Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Just Say No

This has no relevance to the post, but I thought it was cute.
One of the hardest things as a coach is to tell an athlete “no”.  One of the hardest things as an athlete is to have the courage to say “no”. There are numerous instances when saying “no” is difficult. It can be skipping a race you registered for a year in advance. Or, taking an extended leave from training. Or, not signing up for a race you really want to do. Or, stepping back from group rides or runs because they do not fit into the training plan.

In my career as an athlete, not enough coaches or advisors told me no. I raced injured on too many occasions with little more than hope to carry me to the finish line (or the med tent). During these periods of injury, I often ended up chasing races, believing that the few good workouts in the lead up to the race meant I was ready to go full throttle, only to be disappointed when the outcome was a DNF.

Two such examples stand out distinctly.

In 2004, in the midst of a debilitating back injury, I lined up for the Olympic trials in Honolulu, HI. My workouts had been sporadic, but I felt I had enough stellar days on the track and on the bike to outweigh any of the potential negatives from the injury. I was very wrong. I dropped out halfway into the bike in excruciating pain, unable to climb the steep hill in the middle of each the 8 laps.

I eventually recovered from that injury only to tear a hamstring when I stumbled over a rock during a run a year later. The timing was unfortunate, a mere 5 weeks before Kona. I sought out the advice of many and underwent intensive treatment. I was still hobbled the day before the race, but my optimism led me to the start line. When I hopped off my bike, I was unable to even run through transition, my hamstring was so painful. Another DNF ensued.

In both of those instances, my advisers did not say to me, “Hey, dumb ass, you shouldn’t race!” Instead, perhaps influenced by my own optimism, I was told “Sure, go race. The bike will loosen you up for the run.” Only one person had the gumption to tell me the truth, “There is no way in Hell you will be able to finish, so don’t even start.”; it was my father, but who listens to their parents?

As athletes, we are usually conflicted when it comes to making difficult decisions about ourselves and our training and racing. That is why, as a coach, I have taken the initiative to say no to athletes when the situation warrants it. I am always open to a rational discussion and will weigh the potentially good outcome with the potentially deleterious consequences, both physical and emotional.

I realize that saying to “no” to an athlete who has signed up, for example, for an Ironman a year in advance and spent money is not what they want to hear. But, if the end result of the race would be bodily harm, I strongly advise against racing. Ultimately, the decision is up to the athlete, but my role as their coach is to give the athlete the best information I can and let them act upon it.

The word “no” comes so naturally in our vernacular, just ask any parent of a two year old. At some point though, we lose our ability to apply this word that comes so easily when dealing with others to ourselves. Stepping back and looking at the big picture rather than what we want right now should surely help us learn to say no in the short term to enhance our abilities in the long term.


  1. As I sit here w/ exhausted legs after not saying no enough to training post Boston, this resonates! You're absolutely right--it is really hard to get ourselves to quit, even when a little voice in heads is speaking to us. Great post.

  2. VC and I were talking about this after reading your post. It got me thinking. I do say no on occasion but then I thought that I actually dont say it that much and I tried to figure out why. Perhaps it's due to an amount of proper sense of thought that I try to instill in my athletes. Such that while the optimistic part of their brain might be saying "oh, i so hope i can race this weekend" the more rational part, which would be drowned out should they be coaching themselves, outweighs it and says "what would coach say, he would say no" So that by the time the discussion gets to me they already have their right answer. The one's that I do have to say no to tend to be the one's that the optimistic side is still a little strong for the rational.

  3. Saying no to my athletes is the hardest thing I do. It is the reason that I also have a coach. I was due to start the FL 70.3, which would have been my 9th (of 9) Fl 1/2 IM/70.3 races and my 45th 1/2 IM. I was a DNS for the first time in my career. Mainly - by the logic I was thinking of and first openly discussed with my coach. "You shouldn't race" is how the talk started. I knew he was right. I thought about it but went through the motions of training anyway. I'm glad I didn't race. It was the right thing to do (or not do). This is an exceptional blog entry JZ.