Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: dr@MomentumMedia.com.
Coaching Management, 15.1, January 2007, http://www.momentummedia.comFor most athletes, plateau is a four-letter word. In their minds, they should improve after every workout, and every meet should bring a new PR. As a coach, though, you know that performance gains don’t come in a straight line—there are many times during the season when performances should flatten and hold steady for a while. Rather than signaling a problem, plateaus are often simply part of the training plan.
On the other hand, there are times when an athlete’s lack of improvement actually signals that something has gone wrong. Rather than being a healthy plateau on the way to the next breakthrough, level performances over a long period of time can be a sign of overtraining, psychological roadblocks, or even an undetected illness.
In this article, we’ll take a close look at plateaus, both good and bad. In the case of a planned plateau, we’ll offer ideas for teaching athletes that patience is the name of the game. In the case of a plateau that is really a roadblock in disguise, we’ll provide the training tools for breaking through.
Part of the Process
When an athlete’s performance levels off, it can be frustrating for both the athlete and coach. However, the first step in understanding plateaus is realizing that they often represent a normal phase in the training progression.
“Everybody plateaus,” says Rick McGuire, Head Coach of Men’s and Women’s Track and Field at the University of Missouri. “Coaches have yet to find a training system where results are ever onward, upward, further, higher, faster, and better. Plateaus are just part of the deal.”
Vern Gambetta, President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a co-founder of the USA Track and Field coaches education program, likens plateaus to the landings on a staircase. “You go up a flight of stairs and there’s a landing, which is where you stabilize your performance,” he says. “Then you go up another flight of stairs to the next landing. It usually takes about four flights of stairs before you reach your peak performance, so there can be three or four lengthy plateaus.”
Plateaus are also an inevitable part of the mental adaptation to training. According to sports psychologist Keith Henschen, Professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Science at the University of Utah and consultant to USA Track and Field, plateaus result in part from the brain assimilating new information.
“When we’re learning, it takes time for the mind to digest information,” he says. “Although we may feel we’ve mastered a task, it takes a while for the brain to finish processing everything, so we see a plateau. And you’ll see that happen more with the elite athlete because it takes so much longer for them to improve just a little bit compared to a novice athlete who can improve a lot over a short period of time.”
Waiting It Out
It’s one thing for a coach to be comfortable with an athlete’s plateau, and another thing to help the athlete accept the situation. For McGuire, education is the key to helping his athletes have patience through a plateau. He teaches them that, from a physical standpoint, plateaus are a necessary component of great gains.
“I explain that if we were always rising to the next peak, we’d have to do a lot of resting,” he says. “That wouldn’t give us as much time to build more biomotor capability to put in the storehouse of our bodies. Then we wouldn’t have as much capability available in that storehouse when it came time to deliver the next peak, so the peak wouldn’t be as big.”
Part of the challenge, McGuire says, is that society conditions athletes to fight plateaus. “Society teaches us to demand immediate greatness, and when that doesn’t happen for an athlete, they ask, ‘What’s wrong with me? Have I lost it?’” says McGuire, who has a PhD in sports psychology and is an Assistant Professor in Missouri’s Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology. “So we have to fight the messages from society that tell our athletes to hate the plateau.”
To do that, McGuire often uses a concept from a book by George Leonard titled Mastery. “The book isn’t about sports, although the author uses some sport metaphors and examples,” McGuire says. “It’s about people trying to be highly effective in their lives and applying themselves in a way that allows them to be masters of their fate and their own excellence.
“One of Leonard’s concepts is ‘Love the Plateau,’” he continues. “Now, most people hate the plateau. They want to get off the plateau, so they fight it. But as a coach, the idea of loving the plateau makes sense to me.”
A large part of McGuire’s discussions with his athletes involves teaching them to love the plateau. “I tell them this doesn’t mean they have to be satisfied with where they are,” he says. “It simply means we know plateaus are part of what leads us up the path to the big peak we’re aiming for. Our intention every day is to work hard doing things that will allow us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. But we aren’t going to see that better tomorrow in new PRs every day. And since we know that there will be plateaus, we’re going to do smart things while we’re there, and we aren’t going to beat ourselves up during the process.