The last remnants of the sunset were fading from the sky as I drove South on the Maine Turnpike Saturday evening. It had been a long day at the end of a long track season, and I was at the wheel of a school mini-bus, driving my team the two-and-a-half hours back to Concord after our final meet, which had been hosted by the Hyde School in Bath. True to form for the spring of 2014 it had rained much of the day.
I could hear but not follow the steady conversation and occasional laughter from behind me. The kids were in a pretty good mood. Some had run really well, but there had been disappointments, too. That was to be expected, but for me it had been a day of wild emotional swings.
At the front of the bus with no one to talk to and nothing to distract me from my own thoughts, I began evaluating my own performance. Had I successfully prepared the kids for this meet? Had I provided good meet-day support and encouragement? Had they improved as much over the course of the season as they (and I) had hoped? Pondering these things, it occurred to me that the way I thought about coaching had changed quite a lot in the years since I had started as an assistant at Newton North. And that started a whole new train of thought as I considered the different roles as coach can play and how that contributes to what it means to be successful in each role.
The Coach as Expert
When I first started, I really did think that all I had to do was to translate my own experience (let’s call it “expertise”) as a distance runner into a plan of workouts that high school kids could follow. I would shift them away from the short-term focus on speed so common to high school track programs of that era, to a longer-term focus on aerobic capacity.
As an assistant coach at Newton North, I had the luxury of training a large group of talented distance runners, including a once-in-a-generation talent (Chris Barnicle). This cohort of runners got really good and as a result, I looked really smart. But for a lot of reasons, I wasn’t sure that there was a correlation between my expertise and their success. For one thing, I noticed that not all runners improved following my expert plans, or they did improve, but much more slowly than their peers. For another thing, my head coach and I had practical and philosophical disagreements about certain aspects of the kids’ training, with the result that sometimes they would be headed in one direction with me and then be pulled into a different direction by the head coach. I noticed that this inconsistency wasn’t necessarily the disaster I would have predicted. Some kids responded better to the new training, and some didn’t. I couldn’t really explain what was going on.
I also began to suspect that the most important factor contributing to the improvement of individuals was the experience of running in a fast group. It seemed to me that peer support had a larger impact on the team’s success than any expert coaching they were receiving.
And finally, I noticed that I was spending much of my time adjusting my own training plans — sometimes mid-workout — because what I saw when actual kids were running didn’t match what I had imagined when I was writing down the repetitions, the paces, the recoveries.
Coach as (Personal) Guru
To paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke’s observation about war, no training plan survives with any certainty its first encounter with an actual athlete.
Very early on, I began to see coaching as the process of adapting general principles of distance training, as I understood them, to the needs of individuals. I think the vast majority of coaches move in this direction as they work with more athletes. In my case, I found myself tinkering with the training tools at my disposal to create individualized plans, and then trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
I found that the really tricky part was trying to tinker and experiment while at the same time maintaining confidence in the ultimate result. I think that athletes need to believe in their training and in themselves — and so do coaches! The great coach, researcher, and author Jack Daniels says that you should always be able to articulate why you are doing a particular workout at a particular time. I would add to that an additional piece of information — why you are doing a particular workout at a particular time with a particular athlete.
There’s much more to say about this, but I want to return to how it helps define the role of the coach.
If a coach makes it a priority to know the strengths and weakness of individual athletes — and that includes their mental strengths and weaknesses as well as their physical gifts and limitations — and if a coach begins to tailor training methods to individual needs, then that coach has taken on a new role. I would describe it as more guru than expert, more trusted guide than fearless leader.
I have to smile when I think of the word “guru” — I have been called that, and I understand why, but I also think that there’s a trap in being a guru. The trap is, of course, that gurus need disciples, and so there is a temptation to create a dependent coach-athlete relationship that doesn’t serve either’s long-term needs. I don’t want “my” athletes to need me after I graduate and they go on to other coaches. I believe firmly that healthy coaching should not turn kids into followers.
The Coach as Teacher
Driving at the end of that long day, I kept returning to the idea of coach as teacher. The word “teacher” has some of the same connotations of the word coach, and I’m sure teachers reflect on the roles they play in some of the ways that I reflect on the roles of a coach. So the definitions of the words are a bit muddled. But what I mean when by talking about the coach as a teacher, is the idea that the student-teacher relationship is about mutual learning along a path that leads to greater independence and autonomy for the student.
It’s funny but revealing to think about replacing the question “how much did you improve your mile time this season?” with “what did you learn about running the mile this season?” If a coach is an expert or a guru, the first question dominates; but if the coach is or aspires to be a teacher, both questions are relevant.
I’m not a very good teacher yet. I struggle with issues of consistency, preparation, organization, communication, discipline, and patience. Especially in technical events, it is still very hard for me to insist that kids master the basic techniques before moving on to more complicated things. I get credit for being positive and supportive, and maybe those are the most basic requirements for coaching teenagers, but I know how much more I need to learn to consider myself a competent teacher.