Conversation with athletes

Last night I had a pre-planned group conversation with athletes at the club after training. I am not entirely sure what was expected by the athletes but this session had been billed as an opportunity to discuss athlete responses to a club survey of opinions on training programs, coaching and factors that limit performance.

As the session proceeded, I attempted to probe the knowledge, attitudes and beliefs of the athletes as represented by the survey. Here’s an example of one of the survey questions:

“Which of the following represents your view:”

I like to be given a training program that is highly structured and provides explicit instructions on what to do
I like to be given a training program that is highly structured but allows me to decide what to do
I like to be given a training program that provides general guidance but allows me to decide what to do
I like to be given advice on how to develop my own training program
Total 18

Among the athlete’s who responded to the survey, there was a 50/50 split between athletes who stated they prefer explicit instructions about the content of their training and those athletes who prefer to have a significant measure of self-determination.

My general policy as a coach is to provide training programs for athletes that are highly structured. This is particularly the case with athletes who are training 4-6 days per week. Although I do my best to provide highly structured programs, I have expressed on many occasions that a training program is “just a piece of paper”. By this I mean that the usefulness of the program depends very largely on the athlete’s understanding of the training process and the level of their motivation.

Typically, the structure of the program provided includes:

  1. A duration of the program in weeks to the next important competition
  2. A division of the program duration into phases (preparation / competition)
  3. A daily/weekly schedule of exercises according to the phase of the program
  4. A guide to an appropriate volume (sets and reps)
  5. A recommended intensity for each exercise in each session (but intensity can be exceeded with certain provisos)
  6. Suggestions for additional exercises according to individual weaknesses.

All athletes at the club tend to vary in terms of how closely they follow the given program. Some athletes will attempt to follow the program very closely and seldom question whether they should go beyond the stated parameters. Other athletes show a tendency to make a range of decisions such as:

  1. Increasing the volume of squats, in some cases very significantly.
  2. Adding extra work on full movements (snatch and clean & jerk) each week
  3. Performing higher intensity on some exercises when the opportunity affords
  4. Substitute exercises they feel improve their specific weaknesses
  5. Developing their own training program by substantially modifying the given training program; or
  6. Determining the schedule of exercises and training methodology completely themselves

Whether an athlete should rely on a coach to make decisions for them on a moment to moment basis or exercise their own judgment and self-determination is an interesting question. As Figure 1 below depicts, the situation is more of a continuum rather than a polarised choice. The appropriate level of athlete autonomy should really depend on their accumulated knowledge and experience. Thus, it would be expected that an athlete with 2 years experience would rely largely on the coach to provide a training program and to maintain a high degree of control over the athlete’s training. However, in the 21st century, the accumulation of theoretical knowledge can be rapid. Athletes have access to almost limitless information about Weightlifting (not always good quality) via websites and social media. As a result, athletes are exposed to all manner of technical analyses, theories of training and supposed secrets of success. This situation tempts athletes to move more rapidly along the continuum towards self-reliance and to conduct their own “experiments” with training methodology. For example, if an athlete finds a 6-week squat program on the Internet, they will be surely tempted.

Level of athlete autonomy

Figure 1: Level of Athlete Autonomy

Whereas it is possible for athletes in today’s world to advance more rapidly in theoretical knowledge, the Internet provides no short cut to the practical knowledge needed to attain excellence. In particular, it is not really possible to acquire the practical knowledge of how to train hard except by training hard and in this regard, the input of the coach is critical. Thus, when an athlete is largely dictating the parameters of their own training, it becomes very difficult for the coach to assist the athlete to learn to train hard, and to train effectively on that knife edge between under- and over-training. The ideal situation is that over a course of 5 years, the coach will slowly increase the parameters of training (e.g. volume, intensity, frequency) and all the while maintain vigilance for signs of adaptation and maladaptation. However, buoyed by advancing theoretical knowledge, athletes will sometimes see an advantage in transitioning themselves more quickly along the continuum to self-directed training and take the leap forward to developing their own training programs. In essence, this behaviour is not necessarily a problem and it may be highly desirable that an athlete exhibits such a level of responsibility. However, for the coach, it can also be frustrating. A certain amount of ‘reinventing the wheel’ is bound to follow. Athletes of today, despite a significant base of theoretical knowledge, are sometimes oblivious to the trials and tribulations of generations of athletes that preceded them.

So, my message to athletes is that, irrespective of whatever training program you follow or that you devise for yourself, it isn’t the training schedule that matters – “its only a piece of paper”. What matters is that you learn how to train, how to really apply yourself to the training process in all its facets, pull out all stops and tick all boxes. You cannot learn this from Instagram or Youtube. This is something you have to experience yourself. It’s a painfully long process, and if you don’t want to “re-invent the wheel” then listen to the coach.

I ended the group conversation by expressing the following values:

  • The quality of your movement (technique) is paramount, never sacrifice it.
  • Work on your weaknesses, you are limited by your weaknesses not your strengths
  • Consistency [of training] delivers improvement
  • Maintain focus when training (the downfall of many a lifter)
  • Support fellow athletes to achieve their goals, and they will support you
  • Learn to train, learn to train hard (a coach can assist!)