What is the Measurable Difference of Coaching?

Often it can be enlightening listening to people claim that they 'need' a coach. Clearly, as an owner of a coaching company, I would be crazy not to agree! But is it worth it? How can you tell? Are there any times that you can identify a measurable difference as to how much coaching helps? As a coach we constantly try and highlight the usefulness of a coach and identify how the empathy, structure and camaraderie will make a difference along with having the right plan for you. However, all too often a coach's ability is determined by the number of podiums, qualifications or victories that their athletes have achieved and not that all important athlete-coach relationship or the process that got them there. You never hear what happens when athletes fail to hit their target but have still progressed. This article attempts to look at some measurable difference in performance which doesn't necessarily result in an obvious black or white outcome shown as a marketable success and this makes the demonstration of the achievement a lot more subtle. We look forward to hearing what you think.

Paul Hayward – Keep Away From the Cut Off: Break Goals Down!

Previously Paul did not believe he was going to make any cut off in any swim regardless of the distance. Coach Sorrel and he used structured, regular sessions focussing less on the total distance but rather on technique, then speed work, then endurance. He joined a local Tri club's swim sessions where camaraderie helped to motivate him – also it is harder to worry about how many lengths you have done when the person ahead of you has just pushed off! He only completed three sessions per week and did IRONMAN Austria in 1:28. He could have swum about 60% slower and still made the cut off! Clearly here we can look at what the IRONMAN distance cut offs could be (~3:40min/100m) and also highlight the importance of having that person 'in your corner' to help you push away the demons inside. Here the coach's role was less about motivating to do more, or hit "big" sessions; rather to refocus the attention of the athlete on something which is far less daunting and more motivational than a swim distance or speed. Breaking his goal into many more meaningful and achievable targets allowed everyone to focus on the process and build on each stepping stone making the final goal far easier to achieve. For Paul, to be focussing on the positive points of technical work meant he didn't worry (unnecessarily) about a cut off!

Dan Lubbock – Technical Improvements and "Doing the Boring Bits"

Michael Johnson notoriously said it wasn't until he started doing the parts of training he didn't enjoy (the S&C and stretching/rolling etc) that he started seeing significant improvements. Here we see a similar story on the 'unsexy' side of training! Dan was generally a good runner, but he found it difficult to put a  good bike and run together in a triathlon, struggling off the bike. After Coach Sorrel watched him race, did some analysis of his running and cycling styles, a plan was hatched: 

  1. A bike fit was scheduled and specific, exciting (not just the perceived boring Turbo) sessions to help him ride continually and deliberately at race pace which allowed approximately a 32% increase in Functional Threshold Power over six months.

  2. Simultaneously, she worked on his running. Firstly Sorrel looked at how he ran and felt there was some improvement to be made in his running form, flexibility and only then in his fitness. In essence she felt his running had collided with a glass ceiling. Dan now had to do the difficult, 'boring' and very repetitive work of running drills and mechanics. He showed a lot of commitment doing flexibility work, stretching, activation, drills, marching drills and high knees walking around his house or at any other available opportunity. It was certainly his commitment to the plan and not just seeking out the "fun miles" which helped him improve his efficiency and then his fitness allowed him to comfortably knock 30-seconds per km off his running pace after the bike with no change in effort – That is a 10 minute improvement in a half marathon time by doing less actual running!

Elaine Garvican – Process over Outcome

In 2013 and 2015 Elaine Garvican raced at the IRONMAN World Championships both of these were completed un-coached. In 2017, after working with Coach Philip for a couple of years Elaine had focussed a big result (top 5 – podium) in her age category: She came 8th. In the world of sport, it is an easy black or white, pass or fail result. In many instances, this is where the coach gets fired! However, we start to look at the performance compared to her previous results (all percentages are based from the 2013 season results) as well her age group result over the past 10 years and we see a remarkable trend:

When we look at purely her race results we can see that there is certainly a significant improvement (about an hour improvement in her time round the course – with a big part of that in the swim – overall there was only a 9% improvement in two years) but when we start delving into the different measures of success, we can see huge improvements: Her Age Category position improved by 82% on the previous years, her gender position has improved by 72% and a 50% improvement in her overall position as well. This last metric is very useful as we can compare more data points from the guys performance than purely her gender we can with the fewer ladies in the event. She didn't make the top five, but she was certainly on a trajectory which would put her in a good place to podium.

For a full breakdown of the race itself, please check out Russell Cox's Analysis of Kona here.

In many ways you can take the view that anyone can argue anything and find a positive improvement. However, Kona is fairly standard in its results, rarely are there huge differences year on year yet using the above images, you can see just how much improvement there is. Since coming on board for coaching with TTH in January 2016, there are so many changes that Elaine would have gone through (read about her initial reactions here or have a look in the search bar for more about how she has differed her approach these past two years). However, looking back at her season, consistency and her own self-belief and determination to do things right and not just to do them would all be key traits that made a meaningful difference in her approach to this season.

Mark Preston – Do the Simple things Consistently

Many triathletes look at swimming as the wet bit before the fun part of the race. Many of us would dream of being able to move effortlessly like the person two lanes over in your lunch break who really doesn't look like they should be able to swim so fast. In these instances it is really important to look back on where you have been to where you are now and be able to see how things have changed for you and not to measure yourself up against a random rival. Make yourself your own rival.

Mark Preston had improved his swimming CSS pace by one second per week over ten weeks. This improvement of 2.5 minutes over a 1500m swim with Coach Sorrel was done through working on technique, speed and endurance through structured session, consistently over the 10 week block. To reiterate that point, it was 10 weeks of swimming consistently working holistically at various different areas of his swimming. He was determined to improve his swimming and so focussed on hitting three sessions per week. This all started from a position we can all relate to as non-swimmers – "I am not a swimmer!". The lesson we learn from this is: are we training or exercising when we go to the swimming pool? Are we there to learn more about our stroke and performance or are we just wanting to boast at how many metres we swam? Are we being efficient with our training time to make the biggest gains? Am I aware of how much I have improved against myself or only against other people?

James Tugwell – Coaches Deal with Dreams

Coach Alan was working with James in the 18-24 category, focussing on a peak performance at IRONMAN Copenhagen, James's first Ironman. Initially, after the first set of testing, James was predicted a 10:30 race performance. After his second race (Wimbleball 70.3 – which he completed in 5:23 and 4th in his Age Category in his first Middle Distance Race) he was predicted 9:58 for his Copenhagen race. After more of the same focus of training, continual steady improvements meant he was finally predicted a best possible time of 9:30 (the perfect race!). This was one hour faster than his first prediction.

James finished in an impressive 9:43 taking 10th place in his age category, even with some wet weather on the day. When Alan had first asked him what his goal for the season was, he had said he would have been happy with anything under 11 hours. James demonstrated how sticking with the plan from A to B and not wavering keeps returning continual improvement. James demonstrated here that sticking to the process and completing the training set really does result in the achievement of an athlete's dreams. James went a good 12% faster than he ever possibly imagined – over an hour faster at an IRONMAN event – all by  following the plan, staying engaged and keeping grounded.

So What can you Learn?

All these examples above demonstrate different ways of looking at performance and none of them can be photographed as a winning margin. We would suggest that as an athlete, you have to consider more than just the outcome. I have worked with athletes who have moved on from working with me after breaking targets goals and ambitions but being beaten on the day by someone who was just faster. A coach can't help you have a perfect race, or control who else races, but they can help make the odds be more on your side (if you follow some of the lessons above). 

There are examples of people who have performed and achieved personal improvements. There are three very clear and common themes of what happened when they started working closely with a coach and focussed on the task at hand, all athletes can learn from the these aspects:

  • Self-belief and focus remained aligned - #believe

  • Consistency of training improved - #strive

  • Specific sessions which have structure and were specific to the individual meant enhanced improvements - #strive

  • = #achieve

All these athletes had a special attitude that can be summed up by the American Former World No. 1 Tennis player, James Spencer "Jim" Courier: "Sportsmanship for me is when the guy walks off the court and you really can't tell if he won or lost. He carries himself with pride either way". If we can get ourselves to the point that we know we performed as well as we can do, then we have succeeded. If we keep on doing this, then this performance will easily be transferred to an outcome which other people may recognise (a win, a record etc). However, that outcome only comes as a result of the process. Without the process, internally, the outcome is meaningless.