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Why I Suppose Self-Coaching Works for Me

Let me get one thing straight.  I won’t even pretend that I am truly optimizing my triathlon performance as a current highest life priority.   The fact that triathlon performance is tertiary to a host of other higher priorities like family, career, finances and longevity in sport means that I’m not riding on the razor thin edge of my capability to absorb work.  This truth makes certain training and racing decisions much, much easier. 

Studies have shown that those successful in business build their success on the back of mistakes and failures that they learn from.    They immerse themself in the learning experience– taking notes from experts and from their own errors.  The same is true for any success.  It’s never about just having all the answers and getting it right the first time.  It’s about pushing, trying things, failing, watching others do the same and then adjusting to the lessons with steely determination.  

My experience in self-coaching has been much the same.   I immersed myself in online expertise and a shelf full of books about swimming, biking, running and triathlon.  After a while, they all started to say the same thing once I peered underneath the pointless debates about “the one and only best way to achieve (fill in the blank)”. 

  • Improvements are incremental.
  • Use reliable methods of measuring current capabilities and desired end points.

From those gems, the fundamental process to performance improvement is really quite simple.  Create a plan to incrementally close the gaps between current and desired state, create some sort of feedback loop to assess progress, adjust the improvement plan based on feedback, rinse and repeat. 

It’s too simple, right?  We know all this and yet we stumble all the time.  Why is that? 

  1. Uncertainty about how to interpret the feedback in terms of next steps. 
  2. Taking unecessary risks in the name of testing personal limits.
  3. Expend energy focused on feedback that doesn’t directly improve our ability to perform in the high priority events.

So how am I able to navigate these obstacles?  

Well, experience and self-awareness helps with #1, and I don’t allow myself the time to bother with #3.   I still do #2 from time to time, but I commit to learning from those errors.

I avoid risky training and racing choices when the A events loom near.  I just can’t afford to put all the time and effort I put into preparing for these races to waste by never making it to the start line.  By not pushing the myself to the very limits, am I possibly leaving untapped fitness on the table?  Maybe.  Probably.  Yet I know that this time and energy will be redirected to more important things in my life and I’m protecting myself from not being able to capitalize on the work at all.  It’s this conservative approach that makes me seem faster after pregnancy than before, when the truth is that I’m probably a little less fit but a LOT less overtrained.  Actually, not at all overtrained.

Another way I keep my focus is by picking just one or two key performance events to prepare for.  Those are the events that matter.  Everything else is just preparation or for sheer enjoyment.   It is guaranteed that results will be imperfect many times during the “everything else.”  So what?  I refuse to feel stretched thin or beat myself up because I can’t be on my A game 100% of the time.   With only one or two priority events, I only need to be on my A game a very small percentage of the time.  This is much easier to acheive not only physically, but mentally and emotionally that expecting perfection all the time.

Mental approach and personality preferences.  Maybe there’s something in my personality that facilitates a cool-headed problem solving approach.  Maybe my lighthearted nature, goal-driven determination and high level of self-acceptance prevents me from taking myself and my athletic results too seriously.  Maybe these things help keep me focused.  Perhaps.  I’m not sure how important all that is, but I do strive to encourage the characteristics that add to my resiliency and diminish those that do the opposite. 

Additionally, I’m fairly certain that having a coach outside of oneself is probably a really good thing for most people.  I’m a firm believer in delegating things to others who do them better.  If thinking about your training plans isn’t something you’re terribly interested in or feel you do well in comparison to other ways to spend your time, then a coach is a very wise investment.  

Whoever your coach is – commit to the system.  Lack of faith in yourself can easily be deflected onto those that are trying to help you.  Lack faith in your coach is really diverting you from the real problem,which is lack of faith in yourself to achieve.  One thing is for sure– lack of faith is a sure path to lack of satisfying results. 

Does any of this make sense?  Does it help answer the question of why I can self-coach and still have some success?  Are there any questions you have about this that I haven’t answered?

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7 comments to Why I Suppose Self-Coaching Works for Me

  • It is so interesting to me how your brain works. We are very much opposites. If I was to coach myself, it doesn’t matter how much I have read or how much I “know” – everyday I would likely run myself into the ground. You really should coach others, you have a gift for it.

  • Ok, you know I am interested in this since my career is coaching- HOWEVER, I could and never would self- coach. I would not necessarily run myself into the ground like lovely Angela (she is right!), but I would just swim, bike, run with others and groups and doing other people’s workouts too often is not a good thing either. And, I feel the pull to s/b/r too often in a work cycle. NOT good.

    So, my interest in this is just because of the athletes I know that self-coach…most do a very bad job at it – in my opinion. SOME keep coaches like me on retainer and pay us to review programs they’ve written and stuff…ok….so it is like having a coach….because most of them do listen to constructive feedback.

    IF you were not the National Champion (s) & had the awesome success you have had, I would argue that you need someone – who can step away – and has no major emotions to your workouts or daily life issues – and look at the data objectively and your feedback and non-data (how did the workout feel – too hard/easy)on a regular basis. I think, because of how your mind is wired ( you are a deep thinker, IMO) that you have successfully been able to step away and review feedback at a higher level & an objective level. AND you have done a superb job at this. Most…do not.

    I think you answered some questions in here…but I read this and it begs me to ask….. most of us only have 1-2 “A” races per year – the other races are low key , etc..that is pretty normal…at least for more advanced athletes….experienced athletes…most of these athletes do a good job setting up a season (with or without a coach) and focusing on a big event. But, I tend to agree with you that most over-race and try to peak too many times/year – that is what I think you are saying.

    But, it brings me back to this: IF you do not have someone telling you to do X intensity or X rest or X workout based on pace/HR/watts or RPE….how do you wake up and do that when you really do not want to. NOT saying you do not want too, but isn’t it easier – when not accountable to anyone but yourself – just go for a fun trail run (when you should do X intervals) on a Sunday AM? Not that there is not a time and a place for that…rather…the grey zone is much easier to do with friends and by yourself versus the key harder areas that take a bit more planning and rest and recovery, etc.

    I am totally rambling, but I respect you as an athlete and I do NOT think too many higher end athletes do a good job on this…so I just ask questions because I am intrigued…I DO NOT ramble here thinking a coach is the right call for everyone – NOT AT ALL. So, my feedback is honest feedback as an athlete and full time coach who has seen people try to self-coach and not do a good job at it.

    But, on the flipside….do you ever think how much you could even improve with some feedback? Maybe you get that already…but that is the question that needs to be asked. I am a much better athlete because of my coach – no doubt about it…but I also think that is my personality….thrive on feedback and affirmation and accountability…I know you have mentors in the sport – and you probably talk to them about things…but just asking is all.

    The other question that needs to be asked is this: how do you self-analyze your progress? In other words…as you get older….the ability to get faster – once you have been so fast – gets harder – so keeping a careful eye on that progress as a Master athlete is a challenging component of this…if you were new to this sport, I would never ask this question, b/c progress is much faster…but not so much after you have reached a high level & now race as a master.

    Oh, you know….I LOVE this stuff…I appreciate you letting me be honest and ramble on your blog. And, I admire this about you because..well…not many people do it well – but you…you do a super job at this….so good work! 😉

  • Jen- GREAT questions! This helps me understand what questions to answer. You are probably right that my personality enables me to detach from training and low priority race results better than most. This is probably a major factor.

    Now that I think about it a little more, there is probably some emotional element to my willingness to commit to the hard work and that is FEAR of not being properly prepared. The idea of me standing at a start line of an A race feeling underprepared is TERRIBLE and a BIG MOTIVATOR for me to do the work necessary in advance. So, to sum, I emotionally invest in ONLY those top 1-2 events. Of course I have to constantly remind myself to not get too worried about non A events, but it gets easier with practice. I have TRAINED myself to think this way over the course of years, so anyone can get better at this with committed practice.

    Jen: “IF you do not have someone telling you to do X intensity or X rest or X workout based on pace/HR/watts or RPE….how do you wake up and do that when you really do not want to. NOT saying you do not want too, but isn’t it easier – when not accountable to anyone but yourself – just go for a fun trail run (when you should do X intervals) on a Sunday AM?”

    Alicia: Whether I emphasize fun or specificity in my workouts is a function of how far I am away from my A event(s). In the couple months prior to the A event is when I do my hardest key workouts. I know this as soon as I set my race schedule, so the fun/focus ratio of consideration adjusts as I get closer to my desired peak. Fun elements impact my longevity in sport and focus elements improve specific performance (which is fun to achieve in and of itself). So, to respond to your specific scenario, if I’m in the final months before peak, I commit to doing the quality (see the comment about fear above). To support this commitment, I refrain from attending certain group rides or running with certain people based on what kind of training I know it will be, unless it matches the intent of the stage of periodization. Example: There’s a hard lunch ride called the SAS ride that I did twice this year to help bring me to a peak. I would NEVER do this ride any other time of the year, even though I enjoy riding with those people. On the flip side, I stopped doing trail runs with my ultra running friend in mid to late summer and told him I’d be back after my two A races. I enjoy both kinds of training, but there’s a time for each.

    Jen: “But, on the flipside….do you ever think how much you could even improve with some feedback? Maybe you get that already…but that is the question that needs to be asked. I am a much better athlete because of my coach – no doubt about it…but I also think that is my personality….thrive on feedback and affirmation and accountability…I know you have mentors in the sport – and you probably talk to them about things…but just asking is all.”

    Alicia: No need to qualify your question. It’s a valid one that any intelligent person would ask. A couple things – I do have people I can bounce things off of when I need to, but I often find that I answer my own questions when I do so. The other relevant issue that you mention is your motivational preference for supporting and relating. Remember this post? http://aliciaparr.com/blog/?p=2070 Looking at the Basic Motivations section of the post, it highlights how we’re all a little different in what keeps us motivated. What’s important is matching your personal motivation needs with the performance system you use. In your case, you need one or more people with whom you get the support and opportunity to discuss & relate. I am different than you, deriving satisfaction and motivation from maintaining an element of control over my own plan with an eye on analyzing the details. No particular way is inherently better. It’s the matching of system to person that’s most important.

    Jen: “But, on the flipside….do you ever think how much you could even improve with some feedback?”

    Alicia: Of course! Often times I can find in various subject matter experts that I know, but, yeah, if I had THE RIGHT COACH for me, that would be of value. Over the years, I’ve researched different coaches with a mind to who I would hire if I decided to invest in that way. However, the cost-benefit analysis of extra value and money investment hasn’t measured up yet, especially lately when the consulting income hasn’t been quite so lucrative.

    Jen: “The other question that needs to be asked is this: how do you self-analyze your progress? In other words…as you get older….the ability to get faster – once you have been so fast – gets harder – so keeping a careful eye on that progress as a Master athlete is a challenging component of this”

    Alicia: I know we’ve all read about outcome goals and performance goals, where the first is awesome to achieve but the latter is what we should really focus on. At this point, I think we all know my outcome goals for the past season and how I track progress is on how I perform against my age group primarily and against all women secondarily. Performance goals are little more difficult to define and measure objectively, but a personal subjective assessment can be just as valuable since it is personal satisfaction that keeps me going in the sport. Essentially, success is continuing to learn new skills and enhance particular aspects of my athletic performance. For example, even years where I didn’t run any faster, I was getting more durable, gained more run endurance and improved my cycling significantly. I think that as we get more experienced, it pays to find our satisfaction in these narrower definitions of success. These things do enhance overall performance, but certainly not as rapidly and consistently as those earliest years in the sport when we gain through raw experience and building of fitness. I’ve found that I get the most personal satisfaction out of preparing for and doing something that scares me a little. This is what motivates me to sign up for a couple of ultra’s this winter. I also seek out triathlon goals that excite me and build off of the training that I’ve done over the prior years. In the case of 2011, the ultra run training should enhance my run endurance and durability. Then in late March I scale back the run mileage and gradually build in some quality to see if I can coax any fast running out of my legs in a few road races. In the meantime, I start a lengthy rebuild of my bike and swim fitness with an eye on Long Course Tri Worlds in November. That is a triple olympic distance race which I’ve done once before and with much success. It’s an exciting goal partly because I haven’t done anything nearly so long since 2007 and that’s a particular distance that I feel confident that I have the most untapped potential.

    Whew. That’s a lot of Q&A. Off to meet up with a friend for an easy spin! Keep the questions coming, folks!

  • Thanks, AP. Great feedback..not surprising at all, of course, but I am loving it. If I think of anything else, I will ask! Have a good ride!

  • Alisha Little

    I really like this entry! :o) Very well said.

  • Wanted to cross post this article by Gordo Byrn. It’s not about self-coaching, but note the section titled You Don’t Have to Live Like a Monk… What he says there is VERY CONSISTENT with my current approach.

    http://www.endurancecorner.com/Gordo_Byrn/coaching_competition

  • yes, I saw that article too – very good one!

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