Most important endurance sports training metric?

I was particularly struck today listening to an interview with both Jan Frodeno’s and Kristian Blummenfelt’s (two of the world’s top professional triathletes today) coaches on GTN’s YouTube channel. When pressed on what metrics Olav Aleksandr Bu places the highest importance when coaching his athletes, I simply loved his answer. The Norwegians, you see, have been recently held up as the country that places perhaps THE most importance on the valid gathering and interpretation of scientific training data and the almost obsessive-compulsive use of these performance metrics. Even Frodeno’s coach respects greatly Bu’s approach.

I’ve had, for some time now, a great interest in the importance of one’s emotional state (read: not psychological) and how it relates to one’s both internal locus of control/sense of agency and motivation, as well as its impact on training and performance writ large. So yes, I am talking way beyond simply measuring one’s subjective sense of well-being (although that may ultimately be the most important) in order to define whether or not someone happens to be happy on a particular day. A touched a fair bit on this in my recent book One Foot in Front of the Other. I am talking here about the power of deliberatively focusing on emotions when training and competing and how and when to best do so. This is my point. Not ignoring them, pushing them aside or running from them. Not dismissing feelings, basically.

I’ve also focused a great deal the last year or two on emotional mindfulness in my teaching high-performing executives in the Canadian Federal Public Service. Not that I cracked that egg mind you, but I’m getting there. Here, I am talking about recent work being carried out on how to coach vulnerable, authentic, curious and courageous servant leaders, rather than know-it-all micro-managers. But I digress. Back to sports.

When Norway’s Olav Aleksander Bu was asked what are the most important metrics to keep in mind when training his athletes “…what numbers he listens to the most…” and “… what is the most important data he looks at every day…”, his answer was, while not surprising to me, one of the first times I heard it from such a highly esteemed coach. Clearly a leader himself, he demonstrated great wisdom, vulnerability and courage to share, or perhaps simply having nothing to hide, when he answered the question with one simple word: Feelings.

Sure, periodization (to name an obvious one) and countless other scientific research-backed theories and practices in high-performance athletics training will continue to be scrutinized and leveraged for performance gains. This is not the point of my post. And needless to say, we know how athletes can push themselves through mountains of pain. But here we are, funny enough, just now looking at emotional response seriously. Are the old military ways of “shut up, suck it up and take the pain” finally gone?

This is not new you might tell me. And you would be correct of course. But in this field? The commitment, kindness and utter wisdom of certain coaches never ceases to amaze me. At my age, my radar is fine-tuned and believe me when I say I have heard too many claim they have all the answers, know what is best and push without even knowing why sometimes. Because that’s the way it’s always been done to achieve greatness? Sorry, I don’t buy it anymore. Today, when I hear a coach speak, I don’t look for a know-it-all salesperson making promises, or an abusive, oppressive drill master personality claiming the best way to get strong. Rather, in addition to drive, commitment, work ethic and steadfast determination, I also look for a commitment to critical thinking (a.k.a. science), combined with humanity, modesty and curiosity. Yep. Together, these traits are the furthest thing from being soft. In fact, they are strategic and rigorous.

My somewhat limited, though not negligeable, social sciences research background, combined with my over 35 years of on and off coaching experience, tell me that we haven’t even scratched the surface in my humble opinion. I am sure some people will dismiss this and think it is all way too touchy-feely to be discussed seriously. “No pain, no gain” after all, right? But as I mentioned, considering emotions is not soft at all. It’s hard. Scientific. Data. Much more than a slight new age edge to be gained. I believe it is critical. Just ask virtually any olympic, world champion or professional athlete how better they could have performed, if they were pushed not less, but better. Smarter. And I’m not just talking about those whose flame burned out way too early in their career, having been pushed inhumanly hard and incorrectly. What a travesty. It is simply unforgivable how poorly too many athletes have been treated, or rather, abused. Too much has been written about this already. One can only hope that one day, smarter will not be equated with weaker.

Let’s see here: How can I help an athlete become the very best on the planet? Oh, I know! Break them down. Treat them like crap. Suck the very thing that gave them their potential right out of them. The joy and their love of sport. Better yet, beat it out of them. Forget they are human. That is but a liability. Push them like a machine. Yeah, that’s it! It worked on the other side of the Iron Curtain in the 20th Century after all, right? We built pyramids with no tools that way, didn’t we? It still works in the U.S. Marine Corps, no? Yeah, that’s it! My opinion is that this retarded approach is not only passé, it doesn’t even make sense to achieve one’s potential in sport. In fact, it’s probably a guarantee that one won’t. Aside from the fact that it should be illegal, it is small and narrow-minded.

Why would we purposely only consider a small portion of all the variables in the equation? and suggest that feelings are best left to therapists to deal with, not coaches. Then obstinately and defensively dig our heels in and act tough. I’m pretty sure that’s a telltale sign of insecurity. Defensive anyhow. How did these people get the right to coach children, or people at any level I often wonder? Coaching is a privilege. And a two-way growth experience. Yes. Two-way! And how can we in 2022 still believe that ignoring the very aspects of what makes a person excel is the way to make them excel? Sorry, did I miss something?

Considering emotions/feelings is not being less “demanding“. And it is clearly not unscientific. Quite the contrary. Thankfully, psychology and mental health, in general, is increasingly de-stigmatized in society. And it’s about time, as there are way too many variables in the overall equation. So, it’s about time we bring in at least a few more from this field. We haven’t even identified them all. Is wisdom not arriving at the point where you realize you don’t know anything (or at least everything)? Norwegians are not ushering in a new age softer, kinder, gentler approach to training. No. They are just smart. They can think out of the old box. Considering athletes as human beings. Now there’s a novel idea! But as we increasingly see in politics, business and in social media everywhere online now, we have come to realize how threatening intelligence and science is to too many in 2022.

I suspect that Olav Aleksander Bu can push athletes to limits even they did not think they could reach. Wait, let me re-phrase that. I know he can. Need proof? Well, actually, we already have that don’t we?

So what is setting the Norwegians apart and perhaps even the reason for their high-performance endurance sports meteoric successes? Not ignoring, but placing feelings above all else.

Check out this great GTN video of these two amazing coaches and be sure to cue up to the 24m30s mark or so to listen to Olav Aleksander Bu’s response to the question: “What is the most important metric you look at every day when coaching your athletes?”

My hunch? This is gonna change everything!

Note: Embedded YouTube link to copyrighted GTN content