Two Views: “Off Season” or Transition to Skills Mastery

December 3, 2018

 

For many of us, the racing season is either at or drawing near to the end for this year. What comes next will largely determine what next year's race season looks like. Will this be an “off season” that looks like total downtime for the next couple of months or will it be a transition season that prepares you for next year's race season at an optimal level? As an athlete I have tried both and only one has ever set me up for success. Can you guess which one?

 

As attractive (and admittedly sometimes necessary) as a complete break from training can be, it rarely (other than in the case of recovering from injury or illness) helps move athlete to improved performance. Does that mean we should advocate for no change in our training focus? No. Instead when approached right, this can be a season of skills mastery. Training volume can be reduced at the same time focus in key areas is increased.

 

Where to start?

 

Joshua Burkhart of The Ascent blog offers a great 5 step process gleaned from Anders Ericcson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.

 

The simple 5 step process, when applied with consistency and frequency, can lead anyone to increased mastery of a skill. This is true of an improved swim stroke, increased efficiency and cadence on the bike or run, better transition times, etc. The steps are:

 

 

            Step 1. Accept where you’re at.

            Step 2. Challenge yourself with deliberate practice.

            Step 3. Get a coach.

            Step 4. Become a teacher.

            Step 5. Start

 

Step 1. Accept where you’re at.

 

DO some self reflection around any area or areas where you would like to see increased personal mastery. Be honest as you do this and accept where you are. It could be that a bad race year or life circumstances have set you back. It could be that you have just never really given enough attention to an area. But now is the perfect opportunity to change that.

 

Step 2. Challenge yourself with deliberate practice.

 

The next step ties directly into the training pillars of frequency and consistency. It has three characteristics:

 

  1. When possible practice in the morning. Often schedules of busy athletes can conflict with this best practice but when possible early is better when you are trying to increase skill mastery. Remember that skill mastery is not about volume intra-session but rather focus and intentionality.
     

  2. Don’t practice too long. This is important and allows for more flexibility to work the sessions in early and is key to the mind and body's ability to absorb the desired skill.
     

  3. Shoot for quality over quantity. Alongside the key elements of frequency, consistency, and deliberateness is the element of quality versus quantity. Longer skill mastery focused sessions do not necessarily yield better results. Often, in fact, they can have the opposite effect.

 

Step 3. Get a coach.

 

As a professional endurance sport coach this may seem like self-serving advice. However, coaches do play a vital and necessary role in achieving peak performance. Anders Ericsson points out that, “The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach.” If you have been trying to master some skill and have not achieved the performance you desire it may be time to consider a coach.

 

Step 4. Become a teacher.

 

This idea may seem counter intuitive. You might be asking, “If I myself am trying to master a skill how can I hope to teach others?” This question is based in two separate misconceptions: First, the idea that mastery is something that is one and done rather than an ongoing pursuit and second, that you must be an expert on any subject to offer others insight into what you have already begun doing well.

 

Step 5. Start

 

Of course this is where the rubber hits the road! Make the decision, lay out the plan, and then get started. Take on the increased master of one key skill at a time and get going. You will be happy if you do as you see success increased and personal performance improve.

 

Instead of laying off completely from training, increase your focus and intentionality to acquire increased mastery of specific skills. Don't take the season “off”. Instead use this season to transition to greater performance. This will bolster your confidence as an athlete who not only trains to become stronger but also to become smarter. In doing this you will find the result will be a faster you. A smarter, stronger, faster, you.

 

 

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