In this blog I want to take a look at the importance of being critical as a coach and how finding the right trade-off between optimism and critical analysis can have a significant effect on the athletes being coached. The opinions I present in this piece are based both on my experience as a competitive athlete and more recently as a coach of runners performing at various different standards. The head coach of Kenya Experience, Hugo van den Broek also contributes his ideas throughout this article offering the perspective of a both a professional athlete and world class coach.

I have been running competitively for well over a decade now, during which time I have been guided by a number of coaches and several influential figures throughout my running ‘career’. I started running competitively during primary school and began taking it much more seriously during my first few years of secondary school, competing in regional and national championships. It wasn’t just a ‘hobby’, it was much more than that. It was a sport that I wanted to take to the highest level I possibly could, I wanted to see what times I was capable of running and which competitions I was capable of winning.

Callum (author) during a cross country race in Iten, Kenya

It didn’t take long for me to realise and understand that my level of performance did not purely depend on how physically fit I was, but rather a combination of my current state of physical and mental fitness. The mental side of running is something that is often overlooked in the amateur running world, but is something that we at the Kenya Experience have discussed in various blogs and articles and something that our coaching team delves into during our coaches corner sessions on our running camps in Iten. I believe there are two, interlinked but different, types of mental stimuli that effect how we perform as runners – intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli. I am not sure of the exact terminology to describe this, but I’ll do my best to describe what I mean:

Intrinsic factors: this is how you feel right now regardless of anything else that is going on. How motivated are you to complete this workout, why do you want to complete the workout, are you feeling confident about the training session ahead or are you feeling like it is too great of a challenge and therefore apprehensive of what is to come. There are many things that affect the way you feel before, during and after a training session, many of which are not significantly influenced by the outside world or events that have happened in your life, it’s just the way you are feeling. It is fairly obvious to see how intrinsic factors might affect your running performance. The more motivated you are to perform at your best, then it is likely you will have a good workout, for example.

Extrinsic factors: These are all the things that come from the outside world and have an affect on the way you feel. For example, perhaps you finished a project at work to a high standard and received great praise, that might make you feel highly confident and could translate to you feeling much better during your workout later that day. Perhaps you had an argument with a good friend or maybe you paid for a faulty product and they are refusing to give you a refund for it – these things might make you feel angry or upset and lead to a poor performance in your training session.

One extrinsic factor that plays an important role on how you feel about yourself is your relationship with your coach and their analysis of your training. Perhaps you are ‘self-coached’, in which case the previous sentence still applies, arguably more so.

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What does your coach say about your training?

It is a coaches role not only to prescribe training sessions, but also to analyse workouts and discuss these with the athlete. These discussions can have an enormous impact on the way the athlete views their training, their current fitness and how they perceive their short and long term potential. This is a tough job as a coach, there is a fine line between encouragement and being overly optimistic and the latter, I believe, can have a detrimental effect on the athletes performance.

Can you be too optimistic as a coach?

Yes. In my experience there have been many coaches who fall into the trap of being overly optimistic with their athletes, offering disproportionate amounts of praise for workouts or scenarios which simply don’t deserve it. While the intention of this is clearly good, I believe in many cases the overall outcome is negative, and here’s why.

  • An athlete who genuinely believes they are capable of more than they actually are will only be disappointed.

On the surface of it this sentence appears to be somewhat ‘harsh’, however the crux of this point is that if an athlete believes that they are capable of certain performance that they never seem to actually achieve then they will inevitably start to question why that is. In the mind of the athlete, these optimistic predictions will likely lead to ‘expectations’ that they simply cannot reach which almost certainly leads to depleted levels of motivation and confidence.

  • Continuous ‘over optimism’ leads to an athlete not taking their coach seriously

The alternative to loss of motivation, is simply that the athlete realises their coach is not capable of accurately setting goals and so when the time comes to evaluate the season ahead and plan races and key workouts, what do they believe?
“last season my coach said I could run 20 minutes for the 5k and I ran only 23 minutes, now he is saying this season I should set a target of 19 minutes, is that realistic, maybe I can do it, or maybe not!?” .
This type of confusion really plays with an athlete’s mind and becomes probative of high quality training.

  • Bad workouts happen, it doesn’t mean they should be praised, it also doesn’t mean they should be condemned.

As athletes our fitness levels, fatigue, motivation, and a host of other things fluctuate daily for a variety of reasons. As a result we sometimes have brilliant workouts where we even surprise ourselves. But unfortunately we also have workouts where we underperform compared to our expectations, for whatever reason some races or sessions just don’t go right. Even the best athletes in the world have days or even weeks that just ‘don’t go right’.

I once had a coach who, when I reported a bad workout, would respond with things like “you made the right decision to stop the workout half way through”, or “great work for finishing the session despite slowing down”. It got to the stage where I realised that however my session went, I could ‘get away with it’ when reporting it to my coach. I could tell him “yeahh I felt a bit tired so I stopped” and his response would be “okay no problem, good that you stopped because your body is likely a bit fatigued, good decision”. My thought process was hence “well done me for stopping the session, pat on the back”. This became ingrained until I knew that whatever I did, my coach would praise me and I must have therefore been training correctly.

Again, as with most of this article, there is a fine line here, because of course there are some instances in which an athlete should stop the session or slow the pace significantly in order to not make things worse. In that case, to hear from your coach that you made the right decision can make a real positive difference. However, rather than simply praising this decision it is perhaps a more constructive approach to first of all figure out why the athlete needed to terminate the workout or why they had a bad session and figure out a way to ensure that it doesn’t happen again (or happens less frequently at least). The athlete doesn’t need praise, because they didn’t do something good, what they need is constructive feedback so that next time they find themselves in that situation during a workout they are capable making the right decision, whether that be “this isn’t going well but I guess it’s just one of those days, I’m going to get the workout done and view it as another completed training session”, or “something isn’t right here, I need to slow down or stop”.

Note from Coach Hugo: I think it’s interesting to mention that there is a lot of scientific evidence that shows that people perform best (in any kind of task, not just sports), when the task they are about to do, seems pretty hard but doable for them. If what you’re about to do, seems easy to accomplish, most people won’t feel very motivated to do it. You may enjoy what you do, but you’re not fully engaged. It does not require your full attention. However, when the task seems almost impossible to accomplish, we also lose our motivation, because we don’t want the risk of failure to be too high. In order to be motivated and get the most out of ourselves, we need a task that is pretty hard, while at the same time we feel that we are probably just competent enough to do it. It may require lots of effort, but we can do it.

Coach Hugo leading a core workout

Pessimism from your coach

I think this is less common in the coaching world. Most coaches understand the importance of keeping their athletes motivated and it is fairly obvious that being pessimistic towards an athlete’s training and performance is one way to ensure that they lose motivation and ultimately underperform. However, pessimism can come in many different guises. One common mistake to consistently set targets or training session that are too easy. In order for an athlete to improve they need to be challenged and pushed and if they have gone to the effort of seeking out a coach it is likely they do indeed want to improve. Setting targets that are too easy is one way of losing your athlete’s attention and motivation.

Another important time of cautiously avoiding pessimism is when reviewing a training session or race. Again, another example of this being a ‘fine line subject’ since I just wrote about why being too optimistic can cause issues! Finding the balance is tough and one thing that makes a great coach. After a hard workout or race is a point at which emotions in an athlete are exaggerated one way or another. I have lost count of the amount of times I have finished a workout and said “I HATE running” or “I am never racing cross country again” and I genuinely meant it at the time. I have also lost count of the times I have been ecstatic after a great race or workout and bragged to all my running friends about it and go to bed dreaming of competing at the Olympics – hard workouts play with your emotions which is why it’s so important for the coach to be the person who keeps you levelled.

After a rubbish race or workout, the chances are you are already fully aware of how bad it was, the last thing you need is someone else saying “yep you’re right, that was awful”, what you need is constructive feedback and analysis. On the other hand, sometimes you run the best workout of your life and feel great, a coach can help you ride that feeling and make the most of the positive emotions without bringing you down or overly building you up. Again this is not easy and that’s why some coaches are hugely successful and others aren’t.

Callum after a tough track session in Eldoret

Note from Coach Hugo: Of course, receiving criticism is not always easy and it’s the task of the coach to be professional. Some coaches are too soft in their criticism. They fear hurting the athlete, but in that way make it harder for him/her to learn. Some coaches are too hard. When an athlete does not immediately accept the criticism, they go in the attack. They can make the athlete feel like a loser. When there is too much of this hard criticism, the athlete will turn away from the coach and simply say “Oh, my coach always got something negative to say”. I expect a coach to stand next to the athlete and show that they are in this together. Criticism should be brought in the right way, since communication only makes sense when it’s effective. As a coach, I would not be satisfied if I said what I had to say, but the message did not reach the athlete in the right way, was not understood, or not accepted.

The approach of the coach also depends on the character of the athlete. A person who has low self-esteem, can see criticism as a total and personal failure. Such an athlete needs a bit

more careful approach, in which he/she feels accepted and understands that we are all humans and we make mistakes. But if we want to be the best athlete possible, we need to work on even the smallest mistake.”

Finally, the coach needs to be open to criticism. This is part of being a professional who works with humans. We can’t expect the athlete to swallow all kind of criticism, while we refuse to listen to any kind of criticism about ourselves. Of course, in a coach-athlete relationship, it’s all about the athlete and the (constructive) criticism goes mostly one way. But athletes are (like all of us) sensitive and if they notice that the coach can’t accept any form of evaluation or criticism, that will create a gap between coach and athlete.

Finding the Balance: The Pros of Being Realistic

Recently I made the decision to ask Hugo (who has contributed to this article) to be my coach. He won’t mind me saying this; one of the huge differences I have noticed between him and coaches I have had in the past is his ability to give positive but incredibly realistic feedback. That has made more of a difference to my training than I ever considered to be possible. Let me explain.

Previously I have had coaches who have said things to me such as
“I think you can run 3.45 (for the 1500m) this season, you are training really well”.
Deep down (at the time) I knew that wasn’t possible, but because my coach told me was possible that is what I trained for. So for a few days I was excited at the prospect of being able to run 3.45 and I trained really well and felt very motivated. But as time went on and I started to realise it wasn’t going to happen my motivation quickly faded and I started to think ‘what’s the point’. And when the time came and I ran 3.54, well, of course I was super disappointed. Not only did this optimism affect my overall season, it affected my individual training sessions.

“How is someone who is supposedly capable of running 3.45 only doing 66 seconds for 400m reps!? There must be something wrong? Maybe I’m not in good shape?” I would think to myself. This is incredibly frustrating, especially when it happens week on week.

So you can see how a seemingly nice comment of “I think you are capable of running a super fast time” can have a big negative impact on an athletes training.

Fast forward now to my new coach, Hugo. It didn’t take me long to realise that Hugo knew and understood my training much much better than anyone else, including me. He could set me sessions with split times and target paces which were outstandingly accurate. He could set me a workout for example 8x1km in 3.01-3.03 and sure enough, by rep 6 I’m thinking, “wow this is right at my limit” and I just about complete the session in the set times. He can set me easy workouts that are indeed easy and he sets me hard workouts designed to test me that really do test me but are rarely ‘too hard’.  He also has a very realistic vision of what I am capable of in a race and has so far predicted it with really high accuracy. That’s not to say he can predict the future, he simply knows my current fitness, knows what I am capable of during training and knows how to translate this into targets and expectations.

For me, as his athlete this has an enormous benefit, mainly because I genuinely, deep down, believe him when he says “you can achieve this” and that is extremely powerful. Hugo can set me a session that I may have never done before and previously I would have not thought possible, but if Hugo says “I think you can run this workout at this pace, it will be hard but you can do it” then it’s simple – “yes, I can do it”. And I don’t just say that to myself, I truly believe it. Of course he doesn’t get it exactly right every single time, sometimes I have a great race or workout and smash his expectations out of the park and he is quick to praise me for that, and sometimes I have a bad session and fall short of his targets and he picks me up, dusts me off and get’s me back on the horse. But the key point here is that I believe that what he thinks is achievable, is achievable.

Come race day and Hugo says to me “I think you can run 3.48 today Cal”, I know that that time has not just been plucked from thin air, he is not just saying it to make me feel good, nor is he underestimating me in hopes that I will easily beat it and feel good after the race. He has based that target on my training, my mindset, my feedback and his years of experience. He knows that time will be hard, so do I, but we know it is achievable.

So what I have learned from Hugo in recent years is that athletes rely on their coaches for a lot more than just a meaningless training program. The words they hear from their coach can really shape the way they train and race. If you as a coach find the balance between being optimistic and pessimistic, i.e. realistic, then it can make a very real and powerful difference to an athlete’s mindset and ultimately their performance.

Thanks for reading


About the Author

Callum Jones has been part of the Running Trips team since joining Kenya Experience in 2017 and is now head of our Online Coaching Service. As well as a coach, Callum is a competitive athlete himself recently running times of 14.20 and 3.48 for 5km and 1500m respectively. He is currently co-authoring a book alongside Coach Hugo van den Broek on the interpretation and implementation of scientific literature in distance running training. 

“My journey as a runner to the point where I am now has been a continuous learning curve and I am still gaining new experiences and learning from those around me, even after close to two decades of dedication to the sport. Being part of the Running Trips and Kenya Experience team has given me the chance to share all that I have learned along the way with like-minded runners from all over the world. Whether on the camps themselves or as an online running coach, I am here to help runners of all levels improve and to enjoy their journey as an athlete as much as I am enjoying mine.”

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