I wore my coaches hat this weekend as Tony Riddle and Ben Medder returned to Ireland for our sixth “Run injury free” workshop this time in Lynham’s of Laragh hotel and pub. Two PBs from our athletes on top of it meant this entry of the coaching log will be a positive one, with some thoughts on what I’ve learned and about old school coaching in general – a profession whose layers Tony Riddle reveals more and more of at every visit:
Four hip operations
The weekend was really really enjoyable despite that fact that “technically” we were working from 7 to 22, from the moment I began putting breakfast on for the lads to the moment the last discussion about how we keep growing and improving this programme died down late at night. Lots of movement, plenty of inspiration, lots of discussion and the usual great food means these weekends are the exact opposite of a chore – they are a vocation.
When you see a top athlete walk in after four hip operations and no running for two years and not much later he’s running happily, vaulting fences and has a big smile on his face you know that you are part of something special. It’s the knowledge that a method works, and that you’re making a worthwhile change that is one of the driving force in my life rather than just doing something over and over because it’s “what I was trained for” or “it’s what you do” or “what you get paid for”. That’s just not enough.
As a person, coach and athlete, it’s always been difficult for me to find mentors. My grandfathers relentless influence created this – he was a working man but a fountain of knowledge. By a very young age I beat people 20 to 40 years my senior in the master class version of Trivial Pursuit simply because he had instilled an insatiable appetite for consuming knowledge in a young brain.
These little things in our young years shape us so fundamentally later – as a child I began form an opinion of myself as smarter than most adults. In terms of raw knowledge this was possibly even true in many cases. But I lacked perspective, wisdom and experience to wrap around that knowledge of course. I remember being attacked in the first grade when trying to explain the theory of evolution to class-mates. The other young children did not like the idea of being descended from monkeys (actually it’s apes, of course). This meant that growing up I took much the same path as my grandfather before me – I was self-learned and self-taught.
Tony Riddle’s tutelage has been different – every workshop we do, I learn something new. The greatest message is what it really entails to be an old school running coach in the mould of one of Tony’s own inspirations – the boxing coach great Kenny Weldon. “They ate with their athletes, they slept where their athletes slept (notice the rephrase to avoid confusion here), they knew what they ate, how they lived – it was a life education.” If you hold a hammer all problems look like nails as we know.
Learning from the master
I observed Tony in action over the weekend using the famous principle from the “7 habits of effective people” – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. This can mean – don’t teach while you still only have a little knowledge. But it also means – listen to the athlete’s full story and then make a decision on what the right intervention is. When you serve a master apprenticeship in running technique coaching as Jason and I do with Tony, it’s tempting to look at every problem as related to technique. This evening I asked one of our graduates after the session how the running was progressing. “Good but my calves are a bit tight.” My brain began searching for biomechanical cause and effect until it paused – because this runner now possesses a stride of such quality that only minor tweaks are really necessary.
Detective and coach
The old school coach needs, in Arthur Lydiard’s worth, “to consider everything”, so I sought to understand first by asking a series of questions “when do you go to bed”, “what’s your morning routine”, “when do you run”. Several interesting facts will come to light but once our runner said “I lift a lot of weights at the moment, so..”, a bell rang and I the next question invariably was: “What do you lift and how”. A quick demonstration of the runners deadlift later, we could arrive at the conclusion together – the runner had recently changed deadlift technique – her lifting coach had removed the small bar under her heel while lifting because “she had good ankle flexibility”. Demonstrating the technique, the runner had committed her weight to her heels while lifting about her body-weight worth of iron with a forceful push off through the lower legs to get into the standing position of the deadlift. Thus the sore calves. She laughed “and I just blame the running”.
This is where coaching is at it’s most exciting – when you have a potential “red herring” that could lead you to make an intervention in an athlete’s stride who is progressing nicely. Instead ensuring you keep a holistic overview of all factors and stay inquisitive (that means listening, observing, and even probing) you can find the true root cause. This means as an old school coach your knowledge only becomes valuable once you the the skill to demonstrate it, the experience to observe and analyse and the ability to inquire and connect the dots. You are like a detective of errors, risks and issues. This is why old school coaches where, and must remain “renaissance men”, rather than pure specialists. Specialists serve a function, especially when working in conjunction with the old school coach – but for best results for an athlete, they need the old school coach to be the fulcrum for all their education with specialists being consulted only when the old school coach hits blind alleys and know he has to reach out for solutions.
Lydiard famously embodied this when it was suggested to him that Snell work on his sprint technique. These were untested waters for Lydiard, making him hesitant, and his initial response was “no, it won’t work” (a common first response from the great master coach allegedly). But he mulled it over and contacted a good sprint coach and gave it a go. Observing it for a while, he concluded it did indeed provide an additional edge to the already formidable foundation he had established together with Snell. The master coach held everything together, but had the humility to know when to step out of his role as master and play “apprentice”.
In many ways this was the most difficult thing to accept at first – the moment you realise your knowledge, what was previously your whole world and your area of “mastery” is not complete or even flawed. I can see why many coaches would be hesitant at first to accept this, or why some never do and stay with one rigid formula that they never change. I felt I had reached a level of mastery in the application of physiological training principles and the Lydiard method. Once confronted with everything that lies beyond physiology by Tony, everything acquired new meanings and a huge field of knowledge and expertise opened up for which I learned I was not a master – but just an apprentice. This means exchanging certainty for humility and to be able to switch seamlessly from the role of “teacher” to “student”, sometimes within a few brief moments.
One of the many books I’m reading now is Robert Green’s “Mastery” which talks about how to take this path. I’m reading several books sequentially a new habit I have acquired as part of my training. I find that doing this the mind is constantly making connections between the seemingly unrelated topic matter and this is great practice for doing the same in the real world.
A long post, perhaps more interesting to coaches than my casual readers, but these where just musings on my mind that urge led me to commit to writing.