So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad.* Instructional Systems Specialist. Runner. (Swim-challenged) Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) CRO/2, NTO/1. RRCA Rep., FL (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A "Whys" Man Once Told Me...

One of my athletes ran her first marathon this past weekend. She had a fantastic front half of the race, but ran into some trouble (muscle cramps) during the second half & missed her goal to qualify for Boston by seven minutes. We were both disappointed for her, but we knew a qualifying performance was in her future once we got past a few obstacles.

Most coaches talk easily about the physical aftermath of runs & races. They usually are quick to recommend what to do to rebuild the body's systems, replenish fuel stores & recover strength after their charge has crossed the finish line. A precious few will approach the mental or systemic areas with their athletes; the ones who do often work in a mature two-way relationship with an experienced athlete.

When it comes to races of long distance, the smart athlete should look at not only one potential area for improvement, but as many as six large areas. (Noted triathlon coach Brett Sutton tells his athletes to boil down a problem until only three major issues remain.) There might be more, but I usually look at a performance issue as one of six types of deficits:

Three of these deficit areas - feedback & expectations, processes & environment, and incentives & consequences - are (mostly) external to the athlete and are, in many cases, a simpler fix.

The other three areas - motives & preferences, ability, and skill & knowledge - are almost completely internal to the athlete.

Most coaches of adult, post-scholastic amateur runners don't have to worry much about the internal deficits; if a coach gets to those root causes it's much like the old light bulb joke:

Q. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

A. One. But the light bulb has to really want to change.So, I tell folks to take time within the first hours after the race, usually when they have time to quietly think about things. I ask them to write down what went well and what could have been improved in the race performance. Once those problem areas are identified, then it's time to do what is known in Performance Improvement circles as the "five whys." Here's an example:

Problem: I finished my half-marathon 15 minutes later than I hoped.

Why (#1:) did you finish your half-marathon 15 minutes later than you hoped?

I had to walk much of the last two miles.

Why (#2:) did you have to walk much of the last two miles?

Because my right achilles' tendon swelled up.

Why (#3:) did your right achilles' tendon swell up?

Because the course conditions, specifically the hills & concrete pavement, strained my achilles.

Why (#4:) did the course conditions strain your achilles?

Because I didn't allow my achilles' enough time to heal from the last injury.

Why (#5:) didn't you allow your achilles enough time to heal?

Because I thought I could get fit in time for this event.

Why (#6:) did you feel the need to rush getting fit for this event?

Because I was using it to prepare for a spring marathon.

Once a performance issue can be boiled down to the simplest reasons (usually at the third or fourth "why,"), you can look at the root causes & figure if they are external or internal. So, if I take the "whys" & align them to the causes - I've placed a question you can ask yourself to consider where the answer or deficit falls - I can then start to think of potential solutions.

Feedback & Expectations:
Did I know what was expected of me? Could I tell how well I was doing?

Processes & Environment:
Did I have the conditions and tools to do what was expected of me?
1. Hilly conditions and concrete roadways aggravated achilles condition.

Incentives & Consequences:
Did I stand to gain anything by succeeding - or by failing - at this activity?

Motives & Preferences:
Did I decide to do this activity for the right reason/s?
1. Attempted fall half-marathon rather than early year half, then spring marathon.
2. Unwilling to back off training because of injury.

Did I have a chance to succeed, even if all the factors were in my favor?

Did I know how to do the activity?

"It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." - Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science (1966)

So, then I can look at the big root causes & say, "okay, here's what I think you need to do." The one thing you don't want to do is start thinking of the solution before you get to the genuine root cause. More often than not when a person - coach or athlete - does this sort of exercise they look at the issue in light of their preferred answer. For example, a friend of mine loves Pilates, so everything in his mind can be remedied with a modicum of Pilates training. If I were to present an issue to my friend, the gym proprietor, he would likely recommend training his gym provides.

Because the achilles' tendon issue is aggravated by hard surfaces, hills & hard training, I can recommend easy running on softer surfaces as much as possible, minimize hard speed work on the track, minimize or discontinue hill repeats, recommend adding heel lifts to shoes, & work on strengthening the achilles with some stretching & light resistance training. . .and to be patient. There's some unfinished business to be taken care of in New Orleans next February.

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