I’m generally not interested in the stock market or any business related information, but when former Super Bowl winning coach with the Baltimore Ravens Brian Billick tells you to read a business book, you do it. So I picked up the book Good to Great by Dr. Jim Collins with the hope that I would find a useful nugget or two that was useful.

In studying training, science, leadership, or anything really, I’ve found the key is finding patterns. If a pattern emerges across several different training methods, or across different fields of study, then it’s likely you have come across something worthwhile. The key in learning is recognizing these patterns and making sense of them. One of the best things I did to prepare myself for coaching was to read a lot of training books that had very different opinions and were published at very different times. At first, it’s hard to relate how an almost all interval approach describe in a book published in the 1940’s matches a technical and scientific laden book in the 2000’s. But after reading studying enough material, patterns emerge and it all starts to make sense. One of my oft cited coaching mentors, Tom Tellez, is always fond of telling me how you just have to keep reading and studying until one day it clicks, the fog in your brain clears and you have a clear picture of how to do everything.

So when reading Good to Great, I was struck by several of those patterns. In the book, Dr. Collins used stock market data to identify companies that made a transition from a good company to a great one and then sustained that success for several years. While studying the companies that successfully made that transition, Dr. Collins and his team came to several simple conclusions on why those companies became great while other similar companies did not make the jump. One conclusion, which is seemingly obvious, was that Great companies made more good decisions than bad.

On first glance you may scoff at the idea and it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But think a little bit deeper and realize what the statement is saying. Even great companies made bad decisions. They messed up, chose the wrong path, made some stupid decisions. The key is that they reacted, acknowledged that bad decisions are going to be made, moved and on and made sure they made more good decisions than bad ones. The concept is simple yet eloquent; make more good decisions than bad.

Going back to when I was an 18yr old High School runner, my coach, Gerald Stewart, always said the key to running is to win more workouts than you lose. I don’t know about you but that sounds like a good translation to make more good decisions than bad for the running world. His point was that if you could walk away from the majority of your workouts feeling good and like you conquered it then you were going to race successfully as you were building off the workouts. If you left the workout feeling like you solely survived the workout and got beat up by it, then you “lost”. It was okay to lose a couple workouts, that’s life, but you can only handle going to the well so many times to survive a workout before you breakdown.

Hopefully you see the connection and the pattern emerging. So while the simple idea of having more good workouts than bad is obvious, how do we actually use it? The simple answer is that when you start seeing a pattern of bad workouts, you have to change something. Either dial back the workouts, include more rest and recovery, or change the workout types so that you are going in a different direction. Essentially, change something and don’t be a slave to your plan. That explains what to do, but the real question is when to do it.

As a young coach, I’ve wrestled with the idea of how to decide when to alter training. I’ve always been good at asking the athletes how they felt and I even write it down for the most part. That’s step 1, figuring out how the workouts actually went beyond the splits and numbers. But utilizing that information and feedback is the difficult part. It’s easy to remember how an athlete felt the day before or even a couple days before. It’s even easier to look back in the logs and see the splits and such for each workout to see if it was a good one or not. But when you are dealing with a number of different runners, often times we don’t look back far enough for a pattern to emerge until the athlete has really started to struggle. It’s only then that we go back the 3-4 weeks or to see what went wrong.

My little solution to this problem was inspired by another concept in the book Good to Great. In the book, there is a section where Dr. Collins talks about “building red flag mechanisms.” In the book, there were no differences found in the amount or type of information each company had. The good companies had access to the same information as the great companies. What differed was how they used that information. A “red flag” mechanism is essentially something that makes the information so obvious that it’s impossible to miss. The red flag acts as a way to keep things in check, insuring that you don’t miss a trend or pattern that emerges.

The same thing applies to running: all coaches have access to the same information (splits from workouts, how the athletes felt, etc.). The key is figuring out how to make that information useful. I’ve struggled with that idea for a while as a coach, but as I read the book I thought of another lesson learned from a talk former NFL and super bowl winning coach Dick Vermeil gave. In his speech that was given to a whole bunch of coaches in the NFL on how he developed as a coach, he mentioned in an almost off hand comment the importance of color coding the practice schedule. His larger point was the importance of planning practice. While discussing that topic, he held up a color coded training camp schedule and said that color coding the schedule allowed him to see when he had what activity scheduled and when they were working on specific things. By doing this, he could better balance practice. Essentially, it allowed him to more clearly see patterns.

Taking this idea and running with it, I simply added color to the training logs of athletes. I already write down the splits of the workouts and the like, but now I simply fill in the box of the days training with red if the athlete “lost” the workout, white if it was neutral, and green if they “won” the workout. The red and green make it blatantly obvious. They are my red flag mechanism as everytime I look at the log to fill in what the athlete did for the workout, it’s obvious to me if he’s strung together a couple weeks of good, bad, or mixed workouts. If I start seeing more red then normal, I know it’s time for a change.

So what do you take away from this post? First the obvious thing is to recognize that we need to win more workouts than we lose and use (or develop your own) my way of making it blatantly obvious if something needs to change. Secondly, the deeper point of the post is to recognize patterns and connections between seemingly unrelated topics. In this post, I took things I had learned from a HS track coach, a book on business, a college track coach, and a couple football coaches and melded it into a very useful piece of information.

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Bryan on March 31, 2011 at 12:37 am

      Steve, In a workout, how can you tell when an athlete is close to the point where he is going to lose the workout? My coach always says the telltale signs are jello legs or loss of form near the end. Is there any way to see signs that the athlete is about to go to the well before it happens?

    2. Boris Hornbei on June 16, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      Bill Bowerman, as reported by Kenny Moore in Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, would watch a runner's demeanor. A hanging head, bloodshot eyes, sagging expression, etc., were tip-offs that the runner should be sent to the showers (which Bowerman faithfully did).

      Without a coach to observe, self-honesty about one's inner feelings can provide valuable guidance. Runners often have the weakness or flaw that they won't admit when they feel weak, especially male runners.

    Leave a Reply