“Coach, what races should I do next year”

“Coach, what races should I do next year”

“Coach, what races should I do next year?”

As the 2019 season ends, many athletes find themselves reflecting on their race results. Some athletes may feel satisfied, rewarded, and accomplished. Others may feel disappointed and even heartbroken. Something interesting happens as an athlete reviews their year. Possibilities for the next season begin to bubble up from somewhere deep within the athlete. Because athletes know themselves better than anyone, when an athlete comes to me and asks, “coach, what races should I do next year” I almost always ask the athlete:

What do you want to face next year?

It is curious that nearly every time I ask that question, my athletes have an immediate answer. If they lack an immediate answer, the question certainly provokes a powerful reaction. I contest that the single most important aspect of season planning is that an athlete can clearly articulate what it is they want to face in the season ahead.

I will concede that, yes, part of coaching includes providing guidance on where an athlete’s journey might go next. I am convinced that there is more power in allowing an athlete to decide which events make it onto the schedule than for me to dictate which events they should race. Other coaches might show their value by proclaiming they know how to schedule the perfect season. This strategy can leave a strange distance between the athlete and the goal races because the goal hasn’t been born from the athlete himself.  Setting a season schedule should not be a chance for a coach to stroke their ego with how competent they are at matching the physical attributes of their athletes with elevation charts and competitors’ finishing times.

What has been most impactful for my athletes – athletes who want to discover something about themselves beyond how fast they can go or how many people they can beat – is picking races that require the athlete to tackle something noteworthy. Every race does not need fulfill this requirement, but at minimum one event must. Choosing a single race that encourages an athlete to face their most formidable enemy in their mind can have a lasting impact on a season, and ultimately, a life.

What do I mean when I say “most formidable enemy in their mind”? I mean what are the messages an athlete hears when they race or when training gets tough. What story plays on repeat in their mind about who they are as an athlete? What doubts, fears, and hang-ups reside in the space between their ears and deep in their gut. What haunts them? Eludes them? What is the one big thing they wish they could change about their experience in sport?

Consider this personal example as an illustration. I have always been a muscular athlete who tends to carry a bit more body fat than I care to. In my earliest years racing, I believed that my body weight was the limiter in my success on hillier courses. There was an intimate relationship between hill work and my body image. If I felt heavy and I faced a session that included hill reps, my self-confidence would plummet before the workout began. I gave up before I had even warmed up.  The opposite happened, too. If my speed or power numbers were low on a hilly ride or run, the only reason I was feeling that way had to be because I was fat. It couldn’t possibly have been anything else like my menstrual cycle, dehydration, cumulative fatigue, stress, or simply an off day.

I did not have a coach at the time who was aware of, or attuned to, the battle between my head and my body. I also did not have much awareness about what exactly was occurring until I began journaling and doing my own personal work outside of sport.  A giant shift came when I decided that I hated hating hills and the emotional turmoil that came with hill training. I was desperate to overcome the fear that overwhelmed me at the bottom of any climb. So, I chose to build the following season around a race that would basically leave me in a staring contest with the part of me that loathed hills. I built that season around Ironman Coeur D’Alene.

When I registered for the race, I no longer felt powerless against a story I had told myself for years.  I felt like Bob Probert throwing down his gloves ready to battle it out on the ice with Marty McSorley*. I was ready for a fight. I committed myself to getting stronger on hills regardless of how heavy I felt. While I did not qualify for Kona at that race, my attitude about hilly courses changed.  I rewrote the story in my head about what kind of race course suited me. I no longer felt anxious when I saw a long climb ahead of me, I saw an opportunity.  The transformation was possible because I somehow developed a relationship with the harsh voices I heard regularly. By becoming more familiar with that part of myself, I could disarm the power it held over me during races and in training.

I chose to share a personal example not to brag.  On the contrary, I hate disclosing that I thought of or spoke to myself as I have described. I shared this anecdote because the change in me as an athlete was so profound that this experience has informed my coaching ever since.

I’m sure there are readers out there who want to challenge me and say “why wouldn’t you want to guide your athletes to the courses that would give them the best shot at placing, or qualifying, or PR’ing.” And to those readers I say – you’re missing my point.

Of course my goal as a coach is to program and guide my athletes to PR’s and physical improvements. Of course I want my athletes to qualify for championships, to be top ranked, and to experience athletic excellence. My thesis here is that race selection comes down to the athlete. It should not simply be about picking races that only suit an athlete’s physical strengths or only about times and placement.

So – before you ask your coach “what races should I do?” consider the questions I have listed below. Journal, reflect, speak with those who know you well. Then discuss what you have unearthed with your coach. Identify races that allow you to deepen your human experience and encourage growth beyond simply going faster, beating your nemesis, or qualifying for a championship race. Though these reasons are valid, and can be motivating, longevity in sport requires the pursuit of breakthroughs beyond mere physiological improvements.

Consider:

When I have a rough patch in a race, the voice in my head says…

When I reflect on this season, I am most proud of XX because of XX. I am most frustrated by XX because XX…

I am least joyful in training when I…

My favorite race experience was at XX race because…

My least favorite race experience was at XX race because…

I want to improve…

If I think about what my major limiters are – emotionally and physically, they are…

If I was describing the type of athlete I am to someone, I would describe myself as…

What do I want this season…

Outside of a PR, Podium, WC qualification, my season will be a success if I can…

What type of athlete, or what specific athlete inspires me? What is it about them that inspires me?

If I could do ‘battle’ with one of the negative voices in my head I would most like to battle…

……………………………………

 

*For those of you who are not hockey fans, enjoy: