As a “newbie” competitive triathlete, I often become anxious when asked to train with athletes who I view as vastly more skilled than I. Will I embarrass myself by being too slow? Will I ruin my training partner’s training session? How to appropriately utilize group training sessions to maximize personal performance with minimal anxiety is a challenge which I have had to face.
There are many benefits to group training sessions. The camaraderie of a group can make even a lengthy or challenging workout more enjoyable. The pain of a tough training session is easier to endure when shared. Competition between athletes of similar skill levels can increase motivation and improve performance levels.
Unfortunately, group training sessions where the abilities between the athletes are highly varied, does not always result in enhanced performance levels. Often, the competition between athletes cannot be set-aside during a training session. Allowing the ego to drive the training session, rather than the specific performance goals, can result in overtraining or under training, which ultimately undermines race day performance. If you view your training partner as vastly more skilled, you may experience lost confidence, resulting in a decreased motivation to push yourself during training sessions. Similarly, if you view your training partner as substantially less skilled than you, the assuredness of victory decreases your motivation to perform optimally.
Undoubtedly, the presences of others can increase performance and motivation. Learning how best to integrate group training sessions into a training schedule while at the same time maximizing the benefits of the training session is an important skill for any athlete.
A recent study looked at situations where athletes of very different skill levels trained together.[i] In one scenario, athletes trained in the presence of each other but without direct competition. In the second scenario the athletes were in direct competition. The study concluded that when two athletes of vastly different skill levels trained alongside each other without competing, both athletes performances where enhanced. However, when the athletes were given the ability to compete during the practice, it was found that the athlete of the lower skill level lost confidence, motivation, and ultimately performed worse. Similarly, the athlete with the higher skill-set lost motivation, became overconfident, and also displayed a decrease in performance.
As an athlete who loves to compete, I struggle to compartmentalize “Hans Solo” sessions and “Group Action” sessions. I have slowly become aware that for swim sessions and speed work, unless my partner is within reach, I cannot use competition during the session to enhance my performance. It becomes too much of a struggle to maintain form, focus, motivation, and self-confidence when my partner is consistently lapping me. Although I may train in a completely separate lane, if I am aware of my partner’s session, my own performance is decreased.
What if, despite your best efforts, you do find yourself in a “competition-practice” scenario with an athlete whose skill level is vastly different from your own? Similar to racehorses, we as athletes are often caught up in our surroundings instead of focussing on our own session. To focus a wandering mind, I put on what I like to call my “athlete blinders”. I may be in the same room, following the same training plan as another athlete, but with my “athlete blinders” I do not allow external and extraneous thoughts to enter my mind. Put on those blinders and allow yourself to swim your swim, ride your ride, and run your run. You may be aware of another athlete’s general presence, but zone-in on your efforts, because that is all you can control.
Ultimately, whether you train in groups, with partners or on your own, it is important to focus on yourself as an athlete. Allowing yourself to become distracted by past performances, the performances of others, or the “what ifs” of future performances will only distract you from your ultimate goal; to improve your present self. This improvement does not come from athlete comparisons, split-time calculations, or competition anxiety. Improvement is born from training hard, training consistently, and training smart. Learning to positively utilize fellow athletes to improve you and your partner’s performance is a valuable tool to be used throughout the year. To quote three-time Ironman World Champion Craig “Crowie” Alexander, “You are only as good as your competition”. So go out and enjoy training with your competition. But do not forget, that ultimately your biggest competition is the athlete you were yesterday.
[i]Flynn, F.J & Amanatullah, E.T. Psyched up or psyched out? The influence of cofactor status on individual performance. Organization Science. 23 (2). 2012 (402-415).