As I exited Oak Park River Forest High School this afternoon after the conclusion of the “Hall of Fame Luncheon” that capped off the annual ITCCCA clinic, I had to make a decision: head over to the restaurant in Forest Park where Dick Pond’s was hosting a coach’s social, or return home in time to sneak in a quick run while there still remained daylight. Despite feeling like I did not have nearly enough time during the morning and early afternoon to engage with my coaching peers, I opted for the run (I’d adjusted my original plan of running before leaving for the clinic once I’d realized that would entail waking at 6:00 and facing -20 wind chills). Once I started, I was able to think about today’s clinic and I quickly resolved that I wanted to return home and write a blog.
I had a few regrets from the day. The first was simply that, since I was speaking at three of the four sessions, I only got to be a student for one session this year. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to hear the Carmel girls’ distance coaches speak about their team culture.
Second, it was very humbling to have so many coaches invest two hours of their day to come listen to our sessions. Time is truly valuable, and I sincerely hope that our presentation was a worthwhile use of it for those in attendance.
As always, there are things I wish I would have done differently (in a typical school day, I teach three sections of East Asian Studies. The third section is always the best, because I figure out during the first two times I teach the lesson what worked and what didn’t, so I can have it better refined on the third go around. Today, though, we only got one chance to do the presentation live for an audience.) Upon reflection, I realized that there was one overpowering idea I most wish I had emphasized more. It is simply this: the essence of why we coach is to help athletes do more than they think they are capable of. That is our one most important job. My role as a coach is to help every single one of my athletes become faster. But in helping them become faster, we are doing so much more. If we are successful, what we are really doing is taking an insecure freshman and helping to mold them into a confident and self-assured (though hopefully, also, self-reflective) young man (or woman, for those who coach girls).
Why did I become a coach? Same reason I suspect many people become coaches: because they had a good coach who had a positive influence on them. When I entered York high school my freshman year, I had some confidence in academic settings, but not much in athletic or social contexts. I never made the basketball team in middle school, never made the volleyball team. I was not unpopular, but nor was I member of the most popular cliques. I joined the summer running program at York mainly because my brother wanted to (he had been more a successful runner than me up to that point). What happened after a few weeks of being on the team? I had new friends. I had a certain measure of status. I found out that I was one of the better freshmen (I’d been the 7th best kid on my 8th grade team but ended as the 4th best freshman, mainly because many of the kids that finished in front of me in middle school decided to do other sports in high school). Now I had something that I was pretty good at. It is incredibly important for a high school kid to have something they are pretty good at. Being pretty good is a huge motivator. It tells you that if you keep working, you can move up from pretty good to good to great.
When kids transition from middle school to high school, their friendship group often changes from one based on geography (you are friends with the kids who you grew up playing with) to one based on interest. What we can do as coaches is help kids find a place where they feel like they belong. Where does that sense of belonging come from? It is not simply from being a member of a group, but rather more genuinely comes from shared experience; from doing something hard with a group of people who are doing that same thing with you.
I was never a fan of fraternities or sororities because I felt the group identity was inauthentic as compared to what a cross country or track team can offer. Frats had to invent the concept of ‘rush week’ in order to artificially create the sort of bonding that comes naturally to cross country kids going through the ritual of the ‘trials of miles’ together. As coaches, it is incumbent upon us NOT TO GO EASY on the kids we coach. It is precisely the moments when we are pushing them the hardest that the most growth occurs.
Consider the following scenario: you see a freshman start walking on the third lap of an early season mile time trial. How do you respond? In my view, the coach’s role here is to try to convince the athlete they can do more. Don’t let them drop out! The best response to “I can’t” is “yes you can.”
Let me give a concrete example. We had an athlete on our team this year named Ethan. Of 60 guys on our team, Ethan was 60th based on our early season time trials. In his first meet (Hornet-Red), he finished dead last on our team and 211th of 214 overall. As it turned out, Ethan’s aunt was a coworker of my wife. So I took a special interest in him. At our first dual meet against DGN, I saw Ethan with about 800 to go. He was in last place, plodding along, but not far behind four other runners. I ran up to the edge of the course as he came by and whispered just loud enough for him to hear “you can get those guys in front of you! Go after them! Let’s race.” This awoke him somewhat from complacency, and for the first time in that race, he looked up instead of at his feet. He slowly worked his way up to the kid in front of him. I dashed to another spot on the course, “OK – now get the next guy.” And slowly Ethan moved up, and passed another runner. Again, I dashed to a third point, “now get this next one.” “Coach, I can’t.” “Yes you can! Let’s go!” And he passed another guy. “One more Ethan, let’s go!” He passed a fourth runner. 200 meters remaining. Three of the four guys Ethan passed outkick him, suddenly become sprinters. But it didn’t matter. Ethan finished second to last, but more importantly, he’d learned something valuable – that when he thought he could not go any faster, it turned out he could. I told him, ‘that is what it means to race.’ I was proud, and he was proud. Who knows how Ethan will develop over his high school career? I do know this: he has been coming to winter conditioning, which tells me that the experience of running with the team is worth enough for him to come train in ten degree temperatures, which is to say, it is worth a lot. Nothing frustrates me more than seeing a coach who isn’t paying attention when their athletes run by (and this is true both in practice and in races). Let’s face it, kids will push themselves harder if they think they are being watched. Laissez Faire does not work as a coaching philosophy. Monitor them like a hawk. The feedback should be constant. To watch is to care.
So that is what I would emphasize most to any coach. Help your kids overcome their own doubts. You have to believe in them before they’ll believe in themselves. I am always amazed at how many times when we give goals to our athletes, they meet those goals. I will tell a kid I think they can run 5:05 in a particular meet, and they end up running 5:05. We tell the varsity guys, “our goal is 5 in the top 12” and we end up with our 5th guy finishing 12th. It’s got to be realistic, but if you tell kids what you think they can do and they have faith in you, they will often do it. I learned this from my high school days, too. Indoor conference, junior year. Mr. Newton wrote down how many points he expected us to earn in each event. I was running the 3200 with along with a senior on our team, Mike Lucchesi. The sheet said 18 points. We were expected to go 1-2?! I knew Mike was a favorite to win, but there were any number of guys who’d beaten me in the field. Guess what happened? We went 1-2. Psychology works.
I also realized today that if I never win another state title, that will be OK, so long as I can have the kind of influence on young people’s lives that Tony Holler and Will Kupish have had. Both men, long-time coaches, were elected into the ITCCCA hall of fame today, and both, in their speeches, talked about love. Tony told a story of two phenomenally talented athletes he has coached who are homeless. For them, track was a refuge. It is where they learned what they were capable of. Tony is sure that because of track, they will be OK, despite the challenges they face. Will urged all in attendance to think of the athletes we coach as our families. Love goes beyond blood, he said. Love will make you a good coach, because if your athletes know you genuinely care about them, they will ‘run through a wall for you.’ So, it is a symbiotic relationship. By helping a kid become faster across 800 or 3200 or 3 miles than they initially thought possible, we help them gain self-confidence. We share in their sense of pride and joy. If we are fortunate and good at what we do, their initial skepticism (why is this guy giving me such a hard time?) may change to a sense of respect (now I get it – he was trying to help me understand I was capable of more than I realized). And once that respect has been earned, anything is possible.