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Dear Coach: When Can I Expect a Breakthrough Performance?

We all love seeing huge gains in performance—but what does it take to achieve them?

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Breakthrough performances are undeniably some of the most exhilarating experiences—both for the athlete who executed it, as well as the many people who witness it, whether that’s on TV or in real time. It usually comes from a physical performance that was not predicted, and it makes for moments that we talk about for years to come.

It is understandable, then, for any athlete to want to have this breakthrough moment for themselves, and to want to know if they are on the cusp of experiencing a higher level of performance. The truth is, though, that there is no clear path to a breakthrough performance and there is no formula that helps us predict an exact timeframe for when this will happen. There are, however, many things an athlete—of any age or ability—can do to greatly help their chances of making a breakthrough moment a possibility during their athletic career. 

A Breakthrough Performance is Like Boiling Water

The temperature at which water boils is approximately 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit). However, water will not boil without going through the process of heating up first, which is the most important part towards getting the water to boil. Breakthrough performances can be thought of in much the same way, in which the exceptional performance can only result after many previous trainings build up the potential required to unleash a major change.  

To eventually have an observable improvement in performance, the work that is put in needs to last long enough to break through the plateaus that will occur during training. This is where the “rubber meets the road” and where most athletes fall short. Oftentimes, after experiencing a plateau, athletes will make a few small changes in their routine and expect to see instant results. If they don’t see an obvious change, they decide to stop and let the work fall by the wayside. When performances reach a static period for a while, it doesn’t mean that the work being put in isn’t having an effect. Like the water that is gradually warming up to finally boil, the athlete is gradually developing towards a potential breakthrough. 

Patience in the Process

Humans, in general, suffer from what behavioral scientists call the commission bias, which means if we don’t see immediate results, we get impatient and feel a strong urge to do something else, to try to expedite the results we want. From an athlete perspective, this often comes in the form of switching coaches often, changing training programs, or purchasing the latest technology hack to gain an advantage quickly. Constant change in the process means you are starting over, and your pot of water will never boil if you continue to take it off the heat for a bit.

 It’s worth repeating that if an athlete is following a plan or working with a coach where there is evidence of effectiveness or improvement (even if those gains are small) and there hasn’t been a pattern of illness or injury, it’s often the best decision to go against the urge to change and keep things the same. Simply put, be patient in the process, realizing that what feels like a plateau of performance is just a temporary delay in the slow march towards progress. The magic happens when the athlete continues to put in the work.  

Tristen Rogers is a USAT Level 2 Coach, Head Coach of the HAT Altitude Team, and owner of HAT House Endurance Camps