Posted On:
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Can't Versus Won't

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It’s Tuesday again, folks! And it’s not just Tuesday; it’s Coach Tip Tuesday!

Any athlete who I’ve worked with will let you know that I focus on the physical side of training and racing.  But they will also tell you that I focus just as much, if not more, on the mental side of things.  Today we’re talking about one of the mental aspects of racing: deciphering between “can’t” and “won’t.”

As a coach, I’ve heard my fair share of “I can’t do…….” from athletes.  As an athlete, I have expressed this sentiment more than once.  What I’ve learned over the years is that a lot of “I can’t…..” phrases are actually “I won’t…..” phrases.

Example: I personally detest circle swimming.  I think it’s awful, I find it frustrating, and since #VaderArm was born, it makes me freaking nervous (because someone inadvertently knocking into Vader Arm is not a pleasant experience for me).  So, I will not circle swim on a training swim.  I am capable of doing it, so therefore I CAN.  But I simply won’t, to the point that I will skip a planned workout rather than circle swim if that’s my only option to get it in.

Next example: My coach planned a workout for me where I was supposed to aim to run at a cadence of 180 steps per minute a few months ago.  I told him that I can’t do that.  Ever one of my biggest cheerleaders, he told me that I certainly could and that I needed to give it a go.  So, give it a go I did.  I wasn’t able to sustain 180 spm, I felt like Jetfire the Hip was literally on fire, and I felt like my left leg was “along for the ride” as opposed to actually being productive and running.  When my Physical Therapist and strength coach evaluated me, he determined that my left leg is currently physically incapable of running at 180 steps per minute due to the imbalances that now exist due to Jetfire the Hip.  So, this is an example of “I can’t.”  I cannot run at 180 spm right now.

Why is this so important? Because, in our growth and development as athletes, it’s incredibly important to become as self-aware as possible. This includes having the wherewithal to decipher when we are engaging in self-limiting behavior versus when we actually cannot do something. This means being honest with ourselves. It means reflecting on our actions and choices and holding ourselves accountable to ourselves. At the end of the day, “Character is who you are when no one is watching.” It won’t hurt your friends, family, or competitors if you’re dishonest about what you can and can’t do and what you will and won’t do. It could, however, hurt you.

Those early morning workouts? CAN you do them? Or do you choose not to get up to do them? Getting to an indoor running location in poor weather? CAN you get to one? Or do you choose not to find a way to get there? How about that strength training or stretching that you have written into your plan? CAN you do it, or are you not carving the time for it? Are you limiting yourself, and therefore your potential? I know, I know. It’s easier and sounds better to say you “can’t” do something. It’s much harder to admit that you simply won’t do something.

So today, my friends, I’m urging you to do the hard thing.  I’m urging you to (once again) try getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Take a look at the “can’ts” in your athletic life and see if they are really “won’ts.”  And, if they are “won’ts” that are limiting you or holding you back, consider making a plan of action to turn those “won’ts” into “wills.” :)


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.

She can be reached at

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