Monday, 2 February 2009

Who Needs a Coach?

Reading Brad Hudson’s (former elite and now top level U.S. coach) recent book on training, Run Faster, and Chris Kelsall’s entertaining interview with irrepressible Kiwi coach/author Keith Livingstone (, it struck me that a disproportionate number of coaches with serious competitive backgrounds were actually self-coached during their racing days. Hudson reveals early in the book that he was largely, and deliberately, self-coached during his competitive days, and that this contributed significantly to his eventually becoming a coach. Hudson says that the experience of developing his own program—the research, the trial and error, and the ultimate realization that his potential went unfulfilled—made him, inadvertently, the insightful coach that he has since become. Livingstone also, while now a kind of orthodox Lydiard acolyte, tended to do his own thing during his short but fairly successful athletic career. Like Hudson, Livingstone cites his own experience of success, failure, and unrealized dreams as a self-coached athlete as part of his impetus for becoming, not just a coach, but a would-be “coach-of-coaches” through his new book on training, Healthy Intelligent Training. Even legendary figures such as Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerrutty were largely self-coached during their competitive careers.

Now, I’m certain the vast majority of working coaches, if they were ever competitors themselves, were never self-coached. The dominant model, it would seem, is that of the former athlete emerging as a successor to a “master-coach” within an established coaching system. This is the informal practice at many U.S. universities, and the formal practice in places like Japan, with long histories of distance running success. Since the serious self-coached athlete—the athlete operating on his own and outside of an established coaching system-- is relative rarity, I think it is interesting in a paradoxical way that so many of this breed, myself included, find their way into the coaching ranks.

The Hudson example in particularly interesting in that the “adaptive running” approach he outlines in the book is designed in part, he says, to help make the reader a better self-coach. If I read him correctly, Hudson would like to coach people to be increasingly coach-less! The apparent paradox I refer to couldn’t be clearer; Hudson, in fact, compounds it. What he says, in effect, is: I, a former self-coached athlete, have become a coach in order to teach (coach) you to be like I was—self-coached! It seems to me that if he really wanted athletes to be better self-coaches—to learn to listen intently to their own bodies and develop their own systems— his first bit of advice would be: “Put down this book”! My point, however, is certainly not to pick on Brad Hudson, who was a fine athlete and is now, by all accounts, a very fine coach; it is to point out that the former self-coach who decides to become an advisor to others necessarily enters into a contradiction of the “do as I say, not as I do (or did)” variety. It is as if he/she is saying, parent-like: I have made mistakes so that you won’t have to. In the case of the former self-coach, however, there is an added twist, in that he/she is also saying that the knowledge and authority with which I advise you comes directly from my own experience as a self-coach, and not just in a negative way-- in the way, for instance, that the former alcoholic’s authority on the dangers of alcohol comes only from his own failure as a drinker of alcohol. Former self-coaches may feel they made important mistakes in the past which they can help others avoid, but they also know, and say implicitly, that they developed exceptional positive knowledge of the sport through trying to figure much it if out on their own, using their own bodies as experimental subjects. Former self-coaches who ask you to listen to their guidance are thereby assuming that you do not want to become like them (except for Hudson, who seems to want it both ways!); that, in others words, you do not want to try things your own way and are uninterested in developing your own body of experiential knowledge and coach-ly intuition.

Does this make formerly self-coached coaches hypocrites? My answer is no. In my experience, athletes--myself included in my days as a serious open competitor—are actually not as interested in one day becoming coaches themselves as they are in getting the most out of their athletic potential, and would rather choose a path more likely to lead to the latter than the former. There will always be athletes who, through stubbornness, a kind of geeky love of research and planning process that goes into coaching, or, as in my case, simple necessity, who will opt to do things their own way—and many will likely go on to become coaches themselves. The vast majority of athletes—young or old, recreational or elite— however, will prefer to rely on the knowledge and experience of better qualified others to guide their way. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. The world of expertise is, after all, a minutely sub-divided one in which specialists in one area of life—from auto mechanics to medical specialists-- learn to trust knowledge of others in fields outside their own. I therefore solve the apparent paradox of former-self-coach-as-coach by simply saying that, while my own self-guided journey through the sport has been rich and rewarding, you, being probably more interested in simply running your best, would probably not want to try to replicate it. Given the choice, you -- as I, had things been different way back when-- would probably be happier simply avoiding obvious mistakes than making them yourselves in order to learn from them!

Who, then, needs a coach? Everyone who would rather ride the wheel than have to reinvent it themselves; everyone, in other words, who would simply like to become the best athlete they be by leaving the mistake-making, the research and the planning, to those who have been down the road before them-- to the mavericks and the geeks, if you will!


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