By Darcie Murphy,
This time of year, as most athletes wrap up their competitive seasons, there’s a tremendous opportunity to comb through the year’s achievements and shortcomings. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. Each fall I set aside time for comprehensive season reviews with my athletes. This guided reflection process creates an historical reference, and it’s a key tool for really digging into what went well and not so well over the past 12 months. It also lays a critical foundation for catapulting athletes to greater successes in the season ahead. The following are questions I ask in a guided reflection, as well as additional questions non-coached athletes may want to ask themselves.
I prefer to take a ‘why sandwich’ approach in which I begin and end with the ‘why’. The order and ‘ingredients’ are: Why, how and what happened, what’s next, and why? I believe an athlete really must understand the why behind their goals because the why drives an athlete’s actions and is the basis for and reason behind the choices and sacrifices we make. It can feel tedious, but I ask this several times about the same goal. In my experience, the first why may not be the ‘real’ why. For example, if my athlete says they want to run their first ultra because they want a reason to gain more fitness, I ask why it’s important that they gain more fitness. We continue peeling back these layers until there are no more answers. This final answer is often much closer to the real, driving reason behind their goal.
What goals did you have that weren’t accomplished, and why not?
Posing this question early in the review process, I believe, establishes an open and honest environment for a two-way conversation. It’s not that I prefer to focus on the things that went wrong, but it allows us both to air possible frustrations. I also like to spend most of the time focusing on what went well, so getting this question out of the way helps us to move through the deficiencies and take time to understand what is behind what worked well throughout the season.
What did you learn?
As Chris Carmichael mentioned in an article earlier this month, having a growth mindset is quite beneficial to athletes. Usually there are hidden gems, things you didn’t anticipate learning in a season, that add a terrific level of fulfillment to the experience. Something a few of the runners I coached this summer started to grasp well was the grade at which it became more efficient to hike vs. run. I also ask athletes what aspects of the sport they are still curious about. We then design a specific process to help them answer those questions. It may be as simple as a book recommendation, or we may strategize a trial and error approach to understanding what foods work for them at the 10+hrs into a race. Stay curious, keep track of things learned, refer to them often, and continually seek to add to your knowledge base.
What goals did you reach and how?
This is the most obvious question and the one I spend the most time discussing with athletes. The questions I ask athletes in order to answer this question are the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of the why sandwich. They can be just as challenging as the why, and they are usually incredibly insightful. We address each goal, typically in chronological order. For each goal accomplished we dissect specifically, what was done to be able to say, “Yes, I achieved my goal.” I cannot overstate the importance of this. When things fall into place it’s easy to take the process for granted. But, when things go off track, knowing what you did to reach prior goals can help you get back on track. Identify specifically what keeps the flow going!
For unaccomplished goals we unearth the details and data piece by piece until we can find the reason(s) behind the failure. We try to identify if setbacks were avoidable and how to prevent them from occurring in the future. Sometimes roadblocks are inescapable. In that case the discussion turns to adjusting future expectations to take known limitations into account and still arrive at successful outcomes.
What are your goals for next season?
Last in the season review come the questions, “What next and why?” Again, when mapping out future goals, don’t forget the ‘why’. It’s critical for both of us to understand why each goal is being chosen. It’s not enough to understand the why behind last year’s goals, even if the same or similar events or achievements are decided upon for the upcoming year. The reasons behind future goals may be slightly or vastly different than those in the past. So, don’t make assumptions here.
Put each goal into writing and be sure to state the ‘why’ behind them. This ‘why’ is a useful tool when inclement weather, illness, fatigue or other stumbling blocks attempt to sabotage the work that needs to be done. On more than one occasion I’ve quietly copied and pasted those ‘whys’ into an email or text message to an athlete. It’s usually enough to help them push through those hard moments.
What questions for athletes without a coach?
Athletes who are self-coached bear more of the responsibility for conducting a season review. The ‘why sandwich’ is still a reasonable method. In addition, a question for this group of athletes might be, “Would a coach help me accomplish my goals more effectively?” “Am I really keeping myself honest and accountable?” “Would I benefit from having a big-picture perspective from someone other than myself?” “Am I able to keep myself healthy, especially if I have dealt with recent injuries?” If you feel it may be time to invest in a coach, I encourage you to research your options regarding cost, communication and coaching styles, interview a few coaches, and try it out. If you choose to continue on your own, that’s certainly OK. I’d still recommend conducting your own season review, though.
There are myriad details and moments that make up an endurance athlete’s season. A season review allows both coach and athlete to rise above the immediate details of workouts and build periods to take a broader view of the entire season. Taking the time to analyze subjective and objective data, and the why behind it all, will allow you to more effectively tackle your next adventures, goals and events. These details culminate into the story of your season and create the outline for the next one. It’s one of my favorite coaching activities of the whole year!