Expressed Vs. Engaged Values

Identifying Expressed Vs. Engaged Values

BY Justin Ross

What an athlete believes they value may not match their behavior.

More and more athletes are recognizing the importance of integrating sport psychology skills into their training. Sport psychology skills include thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors related to how to approach all aspects of athletic life. Skills can be broken down further into understanding the general foundational beliefs athletes hold both in and out of sport, how athletes mentally and emotionally manage the nuances of sport (for endurance athletes the critical variables here include managing discomfort and shifting perception of effort), how athletes engage in competitive environments, and how athletes approach recovery.

Many believe the only psychological skills that matter in endurance performance are mental toughness and grit, and subsequently ignore many of the underlying foundational skills. This is a disservice to athletes in the long run as these psychological variables interact with and influence outcomes. Therefore, they need to be understood and improved on a daily basis.

Each day’s training offers an opportunity to increase awareness and hone sports psychology skills. In order to help build a solid set of psychological skills that will guide athletes to their peak performance, you have to start by establishing foundational principles and work towards the top. As with all training, the best place to start is with goals and values.

Setting value-inspired goals

The start of any season should begin by breaking down the calendar and determining a set of goals for the year. Many coaches and athletes begin the year with this conversation. From determining mileage and training hours to planning consistent long runs and recovery days to plotting focused PR attempts and finding opportunities to break through perceived limits, the tone for the year is established in these early conversations.

Goals and goal setting have been discussed ad nauseum in countless books and hundreds of posts, articles, and podcasts available. Those ideas, although important, bear not repeating here. Rather, I’d like to offer a new take on an old framework by focusing on expressed and engaged values.

Values, in essence, are your standards for behavior. Expressed values are what we say we value; they are the statements and outward expressions of the behaviors we say matter, or the engagement style we claim to employ in certain aspects of our lives. Athletes are great at expressing all kinds of values as it relates to how they approach training. Examples may include:

  • “I work hard.”
  • “I always complete my training in full.”
  • “I never leave my training logs with yellow or red boxes.”
  • “I am mentally tough.”

Engaged values, on the other hand, are the behaviors we actually demonstrate through the course of training. You can look back through an athlete’s training log and deduce engaged values based on how they showed up and completed assigned workouts. There can be contradictions between what we say we value and what we actually do in training.

For example, athletes may say they value working hard and completing training in full, but in reality, they often cut training and regularly don’t finish workouts (a 20-mile planned long run is stopped at 18 miles because they “just didn’t have it today”). Athletes may say they value mental toughness, but when workout paces need to be pushed into the red zone they give themselves permission to back down. Cutting workouts short or slowing an assigned pace might indicate that an athlete has a strong engaged value of comfort, and signal a discrepancy between their engaged values and their expressed values (in this case, mental toughness).

How do you reconcile expressed and engaged values?

Identifying this potential dissonance is a key conversation in the coach-athlete relationship. This all begins by making sure you are on the same page at the beginning of a training cycle. Be sure the athlete takes time to reflect on their expressed values for the upcoming season while considering tangible goals, targets, metrics, and races while establishing their training plan.

Don’t get me wrong. Goal setting is also an important conversation while getting started, but it is equally important to take a moment to consider how athletes plan to approach the work it will take to reach those goals. Ensuring athletes are engaging with their plan as effectively as possible on a daily basis puts them in the best possible position to improve as the season unfolds.

Here’s an easy process to get started. Challenge your athletes to list expressed values by writing each value down in a clear, concise statement, such as:

  • “I value working hard.”
  • “I value finishing workouts in full.”
  • “I value engaging in mental toughness when it’s needed.”
  • “I value finishing threshold workouts.”
  • “I value doing the little things that make me better like foam rolling, strength training, managing stress, getting proper sleep.”

Keep this list readily available for the duration of training. This initial list can then become a blueprint for monitoring values through the course of training.

When training begins, both athlete and coach have a template to compare the expressed and the engaged values. Within a relatively short amount of time, workouts will begin to indicate if there is alignment between the expressed and the engaged or if there is lack of harmony.

If you, as the coach, or the athlete are noticing that workouts are not being finished, excuses are being made, or the athlete is not pushing into areas of discomfort when needed, this discrepancy between the engaged and expressed should become a critical discussion point. After a few weeks of training it is important to look back at the training log and state what their engaged values have been. This cycle can then repeat itself as often as needed throughout the training plan, either to make tweaks to the training plan itself or to reconcile differences in the values themselves.

Getting the most out of your athletes requires a tremendous amount of consistency and discipline. Ensuring the training is aligned with expressed values is a key way to monitor progress to ensure you are maximizing their training, and getting the most out of training is critical if you’re looking to get the most out of your athletes in competitive situations.

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About Justin Ross

Dr Justin Ross is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in human performance. He is an amateur recreational athlete who enjoys a variety of disciplines and distances, and is a 12-time marathoner (with 6 BQs), multi-time Ironman 70.3 competitor, and Leadville 100 MTB finisher. His professional career has spanned working with athletes ranging from the world-class in disciplines across all professional sports to amateurs working to optimize their performance in their own goal-related pursuits. Check out his first-of-its-kind performance psychology training plan on TrainingPeaks.