For those of you not familiar with what it means to get rickrolled, here is a short explainer. Rick Astley is best known for the 1987 hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It is now a popular gag in internet groups to provide a link to that music video in an unrelated conversation thread but label it something seemingly related (e.g. How to Get More Clients). The person who clicked on the link and received an unasked-for 1980s dance break is said to have been “rickrolled.”
It is all a bit of harmless interwebs shenanigans, but can be a useful metaphor for our discussion today because of two things:
- The song is almost entirely about rules. “Never” this, and “never” that.
- Because a link, like a rule, is something we all follow. And, in both cases can sometimes be very unhelpful.
The Rickrolled Athlete
Coaches, you know these people. You may even have some not-so-fond memories of being one of them in your past.
Best described by Mr. Astley’s lyrics, these are the athletes that struggle to be flexible enough to succeed in new situations. There are two common types:
- “Never Gonna Give You Up”
- The NGGYU athlete seems to be on a revolving door of burnout, short-lived retirement, and comeback attempts. Over and over again. They just can’t seem to make the comeback sustainable or the retirement stick.
- “Never Gonna Let You Down”
- The NGLYD could be mistaken for a robot. Their workouts are so mechanical and they never deviate from exactly what is prescribed. Nothing seems to faze them and they never miss a workout. Influenza? Still going. Broken femur? Still going.
You can probably see where I’m going here. In both of these cases, these athletes aren’t doing themselves any favors.
For the NGGYU, their learned behaviors don’t work in either sport or non-sport environments. They’re likely welcomed back with open arms and receive congratulations for going hard on each comeback attempt only to burnout once again. Then, when they leave the sport family the other life just isn’t very enjoyable, so it’s once again time to make another comeback.
For the NGLYD, it’s all work all the time, and as long as nothing breaks it’s also all praise all the time. To them, rest is a four letter word and a recipe for disappointment for what they perceive as “lost gains.”
What’s Going On?
Hits from the 80s aside, these athletes are likely both suffering from overly-rigid rule following. This is also known as “psychological inflexibility.” Simply put, it occurs when an individual repeatedly attempts to apply a rule or heuristic to a context where it doesn’t work.
For most people, after a few failed attempts we will try something different. But, for some, it makes sense to just keep trying to force it. In the long term, if the athlete is a square peg and the context is a round hole, the repetition will begin to damage the athlete.
Think of the athlete that sticks to a 1,800 calorie per day diet no matter what their training load is or the athlete that always trains through injuries. Both are desensitized to their context and are taking outsized risks that will likely slow or ruin their long-term outcomes.
And, just like rickrolling, where following the link doesn’t help, they’re following rules that aren’t helping and may actually be doing serious harm.
How to Avoid Rickrolling an Athlete
The good news is, rigid rule-following is a learned behavior, so it can be unlearned. And, coaches can construct the environment around the athlete to be more sustainable and to avoid the common pitfalls of rigid rule following.
Build Training Plans and Diets That Reward Timely Self Monitoring
In order to combat rigidity, we first need to notice when it occurs. It’s important to pay attention to both internal experiences and external experiences.
Monitoring internal experiences can include both physiological and psychological factors. How are athletes feeling emotionally and what rules are they depending on in any particular moment? Monitoring external experiences includes factors like how closely they adhere to training plans and what cues they are following that may reveal if
For an athlete following a training plan or diet, start monitoring their experiences by using a set of pre- and post-workout surveys for training or morning/evening surveys for diets. Be sure to build in questions that encourage self monitoring, and promptly reward quality completion of those surveys. As a result, you and your athlete will start noticing opportunities for flexibility.
With practice, behavioral cues that prompted inappropriate rule following will transform into cues that encourage athletes to experience needed discomfort as they try new things and to let go of old rules that don’t work.
Prioritize Flexible Behavior over Specific Numbers
We shouldn’t ignore data in sport, but it’s easy to devote too much importance to them, too.
If all an athlete hears from a coach is “X watts” or “Y calories”, eventually they will focus their behavior on those numbers without regard for context or risk. This is where we start to see rules become too rigid. “Never” this, “always” that; the rickrolling starts here.
If you find an athlete is regularly reporting specific numbers instead of a more flexible assessment of their performance in context, start by waiting to respond. Often, athletes might report additional information or reflect on that original report a bit more. A coach’s attention is a powerful reward. Give more of it when the athlete is demonstrating improved flexibility and withhold it if the athlete is overly-focused on specific metrics.
No coach wants to do harm to their athletes, but sometimes we don’t know when harm is being done and inadvertently rickroll them. Be careful to avoid holding too tightly to rules that don’t help outside of certain context. By improving self monitoring and prioritizing flexible behaviors, coaches can improve the training environment and help build a more adaptable and robust athlete.