With over 30 years of triathlon coaching and if my experience has taught me anything, it's that the 'holidays' are inevitably the most difficult time to be a coach. Away from the routine of full-time training, professional athletes can become restless and agitated – quick to get cranky with the coach as they count down the days, hours and minutes until they're allowed back into the 'real' work.
However, the off-season should be recognised by both pro and age-group athletes as a great opportunity for some serious strength training. Mental strength, that is.
People often don't realise that getting athletes physically strong and fit is the easiest part of my job. Being able to swim, bike, run faster is one thing, being in a mental space where you can consistently execute come race day is a totally different skill.
During an off-season, our squad generally divides into 3 categories of athlete:
1) Athletes who are doing stimulus work on their weakest and usually least favourite discipline.
2) Athletes who have shown weakness in training or racing through the year and are not yet mentally strong enough to make the jump to the next level.
3) Athletes who have shown great courage in training and racing through the year, but need to be held back from training themselves into the ground.
Make no mistake. Athletes who get to the top do so because they are fanatical about improving their weaknesses. This requires great mental strength. For athletes in our squad, it's often not the sessions that are hard, but the mental effort needed to adjust to a new technique, a new way of training and then having the discipline to stick to something that at first feels totally inconsistent with everything they were previously taught. Those who develop the mental fortitude to adapt to their new training environments are the ones who break through and start seeing their 'weak' legs turning into their 'strong' ones.
For me, it is no coincidence that athletes in the second group are also usually the ones to complain about how they need a break in their off-season to recover from a 'hard year'. Some I don't give the break because they haven't earned it. I train them hard through the off-season because to be a good athlete you need to get tough. If your first instinct after a losing a race is to say 'I tried my best' and not 'how do I get better to beat these bastards?!' we've still got mental strength to build.
Nicola Spirig another member of the third group who likes to take things easy in the 'off-season'.
Athletes in the third group present their own set of problems as they absolutely resent being told to 'have a rest' or being given training not sufficiently intense. They like to explain to me how much they need to improve in this and that area 'This win was average, I nearly got beat.' 'You know I was lucky in that race, I only just won...' etc. And the most common rejoinder of all:
'Before you always nearly trained me to death while everyone else was on a break, so what's changed now?'
The answer is simple. They were too weak and didn’t have the inner strength then to be a winner. They learned the lessons through hard work and sacrifice that champions don’t care about doing their 'best' but know they have to get it done whatever it takes on race day.
So that's why the champions get to have a rest and enjoy Christmas this year. The others need to get to work on building their (inner) strength.