In this two-part Fast 10 blog, Jack Gray considers whether overly prescriptive coaching, underpinned by the prevailing conceptualisation of the athlete as a machine, can reduce the ability of athletes to think for themselves, and potentially quell their love for the sport.

In this article I build on the concept of athletic docility that I explored in my previous Fast 10 article, and advocate that coaches encourage athletes to take ownership of their running.

Specifically, I consider how the way we train, the way we understand training, and the way training programmes are administered, can either limit or enhance the fulfilment of our potential. 

At the outset of this article, I should state that the concepts of athlete engagement and ‘coaching mentality’ are highly complex and layered phenomenon, which cannot be fully explored in a magazine article.

Moreover, I also understand that the classic volunteer-led coach-athlete relationship, which keeps grass-roots British athletics alive, is usually a highly time-constrained environment; however, I would say that there should always be time for flexibility and compromise. 

Finally, to keep this article concise, my commentary centres on athletes who already have an understanding of the need for different components of a training programme, roughly when to apply them and, in turn, how they respond to said practices i.e. they are an experienced athlete who races regularly. 

Completing the programme: control or collaboration?

In a previous FR article, Coaching the individual, Tom Craggs explored how training should be individualised to an athlete’s body, motivation, lifestyle, and, crucially, how they physiologically respond to training practices.

Indeed, we know training programmes should consider the FITT (Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type) and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant/Realistic and Time-bound) principles, but how often do we think about how programmes should be administered, and the coach-athlete power relations behind them?

The temptation for many coaches, and especially those who coach at a distance, is to enforce strict control measures to prevent disruption to the programme.

However, such control measures have the potential to bind an athlete’s perceived degree of success too closely to their compliance with a training programme, often to the detriment of the athlete’s enjoyment and development. 

Bound to the king

The classic example of ‘the programme is king’ type attitude, can be found in abundance at Britain’s Universities.

Here club coaches, maybe wary that their talented athletes might be led astray by their newfound freedom or the ‘atmosphere’ that surrounds university coaches, often impress the importance of following their programme to an even greater degree; after all, “it’s how we got to where we are”. 

The ensuing rigidity and repetitiveness associated with a highly centralised form of coach-led control that is intended to ensure compliance (and thereby results), ironically has the potential to produce demotivated, disaffected and at worst disordered athletes.

Here, the athlete’s lack of ownership of their running can, too often, tragically reduce their love of the sport.

Just following the plan

On a practical day to day basis, following a programme without considering the environment it is completed within, can, for some athletes, mean an existence on the margins of a training group, neither fully engaged in the team dynamic nor reaping the benefits of training together.

For example, I have personally witnessed athletes of similar abilities, training at the same time on a track, doing nearly identical sessions (e.g. 8 x 800m and 6 x 1km at 5km pace), but not running together. Is there really any sense in that? Now, more than ever, we all know how difficult isolation can be, and value the camaraderie and training benefit a group can bring.

Whilst training plans should be tailored, and group running is inherently generalised, reasonable compromises should be made to cater for athletes mental as well as physical fulfilment. To put it simply, I take the view that training should be a flexible part of our lives and the situations we find ourselves in, rather than a timetable imposed upon it.

This flexible approach to training, has allowed me to develop as an athlete. Indeed, although I belong to a really strong training group at Cambridge and Coleridge AC, I also train with the Cambridge University group and the various alumni that are dotted about the city to suit my training needs.

Taking this one step further

The next step beyond simply adapting a plan to an environment is getting the athlete themselves to take ownership of these changes and start to understand the reasoning behind the sessions.

It has been said that a good coach aims to make themselves redundant through creating an athlete-centred environment and educating their runners. Thats the second half of Jack’s article coming later this week.

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