In retrospect, I don’t think I appreciated how good I had it as an assistant coach.
Oh sure, it can be a pain in the neck, especially when you know — you just know! — that you could coach the team better than the head coach, who seems to be constantly befuddled, a step behind, out of touch with the latest running research and trends, and unwilling to match your enthusiasm for new methods and supplemental training.
But even though you aren’t able to steer the ship or implement all of your ideas, you can still have a profound impact on the team by example. Assuming you are healthy, you can be a distance god, running with any group at any pace, urging them on or reining them in, depending on the day. You can fire their imaginations with stories about epic workouts you’ve done. You can conjure the presence of great runners you have seen with your own eyes. And most of all, you can remind them over and over that there’s more fast out there if they will only embrace the daily discipline and make it their own.
I started coaching at Newton North in 2001, and boy, was I fit then! I could do all the runs with the team, including the hills and the intervals, if I chose. The head coach was always there with a watch, and I had the freedom to stand there with him, clucking over splits, or throw myself into the fray.
And on days when I didn’t want to run quite as hard — if I was in the middle of a high-mileage week, or tapering for a race, or doing my second run of the day — I could always just choose to run with a slower group of runners. The point is, as an assistant, I was running all the time, and I was coaching through my running.
Once I became a head coach, things became more complicated. I still found opportunities to run with the team, but less frequently, and only in situations where doing so didn’t compromise the plan for the day. It didn’t help that I was becoming slower and more infirm. It’s one thing to run with the team when you are indestructible, quite another to tag along when you’re the one most likely to need a van (or an ambulance!) to make it back to school.
Sadly, there now seems to be an inverse correlation between successful coaching and (my) successful training. This fall it has been particularly clear that I haven’t figured out a way to balance the two. As the season progresses, I run less, and do a generally awful job at “maintenance” (warming up, cooling down, stretching, rolling, core, etc.). That’s not a very good example to set for my runners!
Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d do differently next season, and I keep coming back to the idea that I need to find the balance that allows me to get my own running done, probably not in the context of practice, but before or after. If I don’t do this, then some fine Autumn day when the warm afternoon sun and is turning the woods into a golden playground, instead of thinking about the welfare and moral education of my runners, I’ll be secretly jealous that they get to run and I don’t. I’ll find myself fantasizing about chucking all my responsibilities and setting off down the trail myself, and since I can’t do that, spreading my own personal melancholy to the team.
Of course, there’s a simpler solution. I could just promote one of my assistant coaches to head coach. Then I could return to the happy, powerless role of assistant, and train like crazy.