Your Moment of Coaching Zen


A vignette from Friday’s workout with the team:

It is a rather clever workout, I think, and one that I hope will simulate of some of the demands of racing in the league championships in a week. I’m having the kids do two sets of 800-800-200, with the first 800 @3k pace, 1′ recovery, second 800 @5k pace, 30s recovery, 200 at faster than mile pace. I intend the workout to be an exercise is going out fast, settling, and then kicking. The rests are very short — too short to allow recovery — so each interval should be run in a mental/physical state of increased fatigue. Three minutes between sets.

So anyway, the workout is going pretty well, with most of the runners working hard to balance the fast running with the short rest, when David and I both notice that one of the freshmen — a kid we both think has a lot of potential — is running REALLY slowly. At that moment, I’m fairly overwhelmed timing three separate groups and making sure the rests are short, so I ask David to talk to the kid.

On the next 800, the kid looks great. He’s near the front of his group and running really well.

After the workout, on our way back to school, I ask David about it. “What did you say to so-and-so,” I ask.

David says, “Well, first I asked him if he was OK, and he said he was. Then I asked him if he could go faster, and he said he could. So then I suggested he do that.”

THAT is great coaching.

I’ve said many times that when you first start out, you think that coaching is all about WRITING workouts. Then you discover that coaching is more about OBSERVING workouts. And finally, you realize that it’s what you do and say after you’ve made some observations.

What I loved about David’s coaching last Friday was that he took the time to check in with his athlete before being prescriptive. He asked how the kid was feeling, to make sure that the slow running wasn’t a symptom of some physical issue. Then he did something that I’m not sure I would have done: he empowered the kid by asking him directly if he could perform at a higher level. Once the kid reflected for a split-second, he knew he could run harder. David avoided being critical or judgmental about the intervals already run, but focused on the matter at-hand — the next 800.

It’s hard to remember how little context any freshman has for how to run a complicated workout. As David and I discussed it, I wondered whether this particular kid was just demonstrating his go-to strategy for new, possibly challenging situations, which was to be conservative, hold something in reserve, and then finish strong. Who’s to say that such behavior hadn’t served him well so far in his young life?

It’s funny — and terrifying — how such minor moments can have profound consequences for the athlete’s future development. An offhand observation or comment can change everything. I’ll always remember the day my first team at Concord was doing repeat 800s, and I noticed that one kid would always let the top guys go until they had a 5-10 second lead, and then maintain that gap the rest of the way. I casually suggested that he stick with them the next time. He stuck with them the next time, and the time after that. The next race, he stuck with the top runners from our team, out-kicking all but two of them. The next race he was our top guy.

That was Tyler, who almost instantly went from a 20-minute 5k runner to an 18-minute 5k runner, and has gone on to much greater things since then. Did my casual comment have anything to do with Tyler’s sudden emergence? Or was it something that was in the air, that would have happened anyway without any prompting?

Who knows? But I find it fascinating to think that, a few years from now, we might be looking back at Friday’s workout and remembering how David said a few words that changed the direction of another running career.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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