Part III: Training Made Simple- Strengths and Weaknesses

A few weeks ago, I’ve talked about The Snickers Paradigm and Planning for the Season Ahead. This week I’ll explore identifying Strengths and Weaknesses.

Calum Winning!


What a challenge to keep a blog up to date. It’s like doing an assignment a week for Uni’ without anyone wielding a big stick if I don’t get it done. The positive is that I’m getting a great level of engagement, especially from abroad so it’s definitely worth while. This blog has been a challenge to write simply because there are so many tangents to go off on. As ever, I’d love to have your comments and input, especially if you disagree, that I have missed something or if you have a completely different perspective. Anyway, enough of my gibbering.

I was at a talk by Olympic javelin thrower Steve Backley number of years ago and a questioner asked “why do you think you’ve been successful?” and he told the following story:

His coach asked him to list everything he needed needed to do and the key attributes he needed to win an Olympic medal. Initially, Backley listed around 20 things. His coach then said “now go away and make a proper list and make sure you leave nothing out”. He made a list of literally hundreds of things than he needed to do, then the important bit; he worked through the list to address everything on it, making sure nothing was left to chance. (it is my view that OCD is a key attribute of most successful athletes). He achieved his goal, stating that the process gave him the belief that he couldn’t have done more!

Steve Backley giving a talk
Steve Backley giving a talk

To achieve your true potential in sport, whether as a coach or an athlete takes real commitment and planning. An ability to identify your strengths and weaknesses is a key part of the planning process. In this article, I’ll introduce a few basic concepts to help you identify your own, to help prioritise your training. In subsequent weeks I’ll focus more on specific ways to start building a complete training programme.


Goal Setting and Performance Mapping

Not every subject is sexy and goal-setting is certainly the Anne Widdecome (a right-wing politician known for intolerant views) on the sexyness scale. It’s an essential motivational tool though, and to train without appropriate goals is to settle for mediocrity. I’ve previously discussed planning a race schedule, that is setting specific performance goals. But, how do you go about achieving them? What are the demands of your event? What are the physical, psychological, technical and tactical attributes you need? What are your strengths and weaknesses relative to these attributes? Simply ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the demands of my event?
  • Am I currently able to be able to meet those demands?
  • If not, what do I need to do to get there?

Your answers should help inform on relevant strengths and weaknesses and subsequently on what kind of training you should be doing (or prescribe training to your athletes).

If you’ve been competing for many years, you’ll probably have an excellent awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. It’s then simply a case of identifying a few small areas to work on. Think back to the Backley story though, as you may be missing a trick or 20. If you’re younger or relatively new to the sport, that means going back to basics to develop the foundations required to perform well in your chosen event. The Snickers Paradigm shows the foundations of performance and this is a good starting point to identify the basics you need to prioritise in training.


The diagram above demonstrates a basic performance mapping tool. The scale used is somewhat arbitrary, with 0 representing being absolutely crap with no ability in that particular area and 10 being the dogs noo nah’s with absolutely no room for improvement. With my coaching hat on, I’d ask an athlete to rate themselves on each component and then be ready to discuss the reasons behind their rating. In this example, the athlete’s skill has been rated as a ‘3’ so this would become a priority in training.

I’d then integrate specific skill and technique sessions into the training plan to address athlete weaknesses. It’s important not to neglect areas of strength or lose sight of what the athlete enjoys doing in training. For example, a weakness in my own swimming is that my stroke rate is too low and the glide phase lasts too long to be effective in open water. I’m struggling to change it because it ‘feels’ so inefficient and its no fun. Although, this has now become a focus of my training, I’d soon get frustrated and lose motivation if I worked on it all the time. Much better having quite a bit of what I fancy and a wee bit of what I don’t.

You’ll notice that the weakness identified relate to technique. Regardless of my technical knowledge, it would have been nigh on impossible to identify this limitation on my own. Rather, the input from a good coach was essential. Identifying strengths and weaknesses on your own is a real challenge and it’s especially difficult to remain objective about yourself. It’s a job best done with the input from a coach you trust!

Goal SettingI sign when I hear “goal setting” just because it’s mentioned so often. However, there is good reason. Goal-setting is the most valuable and effective motivation tool out there; the process of agreeing them underpins virtually every intervention in coaching practice. Goals are most likely to be achieved when following SMART principles (specific, measurable, achievable, recorded and time framed). For example “by the end of May, my average cadence in a time trial will have increased to 95 rpm”.It’s basically a carrot dangling exercise. As a coach, I like to see objective data on how an athlete is progressing and the ‘M’ of SMART is something I like to focus on. This requires regular performance tests such as time trial efforts or simply monitoring power data. I’ll talk about testing sometime in the future.

If using a fancy diagram is too systematic for you, asking what the key focuses of training should be will suffice. For example, if an athlete is fast at the beginning of a race then fades towards the end, endurance may be a weakness. An appropriate goal should be set and then training should focus on improving endurance. Similarly, if an athlete struggles with attacking or changing pace rapidly, speed and high intensity intervals may become a priority. Just make sure you follow the SMART principles of goal setting, otherwise it’s easy to ‘sweep failed goals under the carpet’.

Darren Smith

At the foot of the page, I’ve given an example of my own strengths and weaknesses, based on my performance goal for next season: to do a 2hr 20min Olympic distance triathlon. I’ve got a pretty good self-awareness, mainly because of experience and an excellent knowledge of the sport. However, it’s worth re-iterating that setting current priorities in the pool would not have been possible without the input of a coach.

Regardless of my knowledge and experience going through this process on my own isn’t ideal. It’s too easy to ignore my own goals if I go through a bad patch and lose a little motivation. Therefore, I’d recommend that even if you can’t afford to employ a coach in the long-term, it’s worth paying for a one-off consultation to objectively identify what your goals should be.

The next in this series is on prioritising training, based on all the previous stages of planning, so until then ciao!

  Performance Goals Strengths Weaknesses Goals for next 6 weeks
Swim 26min 30 swim(1:46m per 100m)
  • Pacing
  • Confident in open water
  • Focus on increasing SF to 25 strokes per 25m.
  • Stroke frequency too low
  • Limited hip rotation preventing good body position.
  • Think about hip rotation in every session- don’t get lazy
  • Reverse periodised sets- work on maintaining race pace for 200m sets.
Bike 68 min (35.3 kph)
  • Doesn’t take long to develop bike fitness
  • Good aerobic endurance
  • Pacing.
  • Climbing ability
  • Riding in aero position
  • Technical ability limits performance.
  • Reduce mass
  • All turbo sessions on TT bike.
Run 44 min (4:24 min/km)
  • Love doing it
  • Ability to push hard
  • Good, relaxed form.
  • Mass limiting speed at moment
  • Injury.
  • Stay injury free
  • Variety of speed and endurance runs, depending on knee.
  • Nothing too specific because of injury.
Transition 40 sec
  • Well organised transition area.
  •  Feel dizzy after swim
  • Can’t do moving mount.
  • None at moment. Await club sessions.



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