Coaching methodology is something that is constantly progressing over time. Times change, technology advances, ideas come forward and coaches are constantly finding new, better, more efficient ways of benefiting the riders in their care. We caught up with Hamish Ferguson to get his input on the evolution of coaching over the years.
RC: First of all can you give us an overview of the general commonly held beliefs in the coaching world when you first started coaching? What were the typical philosophies that people subscribed to?
Hamish: When I first started coaching in the early Nineties it was something you did to people. Coach was the boss and you just wrote programmes, fired orders at them when racing and there was little else to the process. I was doing a degree in Psychology at the time so a lot of this didn’t seem right to me. I loved the physiology and biomechanics but tried to delve more into the mindset of the rider and tried to engage more into what drove them as athletes.
I was also trained as a Commissaire in 1993 and did a lot of Race Management and this gave me an opportunity to take a good look at the sport from a few different perspective. I saw a lot of older riders were more stable than the younger riders who were very fragile. My observation there was that the older cyclists had families, jobs and better relationships so performance in cycling was a bonus. For the young riders cycling was everything so if they failed in a race it was like they failed in life.
So when I started working with National Teams I tried to dig down into why they wanted to cycle, why they wanted to race and tried to steer riders away from obsessing over winning and developing what is now known as the Growth mindset where learning and development as a person is more important than day to day success.
RC: Has training methodology been something that has gradually and naturally evolved or has it been something that has encountered growth spurts that has coincided with things like new technology, new approaches to racing etc?
Hamish: I grew up in the era of the Heart Rate monitors and had one of the early models. It was massive and took up nearly one side of the tops of the handlebar. It hardly worked and one ride I actually threw it away. Fortunately then Polar started marketing to NZ and we started getting better models. But even then I wasn’t satisfied with HR. I did an anaerobic threshold test at Canterbury Uni and they told me my threshold HR was 162 beats per minute and I asked what that meant. They said over that I would fatigue quickly. That weekend I rode the Oamaru to Dunedin road race and averaged 180bpm the whole time thinking I was going to die.
In 1997 Multiple World Champ and World Record holder Graeme Obree came to New Zealand and was an advocate, still is, of training by feel and said to “throw away your heart rate monitors”. When I told him I had literally done that he said I was a very progressive Coach. But at that time a new form of measuring performance was starting to become more common.
Power meters have been a real boost to measuring performance. Nothing is more objective as nothing makes the number on the Power Meter go but but how hard you push the pedals. Was funny to think that in those early lab tests that we measured heart rate and lactate and only used watts to determine the various ramps. Now on the road we generally ignore heart rate and never really bother with lactate.
Lab tests offer a very reliable way of measuring physiology and performance because you can control so much. But the data from the lab often bears little relation to the data one observes in the field from a power meter. The power meter allows me to see what a rider is doing in racing and training and we can compare this against what we can estimate will be necessary to perform.
RC: Can you tell us about one or two coaching methods that were subscribed to but are now disregarded, and on the flip side coaching methods that were disregarded but are now commonly encouraged and practiced in cycling?
Hamish: Heart Rate training is dead and buried. Unlike the power meter where you can be very objective there is no way to determine exactly what is causing the heart rate to go up and down. You can’t say that a higher rate in racing is a sign of improvement as you could just have adapted to a higher level of intensity and heart rate at a given power could come down showing the rider is more efficient.
Heart Rate Variability is interesting. This is the gap between heart beats and the more variable the responsive the nervous system. It is early days and potentially better to look at this for health and managing stress. Still more work from sport science to get a clearer view on HRV at this stage.
One thing I wish would die is riders focusing on training at the cost of setting purposeful goals, looking at the total preparation package and looking at performance at racing rather than just the end result. That is a real growth strategy for the person and the sport! Cycling in New Zealand amazes me. We produce so many good cyclists and I feel with better guidance on the complete performance programme more will go from good to great.