Friday, November 16, 2012


I recently finished the book Drive by Daniel Pink.  It’s an interesting read on understanding motivation.

The first part of the book is how motivation works.  This part would be particularly relevant to anyone in a position of management.  What actually drives motivation is contrary to popular belief.  Incentives are often used in the wrong way at the wrong time. This book provides convincing examples that our current way of seeing motivation is simply not supported by research. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about this, here’s an excellent video with Pink talking about the research behind the ideas presented in this book:

Pink explains the different types of motivation (extrinsic vs. intrinsic) and how rewards influence performance.  On simple tasks, contingent (if-then) rewards are effective whereas with more complex tasks, contingent rewards lead to poorer performance.  This is extrinsic motivation.  It doesn't always work.  Yes, you become motivated by what you receive.  But it comes at a cost.  Rewards can be addictive; once offered, the reward becomes expected.  Because of this, people may be motivated to make riskier decisions and take shortcuts to achieve that which will bring the reward. 

Not surprisingly, intrinsically motivated people tend to achieve more than those driven by rewards.  In Pink’s words, the most successful people often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success.  They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because of their internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world and accomplish something that endures.  When rewards are not offered, performance improves because the reason for doing the task is driven by intrinsic motivators: mastery, purpose and autonomy.

In terms of athletics, Pink's chapter on mastery was the most relevant.  It starts by defining autoletic experiences, or experiences in which the activity is its own reward.  These experiences tend to lead to flow.  During flow experiences, the task presented is never too challenging or difficult.  It stretches the person slightly above where they’re at making the effort a powerful reward.  It’s that feeling of being so engaged in what you’re doing, so totally in the moment that you don’t even notice the passing of time.  Flow happens here. 

In support, Pink lists a great quote by middle distance runner, Sebastian Coe:

“Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment – whether next week, next month or next year.  The improvement was the goal.  The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal.”

This gets at the question we, as endurance athletes, often get: why do you do it?  If you’re like me, you have a hard time putting it into words.  It’s the challenge, pushing my limits, because I can, because why not?  I don’t necessarily get anything tangible for doing this.  In fact, the opposite tends to be true!  I spend a lot of time and money to do this sport.  I rarely get anything “real” in return.  Unless you count the deep satisfaction I get from achieving goals, setting personal bests or performing at the top of my field.  These are intangibles.  To me, these are very powerful motivators.    
The most successful athletes seem to be driven by these intrinsic rewards – the intangibles.  Extrinsic motivation can come from wanting to win awards, acquire sponsors, not disappoint others.  With enough attention on these, an athlete’s performance can feel controlled by extrinsic factors.  I see this often when athletes get too wrapped up in social media.  At the end of the day, no one really gives a crap how you do – that’s a brutally honest way of saying that if you’re not getting paid to do this – heck, even if you are getting paid – at the end of the day – win or lose – you are still a good person/parent/spouse/friend, still alive.  The world doesn’t end.  It takes some perspective to see through the constraints of extrinsic motivators.  Once you do, though, you’ll feel immense freedom in your pursuits.

Intrinsic motivation works.  From what I’ve seen, athletes who are intrinsically motivated last the longest and perform the best for themselves.  And that’s key – they are entirely focused on their enjoyment of the experience. What they get externally from it is second to what they feel internally from it.  Intrinsically motivated athletes tend to be more confident, focused, relaxed and satisfied.  When an athlete is worried about or driven by external factors, they behave under the constraint of worrying about how their behavior will help or hinder their ability to get the external reward.  They worry they are not doing enough.  They worry they are not fast enough.  They worry that they won’t be able to do what they need to do to get what they want.  They: OVERTHINK.  It’s very complicated and, as you can imagine, stressful.  It drains the fun out of something which should be an enjoyable experience.  I often tell myself I get to do this!  The awesomeness of the opportunity is what drives me – anything I get as a result of it really does feel like icing on the cake.

Pink also suggests that success en route to mastery comes most often to those who have grit: a perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  We all know those athletes, the gritty ones.  In the face of adversity, they see it as their advantage.  Any obstacle is an opportunity.  Any time they are at the bottom is a chance to prove how good they are by rising to the top.  Years ago, I remember a story about Craig Walton who after forgetting his bike shoes at St. Anthony’s, did the bike with his running shoes and went on to win the race.  Craig Walton was gritty.  It would have been much easier to give up (certainly he had a great excuse!) but he pressed on – why?  Perhaps this race was a step in his process of mastery.  Or, as Julius Erving said: being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.

As you can imagine, then, mastery is painful (and not surprisingly, Walton injured his hamstrings after his epic display of grit).  It’s doing difficult things.  It hurts!  When I think back to all of my years in the sport, the workouts I remember are the nasty ones.  Not the comfortable or easy ones.  The days where I cried.  The days where I remember it being so hot and humid that I could have (and probably should have!) just gone inside.  The long run I did one year on Christmas Eve morning when it was negative two degrees!  But the sun was shining!  The feeling you get at 7800 yards during the monster swim.  These are painful things – not just in my body but because they push my mind places it has never been.  Uncharted mental territory is scary!  But when you go through it, you learn the language of how to deal.  How to deal is effective in racing when things aren’t going right.  And when was the last time everything went right in any race? 

Mastery also takes time.  According to psychology Anders Ericsson, mastery takes a minimum of 10 long, tough and challenging years.  Ten years!  A difficult concept to grasp in our HERE - NOW society.  How many athletes out there want to get to Kona?  It took me 8 years to get there.  Not 8 years of flying all over the world to qualify – but 8 years of doing the work necessary to prepare myself to compete at the level it takes to qualify.  Progress can’t be rushed, you’ve got to put in the time!    

You’ve probably heard of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is what you do along the way to mastery.  Deliberate practice has the purpose of improving performance.  When an athlete complains about doing drills, my response is performance improvement is often boring!  And the athletes who accept and work through that are the ones who usually succeed.  The ones who get impatient, switch paths or try to find other short cuts – they usually keep falling short.  

Years ago, Beth Shutt (now rising pro, then decent age grouper) stayed at my house.  One thing that stood out to me was Beth’s patience and attention to detail.  Beth stood in my kitchen stretching every day with a timer set on her watch for how long to hold every stretch.  Boring and time-consuming?  You bet! 

But spending the most time on the boring parts of performance improvement is what leads to mastery.  To actually improve you need not only practice but repeat that practice, seek feedback, focus on your weaknesses and understand the improvement process will be painful and difficult.  So few people commit to this level of work because it’s not sexy.  But the bottom line is that it works. 

Things like this fall into the category of what Daniel Chambliss, sociologist, called the ‘mundanity of excellence’.  From his article Champions: The Making of Olympic swimmers, Chambliss said:

“The champion athlete does not simply do more of the same drills and sets as other swimmers; he or she also does things better. That’s what counts. Very small differences, consistently practiced, will produce results.”

Chambliss asserts there is little difference between champions and everyone else.  Everyone else who chooses not to work on mental preparation, skill or seemingly insignificant details of the sport – they are choosing not to win.  Champions, in effect, choose to win by doing what others don’t want to do.  They create winning opportunities in practice every single day. What if you tried to make yourself into a winner every day?  What would you do?  

About 8 years ago, I went to a running clinic with Jennifer Harrison and top notch runner, Dave Walters.  After looking at form, Dave talked about the mental game.  He said to ask yourself what you wanted to be this year.  And then ask yourself what would that person do.  Back then, in my case, it was what would a national champion do?  Start every day asking yourself that question and all of a sudden the little things you can do on a daily basis will add up to that big thing you are looking for. 

Now here’s what’s so puzzling about being motivated by mastery.  According to Pink, mastery is not something that be achieved.  You can pursue it but you can’t actually touch it.  Which means we are chasing after something intangible.  Even golf legend Tiger Woods can never reach mastery – there will always be that next level, a tweak to his stroke or a new competitor to challenge him. 

Why, then, would someone pursue something that is impossible to reach?  It’s the draw of the idea of it – the challenge, the allure.  If you enjoy the process, why not chase mastery?  In sport, we often hear about the idea of chasing that perfect race where it all comes together.  A few years ago, an athlete who had been to worlds, completed many Ironmans, disclosed to me that she does the sport for that.  She was seeking the perfect race.  But does it exist?  For many of us, the thrill of the process of finding out can be what keeps us coming back to endurance challenges.

And I think this is why we last.  Because this pursuit will never get old.  Seeking the best out of yourself, finding that next level, enjoying the experience – when your experience is anchored by these feelings, it will always be enjoyable.  It will always be motivating.  The moment you stop feeling enjoyment from it, is the moment you’ve lost your motivation.  Motivation definitely ebbs and flows throughout a season.  A few low days does not mean it’s time to quit the sport.  But if it’s becoming a chore, it’s probably time to leave it – for now.  The best thing about athletics is that you can always come back to them when you’re ready. 

The topic of motivation is timely.  Here in the Midwest, winter it settling in upon us.  It’s about to get very dark and very cold.  For months.  The days where you need to get up early to drive to the pool in an icy corner, run outside with the bite of the wind on your face, endless circles going nowhere on your trainer.  It’s time to dig deep within the motivation well.  Know your reasons.  Why are you doing this?  Look inside and ask yourself.  Find your motivation and drive!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sponsorship 101

In the past week, I’ve gotten a few questions about applying for sponsorships.  I thought it might be helpful to pass on some helpful tips for triathletes interested in working with sponsors.

The first question most athletes have is: should I apply for a sponsorship?  Any level of athlete is a good athlete to sponsor.  While some programs are seeking top age group/elite competitors, many are interested in sponsoring motivated athletes with a solid vision of what they can do for their sponsor.  Whether you have age group winning results or just a strong passion for the sport, consider applying for sponsorships.  It’s not just for the elites. 

Next, athletes wonder what they can expect from a sponsor.  Not payment nor free product.  Many sponsors are more willing to provide you with discounts.  Some ask you to wear a race kit or logo.  Some require you to participate in specific races.  Some ask you to pay a fee to buy into a program that provides you a specific brand of bike, shoes, wetsuit, etc.  Some require you to blog about their products.  Some ask you to tweet about their products a certain number of times per week.  Some are teams that ask you to attend training camps.  Know what a sponsor expects and be sure you can meet their demands.

Then, you’ll need to decide which companies you’ll ask for sponsorship.  Look at all of the products you currently use or would like to use: socks, race gear, wheels, helmet, glasses, nutrition, supplements, tires, hydration systems, etc.  Think beyond the triathlon box.  What do you frequently use? Food companies, a local store, a local bank, online services, clothing, etc.  Make a comprehensive list, being as creative as possible.

Next, visit each company’s website.  Many websites have information on sponsorship programs, online applications or contact information for sponsorship coordinators.  For companies without this information, inquire on their “contact us” page, explaining your interest in applying for a sponsorship.  On your list (above), write any specifics required, contact information or deadlines for applying to keep yourself organized in the process.

Next up: it’s time to apply.  

If the company doesn’t have a specific application to complete, you’ll need to find a way to introduce yourself and your intent.  To do this, create a cover letter.  Keep it succinct, professional and with purpose.  Start by introducing yourself (ie., My name is ___ and I’m an age group triathlete).  Then, explain your purpose for writing (I’m writing to seek any level of support or sponsorship for the upcoming 2013 triathlon season).  Next, briefly describe yourself.  Include any results, involvements in the multisport community (ie., coaching, volunteering, teaching, etc), affiliations with sports-related groups (ie., masters teams, running groups, tri clubs) and your location (I live in suburbs of Chicago, with a growing multisport community).
Now, here comes the most important part.  More important than who you are or what you’ve done, tell them what you’re going to do for them.  Start with your upcoming season schedule (In 2013, I plan to race a variety of local and national-level races providing you with widespread coverage in multisport communities).  Then, tell them how you’re going to support their brand or product.  Here are a few ideas:

-Wearing their logo in training and racing
-Distributing product or product information
-Speaking on their behalf at local meetings or outings
-Volunteering on their behalf at local races
-Testing new products or writing product reviews
-Promoting their products on social media
-Reviewing or promoting their products on your blog

Attached to your cover letter should be a race resume.  As with a professional resume, include your name (and contact information) as the header and present the information in an organized, easy to read manner.  You may also wish to include a photo of yourself in sport action.  The race resume should include the following:

-Your last season’s race results (include race name, location, date, placement)
-Awards and achievements (ie., USAT All American)
-Groups and affiliations
-Certifications or licenses
-2013 proposed season schedule

Some companies encourage creativity in your materials but be professional and send the most clean, correct version of your materials as possible.  Have a friend review your materials for proper grammar and spelling.  Be sure to include anything they specifically ask for: pictures, spreadsheets, essays.

Before you send anything off, read the fine print of any contract you’re asked to sign.  There might be deadlines, race requirements, media or education incentives to fulfill or rules for logo display.  Know what you’re getting into.  If you’re committed, representing a brand is an honor but also a responsibility.  Make sure you are genuinely interested in the companies you accept sponsorship from.  In the past, I’ve made mistakes in accepting sponsors only to realize it wasn’t a good fit because I didn’t feel comfortable promoting something I didn’t understand.  Choose your sponsors wisely. 

Above all, see sponsorship as a partnership.  What’s in it for me is not as important as what you’re going to do for them.  If you’re really passionate about a product or a company, you want to tell people all about it in any way possible.  Do your part and do what you say you’ll do.  This goes beyond wearing a kit or having good results, be a good ambassador for your sponsor – your actions and appearance represent a brand not there to speak for itself. 

Many sponsorship deadlines are coming up.  Most companies make decisions by the end of the year.  Some offer yearlong sponsorships, others offer 2 to 3 year agreements.  If you don’t get accepted, expect a letter or email saying so.  But don’t let that discourage you from reapplying in the future.  Many sponsors accept athletes based on geographical needs or specific “markets” they’re looking to fill.  They just might need you in the future.

Good luck!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Finding A Coach

Around this time of year, many athletes start looking for a coach.  Deciding to hire a coach is a big decision – there is money, time and trust involved.  Not only that but searching for a coach can be complicated.  Over the past few years, there has been a boom in the number of coaches.  Learning how to sort through the choices can be overwhelming.  Where do you even begin?

Know what you’re looking for.  Everyone from complete beginners to elite athletes employ coaches for a number of reasons; change, direction, organization, motivation, accountability, variety.  Why are you seeking a coach?  Some athletes want the accountability of knowing that someone is “on the other end” keeping tabs on whether or not they are completing workouts.  Some want a fresh approach to a sport they’ve been doing for many years.  Others need help balancing the sport with their job and families.  And yet others seek motivation.  Knowing what you’re looking for from a coach is the one of the first steps in going about finding one.
Look at it like an interview.  Ask questions of the coach that will help you understand if you will be able to get what you’re looking for.  Choose a few potential candidates to interview.  Have a list of questions you feel will yield answers to give you a better idea of who the coach is and what they do best with athletes.  An email is a great way to introduce yourself and send your questions.  

Now, it’s time to write the inquiry.

Start the conversation with who you are.  Obviously you are a triathlete but who you are beyond that is much, much more important.  Do you work a 40 hour a week job outside of your home?  Is it high stress, high energy or low key?  Do you have kids?  What about your commute?  How old are you?  What’s your experience level in the sport?  Have you lost significant weight or do you have significant weight to lose?  Do you have a history of health problems, disordered eating, etc.  Do you have any limiting injuries?  Dietary restraints?  Limited hours for training?  All of these factors will give the coach a better idea of who you are and if they’ll be a good fit for you. 

Next, what do you hope to do?  Finish or win your age group?  Complete a sprint or a few years down the road complete an Ironman?  Which events have you signed up for this season?  What have you already done?  List out some of your results, including splits.  This will help the coach to better understand your athletic performance and if your current goals are realistic.  Be honest about your goals and choose a coach experienced enough to understand what it takes to achieve them.

Then, ask the coach some questions:

What’s your approach?  There’s a lot of talk about high volume/low volume, high intensity, etc.  Know that just because an approach is high volume doesn’t mean that it’s high quality.  And just because something is high intensity doesn’t mean that it’s better than consistent, aerobic work.  A successful approach includes the following: individuality (your program should be tailored to who you are and what you want to do), specificity (your program should prepare you for the specific demands of your peak events), sustainability (your program should promote injury-free longevity in the sport).  The specific details about the approach: volume, intensity, frequency – should change based on who the athlete is and what they want to do.  Approaches are not formulas – they are highly variable and sensitive to the athlete’s unique needs.

Do you integrate data into your approach?  Power meters, Garmins – these are all tools that a coach and athlete can use to supplement their experience.  Find out just how heavily your coach relies on these tools.  Some coaches require you to upload daily and base everything on charts and science.  Others combine science and art.  Still others go entirely by feel – writing workouts based on perceived exertion.  Make sure you are comfortable with the level of data they do or do not use.  

Which types of athletes do you prefer to coach?  This is a question that any good coach must answer.  Some coaches are very much experts and have a hard time diluting their information enough to make it usable for more beginner athletes.  Other coaches enjoy showing someone how to clip in to their bike.  Ask your coach about the flavor of their roster – is it mostly beginners?  Men?  Younger athletes?  What about masters athletes?  How do they adapt their approach/style for the different groups?  Who do they most enjoy working with and who they find most difficult to work with in sport?  

What have you accomplished with athletes?  This doesn’t necessarily mean that every athlete is winning – what you want to see is athletes who consistently improve, reach goals or set PRs.  These days, many coaches list their athlete results on a website or social media.  Take a look around.  Look for success at all levels and success over time.  Many coaches have that one outlier who can win everything or do amazing things with very little training.  Does this mean they are a great coach?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Look for athletes with long term progress with the coach.  Ask for examples.  Also ask: how long do athletes usually stay with the coach?  What are some of the things they’ve achieved with athletes over time

How do you communicate?  How will you receive workouts – by email/PDF, Training Peaks or other site?  How often do they post schedules?  How many changes can you ask for?  What about general communication?  Are you limited to a specific number of emails or calls?  How often can you expect to hear from the coach?  How often do they expect to hear from you?  Any good coach should be seeking as much information as possible to effectively coach you.  You should receive a response within a few hours during typical “business” hours.  They should communicate times when they will have a delayed response rate and prepare accordingly for vacations or other days away.

What else do you do?  Someone who is balancing coaching with working full-time outside of the home might not be as accessible or focused as you’d like.  What activities is your coach involved in?  Do they have office hours?  If your coach competes, ask how they balance coaching and racing.  Are they available on weekends (you race on weekends – they should be!)?  How accessible are they by phone, in person, text, email and which mode is the most important to you?  While coaches need boundaries with their athletes, a good coach should be available (especially during racing season). 

What do you do to further your education?  This is one of the biggest areas any coach can use to separate themselves from what often feels like a market oversaturated with coaches.  As a starting point, there is the USA Triathlon coaching certification program.  Is it a necessary point?  Hard to say.  But it’s at least a start that the coach has a very basic knowledge of triathlon and is being required to do extra work to retain their certification.  Beyond that, ask the coach what they’ve done to further their education.  Do they have other certifications?  Do they attend workshops?  What was the last book they read about coaching or sport?  A good coach stays on top of the trends and continually looks for ways to improve their education base.  While the “basics” of endurance sport will never change (after all, it’s consistent work over time that yields fitness and progress), a coach should seek out different perspectives (even from other sports!) to stay fresh.

How would you go about achieving my goals with me, the athlete?  In this question, you’re asking the coach about their master plan.  Good coaches have a long-term vision for how to approach your entire year.  Coaching is not writing day to day workouts – that’s the easy part!  Building up someone to peak at the right time and work on their weaknesses when it matters most takes careful planning.  How does your coach organize an annual training plan?  What will it include?  How will they measure whether or not you are progressing towards your goals?  How will they help you improve technique?  You’re making a huge investment not only financially but with your time, your energy and your love for the sport.  Make sure the coach has a plan!

What’s your fee?  This is not where to start a coaching conversation but eventually it will go there.  As someone who has worked with several coaches, coaching quality does not correlate to coaching fee.  The most expensive coach I ever worked with was the poorest in terms of quality, reliability and communication.  Don’t be afraid to inquire to a coach because you “think” they will be too expensive.  In my past coaching searches, I made a list of everyone I would ever want to be coached by and then – I just asked.  You have nothing to lose.  Chances are most coaches who are worth it are much more affordable that you think.
Ask for athlete references.  A coach should be willing to give you the name of 2 to 3 different types of athletes they’ve worked with.  This goes beyond testimonials on the site – you’ll only find the good stuff there!  Chances are a reference is going to say mostly good things but don’t be afraid to ask what the coach’s weakness is or what’s one thing the athlete wishes the coach would change.    

As with any investment you consider making in life, there are some precautions. 

Expect the good, the bad and the ugly.  Most athletes hire a coach for performance.  That performance might be just finishing or flat out winning – but if you seek performance, coaches assume you are motivated enough to do the work to get there without someone cheerleading you into it.  This is not to say that a good coach never sends a motivational email or a kudos from time to time.  But they should be as interested in communicating the good as the bad.  Remember, good coaches tell you things you want to hear and what you don’t want to hear.  You employ a coach to improve performance.  Doing so requires change and honesty.  Be prepared to be open to this process!

A good athlete doesn’t always make a good coach.  Beware choosing a coach based on what they’ve done in sport.  While someone who has qualified for Kona or achieved elite status might be familiar with the work required to excel at sport, that doesn’t mean they have the ability to effectively communicate or plan what will work with you.  A twenty-something male who can train 20-30 hours a week to get to Kona might have limited perspective when working with a stay at home mom in her 40s with 3 kids.  Choose who will work best with you.  Not who the best athlete is out there. 

Experience matters most.  The coach should have experience.  Whether that experience is coaching or competing, the coach should have an understanding of the demands specific to the sport and how to prepare for what you want to do.  In other words, hiring a cycling coach for triathlon doesn’t make much sense.  Being someone’s first athlete on their roster is also a huge risk.  New coaches should look to partner with more experienced coaches, volunteer with teams or complete mentorships where they can learn the art and the science of coaching.  Practical experience far beats anything you’ll ever learn in a book or seminar.

Communication is key.  Be prepared to communicate with your coach.  In my opinion, more is more.  The athlete who provides feedback daily can be coached more effectively.  Follow the plan.  And if you can’t follow the plan, ask for help in rearranging it.  Keep us in the loop about everything: travel, illness, schedule changes.  If you have questions, ask.  If you have ideas, share.  If you have fears, admit them – we can help!  Overcommunicate – subjectively, objectively, and yes, we’ve heard it all.  Don’t be afraid to tell us that you’re sick, constipated, expecting your period or fighting with your spouse.  All of these can influence your recovery and your fitness! 

Be coachable.  After all of the questions and before you make a commitment, step back and ask yourself: am I coachable?  Coachable athletes are motivated, committed and open to change.  They are what I call “good soldiers” – with the ability to commit to the system, put their head down and get the work done.  At times they might question the work or themselves but in general they are comfortable with someone navigating the ship and their ability to do the work presented to them.  That said, the coach you choose to navigate your ship should be worthy of your trust, your well-being, your performance and your health.  Remember, a good coach does more than write workouts: they provide guidance with recovery, emotions, thoughts, race planning, equipment, nutrition and more.  Coaching is an immense opportunity and responsibility for any coach out there. 

Choose wisely!