabolic stuff that you’re talking about was always in relation to other people, you know, how they were situating themselves in relation to other people. And a lot of their understanding of fitness and how to get into shape was not to do with specific training sessions, it was to do with positioning themselves correctly within different training environments. So basically, going to altitude one day of the week, to be as high up as they could to run slowly, going somewhere much lower down later in the week to run quick, somewhere that was warmer and lower altitude. So it’s about balancing surfaces, you know, the ground basically, and the sort of air qualities properly, as opposed to being about what was the specific session they were doing. And I think that was as much a kind of psychological thing as it was a physiological thing, in that the belief in the qualities of the air in particular places like the mountain and Toto, which is also connected to kind of spiritual beliefs because where a lot of the churches were. That kind of, you know, the psychological belief in training in that place was just as important as the physiological effects. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but there was a lot more going on basically, than the specifics of the kind of numbers, I guess.


Trevor Connor  23:11

I love the story that you wrote about how they went into this one forest, that was up at altitude and the coach handed one of the athletes the Garmin watch and said, Here’s your targets for this workout. And as they’re running around through these trees, one of the athletes yells to the guy leading that, “We’re behind the targets.” And basically, the guy leading responded, “The watch is wrong, we got to factor in the terrain here.” And I’m basically going to ignore the numbers.

Measuring Techniques

Dr. Michael Crawley  23:41

Yeah, well not even so much that the watch was wrong, just that it was wrong to use the watch in that place, in his opinion. So for them on that mountain, the purpose of that was to run kind of zigzagging in-and-out of the trees, using the terrain as much as possible, running on a camber most of the time, which is very difficult, and to kind of use that environment as a way of reducing the stress on the legs and just sort of getting a kind of purely aerobic kind of stimulus. So for him, to take the watch into that environment was not appropriate. So they thought really, Yeah it’s okay to use the GPS watch when we’re trying to run really quickly on the roads, but in this forest, this is not the place to be putting a watch on things. This is a place for kind of, this more kind of recuperative form of running. So it was an example of like, basically an athlete saying, My expertise is more important or like, you know, they just don’t listen to the coach all the time if they feel like their body is saying a certain thing, then they will just do what they feel, than what the coach has told them to do, based on the watch basically.


Andy Kirkland  24:43

Can I add to that Mike, and Mike and I are from, we’ve lived in the same city. And I remember reading Mike, you talked about running around the meadows, and that it’s a park, and the city, and it’s somewhere I’ve run too. And there’s paths that crisscross the park, but runners tend to go around the big loop or smaller loops. And Michael wrote about coming back from Ethiopia and zigzagging all over the grass. And not just using these predefined paths fallen what everyone else does. Zigzagging over the park and taking different directions. And I found that really meaningful. And I thought about it in terms of say, Stephen Seiler’s 80/20 ratio. And when I adopted these training practices, just going out and having a run, not having any predefined path, running over grass, running through trees, going through mud. The time passed really quickly, it was so much fun, and it was far easier to maintain a relatively lower intensity because the focus was on other things, and not waiting on the people, the Garmin to say that I’ve done a kilometer in a predefined pace. And it became easy to be doing two hour runs without even thinking about it or being unduly fatigued. Whereas, if you go around a tarmac, or a concrete path, that fatigue soon comes in, the mental fatigue soon comes in, it becomes boring. And after 90 minutes, you’re thinking, I want this to finish. So it was easier to moderate lower intensity exercise, just using the environment.


Dr. Michael Crawley  26:30

Yeah that’s basically what I’ve, why I argue in that paper, is that it’s not that Ethiopian runners are rejecting all of the kinds of technologies that are available for measuring performance and things. They’re embracing them in some ways, but it’s a selective use. And you know, they’re not just unconsciously thinking about, These GPS watches exist now, we need to do all of our training based on this kind of more data-driven way of doing things. It’s like, it’s a particular form of expertise that comes with that, kind of knowing when to use the data or these kind of particular technologies and when to say, “Actually I need to leave the watch at home to do this particular run, because you know, the purpose of the run is to run.” Or to use the GPS watch to ensure that you’re running slowly enough, which is something that sometimes happens. Yeah, kind of a selective use of technologies, I guess what I’m trying to say.


Trevor Connor  27:15

Let’s hear from two top coaches, Neal Henderson and Joe Friel, and why they feel the psychosocial can be as important as the bio.


Neal Henderson  27:24

I mean, if somebody said, You need a workout that’s either going to make your athlete more capable or more confident. 100% every time, I’m going for the workout that’s going to give them more confidence. Now, I don’t think it necessarily has to be one or the other, but again, the confidence is more important than the potential developed capacity. Because you can’t express it if you don’t have confidence.


Rob Pickels  27:46

My only counter argument is I’ve done, what’s the name of that workout, the grinder or whatever it is?  The blender.


Neal Henderson  27:53

Ah blender.


Rob Pickels  27:54

Nobody comes out of that workout feeling more confident. That thing destroys.


Neal Henderson  28:00

That makes me, that actually puts me in a happy place to be honest.


Rob Pickels  28:03

Well, this is the problem. This is what Neal and I are good at of like, Blender, that’s a solid workout. I like that one.

Psychological Side of Training

Joe Friel  28:10

Yeah I think this is, all this is extremely important for the athlete. The athlete just doesn’t live in a shell, where they workout everyday, and eating and sleeping, it’s the only things they do. They have life. You know, we’ve been very focused on the bio side of this, the biological side of this as coaches. But the psychological side and the social side are extremely important also, and you’ve got to have all this together. I coached a guy one time, he wanted to run a marathon, he wanted to qualify for Boston, that was the goal. And I thought he could do it. And so we started down that path only to find out a few weeks later that his wife thought it was stupid. So he had to get up every time he had to do a long run on Saturday morning, he had to get up like four o’clock in the morning to get his long run in before she woke up. So when he got back home, she wouldn’t give him a hard time about having been out running for whatever it was, two or three hours, something like that. And he did not achieve his goal. He just, it fell apart on him. Just because he didn’t have the the social side. He didn’t have support from his family. His wife didn’t support this. That’s important. All these, everything that goes into the athlete’s life is important. And this biopsychosocial is just talking about, is just wrapping all these things up into one phrase, one word. And they’re all important. You can’t separate any of them out and say, “Okay, we’re going to be great without that thing, because it’s not going to happen.”


Trevor Connor  29:31

So I’d like to shift to talking about how coaches can bring this social and psychological side into their coaching if they’re a little focused on the numbers. But I want to do this by actually sharing a quick story that I think both of you will appreciate. Because the first coach I ever worked with, he was kind of the extreme of being all about the numbers. So I was living in a place where actually there was a very strong community that trained together. The leader of this community was a gentleman named Glenn Swann. And Glenn always bragged about the fact that he had never done an interval workout in his life, even though he was a national champion. And what he did is he set up a Tuesday night training race and a Thursday time trial. Because those were his ways of getting his intensity without having to go out and do solo workouts. He liked to get his intensity in a social environment. And I love that time trial, because every week, I got to go out and race a national champion, and then ride back with them and get all sorts of great advice. But I hired this coach who was a pure physiologist. And he insisted on not doing that time trial. And he, I kid you not, wanted me to do my workouts on this five mile stretch of flat road, so that I could be very consistent. Because his problem with that Thursday night time trial, was he didn’t factor in the social aspect. He didn’t factor in the fact that I could go and race a national champion. He said, Well, it’s got too many hills in it, so I don’t get good numbers. So I want you to go and do solo efforts on this flat stretch of row, because then I’m going to get good numbers on you. So I’m very interested in how the two of you would respond to that.


Dr. Michael Crawley  31:11

Well, firstly, it sounds very like the Gateshead Harriers, Tuesday night training run in the 1980s when Britain was producing all these amazing runners in the Northeast of England. They used basically a 10 mile training race where people could go and race, Charlie Spedding and Brendan Foster and people like that. And it was, that’s the thing that whenever I ask all Gateshead Harriers is what it was that made them so good. They always cite that opportunity to basically measure yourself against the best athletes. In Ethiopia, they also had, there were like several stretches of road that people use for tempo runs or hard efforts. And mostly, they were really hilly, but people would know the times that certain people that run on those roads. There were particular sort of stretches of road that people were able to measure themselves against the best athletes on, and they didn’t mind that they were hilly, you know. That wasn’t seen as spoiling the data in anyway. It was just like, This is a place where I can go and I know how fast Sergey Cabana has run this stretch of road and so I’ll be able to measure myself against him so.


Andy Kirkland  32:10

One of the most important things in terms of working with age group versus, as well as recognizing why they do sport. So we’re not necessarily working with professionals. Most coaches don’t work with professionals. They’ll be lucky if they work with one or two throughout a career. So it’s really important thinking about the coach-athlete relationship. Who the client is? Why do they do their sport? Where do they take their enjoyment from? The most effective coach-athlete relationships should be measured on retention level. So how long does that relationship last? And what does the athlete think of the coach and vice versa? And how well to build that relationship? And how to build an individuals motivations to why they do sport? So that when I’ve coached on pool deck and with triathletes, that social interaction is often really, really important. So, it is appropriate for me to be giving them 750 meter efforts, where there’s not an opportunity to have a chat with their friends, and seeing that as weakness and getting poorer numbers. Because we can use recovery in a particular way to say, “Well, you can have as long as you want to recover, go when you’re ready.” That gives me a lot of physiological information as well, to see athletes tend to go when they want to, when they feel recovered. But having an opportunity to have a chat in between and learn from each other is really important, as is the element of fun. So add in a little race session and adding a fun game. Adults are apart from Eagle are not any different to children. We enjoy competing against each other often, we enjoy having a laugh, and we’re more likely to want to continue to train in such environments where it’s really good fun, and we want to come back time after time and maintain that consistency and training as well. And that requires thinking about the individuals thoughts, feelings and emotions and how they interact with other people. And if as a coach, I’m not having that dialogue with the athletes that I work with, then I’m selling them short and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to find that potential in them to achieve peak performance.


Trevor Connor  34:40

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Grant Holicky  35:35

Well, the physiological side makes a lot of sense, right? It’s X’s and O’s. And I think people like it because quantifiable. They can point to a number and a thing and they really rely on that. I come from swimming and swimming to always a group environment, there’s no way out of the group environment. So you have to make the group environment positive. And so I’ve always had this experience or this need to be able to create the social side of this thing as a positive place. You got to get creative with that because you got to take care of the fastest swimmers, you got to take care of the slowest swimmers. Same thing’s true on the bike. So when we go out and we train together, the first thing I’m trying to get is joy. I want this to be fun, I don’t want it to be work. And the vast majority of what a lot of these athletes are doing is work. Yeah this is fun, but it’s hard work. So if we can make that hard work fun, and we can make that hard work enjoyable, we can turn it into a game, we can turn it into play, then they’re gonna get more out of it. They’re going to take bigger risks, they’re going to try things, they’re going to learn things, all that. But what they’re going to really get is support from one another. And I try to talk about this all the time in my group settings is that, we are only as good as the people around us. The very, very best in the group have some of the pieces of all of the rest of us in the group and everybody’s improvement, it hinges on that. So we so greatly try to push that button. That’s why I tried to do so much of the training together. You know, that’s the social side of things, the psycho side of things is that they’re inexorably tied. How you feel when you’re riding. I used to say that how you feel is irrelevant. And that’s true to a point, right? Like you can perform no matter how you feel. But how you feel when you’re riding at a certain level, is going to dictate whether you’re happy or sad with all of that, right? And so if we have to be able to play on the psycho side of things when we’re training or racing, so we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We have to understand that just because I hurt doesn’t mean I’m the only one that’s hurting. So again, coming back to that group setting, there’s this beautiful article that was a research article that was once written about how sitting in your teammates draft on a climb, you perform better. Well, they did it on a climb because they wanted to take all the aerodynamics out of the equation. And they did. They took all the aerodynamics out of the equation. But they’d have people ride the climb solo, and then have people ride the climb behind a teammate, and their teammates job was to pace it faster than they’ve ever ridden it before and almost to a tee, they were able to ride it faster and arrow the rod before. We’re social animals, we crave the support. So how do we play into that support a coaching staff as a coach and as a group?


Trevor Connor  38:19

So Andy, continuing on with that, there’s something that you talked about in one of your papers that I found really interesting and would love to dive into with you, that hope can really help coaches. Because, as a coach, one of the most important things you can do with your athletes is making sure that they are progressing and that you are keeping them away from burnout or overreach or even overtraining. And you raise the point, which I fully agree with is that the numbers can give you some indicators, looking at CTL and TSB and all these numbers can give you a bit of an indicator, but they don’t truly measure all the stress that an athlete is under. Because there is the psychological stress, there is the social stress. So how as a coach, can a coach move beyond just looking at the numbers, to truly understand what stress an athletes under and help them make choices to prevent them from heading towards that burnout or that overtrained state?


Andy Kirkland  39:20

Well I used to work at British Cycling and I used to sit and have my lunch with lots of top coaches working with Olympians and such, and I asked similar questions of them. And one of the answers, I won’t mention any names, but one of the answers was, Well, we’ve got key sessions or a key session within a week that we expect athletes to perform very well at, if they’re unable to achieve the numbers, so it could be a 4000 meter pursuit effort on the track, if a particular athlete isn’t able to maintain 550 Watts for an effort, that may be an indication that they’re fatigued. So the question after that session is, tell me why you are feeling that way? We see you are only able to maintain 480 Watts, can you tell me why you think that is? It may be similar, we could use heart rate variability, there’s an indication that heart rate variability is saying someone is feeling burned out. That number simply allows us to ask better questions. And can you explain that number to me? Why do you think it’s showing an indication of fatigue? And then an open and honest relationship, asking good questions based on the numbers will give you deep insight into how an athlete is feeling.


Trevor Connor  40:47

So it’s using the quantitative to lead you to really good qualitative discussions?


Andy Kirkland  40:53

Yes, it simply allows you to ask better questions.


Rob Pickels  40:57

I think an important next step coming out of that is to update your approach to coaching. To take that feedback from the athlete and to say that, “Wow, we need to do things differently so that this person can end up in their best possible place.”


Andy Kirkland  41:10

Yes and I think it’s a recognition that athletes are often driven by their wants, coaches may believe they need something else, and it’s finding a balance between these needs and wants, and having sufficient expertise, I think to understand what the actual rather than perceived needs are.

Aspects of Coach-Athlete Relationship

Trevor Connor  41:33

So a question I have for both of you that I’m really interested in is, what is the most important aspects, in your opinion, of the coach-athlete relationship? And Michael, I’m particularly interested in the nature of the coach-athlete relationship in Ethiopia.


Dr. Michael Crawley  41:49

I don’t know what the most important aspect is, but I can tell you about what were things like in Ethiopia. Amongst the Amhara, which is the group of people that I was mainly working with, there’s a very, very strong respect for kind of hierarchy and authority. And what was particularly interesting about our group was that the coach had gone and done a master’s in coaching in America. I can’t remember where, exactly, but he’d gone back to Ethiopia with this, these ideas about kind of more democratic coaching styles, about kind of asking people how they felt after a session and asking for feedback on his own coaching and things. And they hated it, they were like, No, you’re the coach, you need to tell us what to do. They kind of lost respect for him, because he was asking them what they thought. So what people actually wanted was for the coach to kind of take responsibility for their performance more or less, which is interesting. So the way that tended to work was that he would kind of set the sessions, but also make sure that the group was running at pace, most of the time, that was manageable and wasn’t going to burn people out. Because that was kind of the main concern that they had was with burning ourselves up as they would put it, and overtraining. Because as Andy said, you’ve got, you know, most people, especially in Ethiopia, where it’s about, you know, you’ve got people who are coming from kind of rural areas where they haven’t got that much money and they’ve got the opportunity to make what is kind of quite stratospheric amounts of money and races abroad, potentially, the desire to just train ridiculously hard and burn yourself out up is like, through the roof. So the coach, I think, a lot of the time, the coach saw his job as being to create an environment, which was kind of a social environment of the group, where people would respect that, only run within the group environment, and sort of hold themselves back apart from in one or two sessions a week in order to avoid that kind of burning themselves up basically. But that wasn’t understood in terms of these kinds of what was it TSS scores and things that are on an individual basis. It was understood entirely in terms of like, the team have to respect each other and hold themselves back in order to have the greatest possible chance that a few of them would succeed basically.


Trevor Connor  43:54

Yeah, no, that’s really interesting. Andy addressing your response and then also your answer to the question of what’s most important in the coach-athlete relationship?


Andy Kirkland  44:02

It depends on that social relationship and where in the world you are, as well. So as Michael says, the culture is different in terms of patriarchy, deference to those perceived to be an authority. I’ve actually been over in Kenya in a similar but very different environment to Ethiopia. And I found it quite challenging. Initially, the deference and respect that people showed to me, I said, No my name is just Andy, don’t call me Dr. Kirkland. I was encouraging students over at a university in Kenya to have a laugh with me and they didn’t understand this concept of their teacher being a bit of a clown. And so I had to moderate my behaviors. If I had the coaching company, which have not, I would call it Chameleon Coaching. And that means that I need to change my colors depending on who that athlete is and what the one need and expect from a coaching relationship. In some performance programs, which I’ve been situated within, part of the challenge has been that coaches haven’t been sufficiently agile to change their approaches for individuals. So that you could have a grip of Olympians, and some athletes simply want to be told what to do, and others want a direct say in their journey. And that means adapting your approach to suit both, and maybe moving towards and slowly influencing those who want a more directive coach simply to ask those questions, but not too often. To gain their perspective, but also retain that sense of authority to these people. Because it’s really, really important. I would suggest that where I’ve fallen down in my own coaching with some athletes has been too open about my thoughts, feelings and emotions. I once had an athlete saying to me, I didn’t want to bother you Andy because I knew you were really busy in your day job, I knew you were under a lot of pressure. So the showing the vulnerability to some athletes is absolutely counter productive. They lose faith in you, or they may not wish to reward you with their problems that affect their life stress score. So it’s finding that balance, and that balance will be different depending on who the athlete is. So there’s not a hard and fast rule. It’s just finding where the balancing point is for the individual athletes we work with.


Trevor Connor  46:43

So it’s understanding their psychology and understanding their motivation.


Andy Kirkland  46:47

Yeah, and understanding what they expect from their coach as well. So one of the first questions, What do you expect me to do as your coach? How would you like to be coached? And that’s really quite challenging for some coaches who have been simply schooled and using a mathematical model. So built in training or through CTL. So chronic training load, and building a plan through that, accounting for athlete voice when using a mathematical model can be problematic.


Trevor Connor  47:20

So continuing with that, I’m addressing and giving you a scenario and seeing how you respond to this. So you’re working with an athlete, you want to give them some interval work, but they come back to you and say, “You know what, I just hate training by myself, I’d rather be out in a group or even just on Zwift. And boy, I love just hopping in those Zwift races and thrashing myself.” What would your response be? Would you say, “Yeah, you know what, that motivates you go do that?” Or would you try to say the athlete, “That’s not going to get you to your peak level and I’d rather you suffer through your these intervals?” What’s your approach?


Andy Kirkland  47:55

So, I think it’s a bit like my approach to life. It’s a little bit of what you fancy, I probably have a bit too much of things I like, but integrating what athletes really enjoy in training. Working on manipulating that to ensure that they get an appropriate dose of it that doesn’t result in overtraining or burnout. So it’s quite common for coaches to be working with athletes who like to operate very close to their threshold because we get those feel good feelings from pushing ourselves, that tells us we’ve worked really hard. And there are certain beliefs that working hard leads to better results. So in the States, I think there’s quite a discourse surrounding work ethic. So you try hard, you man up, you do the work, you’ll achieve results. The reality is somewhat different. So it may be for me prescribing a relatively low intensity endurance session, but ending on a really hard effort at the end to give that those up-regulate the feel good hormones.


Trevor Connor  49:08

Just to make them feel like they had a good, solid workout.


Andy Kirkland  49:12

Yeah, it takes one minute to push yourself to your absolute limit and feel absolutely gassed at the end of it. That results in similar feelings, is to training at 105% FTP for 25 minutes or something, just reduce it to one minute, but maybe slightly higher intensity. Recognize it’s kind of suboptimal, but it gives athletes that feel good factor that’s so important to them.


Rob Pickels  49:40

And I think that a recurring theme that we’ve had when I’ve been reading this is the enjoyment of training and competition seems to be very important for athlete longevity, for athlete performance, maybe for coach-athlete relationships. Is that something that coaches ought to be making some room for within training? As in the getting off the beaten path, so to say and zigzagging through the trees, frankly because it’s fun. You might not be going the exact correct pace, but at the end of that session, that athlete might be in a better mental state and that could lead to improved performance.

Enjoyment in Sport

Dr. Michael Crawley  50:17

Yes, I think there’s one thing I really wanted to get across with the book I wrote about Ethiopian running, is that you know, high performance sport, these guys are going to run 2:04 for a marathon, high performance doesn’t have to preclude enjoyment. And actually, if you look at what the very top athletes in the world are doing, a lot of it is explicitly about trying to make it as interesting as possible, and as creative as possible, and trying to maintain a sense of adventure. So rather than thinking of high performance as being kind of sport with all the joy sucked out of it, I think the point that they’re often saying, and something that coaches often said to me explicitly was, Running is really boring. And we need to find ways of keeping people interested if they’re going to be good. And I guess in the context where people are actually motivated a lot of the time by money or, you know, a lot of the primary motivations is money. I think in maybe in American context or UK context, we just assume that everybody’s doing this because they’re absolutely 100% driven, and it’s what they want to do, and they love it. In Ethiopia, there’s more of a sense that, you know, people are doing this because they want to try and change their lives through making making money running abroad. So it’s like, they’re more conscious about trying to make running creative and fun. And that’s why people will go to the same forest everyday, but try to find a new way of running through the trees that’s never been done before. Because it’s like a way of keeping it interesting, basically. So that that logic of what we’ve got to go to this five mile stretch of road, because it’s going to give us slightly better data, and stop you from running with your friends, that would just be, I think people would react very negatively to that sort of way of thinking about things basically.


Trevor Connor  51:53

Alan Cousins had access to some of the best scientific resources working in Australia, but he still found that creating a supportive environment was one of the best tools. Let’s hear from him.


Alan Couzens  52:03

Go back to the importance of team culture. I think one of the things that kind of stuck out to me the most about my time at the Australian Institute of Sport, working with athletes who were all there for high performance, or with huge goals, all living in the one spot was the benefit of having a team of people all doing the same thing and all living in a similar way. So I really try and encourage my team to sort of share between one another, you know, share their workouts, share their experiences. I think that misery shared is misery halved or whatever the saying is. So I really do think that there’s a lot of benefit that comes from getting a group, good group of people together, who are all doing similar things on a similar path. Much more than any sort of, rah rah speech that I can give them or anything like that. I think just trying to set up an environment that facilitates that process is probably the most important thing.


Trevor Connor  53:07

You know, something I will observe, having worked with a lot of, kind of my specialty, when I started coaching was taking those athletes who were trying to go pro, they had been amateur up until this point. There was always this dangerous phase with them, where they went from somebody who had a job or was going to school, and train mostly for fun and was having a lot of success, to now they were training full time and this was their life. And you saw a lot of them quit because suddenly their enjoyment, became their stressor, became their focus. And they couldn’t handle that. It kind of taken the enjoyment away from them. And you’d see them quit. I saw that happen many, many times. And I learned when they made that transition, you had to find ways to bring fun in. And even at that point, sometimes he had to say, “Find something else to do in your life, go play tennis, go do something completely different,” so you can have that thing that it’s now fun because the thing that used to be your fun might not always be as fun anymore.


Andy Kirkland  53:07

I think that’s really important. It again, depends on the individuals, but sport’s really challenging. People get injured when they’re unable to train, they lose part of their identity, they sometimes lose part of their social structures. And that can be particularly difficult. So as coaches we need to understand where athletes take their meaning from life. And if too much meaning is placed upon sport and isolation. When a barrier comes in the way, it’s what can they do to cope with the adverse circumstances? Is there something else in life that gives them meaning, which they can go to, to help them get through injury? My area of research now is broadly speaking around mental health and creating healthy environments. And we know particularly for female athletes, having a dual career, and what I mean by that is having their sport and something else like education, so doing a degree, or having a part-time job, is having that outlet away from sport, which they take meaning from as well. And that offers a level of protection from injury. So if injury occurs, then they’re more likely to be able to deal with it effectively. So having that balance, particularly at that higher level, particularly with young people transitioning to being pro athletes, for example, having an alternative focuses, I think, is really, really important. Well, I was about to say in particularly in Western society, but I spent time over in Eton and Elder in Kenya, and I know the consequences of COVID-19 have been particularly tough on these people. Because a they’ve not been able to make money, they’ve not been able to train in their usual training groups, and have just not had the ability to make money. So the impact on their well being has probably been greater as a result of being purely focused on running. I would go as far as to say it’s not healthy. I think that we’ve really been looking at this from the big picture side of things. And to show the breadth of application of the biopsychosocial model, Andy, I want to bring up a really interesting example that you mentioned in some writing that you did for our Craft of Coaching with Joe Friel series, and that was working with triathletes who, for their race day performance, open water swim is really important. And the example that you described in here, I believe, was in a pool, using a swim buoy, getting rid of lane lines, having a mass start, and bringing this into training, that’s one way we talked about how it’s the body, the mind, and the environment. That’s a way that you’re able to manipulate a specific workout, the environment of it, to address the specific needs or concerns of that particular athlete. Absolutely. So having done a wee bit of competing myself, often, in fact, it doesn’t amaze me, but standing on the start line of our 70.3, or an Ironman, and listening to the voices around me hearing people saying, “Oh, this is the first time I’ve done open water swimming, or I’m scared swimming in a group, or these waves are a bit bigger, I’m not used to this temperature.” And hearing mass voices like that, and people not having specific warm up routines to get that focus for the event that they’ve been training for months, if not years for, but lacking the key skills to tackle the demands of the event. These are the voices I’m hearing with my coaching hat on saying, “These people aren’t adequately prepared for the demands of a 70.3 or an Ironman.” And it’s not the ability to maintain 80% of FTP on the bike, it’s the ability to deal with the stress of swimming in a cold ocean or swimming with 100 people or 1000 people around them and getting the odd kick in the head. That’s part of the demands of the sport that you’ll get kicked or punched in the head, something like that, you’ll be scared, the goggles will come off. So part of that biopsychosocial perspective for me is to prepare athletes for those demands by setting up risk scenarios and normal training to help them cope with it.


Rob Pickels  58:58

Yeah, and I think that that’s a big takeaway from this is in the discussion with the athletes and listening to what their concerns are and listening to what their needs are, you can identify something very specific that you’re even able to manipulate in day to day workouts and be really creative with what that solution is. I know for me, I tend to work with mountain bikers. That’s my background and that’s my love. And if you take a lot of athletes, even mountain bikers, they do a lot of training for that sport, on the road or on the gravel bike, because it’s so much cleaner. It’s so much easier to go out and do a 20 minute interval when you’re on a perfectly pitched gravel road. But I love to make sure that athletes are in their race gear, on their race bike, on terrain that’s going to match what it’s going to be like on race day. Even though that workout might not be perfect, it can really help with the mass start, the getting your elbows out, all of those other things that become really important on race day.


Andy Kirkland  1:00:00

Definitely, and you’ve just triggered the thought on physiology paid for me as well. In that, it suggest that power numbers in our race environment might be a little bit higher than say a laboratory environment as a result of the social interaction with others. And we can take a great deal of meaning from that data in very specific race environments. So we’re adding the skills that are required to racing, as well as the physiological demands. So as a coach, I’m not too precious in saying that we need to do a very, very controlled and prescribed functional threshold power test if I know that they’ll be going up a 20 minute climb with the chain gang group on a Wednesday night. I don’t need to engineer a specific session for them if they’re with their group. I may say, “I want you to ride max up that climb for 20 minutes, and then not necessarily talk about the numbers to them, but use that number to alter FTP and training peaks.”


Trevor Connor  1:01:12

To that point, I’ve worked with athletes that put out okay numbers and training, but you put them in a race and they’re just in a whole other league from themselves in the numbers they can put out. But I’ve also worked with athletes who can put out really good numbers training, but you get them in a race and they actually can’t even touch their training numbers. And that’s where you really see some of the psychology with those athletes, what you’re seeing is, there’s a lack of confidence, there’s a lack of faith in themselves. And when they get into that race, that lack of belief tends to dictate what they think they can actually do in the races. And that becomes something that you need to address with the athlete.


Andy Kirkland  1:01:52

Absolutely, and I’ve actually joked about it on. If listeners are familiar with the wattage forum, for cycling, it’s how do we measure downhill performance. One athlete I worked with, she was able to comfortably ride 90 100 kilometers an hour, real round corners going downhill to gain an advantage on our competitors, despite having similar functional threshold powers to them. So it’s recognizing these things as well, things that are more difficult to measure. But the ability to ride down technical descent with confidence, may be worth more time than reducing your drag coefficient by .1 or something like that as well. It’s thinking about the bigger picture and what actually contributes to overall performance.


Rob Pickels  1:02:48

Yeah Trevor, for your athlete example, I do think that we all know people who train really well throughout the week, and then weekend comes and their performance just isn’t on the same level. And the physiologist would probably say, “Well, oh, they’re training too hard during the week and they’re tired during the race.” Maybe that’s one answer, but it would be really interesting to talk with that athlete and try to figure out what is going on. You know, I wonder if, for that individual say it’s a safety, you have like a mental safety sort of thing. When they’re training with their friends, they’re really able to push themselves, but they’re coming into race with this fear and this unknown group of people, you know? I wonder if if we apply this biopsychosocial model, having that individual workout during the week with people they’re not familiar with might do a better job of mimicking that stressful race environment. A halfway step to it, in thinking of it in that manner might help the athlete move through what’s ultimately their limitation, which isn’t a physiological limitation.


Trevor Connor  1:03:47

Right. Finally, let’s hear from Sonya Looney and how she helps athletes deal with these sorts of negative thoughts.


Sonya Looney  1:03:54

The first thing is to realize what you’re saying to yourself. Having an awareness around where your mind goes when things get hard can be really powerful because if you don’t even notice what your thoughts are, if they’re defeating you, or if they’re telling you that you can’t do something, then you don’t even know how to work with them. So having that awareness first, and then trying to gain insight from what it is that you’re saying to yourself, so that you can start working on how can I be more mentally resilient? How can I bounce back? How can I keep going even though things are hard right now?


Trevor Connor  1:04:22

And what about the social side? Are there ways of bringing a social aspect into training that you think would help training?


Sonya Looney  1:04:27

I don’t really know on this one. I think socially, surrounding yourself with people that have similar goals or even similar values to you can be really helpful. I know that whenever I got into cycling, no one in my family, nobody around me thought that it was a good idea to try to become a pro mountain biker. But it was because of the people that I surrounded myself with that allowed me to want to go after that thing. And I actually moved to Boulder because of that. I wanted to be around people who had similar types of goals, where that was acceptable.


Trevor Connor  1:04:57

Any other suggestions, thoughts, practical advice you would give to coaches on how to bring both the psychological and the social aspects into their coaching, if they’ve been a little too number focused?

Adventure and Fun in Training

Dr. Michael Crawley  1:05:11

The main thing would be just to kind of embrace this idea that their fun and creativity is like part of training, or part of keeping people interested in the sport. So I would emphasize the fact that a lot of the time in Ethiopia, people who are like actively trying to make their runs feel kind of adventurous, and that was, you know, part of that was about making them feel the way they described, it was like dangerous athletes. So they would do things like go and look for whether hyenas were in the forest on purpose. Or they would plan a hill rep session at like two in the morning so that they could know when they got to the start line, that they were the only people who had done that. And so, things like that, where you’re just doing things that are creative, a little bit unusual. You know, if you were wearing like a whoop strap, like the one I’ve got on, it would probably tell you that you’ve done something really stupid if you got up at two in the morning and went and ran up and down a hill, but for them, that is kind of like an important part of their preparation for a race to know that they’ve done something like that. So I guess it’s about just trying to think of sort of fun and creative things that you can build into people’s training. Especially when the majority of people are never going to perform at a really top level anyway, so they might as well be trying to enjoy it, especially if the best athletes in the world are making an effort to do that. So yeah, looking for fun and adventure and training, I guess would be the main thing.


Andy Kirkland  1:06:32

Yeah and for me, well, my day job is I work on a master’s program for On Performance Coaching. And I’m working with coaches across the spectrum of sport, from soccer through Formula One motor racing. And I’m speaking with coaches from different sports almost on a daily basis. And they bring with them different knowledge, different ways of talking about performance, different, technical, tactical, physical, psychological focuses and how they coach. And I think in endurance sport, it’s the same as any sports. There’s culture influences, how we coach, and this culture within our sports, really impacts in what we do. In endurance sport, we’re driven by the selling of fancy bikes, we’re driven by GPS. So Garmin wants to sell more product. So the dialogue around performance is often focused on selling product. A lot of that is BS. So it’s designed for us to buy stuff, rather than to find creative solutions to performance related problems. So my advice to coaches would be go out and get on the football field, watch football coaches, practice and watch hockey coaches, practice and go and watch downhill skiing. Do different things and see different sporting cultures and how they coach and how they measure performance. And solutions may emerge to integrate that biopsychosocial perspective because I think we’re particularly biophysically orientated in endurance sports and looking at the physiology stuff, and missing the psychosocial, the technical, the tactical. And by seeing what coaches in other sports do, that opens up a whole lot of possibilities.


Trevor Connor  1:08:32

Great answers. So we normally finish out the show by doing what we call our one minute take homes, which is your most salient point of the episode, but I think we just got I think we just got more take homes, so I’m not gonna jump there. So we’ll just have Rob,


Rob Pickels  1:08:46

I’ll keep this train running. For mine, it goes all the way back to how Andy began this episode of describing biopsychosocial. And that is the question of, “Well, isn’t this just holistic coaching?” And in some regard, I think that you can look at it that way. But I think that it’s really important that this has a name and that it’s given the attention. Intrinsically, if you sit down and talk with someone, a coach knows that they need to be considering all of these factors. But in the day-to-day, in the the hustle and bustle, I think that these factors oftentimes get pushed aside, and that people do focus on the physiology and they do miss a lot of what’s really important. And so I’m glad that we’re formalizing this conversation that we have people like Andy, people like Michael, who are doing research, who are observing this, who are writing books, to really make it important because it isn’t something that should just be pushed aside when it becomes inconvenient. We really ought to be thinking about this whenever we’re working with athletes moving forward.


Trevor Connor  1:09:53

So for mine, I’m going to quickly finish that story I was telling you about the coach that I worked with, which was was probably what everybody would expect is by May, I was completely burnt out. That doing the same five mile stretch, the doing everything for the numbers, just sucked all the joy out of the sport for me. And I was basically done and lost that season. And that’s a message that we have tried to convey. And it’s why I was so excited to talk with both of you because as Rob said, we’re really formalizing this. Which is, the numbers can be a very powerful tool, the science can be a very powerful tool, they can really give a coach a lot of information that helps them direct the athlete. But I think you cross a dangerous line when the numbers go from being a tool to being the goal. And everything is focused around getting numbers, particularly when it comes at the expense of the psychology of the athlete, and the social and enjoyment sides of the athlete. And I think you just always have to avoid going from that, let’s use numbers as a tool and then work with an athlete in that holistic sense, to now it’s all about trying to hit a particular number.


Rob Pickels  1:11:04

Yeah, definitely Trevor. It reminds me of the conversation we had during the potluck, right? Where I asked the question of, does my going out late at night in the summer and doing these night mountain bike rides that I really enjoy, but the next morning, my whoop score is absolutely terrible and the numbers say it’s not worth it. Is that worthwhile? And the conclusion that we came to during the potluck was yeah, the fun and the enjoyment side of that is really valuable.


Trevor Connor  1:11:28

My one only issue with that…mountain lions.


Rob Pickels  1:11:31

Mountain lions. Ride as fast as I do, Trevor, you don’t got to worry about mountain lions.


Trevor Connor  1:11:36

I hope so.


Rob Pickels  1:11:38

Hi listeners, we just launched our new podcast series, Fast Talk Femmes. Tune in to hear co-host Julie Young and Dede Barry, former pro cyclists and US national teammates, chat with a stellar lineup of experts to explore female physiology, nutrition, training through pregnancy, and more. Check it out at fasttalklabs.com.


Trevor Connor  1:12:01

Well, Andy, Michael, it was a real pleasure talking with you. As I said, I thoroughly enjoyed the papers from both of you. I think this is a really important and eye-opening aspect of coaching and training and so, it was a joy having you on the show.


Andy Kirkland  1:12:14

Thanks very much, gents.


Dr. Michael Crawley  1:12:16

Thanks very much.


Rob Pickels  1:12:18

That was another episode of Fast Talk. Subscribe to Fast Talk, we ever prefer to find your favorite podcast. Be sure to leave us a rating and a review. The thoughts and opinions expressed on Fast Talk are those of the individual. As always, we love your feedback. Join the conversation at forums.fasttalklabs.com to discuss each and every episode. Become a member of Fast Talk Laboratories at fasttalklabs.com/join to become part of our education and coaching community. For Andy Kirkland, Dr. Michael Crawley, Ryan Bolton, Grant Holicky, Neil Henderson, Joe Friel, Alan Couzens, Sonya Looney, and Trevor Connor. I’m Rob Pickels, thanks for listening!