What exactly is it that I do?

There is a conversation I have had a hundred times over at this point in my career.  I am at a social gathering, I am introduced to someone, and they ask what I do.  Sometimes just for my own entertainment I pretend I don’t know that they are inquiring about my career.  On these occasions I say something like ‘as little as possible’ or ‘just a little more than yesterday’ or ‘whatever my wife tells me to.’  Even when I pull one of these out though I am only avoiding the inevitable for another minute because they immediately look at me like I am in junior high, and I must change my approach.  While nine times out of ten I could not care less about what this person thinks, I am in a social setting with family or friends who I would feel badly about embarrassing, so I oblige. 

‘I am a coach.’

‘What do you coach.’

Used to be ‘collegiate track & field.’

Now ‘runners.’

Then comes the ever-witty response ‘so, you just tell them to run faster?’

At this point I am hoping desperately to be rescued.  I think about maybe spilling my drink on this numbskull, which would kill two birds with one stone.  Again though, I behave, but certainly jump at any opportunity to move on before they offer me financial planning advice.

In all fairness coaching, of any type, can be a bit hard to articulate.  Odd, because it is so simple.  What is the basic objective of my job?  Very straightforward really, to help people get better at a specific task.  In my case this task is usually some sort of running.  I help people cover ground faster afoot.  Moreover, through that process I hold the hope that they become a bit better version of themselves overall, more confident, self-reliant, resilient, compassionate, etc.  I do, in fact, believe deeply in that aspect.  What is the process I carry out to try to help people explore that potential though?  What is it exactly that I provide them?

I envision every athlete standing on a path.  They stand at a certain point on said path, and their potential lies somewhere off in the distance.  It is my job to help them advance toward that potential.  Easy, right?  Well, not necessarily if we want to do things correctly and ethically.  There are no bullet trains on this path.  No detours.  No short cuts.  No bridges even.  If there is a river you must swim it, but I might be able to provide a flotation device.  What if there is a rockslide across your road?  Can I dynamite it out of the way?  No, but I can offer you a shovel and a wheel barrel.  A downed tree across your trail?  Here is a saw, but you do the work.  What about a ‘road closed’ blockade?  Hmmm, there is some nuance.  I can help you understand that sometimes what we think are hard rules might just be silliness accepted as status quo for far too long.  Then you have to move the damn sign yourself though.

There are no bullet trains on this path.  No detours.  No short cuts.  No bridges even. 

One athlete’s river might be chronic injury because they have never strength trained adequately.  The rockslide could be inadequate foundational fitness.  Maybe the downed tree is lack of energy system variety in their work.  Perhaps the road closed sign is compulsive over training because they always thought that a particular load was necessary.  Regardless, my job is to help get all that crap out of the athlete’s way.  It is my job to help them clear and navigate their path.  They are capable beyond their wildest dreams; the road can just be damn hard and the right help is sometimes what they need to turn a corner and advance. 

I have referenced in previous posts various times a fellow coach has asked me about the secret training that made athlete x so much better.  We have already established why such a notion is laughable on multiple levels.  However, I want to revisit one such conversation to explain this path metaphor a bit further.  I was having one of these dreaded conversations once (I promise I don’t hate ALL conversation), and it went something like this.

‘I can’t believe athlete x made it to NCAAs.’

‘Well, she’s extremely gifted.’

‘Then why did she never make it before?’

‘I think she made the full commitment to the work this year, she really bought in.’

‘But it was different work.’

‘It was, but honestly at her ability level if she committed like she did this year she would probably be at NCAAs with different work too.’

‘But you made her an NCAA qualifier.’

Whoa!  What?  I have never made anyone anything in my career.

‘I would say she made herself an NCAA qualifier.’ 

Assisting athletes en route on their paths!

I must have delivered this with adequate tone because he did not press further.  The coach I was talking with is a good guy.  He was just young, and that was his current impression of coaching. Hopefully his perspective has changed.  The fact is that athlete was born with everything she needed to become an NCAA qualifier.  All the physical talent, the mental aptitude, and the emotional capability.  It was all there, within her, all the time.  What was the difference then?   Why did she make this significant improvement when I started coaching her?  Because I gave her a shovel and a wheel barrel at some point, handed her a saw at another, threw her a flotation device once, and explained to her that the road closed sign was put there by morons so she could ignore it.  Did I play a role?  Absolutely, and I would say a critical one at that.  However, the distinction between ‘making’ and athlete into something and helping them become someone they have always been capable of being is crucial for any coach to grasp.  I can see how one could view this as a bit of semantical hair-splitting.  Is there really a big difference between ‘making someone something’ vs. ‘letting them become something’?  I would argue there is indeed.  The difference influences how both coach and athlete view themselves and that is crucial to how each conducts themselves.

…letting each path be unique allows us to find a path that can work for each individual and stand up to outside changes over time.

The ‘making someone something’ approach is dangerous for a coach to take.  This will lead the coach away from the person first focus they should have with each athlete.  This thinking leads to a coach focusing too much on themselves, on their training system, on their verbiage, on their philosophies and not on the athlete in front of them.  This problematic.  Pushing different people down the same path over and over will yield positive results for some but not all.  Such an approach will also struggle over time because times change, societies change, technologies change, and sport cultures change.  Whereas, letting each path be unique allows us to find a path that can work for each individual and stand up to outside changes over time.

When an athlete takes the attitude that a coach will ‘make them something’ it is equally detrimental for three reasons.  First, this immediately takes responsibility off them.  We all have to be accountable in our endeavors to have any chance at reaching our potential.  There are people around an athlete who can help or hinder them, a coach being certainly at the very top of that list.  However, the athlete must accept that nobody has more responsibility for how their journey is going to play out than them.  They will never reach the level of self-reliance or confidence necessary if they fail to grasp this responsibility.  Such responsibility breeds accountability, and we all need to be more accountable to the person in the mirror than anyone else.  Secondly, at the toughest moments every athlete must be able to perform without their coach.  I can be trackside yelling instructions or at an aid station to say a few words on race day. However, the athletes I coach have to answer the bell in their own minds when adversity peaks.  They must do this, not me.  If their view is it that it is my job to make them great, they will lack the confidence in themselves at crunch time to find that greatness.  Lastly, remember that part about believing that this real exploration of one’s potential will lead people to greater personal strength and development down the road?  Well, that won’t happen if they think a coach was responsible for what they achieved, for who they became.  They NEED to know it was them, that they achieved withthe help of their coach.  Then when life throws things at them much more significant than what they faced athletically, they will know they are capable of handling it, even if they need a little assistance. 

If I know the event AND I know the person, I can then determine what lies between the two. 

Four athletes, same event, four different paths

Another way to view this is distinguishing coaching from just writing training plans for given events.  The event is the same for everyone.  However, because each person is different the path between them and that event will be highly varied.  A training plan can be better than nothing, but pales in comparison to truly individualized person first coaching.  Obviously, I need to have a grasp on the physiological, biomechanical, and mental/emotional demands of events under my scope.  However, this is just one piece of the puzzle and honestly the much easier piece to master.  Then I need to understand people, in a hope to at some point understand each person I coach.  If I know the event AND I know the person, I can then determine what lies between the two.  I need to know the path, and I need to be able to help them navigate that path’s unique challenges.  Can different paths be similar?  Certainly?  Have I ever seen two exactly the same?  Nope, not once in over twenty years.

It seems that we have gotten awfully good at telling people they aren’t very good.

In thinking on this whole concept, it also occurred to me how much time I have spent in my career trying to convince athletes that they have a strong aptitude, that they are in fact quite gifted. Seems I was always in this place as a collegiate coach from the first recruiting conversation.  Now, I still find myself having such conversations coaching post-collegiate adults.  For many athletes, it seems when they hear this from me it is the first time such a notion has been presented to them.  It seems that we have gotten awfully good at telling people they aren’t very good.  I am befuddled by this, though I think I might know some of the rationale.  Many associate lack of ability with a willingness to work harder.  So maybe many coaches feel this is a motivational tactic.  If an athlete thinks they are less talented, maybe they will work harder and that greater motivation is the goal?  That is my hunch, but I still find it foolhardy.  I have taken the opposite approach.  I choose to tell athletes they are massively capable.  Not to the point of dishonesty or even embellishment, but within completely realistic bounds.  I want every athlete to grasp their ultimate potential, then to understand the damn hard work it will take to get there, and then get to that hard work with belief in THEMSELVES.  Belief in me, belief in what we are doing helps, but there is no substitute for believing in themselves.  Why would I not want this empowerment for every athlete I work with?

Maybe next time Carl asks me what I do at that cocktail party I’ll reply ‘I work to define pathways and then offer individuals assistance navigating said pathways safely and effectively through sensical preparation and self-belief.’  We will see if he still follows up with the financial planning advice.