[Originally published May 13, 2008]
If the key to good coaching is good communication, I think I might be in trouble. It’s not that I don’t communicate, it’s that I seem to communicate much more than I actually mean.
The other day I was chatting with one of my students at Concord Academy, and he asked me about a runner who used to train with rocks in his backpack. I must have looked puzzled. Was this some expression — “rocks in his backpack” — that the kids were using these days and that I hadn’t heard before? No, he was adamant. “Don’t you remember? You told us about a Newton North runner who used to train with a backpack full of rocks.”
I still have no idea who this runner might have been, nor do I have any recollection of ever telling such a story.
But then, this happens to me a lot. I tend to think out loud, and when I am thinking about running, the words tumble out as I try to weave together information drawn from a variety of sources. Sometimes I struggle to find the right analogy or comparison. Sometimes, I use an example that doesn’t quite work. And even when it does work, I find it hard to remember later exactly what it was I said. Whatever the reason, I frequently find myself asking “Did I say that?”
This used to happen all the time with Dave Polgar. Dave is a sweet guy, but very stubborn about certain things. I used to talk myself blue in the face trying to get him to accept what to me seemed like a simple proposition: for example, the value of warming up before running hard. But either I wasn’t very clear, or he had selective hearing because we’d regularly have conversations like this:
Dave: You told me I should never stretch!
Jon: Did I say that? I THINK what I said was that warming up before a hard workout is more important than static stretching.
Dave: I’m not doing those drills… The last time you made me do those drills, I pulled my hamstring and couldn’t run for a week.
Jon: Well, you need to warm up FIRST, before you do the drills.
Dave: [glares suspiciously] Coach, why are you trying to kill me?
Sometimes, I know, I say too much. I’ll get carried away talking about some current hotshot runner or some legend from the past and I’ll start talking about their workouts. Do this in front of a group of high school distance runners and the next thing you know they’re trying to talk you into some completely extreme workout idea or training schedule, convinced that “it will be fun” and that it must hold the secret to running faster.
“I thought you told us we should be running 70 miles a week!”
“Did I say that? No, I think what I said was that so-and-so was able to run 70 miles a week because he built up his mileage gradually over four years…”
And so on.
It never ceases to amaze me that my words carry so much weight. And yet, I have had numerous examples of the influence that even casual words have had on athletes I have coached. It is a great responsibility to have people actually listen closely to what you say and change their behavior because of it. Perhaps the most memorable example was one time when I was talking about learning to handle discomfort. I described my own boyhood attempts to make myself tougher by learning to take cold showers (I have no idea where this idea came from and I know it wasn’t successful).
The next day, one of my runners came to practice practically cursing at me. He had taken a shower after the previous day’s practice and, with the water gushing hot, had bravely swung the faucet all the way in the opposite direction.
Now he was glaring at me. “Coach,” he said, “why are you trying to kill me?”