Too many coaches hold the view that more is better when it comes to training volume and this belief is hurting their athletes.
Most of the conversations I have with coaches about a lack of progress focus on the athlete and not the poor program design. I hear things like “the athlete just isn’t getting it” or “they are losing focus” or “the athlete is weak and needs to work harder”. I have yet to hear a coach say “I’ve asked them to do more work than they can recover from” or “I don’t really know what I’m doing so I just get the athlete to do more” or “I train them the way I trained 20 years ago and don’t really feel like advancing my understanding by learning”.
I’m not implying that these coaches do not know how to make their athletes better at their sport because many of them do; they have an eye for the sport and can see things that more people can’t. In fact, many sport coaches are the only people who can coach the skills with their athletes. The issue is, they don’t understand the body well enough to understand that their athletes are failing to make progress because the brain cannot control the muscles to the precise degree needed to make the progress and instead blame the athletes will or focus.
Why are the athletes not progressing? There are two reasons, the muscles are not recovered enough to move as required and the nervous system is not recovered enough to coordinate the muscle fibers to move as required.
In the car racing world a driver can tell his mechanic that the car isn’t responding correctly when he press down the accelerator. The mechanic will then take a look, uncover the problem and fix it. A damaged spark plug for example will limit the amount of power that an engine is able to generate and once it is replaced, the engine goes back to full power. This is like the muscle not being fully recovered. A chef may find that he’s burning all of the items he tries to fry and when he looks at the stove realize that the gas dial goes from off to full with nothing in between. Once the dial is fixed to allow for precise heat adjustments the chef regains the ability to cook foods perfectly. This is like fixing neurological fatigue.
Cooking and car racing have one thing in common that most sports don’t have – a tool that acts as a medium between the individual and performance. This medium can be examined, shown to be malfunctioning and adjusted to function correctly. With most sports, the medium is the athletes body so it’s harder to figure-out the cause of malfunctions and since it’s harder to figure-out or see what is causing them, the first impulse is to blame the athletes will or conscious effort.
This is, when dealing with high level athletes, completely wrong. These individuals work hard, have greater focus than most people and are driven to perform better and better each workout. Their body’s however, cannot perform at a higher level each workout because of muscular and neurological fatigue and without sufficient recovery, their performance decreases. The coaches solution of making them do more reps, more cardio, more anything only serves to decrease their performance further, which will make the coach work them harder.
The good news is that body won’t allow this to continue for every long and the athlete will get sick well before they work themselves to death, which most high level athletes will do because of their work ethic. After about 6-7 weeks of over training, illness takes over and the athlete can’t perform at all. They take a few days off to recover from the illness which allows their body to recover and when they get back to their sport, they perform much better. The coach is happy and feels good knowing that they did a good job because of the improvement. They attribute the illness to a cold or flu and they start the cycle again – performance will begin to decrease after a few weeks as the athlete “loses focus” and the illness will return.
This pattern will continue until the coach smartens up, the athlete switches coaches, the athlete quits their sport or the athlete becomes aware enough to dictate the pace of training and lets the coach know that they are taking a few days off when they need to. Unfortunately, too many young and promising athletes will leave the sport and never actualize their potential because the fun leaves the sport due to this avoidable pattern.
If you are a coach and you notice in your athletes a pattern of decreased performance followed by sickness, a lack of focus following intense training periods, dramatic increases in performance following time off or if your solution for everything is more training, you need to get back to school and learn about neurological and muscular fatigue. If you allow your athletes to continue this cycle YOU are failing them and you may be chasing them out of the sport they love.