Thoughts From Three: Good Coaches – Some Attributes

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."

With time and with enough productive failures come the opportunities for coaches to appreciate and apply the wider attributes of successful coaching. Those attributes are 'wide' because they take time to fully develop, and they reflect the depth of what a coach has come to believe about athletes and about the sport those athletes seek to master. Rather than simply invoking current methodologies, those coaches instead apply their acquired visions--their attributes--to the development of athletes.

How to develop and employ those wider attributes is difficult to squeeze into workshops or books. We can easily attend-or read about-topics such as Periodization, Lactate Threshold Training, Promoting Team Cultures, or Sports Nutrition, but the attributes of good coaches typically resist easy quantification or checklists or certification courses.

Most coaches, in fact, want to believe they already have the right attributes, that the beliefs they bring to practice each day are the correct ones. Too many of those folks suppose that 'successful coaching' merely requires more sophisticated training methods or better recruiting or more gear money or fancier facilities. They are right, of course. Their athletes deserve all those things and more, but what they deserve most are coaches with a wider vision of how to make a sport work best for all team members. Those kinds of coaches, however, are typically obscured by our preoccupation with winning as the ultimate measure of scholastic sports success. If you pay attention, however, you can notice those coaches, those who apply their attributes in ways more consequential than the simple accumulation of wins and championships. What they do-and how-- matters:

They coach whole teams.

One dark side of scholastic sports is exactly a condition many choose to unconsciously condone-or even celebrate: the cutting of athlete hopefuls to create 'competitive' teams. Remember this statistic. According to a poll by the National Alliance For Youth Sports, 70% of kids stop playing sports by age 13. By that age, then, for the vast majority of young adults, sports have ceased being a viable means of self-expression and self-fulfillment. The main reason cited? Sports are no longer "fun." The better term is probably 'rewarding,' indicating something more cerebral-and longer-lasting--than the mere emotions of enjoyment, but terminology does not change the fact.

We in T&F and cross-country are lucky, however. We are not required to swell that statistic with 'cuts.' But with that freedom comes responsibilities. We do have the responsibility to invoke the basic expectations of sports participation. Joe Vigil had three: show up; give good efforts; be a good teammate. Every season, we wind up teaching Vigil's expectations to at least a percentage of the neophytes, but that's par for the course. To those, however, who meet the expectations but happen to possess less-or little-talent, we have a responsibility also. And our efforts in that regard are, too often, less than stellar.

You can usually spot the coaches who are mostly interested in developing the elites of their team. Those are the coaches who often ignore the deficiencies of the 'lesser' team members because making progress with them is not considered an important use of their time or energy. They make early judgements based on talent alone. They coach teams within teams, always with a focus on the select group they hope to get to states or nationals. They rationalize that the others at least receive opportunities to practice and enjoy some competitions. A wide-lens coach, on the other hand, sees opportunity and challenges for all team members who are Vigil-ready and willing. If you were the parent of a modestly talented kid, which type of coach would you rather your athlete report to every afternoon?

 They coach to know who their athletes are and what they really want.

We have all witnessed the fall from grace of once-championship coaches who have reportedly "lost touch" with their athletes. Those celebrities begin receiving criticism from the media, from parents and (secretly) from their athletes. But that phrase "lost touch" is misleading. A more accurate assessment might be that those coaches have lost interest in their athletes as individuals and see them more as vehicles for some other abstract purpose or desire.

Young adults are endlessly fascinating because they are bafflingly mysterious. No coach can, with absolute authority, declare what your average teenager is really thinking. Still, coaches have endless opportunities to observe behaviors or 'listen in' for the casual comments that tell deeper stories. And some team members may occasionally stun a coach by describing exactly what is bothering them.

This attribute is not rocket science. The most important strategies for "relating to your athletes" are not trying to dress their age or learn all the current lingo and the music lyrics. It's not exemplified by 'arranging fun' for the athletes. The most honest strategies are looking and listening. You can't do either if you're always talking at them, trying to entertain them or, perhaps in some cases, if you are demonstrating you just don't care. The good coaches care. They watch-and they listen to--everyone.

 They coach with the best current information and practices.

Even though this is where the 'instruction industry' of cross-country/track & field makes most of its money, coaches do need knowledge beyond their own running experiences or the advice of 'internet experts.' Simply stated, athletes deserve competent coaches to guide them to mastery. The confidence heuristic, however, makes some coaches appear competent to their athletes when in fact knowledge and experience are lacking. Athletes may think they are solely to blame for poor performances or lack of mastery when those failures can be the result of poor training applied with overconfidence. One of the reasons good coaches are effective is because they know what they don't know and regularly second-guess themselves. They don't mind being occasionally humbled. That's when they get to work shrinking their ignorance. Creating the best mental and physical training circumstances for young runners is, to be sure, hard work. Formulaic training systems and cookie-cutter workouts do not suffice in the world of scholastic athletes. When attempting to individualize the training for those young runners, many of whom don't even know how they train best, it's a good idea to remember what Jason Karp asserts in Running Periodization: "Expertise is the foundation of all creative work." A coach's expertise should always match or exceed a runner's desire.

They coach variety before specialization.

Listen to a coach expound on the ideal event is for a promising 8th grader or freshman runner, and you are listening to a coach who is not doing right by that athlete. Pigeon-holing a young athlete to their 'best event' has led to the demise of more than a few promising running careers. A sportswriter once wanted me to compare a talented area 7th grader with a proven senior veteran of mine. I politely refused. That runner didn't need me creating needless expectations. With coaches of kids or young adults, the question is simple: What is the hurry? After all, does any adult become a highly qualified coach in a single season? In the rush to coach a young runner to become great, what is easily lost is the enjoyment of getting better. Good coaches understand that, with proper training, the strengths of a young runner will eventually emerge. They understand that specialization for runners is something achieved through varied experience over time. They are, with good reason, patient. 

They coach with an understanding that winning will be unpredictable and often overrated.

By the very design of a sport, coaches can never guarantee the outcome. Uncertainty, though, creates a sport's appeal. And if a coach is never destined to guarantee outcomes, a coach can, to a greater extent, control the process. "The process is the goal" has become cliché, but all clichés begin as vivid truths. Board of Education members are not naïve. Year after year, they fund athletic teams not for the chancy expectation of creating state champions, but because sports done right have wider positive values. Those values should be reflected, first and foremost, not in the win/loss records but in the processes by which athletes pursue mastery. A good coach will not only conduct his or her program in that manner, ensuring the more valuable process, but the coach will also guide athletes to appreciate that, in the long reach of any season, victory has many names besides winning.

They coach only with the level of intrusion necessary to convey vital information or standards.

  We've seen this scenario: at a meet, a coach in the face of an athlete just prior to an important event, peppering the nervous young competitor with do's and don'ts at the very moment when that boy or girl just wants a little privacy to mentally prepare. We've also heard the stories of parents second-guessing coaches at the dinner table, forcing athletes to choose sides. And we know one of the mortal sins that most coaches commit at one time or another is to give athletes too many improvements to think about at one time or to lecture them endlessly on some aspect of the runner's life that the coach thinks needs changing.

With the best of intentions, we have a tendency to suffocate our athletes with 'information,' whether as coach, parent or onlooker. The ancillary aspects of sports-the media stories, the mammoth repositories of statistics and data, the previews and reviews, the pressures on parents to be unfailing cheerleaders-all add to the information overload. Sometimes, it all becomes a bit much. When do the athletes get to practice and compete without the burden of someone else's excessive expectations or analysis?  When do they get to have the sport to themselves? Some of my athletes go wide-eyed when I tell them that during the five sports I played in high school, my working parents never saw a single game or meet. At the dinner table, they might ask how a race went and then quickly move on to other topics. Mostly, my sports belonged to me-and I was fine with that.

A little encouragement or criticism goes a long way-and both should be kept little. Few athletes benefit from belabored advice or from vacuous and effusive praise they sense is bogus. If we present the sport correctly, the sport is usually the best teacher. Good coaches understand that. They are the ones willing to approach an athlete after a competition with just four words: "What did you think?"

They coach the infinite game

In 1986, the philosopher James P. Carse published a slim book titled, "Finite and Infinite Games." The subtitle is "A vision of life as play and possibility," and in the book Carse writes about finite games being conducted "for the purpose of winning," while infinite games are "for the purpose of continuing the game." His 'games' go beyond athletics. A professional career can be a game(finite in intending an ultimate position), and so can raising a family(infinite in the intention of an endless succession). Runners, in that sense, get to choose whether their game-running-will be finite and limited to a season or high school years, or whether it will become an infinite activity they pursue in changing forms for as long as they live. Carse also insists it's not an either/or. Infinite players typically participate successfully in finite seasons or years as runners.

All sports like to justify (and compliment) themselves by taking credit for the infinite benefits of their sport (discipline, commitment, collegiality, etc.) that athletes acquire or sharpen during their finite seasons. And they are justified in doing so. The only error lies in typically focusing those compliments on winning teams or superior athletes. Nobody, especially the media, is particularly eager to laude the plaudits of a losing season or the gains of a JV-level athlete. But while winning as a runner makes for fond memories and maybe some bookshelf memorabilia, performing well as a runner leaves an indelible mark on one's character, something far more useful over the long haul. That is what my colleague, Coach Marks, meant when he suggested in a sports banquet speech that "sports is not about winning, it's about performing." Performing well is an opportunity open to all-and its value lasts. Good coaches typically take excellent care of their individual seasons, but for all their athletes they also coach the infinite game.