The 5 Whys of what we do

  |   Coaching, Psychology, Racing, Training

Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking to a lot of our athletes and helping review a lot of solid winter training that’s been going on through the last 5 months, whilst looking ahead to what lies in store for the forthcoming race season. It’s exciting stuff but it’s also surprisingly common at this point, despite all the hard work and progression that’s been made over the winter, that doubts begin to creep into the mind of many athletes about their abilities and performance potential, “If only I had one more month before the race…” is such a common thing to hear. I’m sure many of us have thought this to ourselves at some point. Along with this, many athletes come off the back of their winter training block having lost sight of exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive to have done all that great work only to arrive at the race season thinking negatively but, more often than not, doubt and nerves are the amateur athletes biggest enemy. Hard work and progress often means increased personal expectations, perhaps beyond what you have achieved before, so it can be a daunting prospect to begin discovering if all the hard work has been worth it. It’s been a very interesting process having these conversations and helping our athletes re-focus, and in some cases re-discover, what all the hard work is about. I thought I’d share some of this process as it’s so common, yet potentially so easy to begin to understand.

In business there is a long-standing interrogative technique which is commonly used to explore the cause-and-effect relationship which underlies a particular problem. It is known as the 5 Whys. I find this a very useful process to run through with athletes to identify what the root of their doubts and nerves are, in order to crystallise what it is we’re trying to achieve. The basic premise of the 5 Whys is to identify the problem, then ask the question “Why?”. Using the answer to the first why, you then ask why again and keep repeating till you’ve asked “Why?”, 5 times. The questioning could continue further but the 5 in the name is derived from the empirical observation that generally, after 5 iterations, the root cause is identified and resolution can begin.

whys v2

As a basic example, lets take a relatively inexperienced athlete who is approaching their first triathlon of the season, they’re nervous and apprehensive…
(1) Why? – I’m not sure I’ll do as well as I hope, what if I can’t finish?
(2) Why wouldn’t you be able to finish? – I’m nervous about the swim distance and being in the pool around all those people
(3) Why are you nervous about the swim distance? – I’ve never actually swum the full distance in training before!
(4) Why haven’t you tried swimming the full distance before? – My only training is with the local Masters club and it’s just never come up in the sessions
(5) Why would it not come up in the sessions? – Because they’re a Masters swim club equally focussed on all swim strokes and not on triathlon racing


Now the above may seem a bit basic and contrived, but you’d be surprised how often things like this happen. I’m not for a second suggesting that if you’re a triathlete you shouldn’t train with a Masters squad, far from it as there are countless benefits to it, however this athlete has forgotten that there needs to be a degree of specificity to their training too. The more focussed on performance and competing you are, the more specific your training needs will be, so whilst you may swim with a Masters club, you also need to allow yourself the chance to experience things that you’ll need to achieve come race day. In the example above, the athlete is allowing their training to be controlled entirely by a club schedule, rather than controlling what they can control and allowing themselves the opportunity to experience a race distance swim in a pool ahead of the race. A simple fix would be for them to just go and try it a couple of times ahead of the race. Whilst it might not solve all the problems it reduces one of the biggest stressors and is therefore more likely to be an enjoyable, and therefore repeated, experience.

All athletes are of course different and whatever end of the competitive spectrum you may be on, your problems may feel wider or much more detailed than this, but regardless of what the problem is, the simple process of asking “Why?” can be extremely revealing. In some of the recent conversations I’ve had it’s even got to the point of allowing athletes to discover something they didn’t even know about themselves, or at least maybe just hadn’t admitted it to themselves yet! Either way it can be an enlightening and revealing process which makes the road ahead a lot clearer.

As a coach, it’s important for me to remember that people do not fail, processes do. So if something isn’t right in the lead-up to an event, we need to look back at the process, see what hasn’t worked or wasn’t in place, and change things to suit. That way all our athletes arrive at the start line ready to race. Worries can be put to the back of the mind as when we concentrate on the right process and all the things we’ve done to get there, the racing should be the fun bit. That’s why you do this isn’t it?

My challenge to you then, is to ask yourself why. Why do you do what you do, get to the root of it and the road ahead will be much clearer. Knowing the why’s will in turn make the how’s and what’s much easier to deal with.

Stay Positive.

Coach K.