Writers of fiction are often separated into two categories: planners and pantsers. Planners take the time to prepare a deep outline, mapping out each ebb and flow of the plot. On the other hand, pantsers, short for ‘flying by the seat of their pants’, have a rough idea of the story and where it will end, but instead of mapping it all out, they let the writing take them on a journey.

            Pantsers tend to let the characters drive the ship. Because they are dealing with them in the present moment when writing, they have to imagine how each character would react to whatever situation they find themselves in them. Planners on the other hand, often utilize characters as mechanisms to advance the plot. They know exactly where the destination is and what stops along the way they are going to make, the characters become the vehicles. One style isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other, they simply have different strengths and weaknesses. Are the characters or story what’s most important?

            When it comes to coaching, we can see the same dichotomy. Planners outline training to an extreme. Mapping out not only what types of workouts they are going to do for months, but the individual workouts themselves. Planning coaches rely more on theory, placing an emphasis on the details of the workouts and what they should so. On the opposite side, our version of a pantser, would be someone like Mihali Igloi who while he tended to have an idea of the workout, looked for the athletes personal reaction to the first few repeats to decide what the workout would be. Coaches on this end of the spectrum tend to wait and see, letting the athletes response drive the ship.

            Just like in writing, both sides have their benefits and drawbacks. Of course like any classification system, this isn’t an either/or situation. There are shades of grey between the two spectrums where most of us live. But it’s worth taking the time to consider whether you are emphasizing planning or reacting. I’m a planner by nature, so I combat this natural inclination by setting limits for myself. I take a broad approach to planning a season. Allowing myself to make a rough map out of what training an athlete will need and how I’m going to progress it. But I don’t write individual workouts until a week or so before they will be done. And I try to remind myself that those workouts are written in pencil.

We all have our biases and probably refer one side of the spectrum to the other. But as a coach, it’s important to cultivate the ability to utilize both viewpoints. Challenge yourself to map out training for weeks or months to understand the big picture and how training interconnects. At the same time, challenge yourself to use your intuitive skills, watching and listening to your athletes, and letting that drive the ship. By possessing both skill sets, it enables you to lean to the left or right on our plan vs. intuitive continuum. Giving our athletes a better chance at continual improvement.

Steve Magness is the author of the new book The Passion Paradox. You can sign up for his weekly newsletter using the form below.

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    1. John Lofranco on May 14, 2019 at 7:16 am

      An important part of this consideration is educating the athlete. This is just a guess but the majority of athletes expect planning. And they view the written workout as what must be done in order to succeed. If the coach leans too far to planning as well, this can feed a negative cycle for the athlete. If the coach leans too far to improvisation, the athlete can be very destabilized. So riding that line not only internally as a coach, but externally, explaining the plan and the specifics to the athlete, is key.

    2. CJL on May 20, 2019 at 8:23 am

      This is an important topic, so thanks for discussing it. One thing that I take into consideration is the “maturity” of the athlete. For beginners I am a planner, for seasoned I am an intuit. But I also have seasoned runners for whom I am a planner, but that is because their personality is not that way. They need someone to guide them though they can do the workouts at a high level. I also have beginners who I can intuit for because they are self guided learners and will internalize the process, the why’s, etc even if they struggle with workouts.

      In the end I let the athlete drive the process and guide me on how to coach them.

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