Thoughts From Three: Get Small

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."

" is best to start small and see what happens."

Timothy D. Wilson, Redirect


Ours was a short walk to find distance from the busy finish chute crowd and some quiet. The autumn afternoon had broken open beautifully, and despite Sarah's excruciatingly disappointing performance, the girls' team had run a tough and tactical cross-country race to win. I rested my arm lightly on her shoulder, not saying anything. In the bright sunshine, she cried quietly and I waited--a disastrous race on the most beautiful of afternoons. There are times to leave athletes alone to their tears or sullen failures. There are times not to. Coaches should know the difference.

Coaches must, by convention and necessity, operate within the established architecture of their sport, a structure built on tradition and accepted ways of doing things. No coach or school yearly reinvents a sport based on the team members who happen to show up with their particular wishes and desires. Basically, we know what the sport needs to work, to be itself. For instance, a track and field team, if it is to fulfill those best traditions, needs athletes invested in established roles as throwers and sprinters and jumpers and hurdlers and middle-distance runners. A large part of the coach's job is to fashion a team in which committed student-athletes productively fit into that architecture. We know all that too. But that's us, looking in at large groups of unpredictable young adults. It's different for those young adults looking out.

Daniel Kahnman famously stated that people, faced with a difficult question, intuitively and unconsciously replace it with an easier, more manageable, one. Coaches do that all the time with their athletes, sometimes out of necessity, but often out of convenience. They bring their personalities and methodologies and coaching beliefs to bear and let the athlete chips fall where they may. They wordlessly declare: If you lack the discipline or resolve to follow through on our training directives, we have consequences for that. If you apparently lack the skills for a particular event, well, sometimes life's unfair, so deal with it. Difficult athlete questions are often avoided with the easier answers.

In any season, of course, there are necessarily times to employ the broad principles and practices of team management, to apply rules and expectations in order to 'keep things moving.' Everyone understands that. Showing up on time, properly dressed for the day's work, is not a decision an athlete gets to make on a whim. It's not up for discussion; it's a baked-in team expectation. But there are those times when the focus needs to turn away from the convenient, pre-established expectations and routines. There are times coaches need to get small, to stop simply enforcing and start listening.

The content of our knowledge as coaches is only as valuable as what can be effectively transferred to individual athletes. Coaches are not ultimately characterized by how much they know or by the complexity of their training plans but by how much they do for their athletes. Ask any athlete; they know the difference. The image that team members construct of themselves as a developing athletes derives in large part from the actions and the interventions of coaches in helping them create that desired athletic self-image, one which is typically positive and contributory. Everyone wants their story to be a good story. Productive skills left undeveloped in the 'average' athlete because coaching time and attention was directed mostly to the more talented implies an ignorance of the efficacy of properly applied deliberate practice, laziness, or a view of the less talented that is callous.

Nothing about such decisions requires hours in coaching clinics. It is simply attitude. If you apply conscientious attention as a coach, you know when an invested athlete is having a bad day, perhaps a bad week--or even worse. You correctly interpret listlessness, inattention or lack of effort. The question then becomes what, if anything, are you going to do about what you observe. Any useful answer begins with the assumption that a coach cares beyond a prescriptive response, is willing to set aside presumptions and create time to listen. It also means avoiding three easier reactions-ignoring the athlete, blaming the athlete, or overreacting in making a small and manageable problem worse. Ignoring a committed athlete reveals more about the coach than the athlete. And it's easy to blame athletes for all kinds of shortcomings; it's harder to take the time to try and sort out misinterpretations, misrepresentations, and exaggerations. Those are situations that will not be solved by either a simple template remark or a lengthy team lecture. Everyone also knows young adults love drama, but over-reacting to drama with additional drama does not help. An assistant coach once responded to an anxious, self-doubting athlete by suggesting that she might benefit from counselling. She was invested. She did not need counselling; she needed good coaching and the patience to allow her to improve.

A teaching mentor long ago told me that the first question in any worthy profession is the hardest one: why are you here?  Everyone can provide a quick answer, but sometimes we don't tell the truth. At the end of the day, though, we should strive toward a vision of scholastic sports-a vision that translates into the programing of teams and the interactions with athletes-that provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number of invested athletes possible. That is not always the case. It is easy for coaches to become convinced their greatest value is demonstrated by what they do with their best athletes. That is only the most visible value, the one easiest to cheer, to applaud. Too often, a lot of potentially productive interactions and improvements with those 'other athletes' are replaced by aphorisms. Some coaches just have a hard time taking the time to listen to all their athletes. Fran Lebowitz once said, "The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting."

Every athlete who demonstrates a commitment to a sport deserves the time, deserves the wait. Every one of them.