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9 Tips on Coaching an Overly Ambitious Athlete

BY Mackenzie Madison

If you coach an athlete who constantly pushes themselves into a state of overtraining, these nine tips can help you encourage them to put a priority on recovery and training smarter—not harder.

If you have been in the business for any length of time, you’ve probably coached an overly ambitious athlete who seems to train themselves into a hole repeatedly in the pursuit of their goals.  While detecting an overtraining athlete may be easy for a coach to spot, the athlete most likely does not see their efforts as negatively impacting their fitness goals. Ultimately, it’s up to you as their coach to help them learn the importance of proper recovery and training smarter.

There are many underlying issues that can cause an athlete to train too hard. The main reason is due to pressure—both external and internal. Outside pressures include those placed by the coach, other athletes and general social pressures.

Athletes already have existing pressures upon themselves and will continue to increase that pressure until they win or do extremely well. Surprisingly, athletes who see success are also at risk for overtraining as success drives them to push even harder.

Ultimately, training is what makes a better athlete—so it is easy for athletes to get sucked into the idea that more is better in order to gain that edge. Being competitive while learning and testing limits is athleticism by virtue.

Many athletes tend to exhibit too much motivation and perfectionism that pushes their training past the point of gains. Athletes usually fail to see that they are overtraining. In their eyes they feel that the signs of overtraining—experiencing fatigue and weakness—means that they need to train harder.

Here are nine tips for showing your overtraining, overly ambitious athlete how to train within their limits.

1. Eliminate the thought process that more training equals more success.

Have them take a step back and see the long-term perspective. Explain that while short-term gains might be possible, long-term overtraining is harmful and inhibits best results.

An athlete wouldn’t hit the weights as hard as they could every day for a week straight—because afterward they wouldn’t be able to walk (let alone train).

Showing an extreme example often times helps an athlete operate on strategy rather than pressure.

2. Express how periodization yields higher performance.

Help your athlete see the big picture by emphasizing that it is necessary to have training phases. It is impossible to reach goals by trying to be super fit all of the time. If an athlete ramps up their training build too quickly they will end up short-siding themselves. Using periodization helps the athlete ultimately peak at a much higher fitness.

3. Increase knowledge or awareness regarding the importance of recovery.

Inform the athlete what the purpose of training is. Go over how training stress breaks the body down while recovery rebuilds the body to become stronger and adapt. It is impossible to progress if the athlete is always pushing too hard and never giving their body a chance to recover.

Stress is cumulative and if acquired at an expedited rate their body will be unable to repair and adapt resulting in overtraining. The amount of rest and recovery needed to overcome the damage is at least two times as long as it took to get there.

When overtraining, it is pointless to continue training as if it is a waste of time and will take them further down the rabbit hole. Remind the athlete that sometimes they are supposed to train hard or “overreach” for a couple days, but not all the time.

4. Highlight the risks of not recovering.

While the athlete may see short-term gains, the long-term losses can be extremely detrimental. When an athlete fails to recover and adapt the first sign is performance decreases. A waterfall of issues can follow if an athlete continues to train too hard: sleep disturbances, lack of motivation, moodiness, lack of power, strength and loss of muscle, injury and many hormonal issues. These can take months perhaps years to overcome depending on the severity.

5. Create realistic expectations instead of unrealistic ones.

Athletes often place too much emphasis on immediate results. They focus on the long-term goal verses taking incremental goals. Create realistic expectations both short and long term to reduce the pressure to perform well. Also make sure that your athlete isn’t pressured into doing a race or training that they aren’t ready for.

6. Give specific numbers and paces to follow.

Make sure to provide pacing and effort information to make sure they don’t push themselves too hard. If an athlete has a tendency to constantly push harder than asked, then include one day off per week consistently.

Being proactive in their training can help mitigate any areas potentially open for interpretation by the athlete. Ask for RPE (rate of perceived exertion) for their completed workouts along with assigning a letter grade on how they think the overall workout went. Having the athlete give feedback allows for you to understand if the athlete is pushing too hard and has a warped perception of effort.

7. Push the importance of very easy.

When there is an easy workout or easy portion it should be taken very easy. Help the athlete understand that going easy should is a form of active recovery and is not for fitness gains. The hard intervals, endurance efforts and tempos are where to put in the efforts.

Express that the athlete should want to go really easy on easy days because they are able to tap into higher efforts on the hard training days. Always training in the middle will not allow them to progress in fitness. Even Kenyans run 10-minute miles when necessary.

8. Don’t let the athlete stack their training to make up for missed sessions.

Make sure your athlete understands that if a session is missed its not the end of the world. No training plan is perfectly followed. Even the best athletes in the world miss training sessions or are too tired to complete a quality training session. When it gets closer to a competition panic training in the weeks leading up will not increase their fitness. Most likely it will hurt their race instead of help.

9. Leave the athlete wanting more.

The phrase it’s better to be slightly undertrained than over trained is true. Constantly pushing to the max will end up fizzling an athlete’s motivation and physical capability to train and race. Training is not fun for an athlete who is constantly placing themselves under too much pressure, pain, fatigue, injury and lack of recovery. If you leave the athlete charged and feeling like they can keep challenging themselves, then their training will be safe, enjoyable and fun.

“I constantly remind myself that resting takes confidence. Anyone can train like a mad man but to embrace rest and to allow all the hard training to come out takes mental strength.” – Ryan Hall

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About Mackenzie Madison

Mackenzie Madison is a professional triathlete and USAT certified coach. She has been competing in triathlon for 18 years and coaching for 15 years. Mackenzie acquired her B.S. in Kinesiology & Coaching and Masters in Exercise Physiology. She is also a former D1 runner and elite cyclist. Mackenzie is also an instructor at the University of Oregon. Learn more about Mackenzie at www.kenzmadison.com.