Looking back to go forward - My 7 pointers for the postseason prognosis

‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face’

The famous quote attributed to Iron Mike Tyson encapsulates the unpredictability and resultant emotional trauma of the competition season.

As the season draws to a close you will feel like you have gone 12 rounds with Iron Mike. Not the post Buster Douglas, in prison, ear biting Iron Mike, but the late eighties, rip you to pieces, baddest man on the planet, Iron Mike.

It can be a really confusing time for both coaches and athletes.

As a coach, you got into this game to help people and contribute value to other people’s lives. But what if you can’t make sense of what happened and know what do next? Do you just pretend and give some superficial ‘everything will be ok’ feedback?

Or do we really want to establish an accurate take on the season and dispense some game changing honest, ego-less, agenda-less, feedback that is going to prove a platform to a growth of our program and the person we are trying to help?

As an athlete, every man and his dog are giving you feedback. And it is noisy and it is hard to know what is real and what’s not.

Agenda free feedback is hard to pick out. And should you really listen to the criticisms from your mom’s hairdresser, who once watched an Usain Bolt documentary?

So here are my 7 tips for getting through the noise and confusion of the postseason, to help ensure you do an accurate debrief and make a good assessment of where you are at and what you need to change to ensure success in 2018.

1. Recover first; review second

Four months of adrenaline and cortisol swimming through your system. Four months of flight and fight responding. Four months of blood rushing to the primitive part of your brain.

So this has to be the perfect time to assess the season…right? Bring together a complex series of events and pull out a coherent narrative. Listen to people with absolutely no coaching credentials and take their advice as gospel.

Ok, maybe not. But this is what we — athletes and coaches — all do. You need answers. You need certainty. You need closure. But this is not the right time to look back. This is the time to recover. Swing the pendulum to the other side of life for a bit.

Holidays, cocktails, late nights, long morning’s, high heels, bad food, milkshakes and all the other stuff you can’t do for 10 months of the year.

Whatever you do, don’t start narrative building from limited data points and other people’s opinions. Don’t rush to conclusions. And definitely, don’t change your coaching philosophy or coach based on a few lines of criticism from the aforementioned hairdresser turned coaching expert.

Take Away: Make a promise to put all thinking and analysing on pause. Yes, you will come back to it, but first get your body and mind off high alert.

2. Establish facts and get perspective

I love the above quote from Carl Sagan. It sums what you need to do next. Get some space between you and what has just happened to get a sense and shape of how this season fits into the overall journey.

You have let yourself recover. The brain starts to settle. You come off high alert. You are no longer driven by fear and surviving from one race to the next. Blood is floating back into the prefrontal cortex. And if feels good. You can now start deconstructing the season.

So where do you start? Well, we need a balanced and factual understanding of the outcome of our efforts. You can’t look at that one off performance with a +2.0, at 997m, with the meet promoter shielding the wind gauge, and conclude the season was a success.

So get the wind calculator out and adjust all the times from this season. And then adjust all the times from previous seasons. Then produce a wind adjusted career best top ten.

The size of the impact of this season on the all-time top ten gives you a wider perspective of how the season has gone. And gives you an accurate launching pad to delve deeper into understanding the season.

Take Away: Don’t hang conclusions on outlier performances good or bad. Establish a balanced and factual account of what happened and how it fits into the big picture.

3. Take full responsibility for your performances

Bill Burr (comedian) does a sketch about a 37-year-old man during some turbulence on a flight making screeching noises. He describes wanting to turn around and tell the guy to ‘push it down, act like a man…at least act like you got answers’.

Here is the paradox of being a coach. During the turbulence of the competition season the public, out-facing, persona is being the guy with the answers — or at least acting like the answers guy.

This has to be combined with the inward facing, soul-searching, fumbling around in the dark, trying to make sense of it guy. If you have one without the other, you are not authentic, people will sense it, and there is a limit on how far your bullshit will travel.

External blaming and scapegoating is a quick and easy fix. But remember, and I heard this philosophical gem recently on a Netflix show (It is cheesy as hell. Please don’t judge me), if you are pointing your finger at someone else there are always 3 fingers pointing back in your direction. Let that baby sink in.

Take Away: Blaming externally, out-with the athlete-coach partnership, keeps credibility and confidence intact. But it doesn’t provide you with the catalyst for the inner transformation that is going to provide learnings, and ultimately the direction you need for the next part of your journey.

4. Merge global trends with local trends

Ok, we know process drives results. And the process of creating fast sprinting involves many moving parts. Any anyone who watched England attempt to wedge Scholes, Lampard and Gerrard in the same midfield knows that having good parts alone doesn’t necessarily mean a good outcome.

So how did the constituent parts trend this year? And how did they gel together? Get stride length and stride frequency data if you can. Has that changed this year? How about the volume of running spent at different speeds? How about your power and strength outcomes? Or the number of training days affected by illness or injury.

You get the picture. Take a look at the component parts and get an idea of what direction they have moved in this year.

Our all-time time top ten presents a global trend of the ‘whole’ that we can now merge with our investigation of the local trends of the ‘parts’.

Be careful not to draw firm conclusions and make big reaches at this stage. I for one don’t trust my conscious thinking to solve this puzzle yet. I got a C in maths, so however much my ego is telling me I am right, I am not trusting my statistical prowess to start to cross reference these data sets and pull out accurate conclusions.

What I do trust is the power of my unconscious. I hold the information. I don’t pick it apart. I let it wash over me. I share and communicate. And over time amazing things happen. I will be doing something completely different — taking a nap or cooking dinner — and an insight will appear. And it will make sense. And I have just learned something important I can take forward. And I didn’t even have to try.

Take Away: Merge global trends with local. Store the information for future use. Let your unconscious do the rest.

5. Debrief (with the right people)

In Dan Pfaff’s recent article about barriers to championship performance — a must read by the way — he states that ‘communication is oxygen to relationships’.

Communication is also the oxygen to the joint unconscious of two people picking out the relevant pieces of information from the sea of information you have both have gathered.

Pick relevant people to debrief the season with including mentors and outside parties. But, remember certain outsides parties will have agendas. So be selective in who you debrief with.

The single most important meeting is, of course, the athlete-coach debrief. If handled correctly it can combine the natural intelligence of two people and bring out the key insights, you have been looking for.

One thing is really crucial here. Don’t enter the conversation with your conscious mind eager to show what it knows. As a rule, you don’t learn anything when you are talking, so ask good questions and then really listen. Absorb the flow of information but don’t try and grasp it too tightly. And 100% per cent, don’t play defense.

The initial exchanges are often superficial and not super relevant. Keep digging. The number one important question is ‘Is there anything else on that?’ Keep asking that question whenever a pause arrives. You’d be amazed about what is on the other side of that question.

Take Away: The central relationship is athlete-coach and with a proper debrief, a really good consensus can be reached and forward mapping can start.

6. Don’t obsessive with fixing parts and forgetting the whole

In David Niven’s 2015 book ‘It is not about the shark’ he talks about how we are addicted to putting problems first and how this, depletes stamina, dents our creativity, open up our insecurities and actually makes it less likely to find the true answers we are looking for.

He recalls the story of Steven Spielberg in the making of Jaws, having a real problem with the central star of the movie — the mechanical shark — which was having technical issues. So the obvious solution is to put all efforts into fixing the shark, right?

What did Spielberg do? He didn’t focus on the problem. He filmed the shark less. And by doing that created a better solution, which was a movie built on the menace of the shark you don’t see.

We do this in track all the time. Trying to fix obvious things but not fully understanding the situation. For example trying to solve an obvious poor start, diverting attention away from your exceptionally good closing speed. But not really grasping that the slow start was, in fact, helping you set up the back end of the race.

Yes, we can have ideas. But know for sure? What if we just admit that we don’t really know what is going on 100 per cent.

The phrase that really helps me here is, ‘it appears to me that…’ This gives my ego a boost that I at least have ideas, but it reminds me deep down that it is just a temporary read of the situation and keeps me creatively open.

Take Away: Accept that you are working in a complex environment that has layers that make it hard to really know 100 per cent. Be creative with your conclusions from the debrief but open to the possibility that you may have to keep your theories fluid.

7. Use the debrief to identify internal growth opportunities

As a coach don’t beat yourself up too much. And as an athlete don’t beat your coach up too much. The very harsh truth is that it is on you.

No coach out there can write the perfect training program for you and give you all the answers. We are just not that smart, and the truth is perfect training programs don’t exist and the answers are time and context specific.

What gets it done is the athlete-coach axis working together at a standalone point in time, using each other’s experience and skills for support.

People are successful all the time from imperfect, chaotic training practices. To a certain extent, every athlete who has ever won something has got it done on an imperfect training process.

So work with a coach and team people that suit you at this time point in your career. Don’t outsource the responsibility of your career on them. Ask them what they thought of last year. Ask them to advise. Work in partnership with them. But don’t miss the key determinant of success - You.

Take Away: ‘Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.’ - (George Addair). Do you want to be successful in 2018? Look back over last season with honesty. Take responsibility. And be brave enough to acknowledge that everything you want to achieve in 2018 is not reliant on external circumstances but accessible through your own internal determination.

Steve Fudge is a professional Sprint Coach for British Athletics. He coaches elite sprinters, mentors Sports Coaches and provides consultancy services to professional sports people and staff. You can follow him on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/stevehfudge Or access his website here: http://stevefudge.co.uk

Photo credits: Dr Peter C Simmons