What am I capable of?

One of our athletes recently asked me “What do you think I am capable of in terms of time?”  This is a natural question for an athlete to want to ask of their coach.  Humans are social beings, and as such, we are keenly aware of the opinions of those around us in our social groupings.  Coaches tend to have a perceived higher rank in the social order of a training group than the athletes. As a result athletes tend to place a lot of emphasis on the way coaches perceive them.  This particular question is one that an athlete might be just as likely to ask of their training partners with almost equal importance placed on the response.  However, I would suggest that this question is being directed in the wrong direction to be of real value – it should be asked of oneself.

My response to the athlete over a series of text messages was as follows:

Mmmm…That’s a question that only really has an answer in the past tense.  My answer isn’t important – your answer is.  It also needs to be time limited.  When?

My best answer is, I know you’re capable of a lot.  Execution depends on a lot of factors – training, race timing, race conditions, nutritions, rest, life, etc.

Consistency over the long term is important – we all have ups and downs. Keep doing the workouts & we’ll see what happens.

I thought it might be helpful for the rest of the group to share a little of the thinking behind my response.

Capability is historical

The only real assessment of ability can be done in the past tense – everything else is a conjecture.  The capability implied in the question is potential ability, but capability is the conversion of this potential into an end performance in a race or series of races.  The wide variety of variables that go into a successful conversion of potential into performance are very difficult to predict and factor into a meaningful response.  This doesn’t mean that as coaches and athletes we don’t have a concept of what level an individual should be working at.  We consider all the information available at any given time (i.e. athlete feedback, training logs, health profiles, previous performances, current fitness testing) to form a training plan and help the athlete set goals and targets in the short and long-term.  In fact, I think this facilitation and monitoring is one of the most important roles of the coach by providing a mediated perspective on short-term results and experience with a view to the longer term objectives.  However, a good coach should be flexible enough to adapt to vast improvements in performance that exceed expectation.  As a group, I think this one area we are doing well with regular coach and peer feedback on what’s working and what isn’t, where we had success and where we hope to be.  These are are valuable steps to turning potential into capability and as I’ll discuss later having a “no limits” approach to performance.


Coaches and training partners are an important part of a positive training environment, but their opinions of your ability or skills should never trump what you know about yourself.  The top athletes are self-reflective without dwelling on the highs and lows of their experience.  I might frame this self-reflective practice as being one of quick check-ins along the line of questions and observations that might be tracked in a daily training log.  Some of the questions you might ask yourself are:

  • How am feeling physically and mentally?  Am I feeling overtired/strong/illness coming on/fit?
  • How is the training working for me?  What am I struggling with?  What is going really well?
  • What can I do to improve my training?  Sleep?  Nutrition?  Maintain what I’m doing?
  • What support do I need now and in the coming season?  Who might be able to help me with this?

You should be in position to say you know yourself better than anyone else, which can include, but not be limited to the filtered opinions of coaches and training partners.

Time Sensitive

The various other demands of life or ones own physical development may mean that an athlete doesn’t achieve what they expected for one particular time period, but this doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future or in fact that they won’t skip over one marker of performance and reach the next.  SMART targets are always time-sensitive and it is important to have goals that span short, medium and long time periods.  A variety of targets acknowledges the expectation of progress over time by providing room for success in the short-term while not limiting the end possibility of bigger achievements.  Goals are set, but never in stone. They should be viewed as flexible in the same way a rubber band will stretch or contract to different sizes, but has a given expected state.  Goals shouldn’t disappear, but to be valuable they need to reassessed and compared to feedback on a regular basis.

No Limits Attitude

A recent article about the experiences of University of Dalhousie cross-country athlete Emily Meisner in Kenya highlighted one of the things that I’ve heard often as a key to success of the Kenyan athletes in distance running – they don’t set limits for themselves.   Dieter Hogan, coach of many top Kenyan athletes, talks about this no limits approach in Episode 20 of ChasingKIMBIA below.

Dieter Hogan- coach of many Kenyan athletes – chasingKIMBIA – Episode #20 (relevant section 1:45-3:30)

ChasingKIMBIA was an interesting and insightful video blog that documented the inside workings of top marathon training groups in Kenya and North America in 2007-2008 with a view to understanding what it takes to be successful and is worth watching a few episodes.

It is interesting to note that many of the reasons attributed to Kenyan success – living at altitude, genetic predisposition, nutrition and running to school have been refuted scientifically as addressed in the introduction to this article on “Anthropometric, gait and strength characteristics of Kenyan distance runners”[PDF] by Pui Kong and Hendrik de Heer from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2008) – 7, 499-504.

I strongly believe that as an athlete it is much more likely that the limits and pressures you put on yourself will be more harmful and impeding on your progress than external pressures from others.  I know this experience all to well, it was how I spent the first half of my athletic career.  As I started to remove those limits, I had better performances and just as importantly enjoyed the experience a lot more.  I would put this as:  Have a no limits attitude – stop worrying about what will come of your training, get on with doing it and enjoying the process.

Balance – Defining Success

John Wooden was by all definitions successful in his career as a coach, but perhaps more influential are his own definitions of success.  Coach Wooden puts it like this:

“Success is piece of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

I really like this is because it puts the emphasis of success on the process and effort rather than the end of achievement.  I firmly believe that if you can look back at the process and effort with the self-satisfaction that you did the best possible under the circumstances then you must be comfortable with the results.  We are not just athletes, we are human beings with other interests, desires and commitments.  Top performing athletes have the desire, ability and support to prioritise all the necessary components of a successful training program, put in a lot of hard work to the workouts, are conscious of their physical strengths and weaknesses and work to those strengths.  However in the longer term, ones success in life is measured on more than your race times and performance.  Hopefully, racewalking will help develop some of the qualities it takes to be successful in athletics, and if not there at least in life.

John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success [PDF] is an excellent examination of all the components that go into success as is his TED lecture on the topic.

“What am I capable of …. ?”  is a good question to ask of yourself, but it deserves a more detailed response than simply a time.

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Filed under Balance, Mental, Mental Toughness, Positive Self Talk, Training

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