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Keeping Triathletes Motivated without Start Lines in Sight

BY Dr. Jeff Sankoff

The inability to safely race is hard on us all, especially those who are swim-bike-run obsessed. Keep your athletes focused with these six tips.

In 2020, it is likely that you have at least a handful of athletes seriously struggling with motivation. Given the abundance of pandemic-inflicted economic hardships, social restraints and stressors related to health and well-being, this isn’t hard to empathize with. But, as a coach, it is still up to you to find a way to help your athlete rekindle their determination and stay the course in the hope that when racing returns, they will be positioned to succeed.

Here are a few suggestions to help your athletes rediscover and keep their mojo.

1. Acknowledge their frustrations, grief and loss.

There is no question that in this difficult year, we have all lost something and for every athlete, the magnitude of that loss will be different. Give your athletes the space and the freedom to vent to you, their sympathetic listener. It’s essential that you work with them to inform yourself of their personal challenges before you start to formulate a plan for recommitting to endurance training.

2. Choose small, easily attainable goals.

Engage your athletes in self-improvement that leverages their innate competitiveness. It could be as simple as challenging them to improve their best mile time or as involved as improving their FTP by X%. Whatever it is, make it measurable and set a date by which it should be attained. Leaving things too open is a recipe for failure. Most athletes are very motivated by goals set in time, such as a race date—use that to your advantage!

3. Set goals in areas that the athlete may not usually focus on.

When racing is sidelined, as it was last year, it gives coaches an excellent opportunity to help their triathletes round-out their skillsets and improve their overall abilities. A great example of this, for the pandemic year is improving strength for athletes who have access to a home gym set up. Another good example is working on transitions. It is very easy for a triathlete to set up a transition area around their home and use this time to really refine their ability to trim their change-over times. This guarantees that when they return to racing if they have maintained the same fitness, they still will be faster overall.

4. Be relentless in identifying and strengthening an athlete’s weaknesses.

It is really easy for triathletes to default to the things they are strongest at when they’re not racing. If a triathlete is a strong cyclist, in most cases they will work hard at the activity they excel at (biking) while not feeling particularly motivated to push at the sessions that they may feel are less important in the absence of racing (eg; running). As a coach, it’s essential to make sure they do not fall into this trap. Challenge the athlete to take this time to actually focus on their weakness(es) and build their schedule around that.

5. Make use of virtual or at-home, simulated events.

While virtual races are not for everyone and are admittedly a pale substitute for real racing, for many athletes they can be exactly what the doctor ordered when motivation is simply too difficult to come by in other means. 

Set up an event for your athlete and build a training schedule around it including an appropriate taper. For example, at-home duathlons can easily substitute for in-person events that would normally have a swim. Strive to make the event as realistic as possible. Review the course with the athlete in advance. Discuss nutrition strategy as you would for any regular event. Let the athlete know that you are taking it as seriously as you would any other event since it will provide a solid indicator of how well their training has gone so far. If time allows, you could even ask the athlete to do the same event twice with adequate time in between to allow for quality training. This will give them obvious evidence of their at-home training progress. 

6. Reward successes.

Everyone loves to be acknowledged for their accomplishments—regardless of COVID-altered circumstances. Even though athletes are deprived of finish line medals and podium awards, does not mean that your recognition of their hard work is unnecessary. There are several websites where you can customize small trophies, medals or other kinds of mementos for your athletes to recognize their efforts during a difficult period. Consider this kind of reward an investment in them as well as of your business because these kinds of gestures will be remembered for years to come.

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About Dr. Jeff Sankoff

Jeff Sankoff is an Emergency Physician, long time triathlete and USAT/IRONMAN University Certified coach. He has completed 6 IRONMAN races (including Kona) and more than fifty races at the 70.3 distance including 5 World Championships. He produces the TriDoc Podcast that can be found on most popular podcast platforms and iWork’s with LifeSport Coaching. You can learn more about him at his website: TriDoc Coaching.