Athletic Readiness, Motivation & Commitment

So off the back of a brief conversation in the twittersphere concerning a previous blog, Jo Carritt of Everyday Training and I came up with the idea of a collaborative piece on the murky and expansive topic of motivation and ultimately, athletic readiness.

Readiness, motivation and commitment
An idea is born!

The plan is to integrate Jo’s insight and coaching nouse with an alternative perspective from me in the hope of coming up with something worthy of practical application for both the coach and athlete. So here we go:

Jo: 

It’s always great as a coach when people come and congratulate me on the performances of the athletes that I work with, and as I’m working with ever more athletes within my local community, this seems to be happening with increasing frequency. Of course, I cant and don’t take all of the credit for their success, and am always fast to point out that it’s the athletes themselves who do all the hard work - I just provide the guidance and advice that enable them to get the best effect from their commitment.

There are a couple of athletes in particular who generate a great deal of praise for my coaching, and are widely admired within our community – widely admired, because they are widely known. But whilst they’re achieving great results and showing improvements that their peers find remarkable, I know that it’s the result of deep commitment and hard work…born of a true love for doing it.

These people live and breathe their training. But, not just THEIR training -  they give they share, they talk about, they interact, they get involved, and they support others too.

During a conversation with an admiring friend of one particular woman that I coach, I remarked that .. “She’s not one of these athletes who’s all about “me” and “my training” ….”    And this made me think – perhaps that’s part of what enables her to work so hard, be so dedicated. A deep love of the sport that she’s become part of. Or in other words…intrinsic motivation.

I’ve written and spoken a lot about motivation and goal-setting through the period that I’ve been racing, learning, mentoring and coaching triathlon.  Sports psychology and the aspects of NLP that relate to it are really interesting to me and I read and think a lot about these topics.  This interaction has me wondering if whether I might have attributed more importance to the GOAL than the motivation framework that it lies within.

Having goals with strong emotional resonance for season to season motivation is very important for most of us. Even so, I’ve worked with a number of athletes who’ve had very clear GOALS and a genuine desire to achieve them….but those goals turn out to be unrealistic for the amount of energy that they want to put into achieving them. As this becomes apparent through the coaching process, the goal is devalued and their motivation easily disintegrates. I believe that a big part of my role coach to help steer an athlete away from this vicious cycle (ie lack of motivation>less inclination to train> poor training frequency> results that don’t reflect progress towards the goal> further lack of motivation) and towards goals that are in line with the lifestyle and importance of triathlon within the priorities of the athlete.…without killing their hopes of course!!

For example, many people have the basic physical capabilities to qualify for Kona, (the Ironman World Championships) which is THE  most common goal for talented long-distance triathletes. It’s what they’re willing/able to do to become the best in their age-group that sets apart those who actually get to wear a lai around their neck. If it’s a chore – and all coaches have worked with athletes for whom they feel like they’re having to persuade them to complete each training session -  then it’s just not going to happen.

If the training process and trying each day to being the best you can be in the pool, on the bike, running the hills, in the gym …is what gives you your buzz, is what makes you YOU…then you’re on your way to success. And you’re a pleasure to coach!

But, obviously these clients are a small minority.  So, how can I, as a coach, tap into this type of motivation in order to instill it on the more “goal/task oriented” athlete and benefit them? These people, on the whole are willing to work just as hard for what they want…and to invest in the services of a coach to help them….it just doesn’t flow quite as easily for them.

Is this due to the direction that their motivation comes from? How does one determine that at an early stage in the coaching relationship? And can we help to turn that? Or do we simply learn other methods to engage with athletes with different types of motivation? Are there “good” and “bad” motivational origins???

Andy:

The first thing to notice is that motivation is a broad and multifactorial topic.  Many of the questions raised Jo’s post are centered around different types or sources of motivation and the variable climate and coaching dynamic they might influence. To best respond to these conundrums, I'll adopt a broader perspective and focus on the idea of ‘readiness’.

How to determine athletic Readiness
How do you know if you are ready?

The topic of readiness something I encounter frequently with my work regarding obesity and seemed like a unique angle to approach as it is often overlooked. For example, when an individual is considering dieting it is  important to establish that they are ready, willing and able to undertake the challenge that lies ahead.  Within the context of the questions Jo poses, there are numerous parallels that exist with the client who is looking to diet and the athlete who is considering getting coached toward a specific goal. I believe that taking the time to understand the readiness of an athlete can be the difference between a successful and exasperating coach-athlete relationship!

Why is readiness important? 

First of all it is crucial to understand the importance of readiness. That is, knowing that wanting something, and being ready for it are not the same thing. Using Jo's example, I might really want to qualify for Kona. This however doesn’t mean that I’m ready to undertake and prepare myself for the qualification process. Being ready means I’ve organised my life to the point where I have enough time and resources to train and recover to give me the best possible chance of qualifying. While I can theoretically qualify without being truly ‘ready’, the chances of doing so are greatly enhanced if conditions are in my favour. This is so self-evident it hardly seems worth mentioning. But is often an important question we might forget to ask!

So now we appreciate why readiness is important, how do we actually assess whether someone is ready to achieve their goals?

This is where it gets tricky. There is no real way to know for sure as to whether someone is ready until they try. But that doesn’t mean we have to rush in without attempting some basic levels of enquiry.

After having established whether an athlete’s goals are vaguely realistic, we can try to understand if their goals exist for the 'right' reasons. Obviously this is tricky ground and I preach extreme caution around quarrelling with the values of an athlete (don't), but we know that engaging in a challenge is more likely to be intrinsically enjoyable and motivating if:

  1. The athlete is doing it for themselves, not for someone else (e.g. to prove them wrong - although this can be a powerful motivator)
  2. Borne out of self-respect and not self-hatred
  3. They have accurately weighed up the true costs of what they are committing to
  4. They don't see goal as a solution to a problem they have. (In and of itself, winning a race or a medal, or even comparing favourably to others in athletic terms won't make you happy)
  5. Is their goal or challenge personally meaningful?

These are all ideas worth discussing in preliminary conversations with an athlete. It is important to stress there is no right or wrong answer. But gaining a better insight into the reasons behind the goals of an athlete can allow you to assess whether they might be ready in a little more of an objective fashion. If all of their responses point in one worrying direction, it is not unreasonable to assume that there might be something else going on an that there might be bigger fish to fry!

Readiness, motivation and commitment

While its good to know a little bit more about the 'why', readiness is also about motivation and commitment.

Motivation

While athletes are often guilty of saying what they think a coach wants to hear (and the coaches equally guilty of taking this at face value) getting the athlete to rate their motivation out of 10 can be simple way to assess their readiness. Compare their motivation now with past efforts. If they have a special goal, is there actually anything particularly special about now? If not, is there anything they can do to make it different right now? Again, a few more pertinent questions here will uncover any uncertainty in their desire to pursue a given challenge. A good dose of honesty here might save a lot of frustration down the road.

Commitment

Commitment should also be discussed and is another idea that is often confused with motivation. Commitment can be thought about as how to how long motivation is likely to last. Lots of people can be motivated for a couple of weeks or maybe even a couple of months. But when the same sessions keep rolling around, and its deepest darkest winter our desire to train can fast diminish. Remember that certain 'favourite behaviours' are likely to have to go in service of lofty goals. Appreciate also that lots of things can affect commitment, such as the behaviour and attitudes of those around you.Is the wife, partner or family onside? Again, its vital that you discuss these openly and honestly without judgement. Its ok to say you don't want to be a world champion. Remember that everything has a cost. Are your life circumstances now a suitable environment in which to take on the challenges ahead? If not, is there anything you can do to alter this?

commitment
It might be a long road ahead, and commitment will be required

If any sense of ambivalence still remains, nothing beats a good old pros/cons style list. Sit down with the athlete or get them to write out what they might gain, and what they will have to sacrifice in service of their goals. As you can see below, written down in the cold light of day, my aspirations of heading to the big island don't stack up so well!

Gains Sacrifices
·      Sense of personal satisfaction

·      Appreciation from peers regarding dedication required to achieve goal

·      Enjoyment of new and sought after race experience

 

·      Consistent early morning training sessions

·      Lack of social time due to extensive training commitments

·      Loss of training freedom

·      Financial cost of (numerous?) qualification attempts, and race entry

·      Financial cost of coaching

·      Holiday sacrifice for training and race weekends

 

So there it is. Perhaps more questions than answers and no clear cut way to assess the readiness of an athlete with absolute certainty, but hopefully some places to start. It is also important to remember that just because the athlete might not be ready now, doesn’t mean they will never be. Alternative, more suitable goals might even become apparent to both the coach and athlete by working through the process above. Give it a whirl, and let us know what you find! Whatever you do, leave your ego at the door, and be honest with yourself and your coach/athlete.

Top 5 strength training exercises for endurance athletes

Strength training exercises for endurance athletes

In order to find out which aspects of strength training exercises for endurance athletes were really important to the masses, I recently polled the @UKrunchat and @UKtrichat followers on twitter.

The results came out just in favour of exercise selection with 45% of the vote. 40% wanted to know most about frequency/timing and 15% about sets and reps.

I polled @ukrunchat and @uktrichat to find out what aspects of strength training endurance athletes most wanted to know about
I polled @ukrunchat and @uktrichat to find out what aspects of strength training endurance athletes most wanted to know about

Exercise Categories

When it comes to exercise selection for endurance athletes I like to keep things simple and advise each time they strength train, to select one squat, one hinge, one push, one pull and one exercise from the 'everything else’ (hopefully self-explanatory) category.

Rationale

There are many reasons for advising just 5 exercise variations, but primarily it is because I want cover the basic human movements, I want the session to be simple, understandable and adaptable, and because time is of the essence. If I come across an endurance athlete who is willing to dedicate some time to spend in the gym I (and they) need big bang for their buck if they are going to be incentivised to keep returning. Lots and lots of people I come across often make the mistake of confusing simplicity with ease. Don’t. Yes, its just 5 exercises. You’d be amazed how much impact they can have with a good dose of consistency.

There is a place for sport specificity, but at first, time is always best spent developing global movement competency before getting fancy. Most endurance athletes have terrific aerobic engines, but can only move with borderline embarassing levels of dysfunction. I often quip to that triathletes should focus on developing one type of athleticism before attempting to master three! Global and compound exercises completed with good form will create a globally stronger athlete and will increase their capacity for and resilience to greater exercise workloads. This aspect of training, in my opinion must take priority above any attempts to enhance sport performance. While it might seem a more direct and appealing manner in which to train, for almost everyone other than professional athletes, (and even many of those) specificity generally offers less rewards than the more ‘indirect' and generalised exercises.

My top 5 strength training exercises for endurance athletes

So, what 5 strength training exercises do I recommend endurance athletes include in their training and why? Taking one from each category they would be as follows. Caveat: I've added videos of each for illustration, but these are not necessarily how I would coach them, nor do they necessarily represent good form in all aspects, nor do I agree with everything those on the videos say. Always always always, get a qualified coach to show you through these exercise to make sure you can execute them with good form.

Squat - Goblet Squat

For those new to strength training, or those with horrible form, I find there are very few people I can’t get into a good position relatively quickly with a goblet squat. Front loading the squat pattern teaches the athlete to maintain good postural control and awareness, and generally stops them folding like an accordion when you ask them to squat down. If the athlete is advanced and can handle more weight, I’ll move this onto a front squat, but even this can come with complications. There is something remarkably healing about goblet squats, you just feel better after them. Once you can do 3 sets of 5-8 reps with the heaviest dumbbell in your gym, then we can talk about moving on!

Hinge - Single-leg deadlift

This can be a tricky one to teach initially, especially for those with poor body awareness, but it is WELL worth the time invested. Due to bilateral deficit, you’ll find that once your skill level is you can make great gains from adding load. I also know of few other exercises more effective at teaching the athlete to coordinate their body in a number of different ways simultaneously. Its a great stability, anti-rotation, hingeing, strength and rehabilitative exercise all in one. For any athlete with knee/ITB issues this is a go to, as it teaches them to stabilise their knee from the hip/glutes (as they should largely be), not via their ITB/TFL.

Push - Arnold Press

Again, a nice compound exercise that will help improve shoulder mobility and stability as well as teaching the athlete trunk control/core strength. It can be slow to progress, but gets us lifting a weight over our head, which really is a must-have for any exercise routine.

Pull - TRX Row

A simple, scalable and effective exercise to straighten out some of those hugely quasimodo like positions we get ourselves into hunched over our desks all day. Good strength and control through full range of motion here will really help teach the athlete to extend through their thoracic area and open out those shoulders. A vital exercise for the triathletes out there who spend time tucked in a TT position and trying to get their shoulders to touch through almost exclusively swimming front crawl. Good thoracic control is also a vital component of staying tall and having an efficient action during running. As humans, for a lot of reasons, we tend to prioritise the push over the pull, we shouldn’t.

Everything else - Turkish Get up

I just love these. If nothing else its a great assessment tool - if there is something you can’t do, or control, you’ll get found out pretty fast. If you make this look good, and controlled, you can fairly safely bet you are on the right tracks. Its basically everything other than a pulling motion, all rolled into one. At the end of a workout, I find it really locks in all the movements you’ve been working on as you have to coordinate them under control and load. Conversely, its great in the warm up to break off the rust and get you moving like you should.

So there you go. Just 5 exercises, but they’re all big hitters for endurance athletes. Master them and train them regularly, and you will become more injury resistant and I’d wager your capacity to absorb workload will be significantly improved. A total of 15-25 reps of each exercise completed across a session at a challenging load, will take no longer than 45 mins. 2-3x a week. Do it for 4-6 weeks and let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear. Tweet me @acbcoaching or email me (andy@acbcoaching.com). Good luck!

Bilateral Deficit – what is it and how can I use it?

Bilateral Deficit?

So first of all, what is the Bilateral deficit? This is basically the phenomenon whereby the sum of forces produced unilaterally (on a single leg) can exceed the amount of force you can produce bilaterally (on two legs).
Another term that is important to understand in relation to this is Super-Incumbent load - This is the (body) weight above the joint that is being used to lift a weight.
So lets compare a theoretical bilateral (two-legged) back squat and compare it to its unilateral cousin, the single leg squat. For the sake of argument, lets use the example of an individual perhaps your everyday endurance athlete, uhhh, Dave, that weights 75kg.
Lets say Dave can do a nice set of 8x single leg squats while holding just 10kg of added weight. Nice one Dave.
Image of someone performing a rear foot elevated split squat
Not quite the same as a single leg squat, but a rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS) or a Bulgarian split squat can be a great way to make the best of the bilateral deficit. This is not Dave.
The super-incumbent load of this athlete is 65kg. That is, if we chopped his leg off just below the knee, his bloodied stump of a shin, ankle and foot conveniently weights exactly 10kg. We don’t want to count the weight of his shin, ankle and foot because he’s not lifting it, so 75kg-10kg = 65kg.   Add that (65kg) to his 10kg dumbbell and we have 75kg of weight being lifted on each rep, on that leg. So for his set of 8 reps - he’s lifted 600kg on that one leg. WAY. TO. GO. DAVE.
Now, lets say look at Dave’s back squat. The key question is:
 
How much weight do we have to slap on his back to get through the same amount of work as his 1 set of 8 rep single leg squats with 10kg?

Because he’s on two legs, his super-incumbent load is now only 55kg as we have 2x10kg metaphorically bloodied stumps not being lifted and supporting him (75-(2x10kg stumps) = 55kg). Remember, we still need to achieve 600kg in just 8 reps. But this is also PER leg. So assuming both legs do the same amount of work, we need to hit 1200kg across 8 reps. He’s still lifting his super-incumbent load of 55kg for 8 reps, so thats 440kg done and dusted, but we need to find the remaining 760kg  (1200 - 440 = 760kg) in 8 reps. 760 divided by 8 = 95kg.

Don't fall foul of the bilateral deficit. Sometimes there is an easier way
Don't fall foul of the bilateral deficit. Sometimes there is an easier way. This is also not Dave.
Now for an endurance athlete like Dave - this is a no brainer. It will be much faster, safer and easier to get him to work up to a set of 8 single leg squats with 10kg than 95kg for 8 back squat. For example I don’t know many endurance that at around 75kg bodyweight can squat their bodyweight well for 1 rep, much less 1.26x body weight for a set of 8.This would put their 1RM at nearly 120kg or 1.6x their bodyweight.  To be fair, I don’t actually know many endurance athletes that can single leg squat for 1 rep, but with a bit of coaching and practice, this is still a far more sensible and achievable prospect (especially in the short term) than getting a 75kg athlete to 95kg for 8 reps. For a start, it requires much less equipment, no gym membership and can be more easily practiced at home.
While there are other benefits to a single leg work, especially as an endurance athlete, I’ll leave it there for now. Now you know about the bilateral deficit, you can use it to your advantage. If you want to find out more or have any questions, please get in touch with me either via twitter, facebook or my contact page.

Meeting of the Minds International Online Conference 2015 – A Summary

First of all, may I congratulate and thank Brendan (and all the quality speakers) on another great online strength and conditioning conference - Meeting of the Minds 2015. I tuned in last year and it really is an innovative idea that seems to work very well.

For those that didn't catch it all, I've included a Storify timeline of some of the main tweets throughout this year's Meeting of the Minds online conference. Over the next week, I will put together a post with some more detailed thoughts.

In the mean time, share, tweet and enjoy!

Eating Disorders in Sports

Eating Disorders in Sports

  • Prevalence rates of Eating Disorders in Sports are not necessarily higher than in the general population.
  • Sport participants are still however at higher risk of developing Eating Disorders than the general population.
  • There is no single cause to an Eating Disorder
  • Subclinical and Partial diagnoses of Eating Disorders in Sport are high!
  • All Sport Participants have a responsibility to be aware of the added risk factors unique to sport that might promote the development of an Eating Disorder.

Its Eating Disorders Awareness week, and I wanted to write a blog with some useful information that might help with raising awareness of Eating Disorders, especially as they relate to Sport.

How common are Eating Disorders in Sport?

When it comes to estimating prevalence, its tricky ground for a number of reasons. For one, the diagnostic criteria of Eating Disorders (ED) has recently changed. Those who were not diagnosed before the release of DSM-V in 2013 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) could now be classified. For example, amenorrhea is no longer a necessary characteristic for the diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa. Classifications of different types of sports, lean or nonlean, aesthetic etc also differ between studies and further the picture.  Consider also, that those who suffer from an Eating Disorder often might not consider themselves to have a problem (think therefore what they might or might not say when filling out a questionnaire).  Individuals also have a funny way of not fitting neatly into one box or another, and can also move from one ED to another. When you look at the research I’ll be the first to admit, there are clear limitations in some of the studies that churn out these numbers, and some quite conflicting information produced.

Some suggest that sport participation seems to have a positive effect on behaviours and attitudes relating to eating and our bodies. In others there seems to be clear patterns where individuals (especially women) competing in lean, aesthetic, endurance sport are more likely to have ED than non-athletes. But before you’ve made up your mind you can find a host of work that suggests quite the opposite, that some athletes are actually healthier, are at less risk and do not have more eating problems than non-athletes.

So do sport participants suffer from more ED than those that don’t do sport? On balance, probably a little. But the same messy research landscape presents itself when we ask other questions about ED prevalence within sport. For example, does the level of competition influence the prevalence? Again, its hard to say. You’d probably think the more competitive the worse it gets - stakes are higher, margins are finer. Eventual Conclusion? More relaxed competitive levels of sport are probably not protective, and elite levels aren’t necessarily predictive of ED.

So where does this leave us? Prevalence rates of ED within sport are variable. Its probably safer to assume that sport is but a microcosm of wider society. Personally, I am not sure that prevalence is of  that great a relevance or use to the general population anyway. For those that have been through them, worked with people with ED or have had friends or family battle against them, the fact that they exist at all is bad enough.  What is important to appreciate is that because the development on ED depends upon a host of developmental, genetic, and environmental factors (i.e. there is no single cause to an ED), we all have a responsibility to be aware of, and manage those risks that specific to our environment.  We know that sport participants are exposed to the same risk factors as the general population, as well as those that come from sport. Although this is not necessarily expressed in higher prevalence when it comes to the development of ‘full on’ Eating Disorder, sport does expose its participants to a greater number of risk factors associated with ED.

What is worrying, that when you drop down to partial or subclinical diagnoses of ED, we are faced with a far bleaker picture. These are the people that we might consider to suffer from disordered eating, or are symptomatic of a greater classification but don’t quite tick all the boxes. I have seen estimations of disordered eating within sport (and particularly those at higher levels of sport) range from 18-46%! Sport participation is often referred to as part of the ‘solution’ to the a worsening picture of global health (obesity, inactivity and chronic illness). I can’t help but wonder what might happen as this discussion continues to evolve. Might we exert further pressure on those in sport who are already symptomatic? Might we be trading one potential health risk for another by directing people towards sport?

Eating Disorders in Sport - What are the risks?

In order to understand, treat and potentially prevent eating disorders is it useful to know the difference between what are the general risk factors we all face, and the additional ones we might be facing that are specific to sport. As I mentioned previously there is no single cause to an eating disorder and their occurrence will come from a multitude of genetic and sociocultural (media, family, peers) factors. We don’t need to avoid sport therefore, but we should be cognisant of, and do our best to avoid/lessen the specific risk factors it brings with it.

Weight/Body Fat = Enhanced performance

This is often taken as gospel, yet you might be surprised to know that the literature is can be quite equivocal when you look at the relationship between bodyweight/fat and performance. I am sure the old school amongst you will be turning your noses up in disgust at this point.  I am not denying that bodyweight is a factor in sporting performance, but neither is it an independent variable we can manipulate without consequence. Pay attention to this next sentence. It is unethical for any individual, coach or practitioner to advise weight loss to an athlete or another individual without specialist knowledge and training. If you don’t have this expertise and have not consulted with health professionals that understand the implications both from a nutritional and psychological perspective, you should not be saying anything. In sport you definitely can do more harm than good. If you work with athletes. de-emphasise weight and know your limitations.

Image of scales
Pressures of Weight Loss

Similarities between a 'good athlete’ and characteristics of eating disorders

The ability to perform despite pain and discomfort, mental toughness, unrelenting commitment and pursuit of excellence are all traits that are associated with what most might consider a ‘good athlete’. These are therefore behaviours that are positively rewarded within sport. These traits however are very similar to several characteristics of eating disorders. The denial of discomfort, asceticism, excessive exercise and perfectionism are all traits that might put an individual at risk of developing an eating disorder. Sport is not black and white, lines get blurred, and nothing is clear cut. Not only might these traits expose certain athletes to greater risk, but the fact that they potentially complicate the identification of a problem should also be considered a risk.

As alluded to above, the positive reinforcement of behaviour symptomatic of an eating disorder is also a big problem in sport. Consider these two examples. Excessive exercise and dieting for weight loss. I’m sure we all know many in the endurance community who might fall into these categories. You may be shaking your head here too, but bottom line is, almost all those that suffer from ED have dieted (often multiple times). For certain people it can be a precipitant of ED, or make their current ED worse. I’ll say it again, de-emphasise weight. If you want to reward and encourage others, make it about things they have done to improve their health, not lose weight (even if these might sometimes be related in overweight individuals). When it comes to excessive exercise, this can be something a bulimic does instead of purging, or to justify eating, or as a result of eating. Its also a common characteristic in Anorexia also. Often one the last symptoms to disappear and one that can cause the persistence of an eating disorder, be careful what you say. Its difficult to identify, especially in ultra-endurance sports but before you next congratulate your friend on their ‘epic run streak’, just stop and think, what else could you say?

image of tape, water and apple
Dieting can be harmful to those with eating disorders

Sport specific expectations, ideals and norms

Each sport has its own subcultural idiosyncrasies. Be aware of these. Pathogenic behaviour relating to cutting weight or maintaining a low weight are common in jockeys, in boxing, wrestling etc. Think of body ideals. Triathlon is a particularly tricky one, as each sport emphasises different ‘ideal’ body shapes. Its impossible to be all three. Are you promoting these ways of thinking in what you say, are others? If so you could be increasing the pressure on an individual to conform. When it comes to pressure relating to shape, weight and body image this is a big no-no!!

While there are other potential risk factors relating to sport  I hope this has provided a bit of insight into some of the more significant and obvious dangers that sport might present with regard to the development of eating disorders. Sport can either pose a direct risk, exacerbate or obscure the identification and delay treatment of full and subclinical  eating disorders.

If anyone has any questions or interested in any references that I have not mentioned, please email me (andy@acboaching.com) or contact me on @acbcoaching through twitter and I’d be happy to discuss. Again, I’d love it you could share this article in the spirit of eating disorder awareness week. If anyone would like to find out more about Eating Disorders, I’d recommend visiting the National Centre for Eating Disorders website.