Giving advice is the core essence of all that I do as an endurance coach. Whether it’s designing training workouts, writing feedback to athletes on completed workouts, answering questions, or coaching in-person sessions, what I am effectively doing in all of those scenarios is using my experience to give the best advice possible to each athlete to help them reach their goals.
The other day, I was talking to one of the athletes I coach on Performance Coaching and I gave them advice that I have given to many athletes over the years. After our conversation, I got to thinking that this would probably be good advice to share more broadly, so here it is:
Ask the hard questions.
This advice applies in a lot of situations - both in life and in sport. That being said, the situation where I find it’s most useful is when athletes are facing something tough, such as injury or illness. All too often, I encounter the following scenario:
An athlete gets sick or injured.
The athlete goes to the doctor.
I ask the athlete how the visit with the doctor went. Along with that, I ask what restrictions the doctor placed on them during their time of injury or illness.
The athlete tells me that the doctor didn’t say anything about it.
I may not be the oldest person on the planet, but I am also not the newest person on the planet (so I know what is actually going on here ;) ). In almost all of these scenarios the athlete is technically telling the truth; their doctor or medical provider did not say anything about restrictions or what they could/couldn’t do. But why didn’t their doctor or medical provider say anything? More times than not, it’s because the athlete either didn’t specifically ask about what they are cleared to do and/or they didn’t tell their medical provider all of the relevant information.
I understand why this happens. It’s an intimidating question for many athletes to ask, primarily because the athlete intuitively knows (even if they don’t want to admit it or say it out loud) that what the medical provider says or what the medical provider answers may not be what they want to hear. So, they do the old “ostrich move” and figuratively bury their head in the sand. Because if it’s not said out loud or explicitly, it can’t be true, right? If they didn’t tell an athlete that they can’t do something, that means it’s fine to do, right?
Wrong. Just because an athlete doesn’t explicitly ask doesn’t mean that the medical provider has provided their blessing to the athlete to do what they want to do. Don’t mistake a lack of quality input for express permission. Get the explicit blessing. Or - if they don’t give it - get the explicit restriction. It’s better for the athlete - both in the short and long-term - to understand (and embrace) what they are actually experiencing.
If an athlete withholds information from their medical provider, the quality of care that they receive will be diminished; it will be a mere shadow of what it could have been. In many ways, “shooting with a blindfold” is an appropriate metaphor here. We cannot conquer what we cannot fully see.
Withholding information and/or neglecting to ask relevant questions generally corresponds with longer recovery/return to sport timelines. When facing an injury or illness, it’s best for the athlete to fully understand what dragon they are facing. This will enable them to work with all relevant parties (themselves, their medical provider, their coach, their physical therapist, etc.) to forge the best and most efficient path forward, enabling the athlete to resume doing what they want to be doing sooner along with more strength. This is the path to long-term health, wellness, and realized goals.
Just because we want or wish for something to be true doesn’t make it so. This is especially true when dealing with injuries, illnesses, or other setbacks. Ask the hard questions. While not knowing may appear to feel better in the short term, my experience has taught me that a hard truth is much better than an easy lie over the long haul. As the great Carl Sagan once said, “…better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy.”
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.