Building on last week’s Coach Tip Tuesday (when we discussed The Law of Diminishing Returns and how it applies to sport) this week, I want to discuss something else that relates to progress in sport. This week, I want to talk about how true progress is an abstraction.
As I touched on last week, many of us see or hear the word “progress” and think that it directly translates to trackable, temporal progress (read: stats, numbers, etc.). However, I want to let you in on a little secret: True progress cannot be tracked on a smartwatch, phone app, or spreadsheet. It’s an abstraction. And it’s this - its abstractness - that makes true progress so difficult to grasp. As we navigate the difficulty of coming to terms with this truth, we instead settle for (and sometimes cling to) what can be counted: miles, steps, watts, strokes per minute, etc.
Yes, yes, it’s true that numbers can show us “on paper” progress. But there are so many other elements that progress actually encompasses, and it’s these elements that I encourage you to open your heart and mind to.
Yogi Berra once said, "Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical." Over my time as an endurance coach and athlete, I’ve observed that this is pretty spot on for more sports than just baseball. Yes, yes I know that the math doesn’t actually work out, but truly, endurance sports are much more mental than they appear at face value or than we might want to actually acknowledge.
Bearing this in mind, when we make progress in sport, it’s very possible that the progress we make is on the mental side of the equation, which may or may not result in a tangible outcome that can be measured in time, watts, strokes, steps, etc. However, just because a tangible outcome isn’t seen or measured doesn’t mean that progress wasn’t made.
As we spend more time engaged in endurance sports, our knowledge base grows, our experiences broaden, and our interactions with both the sport and other athletes diversify - all adding up to help us become smarter, more well-rounded athletes. This, my friends, is progress. And yes, we may or may not be able to measure it using traditional metrics or methods, which makes it an abstraction. And yet, it is progress all the same.
Because (as previously mentioned) this is a difficult concept to grasp, athletes will often come back to the “tangibles” - the watts, the paces, the miles, the strokes - to try and make “real” sense of that truth that they intrinsically know - that this is abstract and isn’t something that is easily put into words or numbers. And so, in their quest to try to “find” progress, they look to concrete things that they can “see”. This leads to frustration that can fester, because what they are seeking cannot be found in those tangibles.
Think about your time in endurance sports, and specifically, think about the years or seasons when you didn’t set a personal record (PR) or when you had a major setback.
Did you learn from those experiences and from the training that you were able to do at the time?
Did you get comfortable with being uncomfortable?
Did you do something that previously scared you (such as open water swimming, climbing a big hill, or going fast on a descent)?
Did you become more resilient by training in adverse conditions?
Did you find joy more consistently in your workouts?
Did you find a way to manage your schedule so that you could consistently complete training workouts?
Did you stay injury-free or improve your pain levels from being injured?
Did you find yourself able to give sound advice to newer athletes in the sport?
Were you able to find something to be grateful for in a majority of your workouts?
If you’ve ever experienced even just one of the examples that I listed above, that means that you experienced progress. Truly, you did. That progress just didn’t take the shape or the definition that you may have traditionally assigned to the word. And this progress is still real and is still significant even though it ended up looking differently than you originally imagined.
It’s okay if you can’t quantify the progress you’ve made into numbers, or even words. Embrace the idea that true progress really is an abstraction, and know that the work you do each day does help you build toward the goals you’ve set for yourself, even if you aren’t earning KOMs on Strava or setting PRs. As long as you’re learning and growing, my friends, you’re progressing. :)
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.