Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Knowledgeable Bystander: What do good coaches actually do?; October POM (He's baack!)

In what is a essentially a coaching blog, I have thus far, and to my own amazement, never spoken at any length about what I think actually constitutes effective coaching and what attributes coaches need in order to be able to provide it. (In my second post ever, I addressed the question "who needs a coach?", in the course of which I discussed the apparent contradiction inherent in the idea of a formerly successful self-coached athlete offering his services as a coach; but, I have never said much about what I think makes for a good coach, and what he/she should actually endeavour to do in his/her role.)

So then, what makes a good coach, and what is the essence of effective coaching in this sport?

To begin with, a basic distinction: There are two broadly different kinds of coaching relationships in running-- that between an athlete and his/her freely chosen/contracted coach, and that between an individual athlete, or "team" of athletes, and what I would refer to as an "institutionally appointed" coach (in Canada, usually a school or national team coach.) In North America, most serious runners will have been party to both of these basic types of relationship over the course of their careers, with the more common one being the latter. Although there are significant areas of overlap, the criteria of effective coaching in each of these kinds of relationships differs somewhat, as I will explain. The principle driver of this difference is the broader context within which the coach-athlete relationship unfolds, which has implications for the basic freedom of action of both parties. In spite of the differences between the basic challenge in each of these types of coaching relationship, there is, I think, a master principle that equally forms the basis for effective coaching in both contexts, even if it may be perhaps a little more difficult to apply in one than the other.

What Makes for a Good Coach?:

1. Knowledge of and the ability to impart the science and lore of running:

Unsurprisingly, the most successful coaches tend to know a great deal about the sport, including not just the science behind the training stimulus (which, subject to the odd new basic discovery, is not all that difficult to learn), but also its history and lore. A coach who is not him/herself also an enthusiast, whether or not he/she has ever been an actual participant, is a curious phenomenon. It's something of a cliche that good coaches are passionate about what they do, and are able to impart this passion to their athletes. I'm not sure how coaches who have no knowledge of the history of the sport, including its legendary figures, or who are not well versed in the competitive scene today, can begin to nurture in their athletes (particularly their youngest ones) the necessary passion to train and compete. Any of the top coaches I have had the priviledge of meeting and/or seeing at work have been great teachers and storytellers, able to explain in their own often very distinctive ways both the principles of effective training and the sheer excitment of being a participant in this most difficult and venerable of sports. The best coaches are invariably familiar with the ideas of other coaches, past and present; chances are great that they will also know the personal bests and competitive accomplishments of the top athletes at the local, national, and international levels, past and present; they will very often have their own experience as competitors on which to draw (of which more below); and, they will quite often have engaging stories to tell about all of these things. In other words, the best coaches will tend to be knowledgeable and passionate teachers. This is a variable that is somewhat dependent upon whether we're referring to a personal versus an institutional coach-- with the latter sometimes being able achieve success due to factors beyond his/her personal coaching style and acumen, such as the reputation of their school, their skill at self-promotion within a national sport bureaucracy, or accidents of geography. But, whether the coach operates inside or outside of a formal institutional structure, his/her long term success will tend strongly to be a reflection of his/her level of sport-specific knowledge, passion, and skill as a teacher.

2. Having Direct Experience:

A frequent topic of sport-related discussion in general is the question of whether the best athletes necessarily make the best coaches, or whether the less athletically accomplished tend to do a better job of stewarding athletes. This question is largely an empirical one, and much depends on what one means by the "best" or "star" athletes (there are, by definition, relatively few of the truly "top" athletes active in coaching, because there are so few of them relative to the number of available coaching opporunities). And the answer will depend to some extent on what sport one is referring to. In running, quite a few of the top coaches were themselves what could be called, at the very least, accomplished athletes, and the vast majority of them, whether independent or institutional, have some personal experience with run training, with many continuing to run, and even compete, themselves. A not insignificant number, however, have no experience with running at all,including an even smaller number with absolutely no personal experience with aerobic sport of any kind. (I have no hard data to support this, but I strongly suspect this phenomenon may be exclusive to running. I have never met a soccer, hockey, football, basketball, tennis, or gymnastic coach-- although I have met one somewhat successful swimming coach-- with no personal competitive experience in their sport.) While a handful of highly successful running coaches fall into the category of having no personal competitive experience, successful coaching strongly tends to require a "feel" for the sensations associated with different training intensities and mid-race states of physical and mental being. Without at least some personal experience with how it feels to be aerobically stressed, coaches will tend to operate based on visual appearances only (and things are very often not as they appear in running). A few coaches-- those with exceptional intuition and considerable accumulated experience in talking with athletes about their experiences in training and racing-- have managed to operate quite successfully based purely on what they see and hear, and without any internal referencing. For the most part, however, coaches who can only operate on the level of outward appearances make up the ranks of the least effective coaches in the sport. (A purely appearance-based approach to coaching can lead to such gems of coaching misguidance as the following: "Always try to get out there near the front at the start, because race winners almost always come from the lead pack"; or, "In the end, winning a race comes down to sprint speed, because races are so often won with sprint finishes." A word of advice: If you see nothing wrong with the logic of these statements, please stay out of coaching!)

3. Empathy and Intuition:

Among the indispensable qualities that direct experience in the sport reinforces are those of intuition and empathy (both "motor-empathy", or the ability to physically feel things by watching them, and the everyday ability to put oneself in the position of another-- in this case, that of other runners). All other things being equal, coaches who have been or are runners themselves will have a better chance of being able to "read" the physical states of their athletes, both at rest and while training or racing. Coaches who have been runners will also have a better chance of truly understanding athletes when they talk about their hopes, fears, and other concerns related to training, racing, and simply living the life of a serious runner. Along with giving coaches greater credibility with athletes, and thereby instilling a certain amount of confidence and trust in them, these abilities form the basis for a proper understanding of the training process as a day-to-day undertaking. Coaches without much direct experience in the sport can sometimes make up for this lack by combining second-hand knowledge with keen intuition regarding the inner states of their athletes. (And I have met or heard about a few highly successful coaches from non-running backgrounds who appear to possess this level of intuition-- a quality that has always seem somewhat magical to me, a primarily experience-based coach). When empathy born of direct experience is combined with superior intuition, however, we are usually in the presence of a truly great coach-- a coach of Bowerman or Daniels-like dimensions.

4. Humility and Respect for Athletes:

Even the most knowledgeable and sensitive coach, however, can ultimately fail if he insists on making himself the centre of the training process, or placing too much store on her contribution to the success of the athlete on the field of play. Yet another valuable byproduct of having tried this sport in a serious way is the opportunity to experience it from both sides of the coach-athlete relationship. My own experience has taught me how much more difficult it is to be the athlete than the coach, and how much more a talented and determined athlete brings to the coach-athlete relationship than does his/her coach. In an non-skills-based, individual sport like running, it is often possible for athletes to maximize their competitive potential with little or no direct, hands-on coaching of any kind, or with the support of a merely competent coach. In the end, the qualities required for success in the sport are found much more rarely in athletes than in coaches; for every potentially good, or great, runner there are, in my experience, literally dozens of coaches with the basic requirements for the job-- which, in the presence of a highly talented and driven athlete, often amounts to simply not messing up! There are, without question, a few bona fide geniuses and visionaries in the coaching ranks; but, the majority of their brilliance is, in my view, surplus to the task at hand, and secondary to what athletes of even average ability and determination bring to the process. It is simply much more difficult to actually do the training and racing oneself than it is simply to plan it and watch it. Coaches who overestimate the value of their contribution to the success of their athletes (an extreme case being a coach I knew who liked to refer to his athletes as "my little sculptures"!) are bound to be less effective than they might otherwise be, and are quite likely to alienate athletes in the process. They are also likely to over-subscribe to their personal "systems" and, ironically, to blame athletes for failures that often stem from their own mistakes (while always taking credit for their athletes' successes). Unless they have strong institutional protections of one kind or another, such coaches are likely to become lonely figures within the sport.

The Master Principle: Athlete-Centeredness

Whether working independently or within an institutional setting, truly effective coaches tend to be athlete-centred in their practice. For the best coaches, in other words, the process begins and ends with individual athlete and his/her specific needs. Various bureaucratic strictures-- in particular, those that aim to turn this most solitary of sports, for good or ill, into a team-based undertaking-- make it more difficult for coaches to attend to the needs of individual athletes. The best institutional coaches, however, still manage to do just this at all times. Athlete-centred coaching can run the gamut from tweaking a particular workout to the needs of an individual athlete, to respecting the desire of an athlete to work entirely outside of a group environment, and according to his/her own perceived needs (for, such is the difficulty of the sport, no athlete can perform optimally without first, and at all times, believing that he/she is preparing in the optimal way). For independent coaches, athlete-centeredness will entail always attempting to tailor a training program to full range of an athlete's needs, both inside and outside the sport. And, again, it may entail accepting, without malice or acrimony, that an athlete needs to go his/her own way, in spite of the coach's belief in the soundness of his/her approach. The opposite of the athlete-centred coach is the coach who tends to place service to broad abstractions-- "the team", the "federation", the "rules" (except for those that actually define the sport, of course), or even "the sport"-- over the needs of individual athletes; or, the coach who considers his own personal ambitions and ego before the needs of his athletes. Again, professional coaching in an institutional setting can sometimes make this a very difficult balancing act; but, those coaches who struggle most to address the needs of individual athletes-- occasionally by risking conflict with the larger structures within which they operate-- are almost always, in the end, the most successful where it ultimately matters: in helping individual athletes realize their full competitive potential (and, in this sport, "team" success really is a direct, non-synergetic, function of individual success). Finally, athlete-centred coaching does not mean athlete-directed coaching. No one should assume the role of coach in anything but an emergency situation unless he/she is clearly more experienced and knowledgeable than his/her most experienced and knowledgeable athlete. Unless merely acting as an advisor or sounding-board for a highly experienced and knowledgeable athlete, a coach is not a coach unless he/she assumes an authoritative (not to say authoritarian) role vis a vis the athlete. An athlete-centred coach still assumes the role of initiator/mentor within the relationship, but always in a flexible, respectful, and empathetic dialogue with his/her athletes.

To sum up, good coaches know their sport and can teach about it with a flair that inspires; they draw on their own experiences and intuition in order to "feel" their athlete's states of mind and body using their eyes and ears; and, they place their athletes at the centre of coaching process, relegating themselves to the role of knowledgeable and supportive bystander.

August POM:

The two very worthy nominees for this months POM honours-- Bob McGraw and Mike Gill-- are first-timers in 2010, although both were nominees in 2009, with Mike carrying away POY honours for an outstanding run of improvement that culminated in his improbable runner-up finish in the National Masters X-C championship race nearly one year ago. Bob earns a nod for his very impressive HM personal best in Niagara Falls. Two years ago, Bob executed his race plan perfectly in converting a perfect season of training into a very fine 1:19:30 to win his age catetory (50-55) in the Honeymoon Capital. To top this performance two years later-- and, of course, two years older-- would be a tall order. But, top it he did, with a flawlessly paced 1:18:44! As a testament to the depth of masters running these days, however, Bob actually missed winning his age group, albeit by a scant 26 seconds. Meanwhile, Mike Gill, after a quiet summer spent grappling with a small but tenacious case of patellar tendinitis, was up to his old tricks. Still not able to run more than 6 days a week (5 on most weeks), Mike nevertheless managed to dramatically readjust his 5k p.b. while winning the Guelph Thanksgiving Day by the preposterous margin of 1:44. Using his trademark perfect pacing, Mike got over the line in 15:03, 30-odd seconds faster than he ever had before on any surface. Once again, Mike managed to astound even me, his most ardent supporter. To put it bluntly, I just did not think he could do this, at least not at this time! And now, I shall refuse to be surprised by anything he does over the remainder of the season-- because, as I say, he has yet to be able to train at full capacity (although Mike has been exuding a quiet confidence in the weeks since this performance, and his training has gone exceptionally smoothly, perhaps foretelling more earthquakes to come!). With all due respect to Bob's fine run, October POM honours go to Mike Gill.


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