DIARY: Duties of an old school coach

I will be giving part of a training course for aspiring level 2 orienteering coaches (not the navigation bit as you’ve probably guessed if you’ve been readying this for a while), an event I’m looking forward to. I’m doing a lot of thinking about what the real duties of an “old school” coach are. Tony Riddle set the tone with me when he spoke to the coaches at the LeisureIndustry Academy where Jason and I attended his “Evolution of human movement – lifting mechanics” course – “you have to be more than mere rep-counters,” the art of coaching has often been lost in favour of “instruction” and “pain-bringers”.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about that and really enjoyed this evening’s “natural movement circuit” training session because I felt we worked hard to make ourselves more than just “rep counters” – we had a good crowd, there was a lot of individual coaching opportunities and we all finished on a high with three laps of running around the estate – barefoot or in VivoBarefoot shoes.

Role of the coach

We have to be careful as athletics has been influenced in this negative direction too – we may not be rep-counters – but we become mile-counters or “training programme engineers” and that’s not enough. Coaches generally need to know a lot of theory, have a deep understanding of why certain principles of training work – but it’s not our job to lecture our athletes.

Old school coaches provided almost a life education and they were capable of doing what they preached, of inspiring through example and by maintaining loyalty and belief through results (everything falls flat without results at the end). As a rule they were people-oriented even when they had a great degree of eccentricity (Cerutty) or were not natural extroverts (Newton). When you go to a coaching seminar you often find it can become a competition in who has read “Lore of Running” most thoroughly or who can lay out the most elaborate plans. You need theory and you need planning but other skills are more important and I want to talk about a few of them today – positive imagery, inspiration, making theory practical, using cues and allowing instructive errors.

Positive imagery and inspiration

To step back to the role a coach from this experience: The coach needs to understand the underlying principles of what he teaches because if he doesn’t then he can only emulate – he cannot innovate or respond to unusual situations. The coach also needs to be able to demonstrate the movements he wants his athletes to perform at an expert level. This core tenet is something Tony has been very insistent one because whatever you show or tell people is what sticks in their heads. Show bad movement and that’s what you teach, however noble your intentions. So on “Run injury free” clinics, Tony never let’s an attendee leave without an image of themselves moving properly firmly embedded in their heads. That’s perfectionism and it’s also professionalism. But he goes further and this is where many coaches, and I count myself among them, have fallen short in the past – you must inspire for people to follow your lead.

As Lydiard said (perhaps brusquely but he made his point): “It’s no good if a big fat coach just stands there with his stop watch on his belly”. Tony is a movement machine and if he asks you to run bare foot on gravel it’s only because he does so with ease himself. He creates trust in the method because he can do what he tells you to do and you can see the results for yourself. Everyone listens to the guy who’s winning – even if his ideas are terrible for you. That’s a human reaction, so instead of fighting it – let’s exploit it.

We athletics coaches need to take onboard that if you’re going to ask someone to run the equivalent of a 100 mile week then you best have been willing to put yourself through the same. If you’re basically slow compared to an elite runner, then perhaps the simple act of following the same discipline and doing the same hours is enough. But if you want to teach it, experience it first for best results. Arthur Newton did it, Cerutty did it and Lydiard it. The great innovators tried things in the field and were naturalists, they learned by doing and by observation (Cerutty and Newton both studied the movement of animals to get to their ideas).

This can be challenging, but you just cannot allow yourself to become an armchair coach. Learn the principles, try the methods, work with athletes in the field. That’s the only way to begin to acquire a full coaching skillset and your athletes need the full package (how this relates to the phenomenon of online coaching I’ll talk about in a future article).

Making theory practical

I have an intellectual background and am trained to study thing in an analytical scientific way, to process vast amounts of information and to understand complex theories. That is not a bad skill as a coach but it has often been detrimental and in that respect 2012 has been a great learning curve for me. The extra amount of frontline coaching I have done and watching Tony and Ben Medder in action, is beginning to rub off.

When Lydiard returned to his group after a meeting with East German doctors talking about “aerobic” and “anaerobic” workouts, one of the chaps put up his hand and said “do you mean fast and slow stuff, coach”. Teleo-anticipation is a wonderful word and a very interesting scientific concept, but it doesn’t mean we have to throw it at unsuspecting athletes when you can say “your mind is designed to gradually slow you down over the course of a race only to let you speed up at the finish, so we’ll try to train ways to challenge that.” Endurance work makes you tireless – you don’t need to know about capillaries, mitochondria etc. That’s our job – as coaches, to know this stuff – the next part of our job is to tell athlete’s only what they need to know to get onto the job or what they need to know to trust you know what you’re doing. Remember – there’s a point when you have to stop the discussion – if a runner wants a debate instead of a session, then send him to one.

Less is more almost as a rule but if you have an intellectual athlete, you need to “throw him something” because without theory, he’ll fold his hands and watch you sceptically – the challenge becomes to turn off his intellectual brain while he moves while keeping it happy when he doesn’t. The same applies in running, if you have a runner who feeds on the feeling that he’s training harder than anyone, you cannot give him a light-weight conservative training programme or constantly try to hold him back – you have to put the fuel into a car that it runs on (while at the same time curbing certain self-destructive tendencies that may lead to over-training – but simple manipulations can often get you there).

Each athlete – a puzzle to unlock with cues

As always – my failures have been the greatest learning points for me – I can see when my attempts to relay a complex theory in the past – to provide insight through knowledge acquisition – have sailed past the mark. That’s because you cannot intellectualise your way to movement. Only through my own failure to do so, and subsequent success by putting it aside, did I, fully understand and was reminded of some coaching basics that a coach can never bear to forget – coaching is not about passing on knowledge (that’s teaching or lecturing) – it’s about triggering certain behaviours by manipulating the athlete with “cues”.

Our Monday session today was particularly enjoyable because it just happened to have plenty of “little puzzles”. Our group is doing very well and I’m delighted with the progress of everyone – but everyone have their own small challenges, just as I had mine (and still have), and today Jason and I pottered around and had the opportunity to change little things and see huge improvements. I love these moments – both when it happens as a coach and when it happens to me a a person such as when my thoracic spine control suddenly “turned on” during the lifting workshop.

So as a coach – you see a movement or a behaviour that you are not happy with, then you have to quickly figure out what you can say or do to change that behaviour – it may be a simple sentence “look straight ahead at my hand”, it may be a simple manipulation (grabbing a bar over someone’s head and gently moving it back, asking “how does that feel”)  or demonstration “ok, now look in the mirror, what do you see”. The most difficult part is to balance when you don’t intervene but step back and let the attendee process what you’ve told them to do. Sometimes people find their own way after a few tries.

Whatever you do, try to be non-judgmental and avoid value-based words such as “poor”, “wrong” etc. Just state the facts and then try to apply the simple intervention you think will change the movement closer to the ideal you are looking for. This is hard, as it’s an ingrained habit for most of us to value-judge everything. Just keep reminding yourself and eventually you’ll avoid it most of the time.

Instructive errors

Sometimes, by carefully letting an athlete making a mistake they insist on making, is the best way to bring them back on the correct path. “I was not willing to listen until I got injured,” is how Aoife described the first meeting with Tony. In November 2011 she had been through so many botched interventions in places that will not be named here that she did not buy into the approach straight away. But she couldn’t run without pain, and that forced her to try the method – and once tried, she begin to see that the path was the right one. This means, sometimes you have to let an athlete go. We should only coach those who believe what we believe. Otherwise it’s a waste of time. Not everyone will believe you straight away, and this is where we have to fall back on inspiration and results.

Don’t let people stray too far, of course, and do water down your training approach so much that it’s no longer yours just to hang onto a high-profile athlete. If you coach injury free running and someone get’s injured because they are making compromises you wont’, then that reflects on you. If you train “Lydiard-style” but some athlete refuses to give up weekly hard intervals, and then fails to perform, that still reflects on you – because you allowed it to happen while the person was “your athlete”. There’s a point when you need to say “look, we don’t see things the same way, I think you should work with a coach who fits your training views better.” Lydiard is said to have never given second chances, and this could be good advice. Personally, I’m with my grandfather who said “everyone can make a mistake, but only an idiot makes it twice.” So I’d allow one big mistake but after that likelihood is too great that both coach and athlete will be back in conflict later, so best leave it.

Don’t compromise, but keep an open mind

Set out a framework that you find acceptable – everyone is different, so use the principles you stand for to fit people’s individual needs – but don’t compromise on your principles at any cost. Only change your principles if you realise they are wrong (this happens so be ready for it!). If you believe an endurance base is essential for success- then insist that sufficient time is put aside to this – even if the format differs slightly from the norm. Again you can sometimes decide to take someone on the journey, if you think it’s worth everyone’s while. Bringing someone from A to B cannot always be done in a straight line. Perhaps ease them in – bit by bit (you could allow a reasonably fast 10x400m weekly, dose down the next day and otherwise keep your week). As success comes, the athlete will be inclined to change more. This approach requires patience and great faith but can be very rewarding.