Over a few conversations I’ve had recently with athletes the question has come up about particular data that can be used in training or racing and if it would be beneficial for the athlete to use it. In one of the conversations I used a metaphor that seemed to sit well and make sense to the athlete and so thought it useful to share.
The metaphor was about having the ability to freehand draw rather than using tracing paper or training/ racing off ‘feel’. That for me at least is the sign of a great athlete. The person that needs to use the tracing paper can still create the same end outcome as the freehand drawer however they simply don’t have the skill to draw without the tracing paper. This is not to say that one is ‘better’ than the other, not at all. It simply shows a greater depth of knowledge of self to be able to create the desired outcome without the prompting of say a heart rate monitor or power meter.
The world is a data driven place. Throwing around statistics is often how we quantify improvement. We use it to justify many of the decisions that we make in the pursuit of avoiding mistakes or ‘wasting’ time or effort. But can being too reliant on data in sport have an effect on our ability to become proficient in a particular task, for instance sport?
Growing up most of us were fortunate enough to have access to education (whether we enjoyed it or not is a different story) where in the early years learning things such as spelling or times tables are on the cards. Early on people need close guidance as to learn how to count or write the alphabet. Then once competent enough we learn words and later sentences. As we become more competent we no longer need to look at a copy of the words while writing them, we simply have become proficient in the language and can read, write and speak it.
So before I lose everyone with the education speak I will go to the sport example. As many coaches do, a past coach of mine was a stickler for doing ‘easy sessions easy’. Great advice and will always be relevant, however what I found when I myself started coaching others was that asking someone to do something easy relied on them using their current reference point of what easy was. There are usually 2 camps that people sit in at this stage. 1st and most common in age group triathlon; running at or just slower than goal race pace because ‘I want it to feel easy’. 2nd are those that are usually more experienced and run significantly slower than goal race pace (1.5-2mins per km slower). So having the ability to quantify what ‘easy’ is by using a metric like heart rate and keeping your heart rate under a certain level in order for it to be easy helps the athlete learn.
Over time the athlete becomes more ‘physically literate’ and better understands not only what easy is but can vary pacing and without looking at data, know how fast they are running or perhaps what their HR is at a given perceived effort. They have learnt to listen, feel and understand the cues of their body. You will find across the world in sport that athletes who are proficient in a particular sport need very little data to perform well. It is not to say they haven’t or don’t use it but if they had it taken away from them they certainly would still survive and thrive.
For a majority of people sport is a way that they can not only be physically active and experience the health benefits that come along with it, but also experience a sense of satisfaction by going through a process of setting a target, working towards it and achieving it. In a way self-improvement is the name of the game with the aim of being your very best. I’d argue that a greater sense of self improvement and satisfaction comes from knowing you have created an outcome from what you have learned and been able to create from your skill as a person and as an athlete, than simply following blindly what the computer tells you. Use the tools to help you learn then learn to listen to yourself. That is true mastery.