I use to believe that success at the highest level required training perfection. That there was a need to cross every “t” and dot every “i”. The more experienced I have become as a coach the more I realize that to seek perfection at all costs in an athletes training is ultimately the first nail in their coffin. Perfection creates increased stress levels, decreases recovery rates, and increases the chances of an athlete burning out and even quitting the sport entirely. It also damages teams, families, and coach/athlete relationships.
So why is good, better than perfect? Simply put, perfect causes both coaches and athletes to stick rigidly to a preset plan rather than being dynamic in the execution of that plan. To get the best possible result often you as a coach, and the athletes you work with must make decisions based on the information they have at that time. Sticking to a plan without considering the changing variables inevitably causes problems and less than ideal outcomes.
e.g., Last week I had an athlete that was only able to make it through 2/3 of a desired 6 x 7min cycling hill rep session due to a slightly late start and carrying a little more fatigue into the set that I was expecting. Because of these factors it would have put her late for work, as well as tipped her over the edge from a fatigue standpoint. So, with these factors in mind when she asked if I would allow her to leave early the decision was an easy “YES”.
Could I have forced her to stay to finish the workout perfectly? Of course. However, by doing this she would have been stressed about running late to work. This stress coupled with having pushed her beyond what was needed simply to “get it done” would have decreased her recovery rate, slowed down her adaptation to the training and given us a less than perfect adaptation response. It is important to remember that the goal is never perfect training, but rather gaining the maximum amount of improvement in the least possible time with the lowest possible risk to the athlete. Sticking to perfect training will almost certainly lead to imperfect results.
So how do you as a coach or athlete adjust to make sure that you maximize gains, decrease risks and improve race day results? The simple answer is to be flexible and empower athletes to make decisions for themselves? Sure, when athletes are starting out, they will need more oversight, control, and guidance. However, as an athlete’s experience in a sport grows, so should their input into the program.
By allowing athletes to take a greater role in the decision-making process athletes are placed in a position to excel. Yes, they will still need well structured, well supported programs but the rigidity at which they stick to that program should decrease and more flexibility from both coach and athlete alike should be incorporated. This approach is not designed to cut corners, but rather to take advantage of the relationship between Load, Recovery and Adaptation so that performance outcomes are maximized.
Having spent more than ½ of my life working with performance athletes I have noticed that the ones that succeed have one major thing in common, they can turn on or turn off their intensity and focus at will. When they are doing a quality session or a race, they are all business, but when the sessions are over and it is time to relax, they do. In fact, that is one of the primary differences I see between Elite/Pro athletes and upper-level AG athletes. This ability to control the level of intensity and to mitigate stresses caused by unforeseen training hurdles is often what makes the difference. It determines an athlete’s ability to stay in the sport long term. Those that do not have this ability either burn themselves out, or everyone around them leading to failure and/or a toxic training environment.
So how do we get the most out of our athletes? Balancing the relationship between, Load, Recovery and Adaptation is key. Yes, in a perfect world if an athlete can follow the plan as written, it will lead to the amount of loading being perfect. However, if that perfect loading comes at the cost of an athlete’s recovery or adaptation then the result will be anything but perfect. As coaches it is our job to balance these variables to get the best possible performance gains. When we stop thinking about perfect training being about hitting every session exactly the way it is written, but rather think about the desired performance gains with Load, Recovery (Mental and Physical) and Adaptation in balance then good, beats perfect every time.
Therefore, as athletes improve and their knowledge and understanding of their own bodies and training increases, they need to have a greater input into the planning an execution of their programs. While as a coach I can plan what I believe to be the perfect program, without their input and understanding on how they are recovering and adapting we will never get perfect results. Communication, feedback, and constant adjustment in conjunction with athletes is the only way to get maximum improvement and is a long way from the perfect plan we thought we wrote. With all the adjustments that will inevitably be made, its easy to look back on the training that was done as just good. Ironically though, it is these small adjustments that make “good”, and the performance gains that come from it, better than “perfect” every time.