Standing Out from the Crowd: In Pursuit of Excellence

In my last blog of the year, I’m going to talk about standing out from the crowd. I’ll reflect on some of my own experiences of ‘standing out’ and relate that to the pursuit of excellence, whether as an athlete or coach.

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Introduction

Rob the running coach had just outlined the session for the evening “800m x 8 at 5km pace with 1 min 15sec recovery”. Simple enough! I set off with a large group but was soon on my own. “Wow……some people have improved vastly” I thought. They’re running fast.

My 1st lap done in 1:42, ventilation under control. It was absolutely tipping it down, water was dripping in my eyes and a squelching noise accompanied every foot strike. Lap 2 @ 1:42. Spot on. “What? Where is everyone going? The fools! They’ve skipped 30 seconds worth of the recovery”.

It was a lonely night of running despite it being a club session. I had done every repeat, bar one on my own. Despite this I was happy. Every 400m had been ± 2sec from target and the final one hadn’t been too stressful. Session aim achieved. I recalled an article I had read on the Runners World website on people running too fast or too slow and felt smug!

A few weeks previous, I presented at a careers day at my old university. Prior to my talk, there had been an MBE, a top sports-woman, a league football manager and a CEO all giving inspirational presentations. The key theme was how important it was to stand out from the crowd to have a successful career in sport.

It was my turn. 150 students and esteemed guests waited for Dr Kirkland’s inspirational vignettes. Striding onto the stage in a Billy Connollyesque fashion, ready to perform. I was introduced by a small group of students as “an elite sports consultant” or something similar. Not quite as bad as the story in the Glasgow Herald in which I was Chris Hoy’s sports scientist but sloppy all the same.

The lecture theatre was silent ! Blank faces staring down at the bald wonder.  “I want a volunteer…..any volunteers?” I asked. Silence! Heads dipped to avoid eye contact.

“That’s good……I didn’t really want a volunteer” I said in riposte.

Turning to the fellow presenters I called out “good job people”, albeit in jest. After an hour of pontification from inspirational speakers specifically on standing out from the crowd, not one person was willing to stand out! I was saddened but not surprised. I then recalled how I often take inspiration from the Royal Institution’s Christmas lecture for children. It’s always presented wonderfully by an eminent scientist who engages with the young audience. When a volunteer is asked for, a sea of eager little hands appears. Every snotty nosed geek wants to be picked. But what was the difference between my audience and the Royal Institution one?

Sir Ken Robinson talks about kids losing their natural creativity through rote type education. Could it be similar that as people mature, they simply learn not to stand out from the crowd. Speaking with a friend on the subject, she suggested a relationship between levels of engagement and UCAS points i.e. students on better courses and who have achieved better exam results are more willing to engage. I’d like to think this isn’t the case, but I’m yet to convince myself to the contrary.

But this is a sport and coaching blog, so what’s my point? Well…I believe to be a good athlete or coach means putting your head above the parapet and being brave enough not to worry about having it shot off. That doesn’t necessarily mean being gregarious or extrovert. Being quiet and introvert is fine too. Rather, it’s a prerequisite to be disciplined, to stand out and aspire to excellence.

Excellence for Athletes

Excellence is simply about doing the best job possible and never resting on laurels. In sport, I personally don’t prescribe to ‘it’s the taking part that’s important’ even though I’m not particularly well endowed in athletic terms. Rather, I want to say to myself that I couldn’t have done any better. For example, I cried after the Sandman Triathlon and disengaged with the world until I had no choice to do otherwise. I had worked hard to the point of collapse and had lost around 8mins on the run! Why? I hadn’t thought of the implication of the bike being 60km rather than 40km on my feeding strategy and had hit the wall. Totally avoidable, inexcusable and far from excellence.

Kenta G certainly stands out!
Kenta G certainly stands out!

Having an excellence mindset means mastering the basics first and then focussing on the small details to fine tune performance. If a dead end is reached, it may mean ‘letting go’ and starting all over again. It also involves developing the skill and discipline to perform in the right place at the right time.

The next time you’re at a race, take a moment and observe what everyone else is doing. Most people will be mulling around chatting or looking terrified. But how many are going through their pre-competition routine? Who is physically warming up or going through mental preparation? Who is doing their own thing? Who stands out?

Following the crowd may be easier, but this path of least resistance is hardly ever the most satisfactory or effective one. To perform optimally requires hard work, discipline and above all the bravery to try new things. Don’t be a sheep but rather follow your own path when it’s the right thing to do. That means sticking to a session goal, even when the ‘red mist’ has descended for the rest of the training group.  If the aim is to go slow, go slow, if it’s to go fast, go fast and if recovery is 30 seconds why on earth take 20 seconds….apart from because you’re a proverbial sheep or undisciplined?

Of course, it’s human nature to attempt to fit in, to become attached to people or things, even when they are negative or wrong.  Even when things are going well, to make them go even better often requires a substantial change. A brave athlete will know when to let go, to leave the past behind and to embrace the future, whatever that may bring. I particularly like this video of an interview with Lisa Norden and her coach Craig Alexander in this regard. It says more than I ever can!

Excellence for Coaches

My current favourite coach is currently Jo Calado. She’s different; one who stands out from the crowd and is willing to try new things. Her sessions are innovative, fun and very well thought out. At Halloween, Jo delivered a ‘zombies’, killer swim set that involved kicking and deep core work. It hurt like hell, was technically challenging and I learnt something new. I swallowed half the pool every time I didn’t kick hard enough. But there was Jo, waiting at the end of the lane with a huge smile and a technically correct coaching point for every single swimmer. At 21 years old, understanding and being able to communicate ’cause and effect’ in swimming is an exceptional talent and Jo has it. Not only that, sessions are great fun too!

Coach Jo!
Coach Jo!

I’ve observed very many coaches, some of them in world class performance environments but the most impressive seem to be swimming ones, or so I thought. “How the hell can they use 3 complex stopwatches simultaneously and get the timing right to within a few 10th’s?” I think. Skilled man! Oh wait…..it is almost impossible to evaluate complex techniques when performing such a complex motor task yourself! Maybe they’re missing a trick.

The easy option for coaches is to deliver 10 x 100m set at race pace or whatever. It’s what most people expect. I’m one of these people. I love a savage physical workout even if it means crawling once I’m finished. For many endurance athletes, hard physical sessions are in their comfort zone though. It’s what they enjoy and a primary reason why they do sport. These sessions are easy to coach, and as we already know, most people follow the path of least resistance…… Athletes and coaches are satisfied but training is usually sub-optimal because technique is rarely the focus. The fact is that this is an area where many performance gains can be achieved.

It’s worth remembering that many coaches have to work with large groups, accommodating broad rather than the individual needs of athletes. Compromise is required as sessions can’t be all things for all people. However, even in high-performance environments, some coaches get lazy, falling into the trap of doing what they always do. Short cuts have no place on the path to excellence though, regardless of whether at grass-roots or Olympic level.

Are Some Coaches Missing the Point?

Training and racing is not meant to be easy. As fatigue begins to bite, all the body’s systems are pre-programmed to tell us to stop. To overcome this unwanted voice requires absolute focus and discipline.  Athletes need to love what they do to drown out this voice…..ok, being driven by ego, inner-pain or fear of failure may work too…..everyone is different.  But I believe people work at their best when they’re happy and enjoy what they do. Forgetting about fun or taking life too seriously may limit performance.

Smiling relaxes the body and a relaxed body goes fast!  Being in a happy training group is pleasant and people seek out pleasant feelings. Happy people tend to perform better than sad ones. So why do many coaches take themselves and their sessions so seriously? Maybe it’s because they think is expected of them and or they are resistive to change. But fun, games, mock races and creativity works just as well for adults as for children.

Ok, there are times for seriousness too but not all the time. A coach who can laugh, can admit when they are wrong and who continues to seek new and innovative solutions will stand out from the crowd. My guess is that the athletes that they coach will respect them more for it and prosper as a result. Being happy is an important goal!

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Summary

Standing out isn’t something we should do for the sake of it, but it’s sometimes essential on the path to excellence. Sitting back and letting things happen or not embracing change will never lead to excellence though. Doing ‘stuff’ differently from the crowd can lead to a bumpy ride and will not always go to plan. However, being a sheep will inevitably lead to you being herded up and put in a pen without truly exploring what is possible. Ok…if everyone thought like this, the world would be carnage……but do you want to be the norm or the positive outlier?

jan

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