Coaching today's athlete requires commitment, consistency and patience. Perhaps like no other time in history are student-athletes so overcommitted in the pursuit of college. Students are taking three, four, even five AP courses in a semester; participating in multiple academic clubs, robotics, music lessons; volunteering for community service, being active members of their youth church groups, working part time. They are participating in the school play, marching band, SAT study courses, not to mention other club sports all pulling at our athletes and demanding their full commitment.
When did it become so difficult to be a kid? When did the joy of learning become replaced by AP scores, or being committed to your team trumped by studying for the SAT? Students are getting less sleep and are more stressed than ever to perform in the classroom and for their team. The two or three sport athlete has been replaced by training year round on clubs and academies in the fear of being left behind due to pressure from the coach. It is too easy for our student-athletes to be swept up on the road to nowhere.
The Physiological Impact of Stress
In an experiment outlined on Steve Magness’ blog, The Science of Running, he analyzed an experiment by Hans Selye that formulated how we respond to stressors: Selye found is that if he removed the stressor soon enough, the mice would adapt and become better able to resist that stressor. If he left that stressor there too long, in many cases the mice would die or become less resistant to that stressor. So the key was giving them enough of a stressor to adapt but not too much.
In this experiment it didn’t seem to matter whether the stress was physical, environmental or emotional, the body responded to stress in the same way. It seems the body can only handle so much and it doesn’t matter the stressor. We see this all the time as coaches, if an athlete is going through a tough time at home or school they are not going to be able to adequately handle a hard training cycle. Something has to give.
The question we have to ask as coaches who are working with adolescents is: how much stimulus can an athlete handle to allow proper adaption when considering other stressors going on in the athlete’s life?
Training is a stress the body must adapt to. Through training the breakdown and rebuilding of the body is a complex process of a basic physiological concept: the body is stressed, it breaks down; the body adapts and builds itself back stronger. We oversimplify this process with a formula we use in planning our training: Hard Work + Recovery =Improvement. You cannot improve without the hard work, just as in the same way you cannot improve without recovery allowing your body to adapt.
Yet the part us coaches can easily be most obsessive about is the workout part; planning the season months in advance, fine tuning the workout to fit the individual needs of the team. We know when to implement threshold training and when to hit the intervals, all the while understanding the desired adaption and results from that workout. Our entire job is based on the assumption that when we give a workout followed by enough recovery that our athletes will improve. And for the most part this is correct… but not always. When things don’t work out as we plan we look for answers: Perhaps we pushed too hard, too early in the season or not allow enough recovery. Through the years the training becomes the easy part, but there is something more that coaches need to look into.
While we obsess on the physiological stresses of workouts we cannot forget to consider external stresses such as environmental factors, emotional state, nutrition, hydration, lack of recovery, weather conditions and illness. They all affect how the body adapts to training. It is easy to look at training in a closed system. What about life outside of running? Is there a balance for our athletes and what does it mean for those who are driven and want to be good at everything?
Trials of Miles, Miles of Trials
I tell my athletes at the start of the season that when they are initially getting in shape they are going to be "in the suck." But I also make sure they know that the suck starts to suck less and less as they get more fit. Training is a stress that the body adapts to with the understanding that there are limitations to training such as intensity and volume that developing runners can handle. If we push too hard too soon it leads to “burn out” and a lack of motivation because they haven’t adapted to the training.
Earlier this season one of my athletes sent me a message before practice, "I think I need Fridays to be my rest day." That was it. At first I was taken back, he already was missing Thursday due to his marching band commitment so missing another day was not ideal in his development or commitment to the team. I called him into my office for a little digging. He had shown potential; after a month of running the freshman ran under 2:10 for 800 meters on a part time commitment. He enjoyed running and came out for cross country. So what was the problem?
He was tired. He wasn't running for a college resume but because he genuinely enjoyed it. He found peace out on the trails and enjoyed the fight of competition. But the push from teachers and band directors and club soccer coaches was too much stress. He needed a day to just be a kid.
Often the excuse we hear as coaches is, “I’m too busy.” At first I am dismissive, running is hard and not for everyone. But maybe they really are “too busy.” It is no surprise that runners are the most eager and motivated in the summer and as the season moves through the semester and the stress of academia increases performances can wane and the dreaded flu runs through the school right at the end of the season. In the summer adolescents can get more sleep, not stressed by exams and research papers. As school moves through the dog days there is only so much stress your body can adapt to.
So what does this mean as a coach?
- Pay Attention to what is going on in their lives. As a high school coach it is impossible to keep tabs on every test, break-up and bad day but it is important to adapt your workout when you recognize it.
- In the end it is not a coach’s responsibility to be the motivator, it is to instill in his athletes the ability to become self-motivated. Teach your runners to love running and bring out the joy in what we do.
- Plan recovery into your training plan. Assure enough time for athletes to adapt to training stress before the next workout. Often they can handle a workout that “goes to the well,” they just need enough time to adapt to it before doing another one.
What does this mean for the athlete?
- Prioritize and find balance in your life, especially between athletics and academics. When you have key races or training coming up try to minimize outside stress.
- Communicate with your coach. This is essential as everyone responds to stress differently so be sure to let them know what’s going on.
- Understand that to be good involves sacrifice. You are going to need to give up some of the things you love.
- Stay healthy! Proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep are vital to staying healthy. Go to bed early (it’s not as “early” as you think it is). Sleep is how your body recovers, reduces stress and allows your body to adapt, recover and improve.
- After a hard workout stretch, roll, ice, and massage! These aid recovery; reduces tension and simply put makes you feel better.
- Don’t give up. You may feel you are too stressed to do a workout but never be too busy or stressed for a run. It is therapeutic and will help relieve your stress. Numerous scientific studies show you get higher test scores following exercise and a good night’s sleep.
Stress Adaption is Key to High Performance
Each individual responds to stress loads differently. We all know the athlete that best adapts to higher training loads will be the most successful, but in cross country maximizing the talent of the fourth, fifth or sixth runners on your team is essential for team success. Looking into how these athletes are adapting to their stress loads and modifying on an individual basis may be the missing link of what is keep your team from making the jump from good to great.
When athletes adapt to the consistency of training they develop strength, aerobic capacity and the aerobic engine that makes them go. The secret is not so much in the training in as how the individual adapts to it. While professionals and exercise physiologists can monitor this through monthly blood samples as a high school coach we are left to visually reading the athlete.
The take away here is that internal and external stress effect the body in similar ways. When life gets complicated training and race performance suffers. But stress is not a bad thing as long as it is in the amount that our body can adapt to which leads to improvement. This is where the “art” of coaching comes in and you need to read how your athletes are adapting and the stress level of the work load. This does not mean you never need to push or “go to the well.” I am of the firm belief that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character and a strong character is what makes you deliver when it counts the most. You just need to make sure athletes adapt.