Investing for the long term

What’s the line that appears somewhere in every set of tips to improve your performance?  “Get a coach”.  In the worlds of cycling, running and triathlon that tends to mean ‘find someone to sort out your training programme for you’:  Someone to tell you what to do each day and to plan your sessions.  That’s better than simply following a standard training plan, the thinking goes, because the plan is customised for you and you alone.  Or at least there is someone who should know what they’re doing taking charge.

I’ve seen and heard enough of this type of remote correspondence coaching to be a bit skeptical.  It’s quite easy to create a training plan, especially with few constraints – but a plan like this is only ever going to be fitness plan.  That’s OK, maybe, if your limiting factor is fitness – but  what if the limiting factor is not fitness?  That might not be a problem, of course, but if you’re hiring a coach as an investment surely you want more than a temporary boost.

Fitness is temporary.  There are certainly adaptations from long-term training that take a long time to disappear, but in essence your fitness is a function of the training that you’ve been doing recently.  If you know how to get fit and stay fit you don’t need to worry too much about losing fitness because you can get it back.  If that were not the case any injury would be career ending.  The best athletes and coaches know how to hit peak fitness at key times and don’t waste unnecessary energy being fitter than they need to be at other times.  What they make sure they don’t lose, however, is their technique.

The young triathletes that I coach probably get a bit sick of me putting on my best pantomime voice to ask “What does practise make?” and they know that the answer that I’m looking for is not “perfect” but “permanent”.  Practise makes perfect only if what you practise is perfect.  The downside of practising is that the more you do something, and the more natural it becomes, the more difficult it is to change.   The upside is that once you’ve learned good technique you have it for good.

This was really brought home to me a couple of years ago when I inherited my family piano.  I enjoyed playing it as a child and, though I stopped having lessons soon after I started, I practised a few pieces that I liked and learned to play them quite well.  Then I left home and didn’t play at all for nearly 30 years.  After all that time I sat in front of it …and didn’t know where to start.  So I dug out my first piano book and started at page one.  An hour or so later I’d gone right the way through all of the exercises and played every piece.  So I went through a few more.  In a nutshell I could play all of the pieces that I used to be able to play, and I couldn’t play anything that I hadn’t played before.  The things that I’d practised all those years ago were still tucked away in my memory – a little dusty, perhaps, but pretty much fully intact.  

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Next I decided to try to learn a few new pieces.  Following the teachings of Joy Lisney I decided to learn them well enough to play without the music in front of me.  Joy does this stuff for a living and learns entire scores:  It took me weeks to learn my first page.  But now it’s in there and I can find it – and and a few more pages too.  After a few minutes sitting at the piano I put them together in my mind and play them through.  It seems I can still learn new things at 50.

Swimming, cycling and running technique is much the same.  Learn it well and it’s with you for ever.  Learning it from scratch is relatively easy:  Kid’s stuff – literally.  Learning by modifying your existing deeply entrenched technique is, for most people, extremely difficult – difficult to the point that it might even be worth learning something completely new from scratch alongside and thinking of old technique and new technique as different activities.

You’ve probably come across drills:  single arm drills for swimming, single leg drills for cycling, butt-flick drills for running…  Drills are the way to learn technique.  Just ‘doing’ them probably won’t work, however – so having them written into your programme by a remote coach probably won’t work either.  Every good drill is the result of a coach’s thought process:  “How do I isolate this particular aspect of technique?”.  To get the benefit of the drill you have to understand it and learn how to do it perfectly.  The process of learning to do the drill properly is as important as repeating it.  Getting it wrong, or not understanding it, could be worse than a waste of time.  Most drills are easier to learn to do properly than ‘full technique’, that’s part of the point, but some drills seem harder.  Those are often the drills that really highlight the subtlety of the activity and mastering them takes your performance to a new level.

You might think that hiring a coach to set your programme is a good investment.  But for long-term returns the best investment might be hiring a coach to help you master technique.

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