If I had a dollar for every athlete that came through my door wanting to get “better”, I’d be a very wealthy man!
If you think about it, it’s quite an abstract concept that may be rather hard to put into words. Yet every single athlete has had these thoughts:
The frustration of training harder and harder but not getting the results you want. The feeling in the back of your mind that you could do more. The desire to push just that little bit harder and get a little further, because even when you’re at your best, it’s never enough.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. On the contrary, for the most part, this non-stop, tenacious, perfectionist mindset that can handle constant repetition, critique, and the grind, is what creates winners and sportsmen at the top of their tier. Sometimes though, it can feel like you’ve hit a brick wall that no amount of banging your head against can break you through. What am I doing wrong? Why am I stalling? When will I get past this plateau?
In an industry where time is precious, where you only have so many events, matches, or races per season; and a limited number of competitive years in your lifetime — it’s understandable that being stuck in a rut for any length of time can feel like forever.
As a sports physiologist that used to work exclusively with professional athletes, Olympians, and their coaches, these questions have come to me time and again, with the expectation of real, applicable, results-based answers. They want to know, where do I go from here? How can I move forward? For goodness sakes Barry, fix me! Quite honestly, I wouldn’t expect less from a good sportsperson. You want to advance further. Overcome harder challenges. Bring home that coveted gold medal. This is after all, the whole goal of the game.
Part of getting there is to look at frustration as not a bad thing, but as a signal that something is stopping you from attaining your goals. When we hit that plateau, we typically do one of three things. We give up, keep doing what we’ve always done, or we change what we’re doing in order to get to our goal.
A serious athlete, whether recreational or elite will fall into one of the latter two categories. The first, is what I think of as working hard. Persistence against the odds. It’s applaudable and a great quality to have, but the second is what you really want to do — to work smart. So, if you’ve been training all year for your season and you’re looking forward to your next championship — be it at the regional, state, or national levels; from the treadmills of a virtual race, to the stadiums of the Tokyo Olympics — this is where I advise a little calm, to stand back for a minute and to go back to basics. There are two things here that you can focus on to improve your process immediately, and therefore your results:
Review and Planning.
Let’s start with the review. This basically means working back from where you are now. This means looking at both the successes you’ve had and the failures. Think about those times when you knew you did less than your best, or even when you felt like nothing could have gone better, but you’re still not getting as far as you’d like. The goal here is to identify the gaps and narrow them as much as possible for the next event on your list.
One thing that bears mentioning for every single one of you reading this, is to not skirt around the topic of failure. It can be uncomfortable to think about, but it’s an experience every elite athlete knows intimately, and really needs to be grabbed by the horns so you can make the most of it. That being said, let’s dive right into it. There are three key elements to making your review and planning work for you. These are structure, honesty, and detail. Let’s break these down below so you have a good understanding of what reviewing and planning successfully actually looks like.
Efficiency in Structure Organisation saves time and effort. Knowing exactly what needs to be done eliminates guesswork and hours barking up the wrong tree. This ties in with the concept of working hard versus working smart. You see, it doesn’t matter how much energy you put into your work if it’s aimless. Contain that energy so you can use it to target and complete each component that needs to be addressed. A useful structure answers all the questions you have. In the years of refining and enhancing the athletic performances of pro athletes and coaches at British Athletics, I’ve developed two very effective systems I’ve used with each one of them I call “Own the Start Line” and ADAPT. I’ll be discussing how they actually work in more detail below, so keep reading if you feel like you could benefit from applying tips and tricks the best athletes use to your own training program.
Honesty is the Best Policy This one is hard for a lot of people because it involves accepting the emotions that come with the truth which as we all know, can at times be painful. This is an explorative process of the review phase and consists of looking at your recent competitions or performances, then picking them apart. Here, you’d ask yourself what went well, what could have gone better, and what completely flopped. You’ll want to focus on the last two especially. Failure is very valuable in telling us what can be improved and how. Think of it as a post-mortem of sorts, as morbid as that sounds. We’re opening up and meticulously going through what’s done and gone, looking for problem areas, and with that information, we’ll know definitively what’s caused any setback, frustration, or motivation issues in the first place.
The Money is in the Details Now that you have a good idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are, it’s time to plan for your next event. Here, you’ll want to start with the end in mind. In other words, visualize your goal and then start detailing what it would take to get you there. In this planning phase, it’s always a good idea to have someone that can act as your guide or sounding board. When we’re in the thick of things ourselves, it can be quite difficult to have a clear, objective, and unbiased view of what’s going on around us.
With “Own the Start Line”, I sit down with my athletes and coaches face-to-face and use a series of questions and prompts designed to stir emotion and ideas. Once we get those emotional and creative juices flowing, this is where most of the honesty will surface. Now, I’ll get a really good idea of what I’m actually working with.
Let’s use an example so you can better understand how to apply this process. With a runner who hasn’t been at their best, we might explore why they’ve been unable to place in their last few races. What’s happened since the last “good” race? Is there anything in their personal life they’d like to share? Has there been a change in habits recently? Perhaps for an elite runner on a winning streak, the goal might change, but the process remains the same.
After a good session of this, I’d work with them to get them to imagine, visualize, and feel in their body what their personal start line might feel like. To continue with the example of our elite runner, I would ask them what the start line at the Tokyo Olympics might look and feel like. Do they feel confident? Are they nervous? What’s going through their heads at that moment when their fingers touch the track?
Once they’re in that mental state where they’re “in the moment”, I then get them to work back from there with the question: What does this mean for your preparation?
Now, this varies for the individual. For some athletes, it could be that they’d need to be a specific body weight by race day, or that they’ll need to have done a particular amount of mileage or training sessions. For yet others, their needs could center around being mentally and emotionally prepared, and so on.
When this information is fully collected, collated, and analysed, it’s time to use it to create a plan for their year that they can now just follow-through to proven, visible, better results.
This is where ADAPT comes in. ADAPT is a further process that follows on from the conversation we’ve just had around Owning the Start Line. ADAPT stands for:
Ambition Determinants Assess Process Team
For the elite runner in our example, Ambition is exactly that — what they want to achieve. This could be anything from winning a medal in Tokyo, breaking the world record, or perhaps if they’re an endurance runner, running a marathon in under the 4-hour mark.
Their Determinants are the things that determine what it will take for them to get to their Ambition. Remember we’re still talking about details, so their explanation will need to be fully described. This is how much detail we’re talking about — if our runner wants to win a gold medal in the men’s 5000 meter race, they’ll have to be able to run it under 13 minutes and finish that last kilometer in under 2 minutes and 24 seconds, or cover the final lap in under 53 seconds.
To Assess where they are currently in their training and performance, both the elite and recreational athlete will spend some time reflecting introspectively on where they are right now. For a high performance athlete, they might have access to a lab in order to have performance tests conducted, but fundamentally, Assessing is about being realistic about what you can do, so you know where you can reasonably go with it.
Once you have your ambition in place, know what you need to reach that goal, and you have a solid assessment of where you are; you can now Process through what is likely to have the biggest impact on your performance, and consequently, what order you should do things in. At this stage, I might recommend using the 80/20 rule. What I mean by this is if you’ve figured out that your confidence needs the most work, the process to follow should be about building up your confidence mindset on the competition ground first and foremost.
Last but not least, the Team in ADAPT is in the name — the people who are on your team rooting for you. Whether it is your coach, spouse or partner, running mate, parents, therapist, or close friend, both recreational and elite sportspeople will have people who support them and are accountable for some part of their training, mindset, and helping them power through tough times, that they can lean on.
With all these components identified, labeled, and activated, you can now write out your training plan, whether it focuses on overall fitness, mental and emotional conditioning, or holistic training.
I hope you’ve found this structure helpful in removing any uncertainty surrounding the frustrations of sluggish improvement, and for motivating yourself to keep going in your chosen sport and path, as well as working out your plan for success in this regard. These are all things that you can do on your own. Although it can feel overwhelming at first, it’s well worth the time to invest in reviewing and planning. I believe Benjamin Franklin said it best when he declared that, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Finally, if it all gets too much, think about getting in touch with a professional that can help you work through any roadblocks so you can be the best athlete you can be.