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Tuesday, 10 May 2011 00:00

Be the best that your numbers can be!

People search for a coach for a number of reasons. Many want accountability, others want to work with an expert, and others may simply want support and a sharing of the experience. Over the 5 years or so of my own coaching career, I have noticed the types of clientele that I attract; and observed that the reasons people come to me shift in line with subtle changes in MY coaching philosophy. As I was riding with my athlete Juliette the other weekend, she commented upon this - the human touch (encouraging the athlete towards self focus) plus the scientific approach (hence the slight adaptation of the PBscience tagline for this post!)

When I started coaching, my approach was very much of the academic (I was still in the main a University researcher) combined with my athletic career (I was still competing at the National level in time trialling). Therefore, I was very much orientated around numbers: from the scientific paradigm "applying x, results in y". My experience as an athlete in my final racing season (2007 in to 2008) lead to a broader (and deeper) understanding of what limits athletic performance.

In that final season, I realised how much more I furthered my performance by 'letting go'. I had always been a perfectionist, hard on myself, in true belief that doing everything to 100% was the most likely way to get what I wanted. As an athlete, this meant doing every training session 'perfectly', to the letter. In my final year of racing, I lived my athletic life a little more 'on feel'. I would often start but not finish the prescribed training; I was listening more to my body, appreciating the difference between viewing training as the be all and end all of athletic preparation vs using it to simply nudge my comfort zone little by little. I was understanding the importance of recovery. In fact in that final year, my training volume dropped from what had been upto 20h weeks on average to more like a maximum of 10. I was also getting my best results: doing less, getting more.

The upshot of all of this? Through my personal experience, my coaching philosophy has shifted. Seeing how well being more gentle with myself worked (believe me, this doesn't mean I didn't train hard, my sessions were brutal at times - but 'train hard' was accompanied by a 'recover hard' mentality) influenced how I interact with my athletes: I consider the whole picture. It's no good prescribing 20h weeks when an athlete is going through a house move. That is an extreme example! But, my coaching is about subtly tweaking things when I perceive the 'total stress' in an athlete's life is out of kilter.

My coaching method allows me to work in partnership with my athletes. By questioning "what is important now" we can assess what the most important step we can take THAT moment without being a slave to the periodisation or training plan that we created at the beginning of the year or training cycle. It is often liberating for an athlete to hear "that's ok, if work is demanding right now and you can only give me 6 hours this week, let's switch the type of training to some high intensity".

A healthy and happy athlete is bound to perform better than a sick, tired athlete...even if the latter has been the one sticking religiously to the plan! No prizes for heroics ;-)

Underlying this approach is the whole method of treating ourselves and our training as a mini-experiment, an experiment with an "n = 1"! I like to convert an athlete's performance goals (outcome driven)  in to the numbers they will need to achieve that (orientating more towards process driven). We look at how we might then achieve that 20W leap in fitness; it allows a little more objectivity with the goal, and takes away the personal attachment. Working in this way helps the athlete to disassociate the results being obtained with ratings of self worth, and that includes training targets as well as race performances.

Beating PBs and beating others is shaky ground upon which to rate how well YOU are doing; better to get intrigued with "I wonder how fit I can become?". It becomes like a game, as I said an experiment...and that makes it more fun, liberating. Less pressure, and motivation stays high. After all, for the majority of people this is their hobby - why make it another stress on top of an already stressful life? Sport can be an escape from reality, an often forgotten aspect when we hit adulthood.

So, in summary, the combination of my academic training, my experience of being an athlete myself and how a different perspective on goals in life has given me a very person centred yet scientific angle. Undoubtedly, I notice people gravitate towards me for this combination - and this means the more my athletes represent a group more focused on personal excellence than the pursuit of unobtainable perfection. As a result, the enjoyment of my 1 to 1 work deepens. In fact, I notice how much more I am driven by helping the person underlying the athlete, rather than just being a sport scientist enhancing performance. Maybe a different approach to that at the very highest echelons of sport. I often wonder at what human cost high level performance comes at?wouter

As I write this, there is a very definite example of one cost - I am watching the procession of the Giro d'Italia on stage 3, as they remember Wouter Weylandt who died yesterday as the peloton descended a climb. I watched the stage yesterday afternoon and to watch those event unfold was tragic reminder of how fragile human life is. It puts things in to perspective - make the most of the very short life we have.

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