Thoughts From Three: What Is It Good For?

After the success of Jim Vermeulen's XC Journal in the many falls of Cross Country, we've asked again for him to provide some news and notes once a month. Think of these as the thoughts that cross the mind of your average coach. Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

What Are Coaches Good For?

"It is not our abilities that show us who we truly are. It is our choices."

Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

"You got to serve before you can lead."

Gerald McCoy, NFL Defensive Tackle

Personal libraries could be stacked to the ceiling with books on how to coach young adults. Most coaches of adolescents have not read the majority of them, but they still manage to be effective, to do the right things for their athletes day in and day out. It should not be surprising how much can be accomplished by consistently employing the best training, by upholding the best standards of the sport and by valuing the lives of young adults.

Effective coaching, of course, is more than a collection of learned abilities, more than knowing how to train for this event or that. Competency, as Dumbledore might suggest, is abilities plus choices, a combination that creates the whole of coaching.

The how-to manuals proliferate because it is harder to write books and articles on how to make the right choices when coaching than about when to use particular workouts. Typically, we revert to published checklists of what effective coaches do--their recruitment strategies, their arrangement of weekly team meetings, their training progressions, their parent communications procedures, etc. And sometimes, when other coaches or parents or administrators cannot adequately describe why a particular coach is so successful with athletes and teams, we fall back on the cliches. Those coaches just seem to "have it." But no coach just has it; he or she instead makes it with good choices based on knowledge and principles. Choice-making is critical.

Good coaches always choose to apply principles to coaching practices. Rules for training athletes and managing teams do not exist for the convenience of coaches. They exist for the education of athletes. Education here refers to the positive lessons of effort and purposeful behavior that define sports. Argue against effort and for "just having fun," and you champion something other than sport. Regarding the overall approach to coaching, Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: "As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble." If you don't apply the correct principles of effective training, then practices become hit or miss, dependent on the workouts de jour published in running magazines or posted on run forums. A full understanding of fundamental principles sometimes comes slowly or with difficulty. Learning from experienced coaches can shorten the process and avoid mistakes. Knowing principles, though, liberates the coach to utilize various methods and thus increases the sporting success of athletes.

Good coaches choose to map the journeys. There's an old, anonymous Southern saying: "You gotta be going there to get there." No athlete, it is proven time and time again, stumbles onto personal greatness. Personal greatness takes time, and it requires effort.

We know the current cultural climate promotes the 'fun' aspect of sports more than its 'work' elements. The separation of fun and work in sports, though, is a false dichotomy. Fun in sports is essential and integral, but it is essentially mischaracterized. Fun is an appropriate description for young kids in youth sports as it promotes fitness, sociability and teaches basic motor skills. Once into the middle and high school years, however, the moniker "fun" should be interpreted differently. What is "fun" for older athletes is mastery. Mastery is fun. To use a more functional synonym, mastery is rewarding. My grandson's baseball team didn't win the game, but most of them applied their available talents and most went home satisfied with a play well executed or a skill, borne of practice, that was exhibited at the right moment. "Did you see my hit?" my grandson asked me at least twice after I had already congratulated him on the drive to deep left center that brought in two runs. For someone who has struggled at the plate, it was the most 'fun' he'd had with a bat all season, the fun that results from mastery.

Mastery in any worthy pursuit requires a process. Such processes will not be of a short time because no significant form of mastery is instantaneous or easy. Mastery requires work over time. Goals are nothing more than a commitment to a process-with no guarantee of success. Good coaches will map the process toward mastery, a process reflected in the day-to-day expectations for progress with its predictable setbacks. Athletes may decline the journey or pursue it half-heartedly, but then they and parents must be honest about the subsequent limits on mastery. They should also understand that good coaches are not much interested in mapping journeys to personal athletic mediocrity.

Good coaches choose to promote accountable-competence. That awkward phrase, accountable-competence, reminds me of a Garrison Keillor statement: "You can only do so much-but you're responsible for that." The message of good coaches to athletes, conveyed by word and deed, is that they are responsible for developing whatever level of talent they possess. If athletes or parents or administrators are advocating for less than the development of full potential, they are arguing for a lesser definition of sport for that athlete, which then needs to be taken into account.

Good coaches choose to defend the institution. In Timothy Snyder's slim book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, one lesson caught my eye as a coach. The initial directive of Snyder's second lesson, "Defend Institutions," goes like this: "It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of 'our institutions' unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not defend themselves. They fall one after another unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about...and take its side."

Perhaps without fully knowing why-and sometimes for the wrong reasons-scholastic coaches have chosen their institution, which is guiding young adults in sport. Good coaches honor their choice with not only supportive decisions and behaviors that reflect well on the sport but also with difficult actions when capitulation would be easier. Coaches can turn a blind eye to athlete actions that degrade the notion of team and shared responsibilities, but the other athletes will be watching. Coaches can accede to demanding parents in an attempt to keep the peace-or they can defend their established policies and practices.

Good coaches sometimes coach to lose. Succeeding with most athletes-but failing with others-is the coach's lot in life if he or she cares enough to become involved, to try to shape and strengthen positive values, attitudes, and behavior in all athletes. The scholastic coach unwilling to fail with some athletes by maintaining standards and expectations has also diminished the opportunities to succeed with others. Bottom lines are for the benefit of the motivated athletes as well as for those who resist. Failure with a team member, in the correct instance, means the coach has exhausted all options, that the fight to expect an athlete will strive to be better than him or herself has finally come up empty, and the athlete parts ways with the sport. There is little wrong with this kind of failure and, though seldom acknowledged, much to commend it.

Good coaches champion positive changes. Advocating change in any institution may, at first glance, seem antithetical to the notion of defending that institution. But for the process of cultural homeostasis to succeed, a culture (in this case a running culture) must not only endure but improve. My-way-or-the-highway coaches are often the ones eventually left behind. Alternately, the conformists, the go-along-to-get-along coaches, usually transform to merely maintenance workers whose primary purpose is to perpetuate a weak program but seldom to improve it. Both groups succumb to a kind of institutional paralysis that shies from new ideas or new methods which could strengthen the best traditions of the sport. If the sport has intrinsic value, it will not only accept positive changes; it will require them for longevity. Hearty debates and disagreements are ingredients in that process of change. Good coaches understand, and they promote such changes.

Good coaches choose to tell the truth. This may be the hardest competence for coaches to achieve and sustain. It is vital nonetheless, though it often places coaches in hot water. The current rise of anti-truth has made the job of coaching harder. The big lies of national politicians, believed or not, seep downward into the larger society. Feelings, rather than facts, too often announce themselves as valid arguments and shape our interactions with athletes and parents. Every season, I invite my athletes to disagree with my training, but only if they bring facts to the discussion.

The self-esteem movement, in too many instances, has also been distorted into a call for feeling over truth and can hinder youth sports from doing what they do best-teach the ways of mastery and cooperation, of disappointment and discipline. We demean athletes and their efforts when we don't tell them the truth. Of course, there are right ways and wrong ways to critique young athletes. Coaching is never a license to belittle. But when coaches with something important to say to athletes are cautioned to silence by institutions more dedicated to keeping the customer satisfied than to educating for the present and future, the sport and the athlete then suffer.

Fundamental competence and abilities are usually what get coaches hired initially. It is, however, the choices they make based on those abilities that determine their longevity and their ultimate positive impact on the athletes they have chosen to educate. Coaches should be good for making the right choices consistently.