The definition of success varies from athlete to athlete: winning an age group, conquering PR, or just feeling stronger on a daily basis. We as coaches strive to help athletes seek out their rendition of success, and even push beyond. A bad race can leave an athlete feeling gutted and make training efforts feel futile. It’s extremely challenging for both the athlete and the coach not to wonder, “What went wrong?” Here are six ways to set your athlete back on track.
1. Set up real expectations before the race.
Before race day, guide your athlete to make realistic and flexible goals. Encourage them to focus on data-backed goals that are validated by their current fitness level and training efforts. Although training is not an all-time predictor of racing, data-backed goals give athletes a benchmark of how they can expect to perform. There are many prediction charts across a variety of sport types that can be used to formulate these goals. Instead of giving your athlete an exact finish time, give them a range of what they are most likely able to achieve. By providing a range, you are affirming that a specific PR isn’t always in contention.
2. Remind them of their progress.
Fitness should fluctuate throughout the season. For example, your athlete might need more time to “dust off the cobwebs” early in their season, rather than hammering out a PR at the outset. Alternatively, you may have an athlete who starts to burn out when they are only mid-way through their season. The point is, it’s natural for fitness to ebb and flow, so you should remind your athlete of their progress once you sense their motivation fading. PR’s and PB’s will come with time, but their fitness journey should be the main focus.
3. Some things are out of their control.
Every race your athlete participates in will be unique. Weather changes, terrain variation, race-day dynamics etc. all will affect their experience. Sometimes athletes can get caught up in blaming one specific factor or variable for a disappointing performance. If this escalates, you may have an instance in which that one factor transforms into a mental roadblock, leading the athlete to dread upcoming races of a similar nature. The best you can do as a coach is to explain that there is no such thing as a perfect race. Try dissecting their dreaded roadblock, and create a plan to help them conquer it head-on.
4. Success doesn’t come without failure.
Related to factors “beyond our control,” if races don’t impose real struggle or failure, your athlete will never grow. Even if their most recent race wasn’t their best, ask them what they learned. What do they need to improve upon? Come to the table prepared with solutions or learnings for each element through which your athlete struggled. Remember that success doesn’t come without a healthy dose of failure.
5. Focus on mental toughness and promote its growth.
Whatever happens, good or bad, allow your athlete to ruminate and reflect briefly, but focus on moving forward. Chat about the mental factors that influenced the race outcome. Are they feeling stressed about work? Are they feeling emotionally supported? Are they achieving proper balance at home? Your athlete’s mental state is extremely important for tapping into ‘next level’ of performance. While this kind of self-assessment may be hard for many athletes, a sports psychologist can provide you and your athlete clarity. Use this to spring-board into the next race, so your athlete avoids feeling mentally stuck in a previous disappointment.
6. Ask your athlete questions.
This one is HUGE. I have an athlete questionnaire that I give out after every race. It asks about their performance, individual splits, leg times and more. It truly gets to the heart of their performance by asking about specifics. It’s a great tool to help the athlete reflect on how they’re feeling immediately after—documenting details or sensations that they may forget a few days later. It also provides closure and is a great starting point for subsequent planning.
The bottom line is to help your athletes recognize failure is obligatory to achieve success. Failing can give us the necessary mental tools to take training to the next level. Remind them that if endurance sport was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.