Coaching Association of Canada

Peter Lawless, ChPC - Athletics, Cycling

A Coach’s Philosophy: Relentless Optimism and the Binary Life

Peter Lawless has been involved in high performance sport for over 25 years and is a Chartered Professional Coach. He is a three-time winner of the Petro-Canada Coaching Excellence Award for both cycling and athletics and was B.C.’s “Coach of the Year” in 2012. Athletes coached by Lawless have broken 28 World Records in athletics and won over a dozen Paralympic Games or world championships medals in both cycling and athletics. Beyond direct coaching, Lawless sits on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Cycling Canada, and ViaSport. He is currently a litigator in the Health and Social Services Group of the Ministry of Justice for the province of British Columbia.

I was asked a few years ago if I had a coaching “philosophy” and it struck me that I had never actually stopped and thought about that question. Looking back on it now it seems ridiculous that I hadn’t articulated, even just to myself, a few fundamental beliefs that infused my attitudes and behaviours as a coach. Well, thanks to that question, I am now able to say that my philosophy is one that reflects my views on the choices that face athletes and coaches and the mindset I believe we all need in order to accomplish our goals. I have styled this philosophy “Relentless Optimism and the Binary Life”.

But what does that mean? It seems to me that sport is filled with jargon and little buzz phrases. I also know that all of these cues and phrases mean much, much more than the quick 2 words I get to yell out at an athlete as he or she passes me on the track at 30km/h.

For me, Relentless Optimism is about a fundamental and deep rooted belief in future success. It’s absolutely aspirational. It’s maintaining, at all times, a positive belief in both yourself and in others. It means that I remain deliberately positive and committed to a process that I believe will lead to the outcomes I desire. My optimism is not swayed by defeat. It is not impacted by failure. I recognize that failure is a requirement of ultimate success. Each “failed” interval is one of the necessary building blocks to my eventual success. I never waver – that is the relentless part. I believe the ruthless maintenance of a positive outlook, even in the hardest part of the off-season or on the long road back from injury, directly and tangibly leads to a much more positive process and, in turn, that positive process leads to better outcomes. I feel that wilfully choosing a more positive attitude in every situation is vitally important to achieving our goals.

The Binary Life is about being painstakingly deliberate in all of your decision making. I remember first hearing of binary code a long time ago and I was staggered by the simplicity of it. It was hard to believe that using only zeros and ones, incredibly complicated programs could be written – however it worked. Similarly, in the binary life, I believe we can reduce all of our choices down to either being a zero or a one. Basically, I feel that for athletes and coaches who are devoted to success, life is binary. All of the myriad of choices that face each athlete and each coach can be reduced down to being either a zero or a one. Either the selected option helps me achieve my goal (making it a “1”), or it doesn’t help as much or negatively impacts the achievement of the goal (making it a “0”).

Either finishing a planned workout at full commitment or coasting is a choice each athlete faces when they are tired. Its “easy” to slow down a little, go through the motions. But in a binary life, the choice for the athlete is stark – they can fully commit to the work (a “1”) knowing that work is crucial to their ultimate goal or they can ease off a bit (a “0”) but in doing so they hurt their chances even just a little bit of achieving their goal. It’s the same choice when faced with drinking pop instead of water, going to bed on time versus watching one more episode of my favourite show.

The binary life emphasizes active recognition that every single choice I make has a direct and tangible actual impact on my ultimate goal. I feel that using a binary construct is a very effective and useful way of tying these small, sometimes unthinking, choices to the sometimes far off and seemingly unconnected goals. It’s a way of connecting the salad vs. fries choice to stepping onto a World Championship podium. It’s a way of staying true to ourselves by acknowledging that every choice has a positive or negative impact on our goal. It’s a way of ensuring a thoughtless choice is not allowed to detract from achieving athletic success.

I work very hard to not only practice what I preach, but to also convey to my athletes these concepts and my thinking behind them. I have been incredibly privileged to work with some truly exceptional athletes in more than one sport and have been there as they have broken world records and stepped onto World Championship and Paralympic Games podiums. I believe that part of what has contributed to the success we have collectively had is a commitment to the philosophy of Relentless Optimism and the Binary Life.

This article is part of Sport Canada's Year of Sport Spotlight series.