Athletes are not putting in anywhere near the training necessary between test sets. The result… instead of improving as athletes, instead of developing in technique, efficiency, speed and endurance, athletes end up as test monkeys.

What’s a test monkey?

It’s an athlete who can bang out workout after workout delivering splits, wattage, or whatever the metric, but cannot translate their training into competition, into consistent real-time performance. Athletes become test monkeys by training or by being coached to perform training as if each workout is a test set. Instead of working on developing skills, ability, or capacity, these athletes chase data points. Because their training ends up being a desperate need to improve upon every single data point, their measure of progress, of success, depends fully on improving upon yesterdays top speed, top wattage, top split. These athletes come to believe that training is nothing but all out effort after all out effort, where workout after workout is turned into one test set after another. Why? Because these athletes believe that the data they are chasing is truly representative of their training, failing to appreciate that it is nothing more than noise.

In time, these athletes believe that real training is not required – ever – all that is needed is another attempt to force out one more watt, to be one second faster, to last one second longer as if its evidence of meaningful progress. When these athletes do venture beyond their training lab, out into the real world (i.e. in competition), they are routinely disappointed with themselves as they are unable to deliver results comparable to their training.

This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c15967.

Its like being an organ grinder monkey: these athletes train and learn to dance when the music comes on, but hereinlies the problem… they learn to dance to only one song, and can dance only when that one song is played. In the real world (i.e. meets, events, races) you never know what song is going to be played, and rarely is the same song played twice. Organ grinder monkeys look like they can dance spontaneously but reality is that all they can do is repeat one set of moves, to one song, over and over in a tragic replay of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. It’s organ grinder athletes who express how much they “love” to train (i.e. dance to the same song over and over), typically expressing how they adore training, yet have little enthusiasm for racing. Watching them train, you may be fooled to think that their abilities are impressive, their potential in competition unmatched, but that is until you realize that all they have is one dance, and only to one song.

If all you want is to earn peanuts (as a pro athlete), then be an organ grinder monkey.

If you want to excel, exploring your potential, if you want to be without equal… then you need to learn how to dance to any music, all music, dance when there is no music playing at all.

If you want to live fully and freely – capable of responding dynamically in real time to all the stresses that life throws in business, at home, in relationships, in sport – then you need to develop a repertoire, a long list of skills, abilities, and the capacity to endure with ease so that you can out sprint, out last, out maneuvre all the challenges that arise.

Consistent peak performers do not rely on the music of others, they train, race and live to the beat of their own song, to music they create themselves, for themselves, inspiring, motivating, and driving themselves onwards. The confidence that consistent peak performers display is not bravado, its not some ape like show of chest thumping to proclaim themselves as the alpha; it emanates from the knowledge that the skills they have learned, developed, and refined, and which are now at their disposal have so many redundancies that together they preclude losing, making winning only as far away as a decision followed by precise execution of tactics and strategy.

Consistent peak performers love to win, so they train to win.

Organ grinder monkeys do not know what it takes to win, what it takes to break free, so their training causes them to lose, they train to lose (not on purpose, its simply all they have ever known), and in time convince themselves this is their max potential, so they teach themselves to accept it.

I too was once an organ grinder monkey… I could churn out 8,000m pull sets in the pool, I can still recall entire workouts of 200m repeats at the York University indoor track where we had to hold those 200 sub 40secs to start and end up sub 35secs. I was more likely to set a personal best during a workout, as opposed to a swim meet or in a triathlon. And, if I wasn’t injured or ill at the time, then I was on the verge of blowing up because I was pushing my limits daily (trying to beat yesterdays data points).

Sound familiar? If you cannot imagine how this training pattern ends, then extrapolate red-lining a car engine and that should offer a clue… kaboom!

Why was I an organ grinder athlete? Because I listened to my coaches who in their own day of training and racing were more than likely organ grinder athletes themselves who then trained athletes in the exact manner that they were coached. Every error in training and coaching propagated from one generation of athletes to the next. Everyone blindly and willfully accepting that it was their fault that they didn’t deliver on a higher level, no one questioning if the concepts of training, of coaching, of performance were the problem, and still are the problem.

Not until I saw my kids hitting the exact walls that I did as a varsity swimmer and as a triathlete was I forced to consider the binary situation: either my kids are not capable of more, or… consider that the approach to training, to developing athleticism, to coaching are wrong. Maybe I was capable of falling to the belief that that was all I was capable, but when it came to my kids, there was no way I was going to believe that there is a limit of what they are capable of… how could I look into their eyes and say that? Couldn’t, so here we are.

Its amazing what happens when we take the leash off, exit the jail cell we create ourselves for ourselves: our eyes are open to see in new ways, to see what we could never have imagined before.


Let’s parallel athletics to academia in order to expand on why test monkeys do not and cannot deliver in real time:

Imagine your kid coming home from school with a note from their teacher stating that this year instead of instruction followed by practical application of the knowledge with a test only at the end of the term, teachers ability to teach and students ability to learn will be measured by the students ability to write tests. Every subject, every period, day after day, students will write test after test.  No real teaching, just testing. Students knowledge, their school grades, their future potential will be based on these test scores. No different than how we “decide” which child is “talented” in sport, or music, let’s apply the pattern of testing without training to identify the children in school who are “talented” as students so we can decide who is “smart enough” to…

If all we did was force children to take tests…

How long would it be before they gave up on learning?

How long would it be before they decide that they are not smart, not “talented” as students?

How damaged would their belief in their own potential become?

How long would it be before your child quit… on themselves?

So, let me ask you…

If you wouldn’t allow your kids potential in life to be decided for them, then why do you permit yourself to be coached/trained this way? Why are you destroying your enthusiasm for sport, for training, for racing by confusing your potential with your ability to perform test sets? Why are you damaging your belief in yourself but subjecting yourself to test after test, instead of putting in proper training, real training that consists of learning skills, abilities and developing capacity?


Testing is not training, its testing.

Refer back to the post “Quality Data vs Noise [1]” and you will read that Ryan Cochrane swims 70+km between test sets, and even then he doesn’t always deliver as he or his coach would hope.

Between test sets Cochrane is working to improve how he swims, how well he swims, so that when it comes time to re-evaluate, the improvements made in the quality of his swimming translate into quantitative improvements (i.e. faster swim times).

Ryan Cochrane trains and competes at a level far beyond any triathlete and the majority of competitive swimmers, but think about it… what if 70-80 km of training in the pool is the minimum effort needed to see significant change in stroke efficiency, speed, and in endurance? If so, then what’s the point in doing test sets any more often?

If we use 70km as the standard, then triathletes swimming 5-10k a week need a test set once every 3 or 4 months and competitive masters swimmers training 15-25k a week need a test set every month or two. Any more often and I can guarantee that the tests are meaningless, and the data invalid and unreliable, (i.e. its noise, not quality data). I bet most triathletes and competitive masters swimmers have no idea how fun test sets can be, when they are appropriately spread apart with sufficient and suitable training specific to the athlete. Test sets can be and should be anticipated with excitement, not anxiety.

Stuck? Frustrated? Failing to improve despite giving all out effort in training?

Inexperienced coaching will lead you to repeating test set after test set, collecting loads and loads of useless noise believing and interpreting it as quality data.

Inexperienced coaching will turn you into a test monkey, not an athlete pursuing their potential.

On the other hand, experienced coaching will show you how to develop skills using drills, will teach how to move, how to balance, to coordinate sport specific technique into complete and ever increasing complex patterns. After sufficient repetition, after successful learning there will be a test set where the captured data will be meaningful and will direct next steps in training and racing.

Want to ensure consistent improvement as an athlete?

Ensure your coaching is on par with your goals.