June 1, 2018

The 4 Stages of Developing Athletes: Learn, Compete, Win and Advance

I’ve been lucky enough to spend more than 30 years around high performance athletes and human beings. People like NFL Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, high-ranking military officials, movie industry moguls, world-class athletes and the best coaches in the world from a variety of disciplines. I made it my mission to study them with one thought in mind: What do they do when they’re at their best? I want to share a few of the concepts I learned as it specifically relates to coaches and athletic performers.

I noticed two things that separate the best coaches from rest of the pack. They are strategic and tactical in their area of expertise. These two elements are the hallmarks of the best and create the highest level of accountability for the athletes and, more importantly, for the coaches.

Before top coaches even think about the process of training their athletes, they “stage” their athletes. What does that mean? They break down each step of training into different stages so they can monitor, quantify and materialize performance.

To begin, they would ask: “How much does the athlete know about our organization and how we train our athletes?” Secondly: “Do they know what’s expected of them?” Thirdly: “Can they speak our language?”

With Elite Performance Systems, we’ve broken down and categorized these levels of training into four stages.

Stage 1. Training To Learn

In this stage the athletes are learning techniques, the language of the coach, communication protocols and operational procedures. In a team environment, such as football for example, the athlete would learn the techniques of their position and then the plays. Coaches spend endless hours with their athletes in this area because it lays the groundwork needed in order to move to the next stage.

Stage 2. Training To Compete

At this stage, the athlete should be able to manage their game at a reasonable level. He or she has an understanding of the language and can replicate his or her own techniques (or run the plays to continue our football comparison). This is where we begin training for competition.

In today’s sporting world, more times than not, athletes are shoved into competition with very little preparation targeted toward the competitive arena. If you truly want to damage the self-image (or confidence) of an athlete, put them in a situation where their level of competency or natural ability cannot carry them. Their self-image will shrink to an almost irreversible point. In short, coaches have to be realistic and can’t put their athletes into situations they’re not prepared for.

The key here is that coaches must train their athletes for competition on a regular basis. Competitive-based training helps build tolerance, capacity, flexibility and variability in the sport. With this style training they become familiar with the competitive environment, because that’s the space in which they train. It becomes “like them” to compete.

Another thing I see too often today is that athletes are placed in competition without understanding the expectations or their personal goals. Clearly defined expectations and goals are critical for protecting an athlete’s confidence and self-image. We will get into competition goals later.

Stage 3. Training To Win

Athletes in this stage have a full grasp of the training nuances and have displayed the ability to perform in a competitive environment. They are comfortable replicating their performance processes.

Before athletes can be trained to win, they must first display the ability to compete with others of their same skill level and/or higher. In this stage, the athlete must learn to set goals, train for those goals and begin to accomplish them.

This creates a baseline of accountability for coaches and, more importantly, athletes. The systematic training process, competitive simulations and defined competitive goals create a framework and steps that everyone can follow to stay on track. The system needs to be defined, measurable and time-based in order to build consistency.

One thing I teach my athletes, in order to protect their self-image/confidence, is that training to win is not always about winning the event. It’s about meeting or exceeding your set goals in a respective competition. When an athlete accomplishes their goals in competition, it’s considered a win. When athletes start “winning” on a regular basis and their goals progress appropriately, the podium won’t be too far behind.

In my younger coaching years I was fortunate to learn from greats such as hall of fame football coach Bill Parcells, legendary Dutch soccer player and coach Johan Cruyff, and Olympic Gold Medalist Lanny Bassham. A common belief among these great coaches/athletes is that competition is the best arena to work on your game. For example, there were times in Parcells’ career when he knew headed into a game that it was unlikely his team would win. So he approached the game by settings goals for his team and individual players, allowing the focus to be directed on these specific goals – such as keeping turnovers to a minimum of two or having fewer penalties than the prior game. If they could accomplish these goals, it was a small win for his team.

Think about what a basketball coach might say on the losing end of a hard fought game. “We did some really positive things on the court tonight. We hit the boards on offense and defense, and set a new team high in total rebounds for the season. We will continue to hit the boards and work on getting the ball in the hoop.”

Winning has varying degrees, which can be defined as goals. By setting goals you can measure your athletes’ progress in training and competition.

Stage 4. Training To Advance

Training to advance is very rarely discussed in mainstream sports. Olympic coach and gold medal sports shooter Lanny Bassham was the first person I heard talk about it. When athletes are in the “training to win” stage, they also need to learn how to advance themselves to the next level of their sport. How does an athlete become elite? This requires a very strategic and tactical plan that involves goals, a detailed training plan and the competition calendar.

There are three seemingly simple guidelines for athletes wishing to reach the pinnacle of their respective sports:

1. Goals must be set at a higher level than he or she has set them before.

2. Training must have higher consequences than the competition he or she will compete in.

3. He or she must increase the frequency of competitions and build a more rigorous event calendar.

I remember having a long conversation with Eun Chul Lee, the 1992 Olympic Gold Medalist in sports shooting from South Korea, about how to raise the level of intensity in training without trying too hard or over training. His key was raising the level of pressure in training sessions – for high-level athletes pressure is defined as the combination of anxiety and tension.

Lee was an Olympic athlete, but he also had a full-time job to pay the bills. He was a computer programmer, and whenever he had a break in his day he would visualize being in the gold medal match at the Olympics, trying to induce the same level of anxiety and tension he knew he’d feel in moment. He could feel his heart rate increase and sweat begin to pour from his palms, as if the moment was truly upon him. He would then rehearse and visualize every single shot from start to finish, all the way to the very end and see himself winning the gold medal.

After doing this exercise at his desk, his clothes would be drenched in sweat and his co-workers would wonder why he had on a new outfit at the end of the day. But it was this advanced training process that got him ready to win the gold.