The Fourth Element – Athlete Engagement!

The Fourth Element – Athlete Engagement!


Training Load Lecture Number 1 of every coaching course in the world starts with the 3 standard variables in load management and exercise physiology:

  1. Volume – How much to do
  2. Intensity – How hard to do it
  3. Frequency – How often to do it.

But, once you have coached for a few years and actually worked with athletes, the fourth and perhaps the most important variable of all becomes apparent as the critical determinant of exercise and training:

4. Athlete engagement – How completely the athlete is engaged in doing the activity.

For the past 50 years, sports scientists, coaches and trainers have spoken about the big three in exercise prescription: Volume, Intensity and Frequency. And for just as long, the debate has raged over the best ways of manipulating the “big three” to get the right responses and adaptations to training programs.

However, there is a fourth and even more critical element in exercise prescription and training program design….athlete engagement.

How much time is spent designing training programs in terms of the “big three”???? – yet little or no time is spent on how to maximise the athlete’s engagement in the program – and hence the program (and the athlete) never realises its full potential.

Potential is what it is all about: the reason training is planned and periodized is to provide the environment and opportunity for athletes to realise (and even exceed) their potential in the shortest possible time. To do this requires commitment and engagement – not just compliance.

For example:

A swimming coach spends hours working on designing a new workout for his swim team. He comes up with 24 x 100 metres (Volume) on a time cycle of 1 minute 30 seconds, working at 85%  of maximum (Intensity).  The team will complete this set three times each week (Frequency).

Because the coach has included the “Big Three” in his exercise prescription and training program design, he feels he has done a good job. But consider how the following two athletes complete the same workout:

ATHLETE A completes the task the way it was written. The athlete has complied with what he has been asked to do and given the minimum standard of compliance to the session.

ATHLETE B – Challenges himself to complete the session with technical excellence despite the onset of fatigue. He controls his stroke, his skills, his breathing and his pacing. He encourages his team mates to give their best and to work together on achieving the best possible outcome. He has engaged with the session and is striving to use the opportunity to enhance every aspect of his performance.

  • Which athlete is likely to get the most out of the training session?
  • Which athlete is likely to accelerate their rate of performance improvement the fastest?
  • Which athlete is likely to achieve their training and competition goals in the shortest possible time?

How the athlete completes the work – how much they are engaged – body, mind and spirit to completing the workout – will largely determine the impact of the session. The physiological “big three” merely set the MINIMUM standard for the workout – the basics: it is the athlete’s level of engagement which determines their potential to get the MAXIMUM possible return and reward for the workout.

It is important to understand how coaching has evolved. There are now two different and distinct coaching approaches: Coaching by Compliance and Coaching with Engagement.

Compliance coaching -i.e. coaching where the coach controls the outcome of the session by manipulating the “Big Three”, is old coaching philosophy and in these times of Generation I – of “me”, “my” and “mine”- is a coaching dead end. This is 1970s coaching – the coach sets the workout – the athlete does it.

Engagement coaching – i.e. coaching where the athlete’s own standards, drive, personality and passion produce even greater outcomes than the coach thought possible – where the athlete adds real value to the session – is the way of the future: it is the future of coaching. It is tapping into the thoughts, personality and behaviours of the next generations of athletes and partnering with them to produce new levels of excellence in sports performance.

Coaching success in modern sport is determined by the ability to engage athletes in the program. In the old days, coaching was all about what you knew – knowledge was the currency of coaching. Now, with the incredible quantity of information available on the Internet, knowledge is no longer the currency of coaching – and coaches who rely on their knowledge alone will go “bankrupt”!

It’s a bit like being at school.

“Class”, says Mr Jones, “Tomorrow morning at 9 am (Frequency) you will hand in a paper of 1000 words (Volume) on the subject of Global Warming. The paper should be appropriately referenced and detailed (Intensity).”

You get the compliance students (those who do the assignment to a minimum standard and hand it in on time) and the engagement students (those who do the assignment to highest possible standard and exceed even the expectations of the teacher). And it is these students – those who engaged with the project task who can and will change the world!

The days of writing training programs and designing exercise sessions in purely physiological terms are hopefully dead and buried.

Sport is more complex than the “Big Three” and Performance is an integrated blend of physical, mental, personality, technical, tactical, strategic, cultural and genetic factors.

Hopefully from now on, when we teach coaches, students, exercise professionals and fitness enthusiasts about programming, periodization and sports physiology, we will include engagement as a core variable and make the Big Three – the Fabulous Four!

Wayne Goldsmith


  • Brian Stephens Posted August 14, 2009 7:25 pm

    Great blog Wayne. I couldn’t agree more.

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted August 15, 2009 6:18 am

      Thanks Brian.

      It’s like any field of endeavour. Most people do the minimum – i.e. the basic “what” – but in every team, every school class, every work place, there are a small group who strive for the maximum because they have engaged body, mind and spirit with what ever they do. It is this group which changes the world!

      Thanks again,


  • Eric Posted August 14, 2009 10:00 pm

    Great article Wayne, always refreshing to read your blog stories… keep ‘m coming mate.

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted August 15, 2009 6:14 am

      Thanks Eric.

      Watch for several articles coming up on integrated, multi-disciplinary sports science – what I call Performance Science.


  • Karl Mustchin Posted August 15, 2009 11:42 am

    Great blog, my only question is how do you get the athlete to engage. I work with 14-17 year olds and some engage and some don’t. I use multiple different means to try and help them achieve but in there age group you have to constatntly change your approach. Do you know of particular steps that work with this age group.

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted August 15, 2009 1:22 pm

      Great question.
      With that age group, often the more you try to engage them, the less they want to do it!
      Challenge them – don’t force the engagement – allow the engagement to happen.
      Provide opportunities for them to engage by giving them challenges and problems in training that can only be solved with the full engagement of their talents and potential.
      Also, keep reminding them that what you offer is the starting point – that your coaching is the basic framework for them to become all they can be – it is up to them and their level of commitment / engagement that will determine how far they go in cycling.



  • James Marshall Posted August 20, 2009 6:36 pm

    Hi Wayne,
    good blog as always.
    Over here I would talk about athlete engagement as one who understands why they are training, and wants to improve over the long term.

    It is pretty hard to “engage” an athlete if they don’t show up for sessions.

    I would also talk about Governing Body “engagement” as often there are administrators who don’t understand the long term training process needed for success.
    (rant over).

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted August 21, 2009 9:57 am

      Thanks James.

      Good point – we are well past the days of just telling kids WHAT to do and WHEN to do it and expecting blind compliance – it’s just not consistent with the way kids relate to the rest of society.
      I believe we are very much into the HOW (engagement of attitude) and as you point out the WHY (mental and emotional engagement) of the evolution of coaching athletes.
      I wonder what the next phase will be??


  • Richard Posted August 25, 2009 11:09 pm

    Great article as always Wayne.
    I have for a few years now tried to create that environment where there is some structure to the session to ensure everyone gets their opportunity to work, but within it the freedom of players to get what they want from the session. The challenge i have come across is that many players don’t know how to train to get better. Many train what they already know and shy away from what they are uncomfortable with. Now this is probably human nature, but the best of them seek to improve their deficiencies and not just enhance their strengths,so while they are both engaged, i think there is another level of engagement that involves a greater level of self awareness and acceptance. A little right handed batsmen from Tasmania, who has made a few runs, is the best example of this i have ever seen.

    Keep up the good work

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