How I Coach an Athlete from Ordinary to Elite

Pete Ross

Photo by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash

I started competing in sports when I was 10 years old at my school swimming carnival, and apart from a few months after starting university, I never stopped. I competed at all levels of representative sport while in school up to state, and then went on to compete at national level in judo and strongman as an adult. Recently, I coached a 43 year old mother of 3 to multiple world records in her class in powerlifting.

I’ve also coached a number of ordinary people who just wanted to be doing better. What most people don’t realise is that whether you want to be an elite athlete or at the top of your game in another area in life, the same principles apply. There are no secrets or silver bullets, it’s a combination of common sense, consistency and discipline over time.

When I get right down to it, being an effective coach is about one thing: helping an athlete to achieve and then stay in an optimal physical state for training.

The foundation of performance

An optimal physical state is the foundation for elite performance because it acts like compound interest for money. If you’re at your physical best every single day, that means you’re extracting the maximum benefit out of every training session. Doing that over months and years pays huge dividends.

Just think about it — if you can extract 5% more from each training session than another person on the same level as you right now and you both train 5 days per week, that means by the end of just one month, you’ve had 20 training sessions where you improved 5% more. Now look at that over a year — taking into account de-load weeks and other things, you’re looking at around 240 sessions where you’re 5% better. Your rate of improvement will significantly outstrip those of your peers and really show come competition time.

That’s not a small difference, it’s gigantic.

Now consider that we’re talking about 5% better. What if we could make that 10%, or even 20% per session? The reality is, when you’ve got everything in top condition — sleep, diet, training program, stress levels and so on, we’re talking about a lot of percentage points here.

I competed at my last nationals in strongman at the age of 38. Most of the field was 10+ years younger than me, and many of them were also on steroids, because that’s the nature of the sport. The fact that I could make the top 20 in my country at my age with no PEDs attests to the power of this approach.

How might it work for you?

Now let’s consider how that might work for your life if you’re trying to compete in a triathlon, succeed as an entrepreneur, be a musician, or even just as a parent trying to fit it all in. What could you do with a week of optimal physical functioning? How much better could you be day to day? What could you achieve in a year?

Not only would you be working at a higher level during the day, but instead of finishing your work day exhausted and wanting to chill, you’ve got the energy and mental capacity to start looking for those extra opportunities. You can take on that extra project at work, or that night course, or spend that extra hour practicing your craft.

The issue we run into with places like Medium and the Tim Ferriss Show is that people think being in peak physical condition and having a perfect morning routine is going to make you a billionaire. It won’t. Training and living like Usain Bolt isn’t going to mean you can run world record times. Outcomes are determined by a lot of random factors that none of us can control, so it’s a matter of working on what we can control.

What I do with athletes and what you can do with this information is form a foundation. The foundation gives you optimal performance, which means a greater ability to go after and convert opportunities every single day. Extend that out over months and years, and now you’re creating something special.

Don’t overestimate what you can do in the short term, while underestimating what you can achieve long term.

The difference between elite and average

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the basic principles of being elite. The number one thing is that nothing is accidental or haphazard. Everything is planned out: from nutrition, training program and amount of sleep to meal timing, what’s in those meals and the amount of sunlight required each day. Recovery is a big deal too.

Sound exhausting? It’s really not. Sure, it takes some adjusting, but as Jocko Willink says, “discipline equals freedom.” All that preparation forms a foundation of stability for every facet of your life, which means that your energy levels will be at their highest and your mental baggage will be at a minimum.

Being elite is about principles

We always start at the macro rather than the micro, focusing on the big wins for low effort, because there are always a lot of those in the beginning. You leave the 1% gains until the end of the process because they take the most effort and aren’t always worth the investment.

Before I can start planning for an athlete, I need to know what’s sub-optimal. I’ll have them fill out a questionnaire that really digs down into their life, so I can see the screws that need tightening first. I ask them questions about everything. For instance, I don’t just ask them how many hours of sleep they get per night, I ask them their sleep and wake time, is it the same each night, what is the sleep environment like, do they dream, do they wake up feeling rested etc.

That’s because it’s not about telling them to get more sleep, it’s about me finding out why they aren’t getting enough, and helping them find a way to fix it that they can stick to. I’ll even ask them about their work (which most people would think has nothing to do with their athletic performance), because questions about their job tells me a lot about their overall life satisfaction and how much stress they have every day.

After that questionnaire, I’ll usually find at least half a dozen big things to start with that will make a big difference to how they feel each day. They’re going to be different for everyone obviously, but as an example, a common theme is movement and sunlight. Office workers don’t do anywhere near enough walking, and they don’t get enough sunlight. If you’re an office working athlete, that usually means that when you finish work and want to train, you feel tired because your body has been asleep all day.

A simple cure is having them get up from their desk every hour for 5 minutes to walk around, and have them go outside in the sun at lunch time. Those two stupidly simple things go a long way to having them feel more energised for training.

This is where my approach is a break from the norm, because most athletes and coaches focus on training, nutrition and (maybe) sleep. That’s incredibly limiting, because there are so many levers outside of those three areas you can pull to increase function and performance. People are usually going for 1% improvements like a new supplement or tweak in their programming when they could get 5–10% just by getting more sunlight and boosting their vitamin D level.

After the questionnaire, I’ll have them take a blood test to look for vitamin, hormone and mineral deficiencies. It’s an easy way to start, because it’s a medical test telling you what is wrong, rather than having to guess through trial and error. A huge amount of people are magnesium deficient and vitamin D deficient. If the blood test confirms that, diet changes and supplements to increase magnesium is game changing in terms of sleep quality for most athletes and people in general. Vitamin D is the same.

Only change one thing at a time!

So we’ve done the questionnaire and the blood tests — now what? Well, apart from ensuring they get the required supplements to remedy those deficiencies, the next thing we do is start tweaking their routine. I never, ever make multiple, large changes to an athlete’s routine or diet for some very important reasons:

  • When you change multiple variables, you don’t know what the cause for the improvement is. Changing one thing at a time means you can accurately measure the effects.
  • One change at a time is easy for anyone to implement, especially a motivated athlete. Too many will lead to failure.
  • We’re looking to build a solid, long term routine. This is accomplished much more easily over the long term rather than rushing it.

The first thing I always look at is sleep. Even if an athlete’s diet is a train wreck and their programming is sub-optimal, the greatest gains always come in the area of sleep. An hour of extra sleep per day provides an increase in performance well beyond what diet and programming improvement can accomplish together. So for the first 4–8 weeks, we don’t look at changing anything except for sleep routine so we can get it right and measure the effects on both their personal well-being level and in what they can do at training.

After that, we go through each area of their life one at a time and tighten the screws. The main thing is, I always work with an athlete or person on an individual level. If they’re a shift worker who gets by on less than optimal sleep and doesn’t get enough sun, I don’t say “well you need to find a different job” or tell them that I can’t help them. Sometimes I need to provide them with a reality check of what their choices mean, but in every single case it’s a matter of finding a change we can make that is compatible with them.

Don’t write these off as silly little tactics either. I’ve proven time and again that these small changes work, and when you chain them together over the course of months and years, the outcomes are huge. The main thing I want you to take away is that both leveling up in sports or in life is more than anything about routine and optimisation. You put the scaffolding in one piece at a time rather than rushing it, and you keep building it until everything is in place. Then and only then do you start chasing after the 1% improvements that are important to you.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.


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