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Carrot or stick?

March 8, 2010

A lot of commentators are talking about rewards at the moment. How do you reward good performance? How do you make sure that by rewarding good performance you’re not inadvertently rewarding performance that undermines the integrity of everything you work towards? Big questions. They’re relevant to runners, especially in the tapering weeks approaching a marathon. The taper requires a change of perspective; rewards are no longer for short-term achievements but should be focused on long-term gains.

The Bank of England in Threadneedle Street, Lo...
What do bankers, disengaged youths and tapering marathon runners have in common? Image via Wikipedia

Before you look at how you reward yourself, you have to look at what you consider worth rewarding. As a marathon training schedule inexorably builds the miles towards its peak, progress is measured in miles. Each week, you build more mileage and your longer run nudges closer to race distance. Covering such a volume of training is an achievement, and so volume becomes the most critical measure for reward.

But come the taper, it’s easy to have established the pattern of volume-based qualitative decisions. Distance = good. Cutting down on the distance feels a bit… strange? Like quitting? Like failing? And so you’re tempted to pile on an extra mile, take the long way round. And all the time, you’re potentially jeopardizing your target by focusing on a short-term reward.

You’re not alone. After the jump, we’ll look at what should be rewarded in this phase of training.

Runners, of course, are far from the only people juggling short- and long-term rewards and the potential conflict between the two. Below are two examples from entirely different walks of life.

Bankers’ bonus culture

Boo yah, bankers, right? Every Tom, Dick and Harry has had their say about irresponsible lending, financial contagion and collateralised debt obligations. Blah blah blah. Finally the verdict seems to have settled on short-term gains being valued over long-term stability. The argument goes as follows:

  • Lenders were rewarded based on loans made, irrespective of who received the loan. (That’s real simplification territory; the role of CDOs in making this decision deceptively risk-free make the picture far more  complex.) With credit cheap, loans grew, and inevitably barrels were scraped and substantial quantities of ill-advised lending took place. You know the rest…
  • So banking moved from being a rather dull profession to something far more racy. Employees were rewarded for short-term gains, and often the riskier the proposition the greater the short-term gain. All the while, the concrete foundations of the establishment were being replaced by sand.

And as many credit crunch commentators have argued, this short-sighted reward culture ultimately brought the industry to its knees.

National challenge schools

In the UK, you hear a lot about NEETs. Youths not in education, employment or training, who are likely to follow a well-trodden anti-social path to at best benefits culture, at worst crime. Most of the major political parties have pointed out the swelling numbers of NEETs – either as part of the ritualistic mud-slinging in the approach to an election, or in setting out their stall for educational initiatives – and proposed to do something about the problem.

BRISTOL, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 24:  A olde...
Vocational qualifications are designed to help engage learners turned off by traditional options. Image by Getty Images via Daylife

However, in the meantime, they have also attempted to demonstrate that school standards have been in free-fall for as many years as the GCSE and A-level pass rates have been climbing. And so, to demonstrate that schools are doing a good job, they are primarily judged on the number of learners achieving 5 A*–C grade GCSEs, including English and maths. Any school not making this benchmark faces being put into remedial measures, its leadership team sacked, and the school itself either turned into an academy or shut altogether. GCSE results are high stakes.

I was listening to some feedback on qualifications designed to re-engage NEETs last week. (By re-engage, I mean get them back into the educational system – the theory being that the number of cars they hot-wire reduces in direct relation to the number of qualifications they achieve.) Ideologically, school managers believed that the qualifications would help and were a good thing. Sure, they’d love to get these learners back on track, and it seems obvious that a successful strategy for engaging NEETs could – in the long-term – reduce social problems and generate more tax revenue to help bandage our gaping budget deficit.

However, the reward strategy in schools is such that there is no incentive to commit the resources required to engage these learners. A learner completing a Level 1 qualification – which is what these are – looks like a low-grade GCSE in the league tables. If that learner can’t contribute 5 A*–C grades (including maths and English), they’re not contributing to the school. In fact, the reward structure in schools makes teachers focus more attention on students straddling the C–D grade boundary. Given a helping hand, they can genuinely help the school’s league tables. And so the NEETs are left with the less experienced teachers, doing enough to get by – perhaps being shipped off to another centre to be taught en masse with other NEETs.

Ultimately, until schools management is rewarded for supporting these learners, the education system will fail them.

And runners?

Finally, we return to runners. If, like me, you’ve started to associate rewards and success with your burgeoning weekly mileage total, you need to change your perspective on training once you get to the taper. If you are only measuring your progress based on the simplest metric available – distance – you will inevitably feel the pressure to exceed your distance-based targets.

Marathon de New-York : {{w|Verrazano-Narrows B...
Until race day, it’s a case of adjusting your mindset to how fast you have run. Distance isn’t irrelevant, it’s just not as important any more. Image via Wikipedia

However, the more you run, the more chances you have to injure yourself. There’s your risk, versus your reward. It’s also less likely that your muscles will be sufficiently recovered for you to make the most of your big race day.

The solution? I think – and I may be wrong – that the taper is about focusing on intensity. While your runs may be getting shorter, they should be getting harder. Now is the time to hone your speed, get used to race pace, and give your body more time to recover from the rigour of the next few weeks.

Speed or time, perhaps, are the metrics we should be using. Ask not how far you have run, but how fast you have run.

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