As the season draws to an end, it’s now time to begin to reflect on the season that just passed. In sport, every race only has one person who emerges victorious (in each category), which means there is a greater chance your athlete is not a winner. How can you help them rise above the emotional response of winning or losing and see a path to success?
We have two favorite expressions: “If you aren’t winning, you are learning” and “F.A.I.L. = First Attempt In Learning.”
The message in both quotes is clear—you always learn something. In having this adaptive growth mindset, athletes can turn almost every session into a learning opportunity. When it’s time to look at a whole season, you have the learning points from every session to help your athletes improve.
Nevertheless, as coaches we only really get paid to see results, and the outcome of the season usually defines or undermines the coaching input. But as all coaches will tell you, the process and progress made throughout the season is a much better future performance indicator than any single race result or outcome can be.
In other words, it’s less about what your athlete achieved, and more about how they did it (the process).
At the end of the season there will always be winners and losers, but it’s important that, no matter you athlete’s result, they become a learner.
So the season didn’t go as planned. Now what?
If things didn’t go as planned, sorry to hear it. Don’t let your athlete fall into a hole of self-pity—now is the time to do something about it! Can you understand why things didn’t work out? An excellent model to really understand why things didn’t work out is the “fishbone” model.
This model is useful because it helps you (repeatedly) ask why, forcing you to be honest with your answers. This constant asking of “so what?” will lead you to the root cause of that section, and importantly, a course of action to take forward.
For example: Improve running > Improve running technique > Do more proprioception work > Do regular core/proprioception work every morning for 15 minutes before all training sessions.
If you are in a position where your athlete didn’t win, then this is fantastic as you have a measurable difference between what they did and what the “winner” did. For example, if their goal was to make the top 10 and they missed that by 15 minutes (for a five-hour race) then how do help them get five percent faster? You have a yardstick.
When working with athletes, it’s important to remember that they often look externally before they look internally for any problems. For example, they might opt to buy a new bike or get a new coach before identifying the big, low-hanging fruit (which is usually cheaper too!). Try to help them focus internally and have an open mind to everything—it may provide a better route to success than just buying their improvements, and sometimes they may find it was the wrong purchase in the first place.
Don’t get short-sighted by these glitzy solutions. What are the boring things your athletes can do to improve? A lot of failures are a result of inconsistent training, so how can you help them improve their consistency? Why were they inconsistent (see the fishbone diagram above!)?
Asking yourself and your athlete “what went well?” and “what could you improve?” are great starting points to identify weaker areas. Better yet, apply those questions across different areas: swimming, cycling, running, nutrition, their weekly schedule, strength and conditioning, day-to-day nutrition, race planning, etc. Suddenly your athlete might have a long list of ways to improve and find that five percent!
What if your athlete had a really successful season?
Clearly, when things have been going well it’s tempting to rest on your laurels and not change much. However, unless you understand how your athlete won, you won’t be able to repeat it. In many instances, this is the hardest and most important reflection to make, and perhaps your celebrations have meant you missed the important learning point.
Things might have worked by chance, or maybe your athlete just got lucky. What you need to do is work out how to get lucky every time so that it becomes a routine. Unless you understand why your athlete’s training plan worked, how their training blocks fitted together, how their nutrition plan was executed, how their race calendar worked, how their taper fitted together, how their travel arrangements impacted their race, and of course, how effective their race tactics were, you cannot guarantee success.
When you understand all of these moving parts, all the principles behind your athlete’s success, then you can repeat them. If you’ve had a successful season, you want to back it up—after all, they say the hardest championship to win is the second one.
After all, if those behind your athletes are looking at how to catch them, you want to keep moving their goal posts!