How to Properly Debrief After a Race

How to Properly Debrief After a Race

If we debrief after a race or competition correctly, we know exactly what to work on in training to facilitate future performance.

We’ve all seen the movies and heard the stories—a team or athlete falters, only to “rise from the ashes” following a rousing talk with their coach or manager. What we’re talking about here is a post-competition debrief. What separates the good from the bad, is there a one-size-fits-all solution, and how should athletes respond? 

First, we need to keep in mind that how an athlete interprets an outcome (win/loss) influences how they approach their next event or performance. If we do this right, we know exactly what to work on in training to facilitate future performance. If we do this wrong, we can cause issues with motivation, commitment, self-confidence, etc.

When we look at performance objectively, there are four basic situations that can occur: win and perform well, win and perform poorly, lose but perform well, and lose and perform poorly. Each situation requires a different reaction as a coach.

We’ll pause here to introduce a theoretical framework known as Weiner’s Attribution Theory [1]. This theory aims to interpret the cause of behavior, or why people do what they do. To explain this, we can think of three things:

  1. Locus of control: who controls your destiny, is it internal (you) or external (someone/something else)?
  2. Stability: is it a stable factor or an unstable factor?
  3. Controllability: is it down to ability, luck, difficulty, or effort?

You can see the model in the image below.

post-competition debrief

We’ll now aim to explain this framework within the context of each of the four situations mentioned above.

Win and Perform Well

Here we want to attribute success to your athlete’s ability—an internal and stable factor. We are in control of our destiny, we deserve this outcome, and it is down to our ability in the performance.

This should derive satisfaction from winning, and therefore have a positive effect on future performance. However, it’s key not to rest on your laurels here—this will work for the immediate aftermath, but it’s important to identify certain elements that you can improve on. This can be discussed during the next training session. We can always improve!

Win and Perform Poorly

You may want to attribute success to a weaker field here. This would be in line with an external and unstable factor, so while we may have won, what happens if we perform like that against a different opposition?

In this situation, questioning is a great asset to have in your toolbox. Questions like ‘why were we complacent?’ and ‘what could we have done better?’ should come to mind. At the end of this we need to remember we have won so reward the team for effort and commitment in training, and set goals to work on the identified reasons for poor performance in the future.

Lose and Perform Well

Here we could attribute our loss to superior opposition and a need to improve ourselves. Here the loss is external and stable, so while we lost, if we perform like that against another opposition we may win. The aspect of the good performance is internal and unstable–we’re in control and we can change it. It would be beneficial to really focus on the aspects of the performance that went well, like tactics, pacing, etc.

One caveat with this is that we can’t attribute the loss to external factors every time. There is a need for objectivity here–use it sparingly.

Lose and Perform Poorly

We’ll attribute this to an inferior effort on our part–an unstable and internal factor. Like the aspect of good performance above, here we can change our effort. We’re not aiming to be dissatisfied with the loss, but rather we are not happy with the effort. Recap what went well, and discuss what we can do better and how we are going to do it.

Good coaching means reading the attitudes of your athletes, and attribution theory ties in with this. For an athlete coaching themselves, this is a great exercise in self-reflection after a competition. It can be used to form the foundation of the next training block. How we explain the differing situations is fundamental to performance in the long-term, and knowledge surrounding attribution theory can really help in this debriefing process.

1.Weiner, B. (1972). Attribution theory, achievement motivation, and the educational process. Review of educational research, 42(2), 203-215.

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