The dark art of coaching

Racing to the finish line and just being beaten into second place, the young athlete immediately burst into floods of tears.
As her coach, I went over to console her. “Don’t be disappointed,” I said. “There is no disgrace in coming second.”
“I am not disappointed,” she gasped through the sobs. “I am crying with delight. It is the first time EVER that I have beaten the girl who was in 3rd place!”.

I have been coaching for thirty years now (way more time than I was an athlete), and it has given me some great times, particularly since I ‘retired’ from running. My introduction to the possibility of being a coach was wrangled by a senior club member, playing on my guilt by suggesting I go on a course to see what it was all about. Strangely though, looking back now I don’t think I actually had any guilt. As an athlete I managed quite well, thank you, without a coach.

Let’s leave the ‘you weren’t good enough to NEED a coach’ argument there.

True as an assessment of my ability it was, I don’t actually subscribe to the view that you have to be at a particular performance level to benefit from advice on your training. What follows has been anonymised. Some of the people I have coached over the years may recognise themselves, but I have not named athletes as it is about the abstract rather than the particular on which I wish to comment.

A cold night at the track

I did the coach education courses, and was then thrown into the coaching mixer. So, let’s start with how athletes and coaches get together. In my case the first athletes I remember working with were the older young athletes who trained with my club down at the local cinder track. I organised group training for them and took one particular female athlete on in a more direct coaching arrangement. She became a good friend and although she has moved away we are still in touch. She also delights in quoting my aphorisms back at me, which can be amusing and can also be slightly embarrassing. You may think they aren’t listening, but some take it all in and treat it as gospel!  You are the guru to them, at that age, so it is important to be mindful and not ‘banter’ too much with young athletes. There is certainly an art to coaching young athletes, and I honestly think that not all coaches are able to encompass that art.
I can honestly say I have never ‘asked’ to coach anyone, but equally can say that I have never directly turned anyone down. Having said that, some coach-athlete relationships have not worked – you should always be big enough to recognise that, and talk about it, and act appropriately if and when it happens. This also applies to an athlete outgrowing a coach. If you can see it happening (or anticipate it) then start a conversation with the athlete, and jointly work towards brokering a new arrangement that will be of benefit to the athlete.
As a coach I think it is important that you learn your trade and also develop your own style. You need a certain confidence in yourself to do that, particularly if you end up leaning towards a style that doesn’t match those you have seen before as an athlete.

There are many styles, including, for instance, coach as friend, advisor, or svengali.

My experience took a serious turn when the second group I worked with – Seniors this time – attracted a very experienced, but ageing, athlete to it. He, being married to an Olympic athlete, had been there and done that. Prior to those first sessions he was all mouth in the warm-up, and was forever asking me why he was being asked to do this and that, and what was the point of the session. All perfectly valid questions, but not ones I necessarily had the experience to answer at that time in my coaching life. It turned out that this was just nervous energy oozing out of him. After a couple of tough 400m reps, and being burnt up by his younger/fitter training mates, the Mouth was squeaking like a mouse.
I was very much finding my way, coaching-wise, with the previously mentioned first group of young athletes, but was beginning to ‘get it’ by the time the Mouth turned up. But it does remind me of the quote that is attributed to that great athletics coach Wilf Paish:

Every athlete you coach is an experiment of one.

I certainly know I was ‘experimenting’ in those early days, and have apologised to several of those very athletes when talking with them much later about it. Even much later in my coaching career there have been experiments that have been consigned to the bin marked failure.
I can remember working well with a young middle distance athlete, who also competed at high jump and wanted to move to 300/400 metre hurdles. We had successfully worked towards some very good middle distance performances, and I somehow felt I was the right coach to take on hurdles and then also high jump with her. In both cases I was not. My powers of observation, and my ability to break the two events down into their components were both limited. I found I could not then work on those components in isolation either. On one occasion the very presence of the high jump bar in a training session brought on an ‘I can’t do it’ impasse, which I couldn’t resolve.  It made me realise we should quietly dissolve the hurdles/high jump relationship. Several years on, we still have a fruitful middle/long distance coaching relationship, although maturity is bringing more self-reliance to the athlete.  In many cases (but certainly not all) that move to self-reliance has been the aim of my closest coach-athlete relationships – usually unstated, it should be noted.
As a coach you may have your own style, and way of doing things, but let’s not forget that you have to make allowances for differences in athletes and their way of doing things. A quote I can still remember (but not by whom) from a very early coaching course in the late 1980s was “know your athlete”, and that is SO true. Over the years I have got to know many athletes, and they have shown a huge range of positive, and some negative, personality quirks.
Let’s just look for a moment at some of the negatives. There have been those that won’t listen, or more likely appear to listen and then won’t act. This can be particularly frustrating when an athlete gets injured, pays to have physio or some other treatment, and then doesn’t take on board the advice they have just paid to be given.
How many athletes do we all know that regularly over train, despite being told that, despite breaking down, and despite being tired when it comes to competition? Then there are those that lie about what they do.

Surely the relationship is all about trust.

Equally, however much you want them to have done better in training, don’t ever lie to them when feeding times back to them.
Have you had an athlete who asked you for coaching/advice, and then went off, either overtly or covertly, to ask everyone else under the sun for their advice? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind someone seeking advice from a number athletes and coaches, but be honest about it and let everyone know that you want to use them as a sounding board, and are in fact setting your own training plan.
Finally, I have memories of athletes who just wouldn’t take their running seriously enough, and seemed to be wasting their obvious talent. Equally, I have known ones that were TOO serious, and had seemed to have forgotten the pure pleasure of training. Now I like a spot of analysis, but as an athlete it can get too serious and everything can be analysed to death. I came across an athlete recently who freely admitted that they needed a coach who would be hard on them, and swear and shout at them if necessary. It was admitted that this could produce shouting and swearing back from the stressed athlete. I knew straight away that I could not work with that (kind of) athlete, if asked to. A quote from coach Dan Pfaff gives a good feel for my take on all of this:

Know your athlete, know your coaching style, and find unique ways to get the best out of them.

A coach working at getting to know a group of athletes. Note the varying levels of concentration!

When all the training is done, eventually a challenge has to be met – a race. What can you as a coach achieve at this stage? How can you help the athlete? I well remember a coach standing face to face with, and only inches away from, an athlete as she stood on the start line for a race (in front of all the other athletes) and saying to her “if you don’t get a PB then you needn’t come back to training with me again”. Was that helping or hindering the athlete? Was it some kind of personal psychology that the coach knew would produce the desired effect? You decide. I also recall being a team manager once and talking to an athlete new to track running about how she planned to run the 3000m she was going to do shortly (her first ever). She replied that her coach had said “just run like fook until you can’t run any more”. Again, probably not a technique out of my personal playbook.
I actually think there is not much that the coach can do to affect the outcome, come race time. All this shouting, suggesting that the athlete should be further up the field, should be picking it up now, making the big effort, or whatever, is rarely witnessed by athletes I work with. Being there, and making some mental notes on how things went, ready to feedback later is usually the extent of it.

Getting that feedback right is also a tricky art.

I believe that a few positive words afterwards, regardless of the relative level of perceived success is usually sufficient. Having said that it makes sense to find the time to have a frank, and two-way, discussion with the athlete at a more relaxed time and place at a reasonably short time after the event. Whatever the result, I always look for some positives for the athlete to take forward – which of course is not an easy task if things have gone particularly badly. But it IS always possible. Again, if you know your athlete you will know when they will respond to some constructive criticism (on tactics say), and also know how to motivate them to achieve the desired improvement.
So, the race is run, do you expect thanks? You shouldn’t. But sometimes at the time of a particularly fruitful spell athletes will want to thank their coach. I have had presents of wine, a meal and beer. One of the best ever was a framed photo of athlete and coach, jointly holding a coveted county trophy. But what topped it off for me was that it included one of my quotes quoted back at me.
Fantastic though all those gestures were, I think that there is a way of acknowledging what is after all a team effort that is simpler than that. For me, I am happy with a high five or a hug, with the athlete saying something on the lines of “we did it”.

Maybe even a few tears of happiness.

Sharing a ‘moment’ with friend Neil Walker, after helping him prepare for his successful Bob Graham Round quest, and helping support him on the day.

 

Steve Chilton is a UKA qualified coach (with a marathon PB of 2-34-53) and author of It’s a hill, get over it’, ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ and ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’. 

This material is reproduced from the Barnet & District AC club magazine, and first appeared (in a slightly different form) in Like the Wind magazine.

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