Over the years I have found that most athletes and coaches tend to hold a short list of principles in very high regard, the things they think really matter. Unfortunately, these tenets commonly held in such esteem are not the most important in truly exploring one’s potential. They are not inherently detrimental things, let me be clear about that, but for each there is a conversely undervalued principle on which more focus would yield better returns. Think of these undervalued notions as the less sexy cousin of the typically overvalued. People seem less naturally drawn to them, but they make a better long-term dance partner. As a coach I am constantly working to shift athletes’ attention from these commonly overvalued ideas to their undervalued counterparts. Writing quality training is surprisingly easy but getting athletes to carry out that training correctly over time is a massive undertaking, it is in fact, coaching! This is, rightfully, the task that consumes most of my time and effort. The battle to shift attention from these commonly overvalued concepts to their usually undervalued counterparts is a big part of that endeavor.
Overvalued – Load of Work
Undervalued – Quality & Consistency of Work
Motivated athletes want to work hard, and they usually want to work a lot. This is certainly not terribly misplaced ambition. However, when this leads down the road of harder is always better and/or more is always better our athlete is headed for trouble. The first problem that usually arises when too much emphasis is placed on either volume or intensity is an erosion away at the quality of the work. Many will read that and think ‘wait I thought quality meant intensity.’ Not for me, I do not hold quality work and intense work as synonymous at all. The quality of our work is founded in a stress and recovery pattern that allows for maximal adaptation and sustained health. The recovery days are an equal part of quality training as the hard days. A more is better and/or harder is better approach will inevitably diminish this quality of training and detrimental effects will soon follow.
There are two ways this detriment will play out. The first is decreased adaptation. When we apply stress to an athlete, we then must allow for recovery from that stress if we expect the athlete’s body to adapt. It is this adaptation that leads to improvement. If the stress is too great or the recovery too little, we see less adaptation, which means diminishing improvement. The other thing that often happens is injury or illness, as the secondary reason recovery between stresses is so critical is so the body can repair itself before it takes on the next significant stress. When we fail to allow our bodies adequately repair, they break down. When this happens, the athlete must stop training or at best start training at lower loads and then we have delivered a major blow to the consistency of work. If an athlete can train in a solid stress and recovery pattern (quality) for extended periods of time (consistency), strong results will follow. These are the elements that should be held in the highest value, the quality of our work and the consistency of our work. Moreover, overvaluing the load of our work will put those elements in great peril.
Overvalued – Effort
Undervalued – Execution
This one is certainly a bit related to the previous, but I view this more on the micro scale than the macro. This overemphasis on working hard in general has had a great impact on how athletes approach individual tasks in training. There are a couple areas this is painfully (sometimes literally) obvious. The first is in drill instruction. My favorite day in the collegiate coaching year was always one of the first days of practice when I took the freshman through our drill routines. I would describe and demonstrate a drill then ask them to carry it out. Inevitably, what ensued seemed to be an all-out race. Limbs flailing, faces red, muscles straining….and I would be laughing as they looked back proud of how fast they just covered thirty meters of grass in an incredibly inefficient manner. Then I would simply say, ‘the last one to finish the drill is usually doing the best job.’ Mouths agape, they immediately started rethinking their college selection. Wait, ‘coach doesn’t want us to just do everything hard?’ NO! This coach wants you to do it correctly! And yes, I understand not every drill at its best quality equals slow land speed travel, this is a generalization, but I have found it a valuable one in instruction.
The second area you will see this play out is with any form of strength training, particularly in the weight room. Most athletes gravitate toward fast movements with too much resistance. Yes, there are movements we eventually want done quickly but ONLY after the correct mechanics of the movement have been ingrained. This is not universal, I will point out that the less strength training an athlete has done the easier I find it to teach them. At that point they usually have a healthy level of intimidation, and they have no bad habits ingrained, a perfect combination. However, if an athlete has spent time in the weight room it is usually a battle. This likely comes from high school or club strength and conditioning experiences where there are just too many kids in the room for quality instruction or learning. Regardless, the more you can get an athlete’s focus on correct execution over raw effort the better off they will be.
I understand that many reading this might not care much about strength or drill work so could be tempted to ignore this one. That would be a mistake. The biggest area this plays out is in racing. Everyone cares about competition! Every athlete learns a bad habit at some point in their running careers, and that is when they blur the lines between hard running and racing. I have written about this in other pieces, and want to avoid the proverbial rabbit hole here, but we have vastly overplayed going hard and toughness and pain in distance running races. Is it a challenging task? Yes, very. Does it require toughness? Certainly. Will it entail discomfort? Absolutely. However, these things should not be our focus. The emphasis should be on execution in racing. Executing a quality race involves a plan, presence, discipline, awareness, confidence, and fun. Yes, good racing once an athlete embraces execution over effort is enjoyable! How to help an athlete along that journey is certainly for a whole other piece though. The point I want to emphasize here is that if you want quality race performance, you want a greater emphasis on execution between the start line and finish line. And if you want that on race day, you better be valuing it in training. It is ludicrous to expect an athlete to have their focus on quality execution under all the pressures of competition day if they have not learned to have this focus in workouts, in drills, and in strength work. The foundation is built there, on the micro level daily.
Overvalued – Complexity
Undervalued – Variety
This section will suffice for my obligatory grumpy old man preaching for this piece. I say that because this one is a bit of a newer battle, due largely to the age of information we live in now. An age of information that of course has many benefits, but with which the sheer volume of what we can take in online does present challenge. Twenty years ago, if someone wanted to juggle kettlebells nobody really saw it outside of those in the weight room with them. Now that kettle bell juggler is all over Instagram in minutes. If kettle bell juggler happens to be a fast runner or a good basketball player or softball player, athletes (particularly young athletes) who aspire to be good at those things think ‘I should juggle kettle bells.’ There are significant reaches that take place with correlation here. The young athlete could juggle kettle bells, but do they need to? Does it make sense for where they are in their development? Does it add up in risk versus reward? Is it a valuable use of their limited time and energy? Probably not, but unfortunately those are not the questions that seem to get asked. People see someone good at what they want to be good at doing this thing, and then they want to do it.
I am using a bit of a silly example here, though there is plenty of kettlebell juggling out there if you want to take it in, but this happens with much more common training exercises and components. At one point in my collegiate coaching career, we made the decision as a staff to bring in some folks to do a bunch of heart rate testing on our athletes. This was all in the interest of trying to get our runners to consistently run easier on relaxed and recovery days. It was well intended but before we knew it, we were swimming in way more data than was useful and starting to change all kinds of things in our training approach. Problem was most those things did not need to change, we started messing with things just because we could and making our training a lot more complicated and quickly a lot less effective. Eventually we hit the pause button and evaluated what exact information we got from the testing that was useful. In the end we used the data to simply put limits on relaxed and recovery runs, while keeping the rest of our training plan intact. Strong and sustained performance soon followed.
Great training does not need to be overly complicated, and it rarely is. We are all drawn to the complex now though. We have so much more data available, and so much more sharing of information. It can be a ton to sort through and all of us fall into the trap from time to time of changing things just because we can, or because we saw someone else do this or that. With all the complexity we can bring to training now, we somehow overlook a much more basic but essential element and that is variety of work. While athletes do not need any certain level of complexity in their preparation, they do need variety. Overspecialization robs athletes of that variety and is particularly problematic in youth sport. At the higher levels of track & field and distance running this translates to too much event specificity. This of course relates back to one of my key principles: person – athlete – runner – then event focus. Variety of movements, variety of intensities, and variety of paces are all crucial. Excessive complexity usually ends up leading us down hyper focused narrow paths while simple variety of work ensures balanced, complete, and firmly founded preparation.
Overvalued – Toughness
Undervalued – Joy
Our overemphasis on toughness is part of our general inclination toward effort. While execution is an ideal substitute for effort, it is joy that will serve us better than toughness. Again, toughness is fine, and its important. However, by its very nature toughness suggests the task at hand must be something unpleasant. Are there elements of training and racing that can be unpleasant? As we established earlier, there certainly are. The question should not be though, whether unpleasant elements exist. Rather, the question should be whether those elements are the best things to keep focusing athletes upon? I firmly believe they are not, and hence keeping toughness a constant emphasis and value becomes problematic. If people really enjoy something, if they find true joy in it, they will be willing to take on incredibly difficult things for it. Isn’t that what we really care about? This is a vastly more sustainable and powerful form of motivation and resolve than a focus on toughness brings. This immediately shifts things to the positive. Being joyful about what we do creates a mindset where the need to be tough just becomes a necessary component, just part of what’s required, rather than a constant burden.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to work with a great middle-distance athlete named Sadi Henderson. Sadi had this tendency to clench her jaw and hence grit her teeth during those very trying seconds of an 800m race, from about 680m to the finish. She would be powering into the homestretch and her lips would start to creep away from each other, revealing teeth firmly pressed together. One of our focus keys was keeping a relaxed face and neck so you could watch Sadi catch this and relax her jaw, teeth again obscured from view. The process would repeat itself over and over, you would see teeth – no teeth – teeth – no teeth. From a distance it looked like Sadi was breaking into and out of a little smile over and over. Which while not really accurate would have been fitting as the joy Sadi brought to training and racing was, and still is, one of her greatest attributes. A favorite photo of mine is of Sadi crossing the finish line in a race where she won the conference championship and broke the conference meet record. The picture was snapped at the exact moment where her grimace smile transitioned to her true authentic smile. When I look at that picture, I see all the joy that had been fueling her through the trying moments just finally becoming visible on the outside. It was there all along, it was her base, and it was sustainable, positive, and remarkably powerful.
I want to reiterate: the load of our work matters, raw effort counts, there is a time and place for complexity in training, and toughness is necessary. My assertion is simply that these have become over-valued as the culture of sport has developed. Furthermore, there exists for each a replacement that will keep each coach and athlete pointed more consistently in the right direction. When you are getting too focused on workload, redirect that energy to consistency and quality of work. Remember that effort is not enough, quality execution must be cultivated. Delving into more complex work can pay dividends when warranted, but simply ensuring there is good variety to training is often more prudent. Athletes must be tough but focusing on joy will provide a much more significant and maintainable source of resolve. Avoid getting all googly eyed over the things we commonly place on pedestals in sport and look a little deeper at some of the less shiny things that truly fuel and sustain great athletic pursuits.