Old World vs New World Coaching

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While recently attending an educational summit in Boulder, Colorado, the question arose, “Are we developing a fear of perfection within our athletes by utilizing too much technology?” It’s a fair question. After all, technology has come a long way in a very short period of time. Heart rate monitors, GPS devices, power meters, software that tracks athlete fatigue levels, isolated and cumulative stress of training sessions, recovery time, number of steps per day, hour, minute, or even seconds, vertical oscillation, swim cadence, time of arm recovery, oxygen saturation levels, muscle mapping, etc. The list of metrics is endless, all with a common goal: to optimize athlete performance.

Endurance (and most other) athletes are either driven or haunted by three common fears: fear of commitment, fear of disappointment, and the fear of the unknown (failure, success, and perfection). Is the advent and growing presence of technology in the endurance world adding to these fears by predicting the level at which athletes are expected to perform based on an algorithm that is calculated on a single session or performance (IE: functional threshold)?  If so, what effect is it having on their psychology? Or, does it provide them with the push they need to dig deep in search of a predicted number, as applied? If an athlete has a “bad” day, and is unable to hit their prescribed numbers calculated by said algorithm on any one (or more) of these fancy metrics, have we set them up for failure (psychologically) by relying on technology to predict human performance? And, what long term effect does this have on an athlete’s confidence level? These are all valid questions.

Many say technology is helping athletes understand and believe in a potential they may have never known they had in the first place. As a coach, that is part of my job: to tap into or find the intrinsic motivation that helps an athlete believe they can achieve beyond what they thought was possible.

Effective coaching is made up of two basic skills regardless of sport. The best coaches possess the ability to create and implement a perfect marriage of sorts, of art and science into an athlete’s training plan. All the metrics in the world will not help a coach or athlete if the implementation and practical application in a training plan is mishandled, mismatched, or misunderstood by athlete or coach.

Technology allows us a deeper understanding of application and physiological adaptation and can serve as a predictor of current and future performance. Numbers rarely, if ever, lie.

Endurance athletes are a strange lot. Admittedly, we are “not right.” Many even take pride in it. Often driven by a hundred forms of insecurity stemming from some deep seeded childhood fear, we search for validation through various forms of extreme exercise that often place unthinkable demands on one’s mind and body. Ask any seasoned endurance athlete how many times they’ve been told they were “crazy” or insane and chances are they will tell you, “too many to count.”

For the endurance athlete, good, bad, or indifferent, technology can serve as a useful tool in helping us reach new heights, achieve new goals, and tap into our innermost desire to be the best we can be.

I’ve no doubt that the growing presence of technology and science in the endurance world is imperative to maximizing performance. However, I caution against losing the human element and place a high value on learning what racing/training intensities “feel” like, as we continue to dig into the numbers. But, we can talk more about that next month. After all, what fun would it be, if it were easy?

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