Continuous Improvement in the Training of the Athlete

The task for the athlete and the coach is to work together to continually improve the training process of the athlete over many years. It is highly probable that when this continuous improvement process comes to a halt, the athlete will no longer improve.

From day 1 in the training process, the athlete learns how to train to develop good technique and athletic ability so as to improve results. Initially the learning is fast but as the months and years go by, the rate of learning slows as a result of fewer opportunities to learn something new, or perhaps incorrect assumptions that all the knowledge needed has been learned. To make further improvement then, the athlete and coach must work harder to find solutions to the perfection of the training problem.

Essential in any quest to improve is the asking of questions on a regularly basis. The athlete should ask questions such as “how can I improve my technique further?”, “what more can I put into my training?” and “is my training as effective as it can be?”. The coach should ask questions such as “how can I facilitate the athlete’s learning better?”, “what can I do to monitor the athlete’s training input?” and “is my coaching as effective as it can be?”. The athlete and the coach must address these questions together and seek to avoid the assumption that everything is as good as it can be. If the coach is no longer in a quest to improve their own performance then how can they expect their athlete to do so?

It is common for athletes in Weightlifting to think that the limit of their lifting ability is governed by genetic inheritance. This is an example of what psychologists call a ‘Fixed Mindset”, a belief that one’s potential is pre-determined by circumstances beyond the athlete’s control. In reality, a far more important factor than genetics is whether the athlete can develop a better training process. Ultimately, sport at the highest level is so competitive that only those that strive to continually improve their training process will emerge as winners. This willingness to see one’s performance potential as bound to consistent hard work, learning and ingenuity is referred to as a “Growth Mindset”.

The following are among the many possible ways that the training process of the athlete can be improved:

  1. The athlete can develop an understanding that the form of the Weightlifter rises and falls as a consequence of the training process i.e. stress – recovery – adaptation. Building in significant intensity fluctuation into the training program is extremely important i.e. the athlete must have really heavy days, really light days, and days in between.
  2. The athlete should develop an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, and learn the value of working conscientiously, creatively and consistently on improving their weaknesses. The athlete is only as good as their weaknesses will permit.
  3. The athlete should closely observe the effort of other athletes in the training environment and begin to discern the factors that lead to more successful training outcomes. In reality, the training habits that lead to success are obvious if one looks.
  4. The athlete must appreciate that the purpose of training is to improve their result in the competition arena. This requires that the athlete focuses on perfecting their technical execution in training so that in the toughest pressure of competition the athlete has full confidence in their own ability and is more likely to succeed than to fail.
  5. The athlete must learn to maximise the value of their training time. Ultimately, poor usage of time in training, hands the advantage to the athlete’s competitors.
  6. The athlete must learn to self-monitor and self-regulate their own training performance, and strive to understand the positive and negative effects of the training that they undertake. By engaging in such self-monitoring, the athlete will be better able to understand how training can be improved to achieve optimal effect. The keeping of a training diary is helpful in this regard.
  7. The athlete must organise their daily regimen so as to provide the greatest advantage to their training effort. Included in this daily regimen is nutrition, sleep, work, study, recreational activities, shopping, household chores, and family responsibilities. In addition, work on flexibility, planning of training, mental rehearsal, and reflection on training performance are important constituents in the daily regimen. Furthermore, the athlete will also need to find time for activities associated with maximising wellness such as trips to physiotherapy.
  8. For continuous improvement to occur, the athlete must love the process of learning and discovery of new knowledge. Optimal learning occurs when the athlete is fully engaged in the learning process. The mere completion of prescribed training is not sufficient to create full engagement in this learning process. The athlete must frequently reflect on their own training and ask the question ‘how can I improve my training process?’ Reflection (on one’s own experience) is believed to be majorly important in the learning process, however living in the 21st century provides constant distraction so that the time available for such reflection is greatly diminished.

The role of the coach in assisting the athlete to develop a process of continuous improvement is critical and largely this is the purpose of this article. The coach and athlete must avoid the idea that it is the written training program itself, the schedule of exercises, reps, sets and intensity that causes success. Instead the coach must facilitate the athlete’s learning of the process of training, and more especially how to continually improve their own process. Sometimes the athlete is want to experiment with their own ideas and this is not always a bad thing. The coach can assist the athlete to learn as much from their failures, as from their successes. However the coach does play a supremely important role in shaping the athlete’s continual improvement process by providing a caring and supportive environment, helping athletes to reflect on their own experiences, and fostering a belief that further improvement is possible if more learning can be achieved.

The causes of burnout in athletes

I have formed a view, as a result of a lengthy career in Olympic Weightlifting, that the most difficult tasks of the coach are neither the instruction of Weightlifting technique,  nor the teaching of athletes how to train effectively. Though these activities are time consuming and require considerable learning to perform, there is yet another level of coaching that far exceeds in complexity. The hardest task is keeping athletes highly motivated over many years despite all that life throws at them. This article will examine the causes of burnout in athletes and what the coach and supporters of the athlete can reasonably do to mitigate the risks. Read More

A coach’s plea

To my athletes, I would like to take a moment of your time to explain how I might see things differently about training, your training.

Last night was a designated 'heavy' session. I know that you very much look forward to such sessions in the hope that you can push beyond your present personal bests. Last night, many of you were rewarded for your efforts. Well done!

But as we head towards the next competition, there are some things I want you to keep uppermost in your mind. Read More

The hardest step

The journey of the athlete in Weightlifting from beginner to the qualifying standard for the national senior championship takes perhaps 3 years of goal driven, well organised, and consistent training. For the athlete, the first 3 years are full of wonder as there is so much to learn. The motivation to train is aided by a series of intriguing discoveries about the nature of Weightlifting skill, the complexity of the training process and the remarkable mental skills required to perform in the competition environment.

In the right training conditions, and depending to some extent on age, progress in the first 3 years is usually rapid. The male athlete might achieve a 200 Sinclair score in their first year, 270 in their second and 310 by the end of their 3rd year. For the female athlete the Sinclair scores might be 150, 200 and 230 for years 1, 2 an 3 respectively. Progress of this nature will create an expectancy of significant further improvement in years 4 and 5, and likely the athlete who has come this far will have aspirations to compete at the highest levels: World Senior Championships, Olympic Games, and Commonwealth Games.

Progress in Sinclair total in years 1- 5 for highly committed athletes

But in reality, for aspiring athletes, years 4 and 5 are not like the first 3 years, Much of the motivating discovery is behind the athlete and the journey becomes more like a race. It is now a question of whether the athlete has the capacity and motivation to leave no (ethical) stone unturned in their quest for improvement. The athlete must be prepared to invest very considerable effort to correct as best they can all weaknesses and idiosyncrasies that affect their training and competition performance. Every factor must be examined for possible improvement including the time commitment, content and quality of training, the athlete’s physical functioning and well-being, and the daily routine of the individual outside the gym to ensure that the athlete’s life energy is focused on training. This is what it takes to succeed.

But it’s not all about the athlete. Coaches must also demonstrate their dedication to help athletes successfully take the next step and to move into contention for national team selection. Coaches must assume that they are leaders and role models to their athletes. The values they portray, their behaviour in the gym, the example they set, all matter a great deal. Coaches must be prepared to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, invest time in their own self-improvement and keep an open mind and never stop learning. They must expend great effort to plan, organise and monitor training, provide feedback, and generally go the extra mile to assist the athlete in a myriad of ways.

The next step is the hardest step. To reach the highest echelon, it is no longer acceptable for athletes to pay insufficient attention to warming up in training, flexibility, physical fitness, nutrition, sleep, recovery and injury prevention. It is not longer acceptable to train without discipline, to train without paying great attention to one’s weaknesses, to train with less than 100% conviction or to engage in other sporting activities that risk injury. For the athlete and the coach, there must be total dedication. To miss training would be like running a 1500m race and diverting on lap 3 to say Hi to a friend in the spectator stand. If you miss training, you cannot pretend to be running the race.

Why is it a race? It is well for the athlete to be mindful that the prize they seek, that is national team selection, is also coveted by many other individuals. To win this prize, athletes must not only reach qualifying performances but also be the very best in their category that the nation can produce. Every athlete who seeks national team selection must envisage that across the nation that there will be others training with great determination to beat you. To succeed in this task, therefore, you must prove that your attitude, your commitment, your meticulousness, your effort and your courage is second to none.

Do not commit the cardinal sin of thinking that time is on your side, because it isn’t. The clock is ticking.

The Inner Journey

These days Weightlifting is fortunate to be well promoted via the Internet. There is an endless stream of videos and photos of people, of all levels, enjoying a moment of achievement and preserving the memory digitally. Coaches post videos on social media to display the prowess of their athletes, business owners post to encourage potential new members and athletes create reciprocal posts to encourage and support each other. There is also a constant supply of articles to read which attempt to explain the ins and outs of technique, uncover the hidden secrets of strength development and provide opinion about the daily organisation of training. Occasionally, authors of articles comment on other aspects of the sport such as the recruitment of participants, the structure of competitions and the standards of performance at national and international level. All of this digital material  is helpful in conveying the complexities of the sport, increasing understanding within the community and providing impetus for further growth of the sport worldwide. Read More

A comparison of different training scenarios on rate of improvement

The purpose of this article is to illustrate how differences in the athlete’s commitment to training will effect their ultimate performance capability in the years ahead. In this illustration, let’s assume that a physically talented individual walked into your gym one year ago and began training in Olympic Weightlifting. Let’s also assume that this individual has enjoyed participating in some competitions during their first year, weighs around 70Kg and has achieved a creditable 180Kg Total. What is the future in store for this athlete?

There are of course many factors that will effect the rate of progress of an athlete, some of which the coach can influence, and some not. One critical factor is the athlete’s commitment to training, and this in turn will be dependent on their self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. This is a factor that the coach can influence through the quality of the athlete-coach relationship, by their efforts to educate the athlete in training methodology and by enabling the athlete to consider higher levels of training.

To this end, three different scenarios are presented for our talented 70Kg individual who has one year of training experience. Chart 1 below provides an indication of the rate of improvement and ultimate performance potential of the athlete, dependent on which level of commitment scenario they pursue. The characteristics of the three scenarios are described in Table 1 below.

improvement_scenarios

Chart 1: Rate of improvement dependency on training commitment

The difference between scenarios 1 and 3 is perhaps the difference between achieving national team status or remaining as an averagely good athlete by virtue of their natural talent. It is very conceivable that our 70Kg athlete, under the right conditions (scenario 3), could progress into the 85Kg category and achieve a 320 total in their 5th year. At this level, they would be a strong prospect, in many nations, to participate in World Championships and be a possible contender for Olympic Games selection. Furthermore, as Chart 1 indicates, the athlete’s improvement has not reached a plateau and further increases in performance are probably likely in years 6-10 of their career.

Table 1: Commitment to Training Scenarios
Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Scenario 3
Commencing at 2 sessions per week rising to 3 sessions per week after 1 year, maintaining this level of commitment for next 3 years. Commencing at 2 sessions per week, rising to 3 sessions per week after 1 year and 4 sessions per week after 2 years Commencing at 3 sessions per week, rising to 4 sessions per week after 1 year, 5 sessions per week after 2 years, reaching 8 sessions per week (“double day” training) in their 5th year
Some attention to improvement of technique, relatively little effort to learn about training methodology. Significant attention to technique, developing good training habits, learning principles of training methodology Maximum attention to technical development, achieving a high level of organisation and discipline in training, immersion in the principles of high performance training methodology. To all intents and purposes, a “professional” approach to sport participation.
No particular goals for Weightlifting, enjoying the sport for fitness Setting goals to compete at National Championships. Setting goals for National Team selection to compete in World Championships, and Commonwealth and Olympic Games
No particular effort on increasing bodyweight, not employing specific measures for recovery from training Some attention to diet and increasing bodyweight, some effort to employ measures for recovery from training. Planning the bodyweight category that is optimal for the lifter, significant attention/effort to reaching and maintaining the required bodyweight. Including regular recovery measures as part of the training process.

If you are an Olympic Weightlifting coach and you have been coaching a few years, you are bound to come across just such individuals as in our illustration above. Your task as a coach is to find away to keep the athlete training, expand their perception of what is possible and help them achieve their potential. While there is always initial excitement about possibilities, there is soon a realization that the coach’s task is anything but simple. Your best efforts as a coach can be easily thwarted by many factors that constrain the athlete’s willingness to pursue training with increasing commitment. In such circumstances, the coach may well ask the question “why does the athlete not have the motivation to strive for important goals?”

It is probable that one chief reason why an individual will not strive for important goals is their lack of confidence in their own abilities. Although the athlete might state a desire to be a national team member, they do not really believe that they can rise to this level. The coach’s task is therefore to instill confidence that if the athlete pursues a proper process, it is probable that their efforts will be well rewarded. It helps if the coach has a good reputation and track record of success and has other athletes in their charge pursuing the same goal. But for the upcoming coach it is quite a hard proposition to achieve their first high status athlete, and sometimes some luck is involved. But in both cases, for the experienced and the upcoming coach, a great deal of time and effort has to be invested into gently “nudging” forwards the athlete’s self-confidence and belief in their own abilities.

Mindset of the Olympic Weightlifter

Carol Dweck is a distinguished professor and well-published researcher in Psychology who has taught at the universities of Columbia, Harvard, Illinois and Stanford where she is still a member of faculty. In 2006 Dweck published an influential book entitled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck theorised a continuum between believing that one’s abilities are innate and believing that one’s abilities are based on hard work and learning. According to Dweck, if a person believes that their potential is governed by innate factors then they have a “fixed mindset”. Whereas, if a person believes their potential is governed by their individual effort and learning, then they have a “growth mindset”. Importantly, Dweck’s view was that people who are high-achievers have a Growth Mindset. Read More