In ski coaching, one of the biggest challenges we ever face comes right at the beginning of the relationship with any athlete: gaining a clear understanding of what we are working on together. Seems simple, right? The coach is there to help the athlete improve. That much is a given. But, if the athlete really wants to improve, the discussion should go a whole lot further: improve towards what end? At the very least, coach and athlete should sit down and hash out an end point goal for what their working relationship is structured around. After that, a multitude of questions come pouring forth—how much faster must the athlete be? what is holding her back in classic uphills? where can she gain time in downhills? how much time should be allotted for mental training? is the ski quiver adequate to the demands of competition? is she training too hard during easy training? is her nutrition good? is she balancing work, school, sport demands? what steps need to be taken to improve V2 in uphills? The list goes on and on. In the end, what both athlete and coach need is a clear understanding of their common goals. What they seek is clarity.
Clarity in coaching begins with listening: the athlete must dictate the end point, at least for the annual plan. Without hearing what the athlete wants, it is far too easy for us, as coaches, to prescribe training that is inappropriate to the time/motivation of the athlete. However, once the athlete has set a clear goal for the process, we can proceed with a straightforward series of questions:
1. Where is the athlete today, relative to the stated goal? In terms of speed, percentage back, total time back, technically, mentally and physiologically? These are simply data points from which we can begin to outline a plan forward.
2. What is the athlete’s training knowledge base? Without a clear understanding of basic training principles, an athlete has almost no chance of progressing without constant attention.
3. What are the athlete’s greatest weaknesses? Particularly with athletes heading into the early senior years, weaknesses should be addressed first—simply to bring the athlete on to “schedule” with her peers.
4. What are the athlete’s greatest strengths? Knowing where the athlete excels helps to plan not only training sessions, but specifically to make good tactical decisions in laying out both the overall competition schedule and race plans for individual events.
5. How much time is the athlete realistically willing to commit? Every athlete has a set point where training becomes much more than training—some can find balance training much more than 600 annual hours, others start to feel time crunched with fewer than 500 hours of training. Most athletes have school, work, social and family commitments, and health issues to balance with training. Planning more than the athlete can hope to handle is not only counter productive, but irresponsible.
Clarity in training begins with excellent athlete education. We are not simply physical coaches. We must also set aside adequate time (both within and outside of workouts) to explain the principles of both training and competition. Most athletes I’ve seen over the past two decades can readily declare a competition outcome goal: “I want to finish in the top 5 in the first carnival”. But, most athletes cannot tell me how much faster they need to ski over 15km in order to be in a position to achieve that top 5 finish. They do not readily know how much faster per kilometer 2 minutes in a 15km is. They have no idea what percentage faster than they are currently skiing 8 seconds per kilometer is. They aren’t sure if 4.6% faster is a realistic goal. Quite simply, most athletes are not educated enough to make good training decisions based on their own goals.
It is our job, as coaches, to bring clarity to this project. We all need to remain young enough to believe in revolution. Athletes can make the kinds of improvements required to hit their goals, but they must understand clearly just what it is they are undertaking. They need to be able to plan concretely as they prepare to dedicate thousands of hours of their time to sport. It is not enough for us, as coaches, to simply run practice. We need to educate toward a better understanding of just what it takes to achieve the lofty goals we hear each day.