Monday, May 4, 2015

Good Coach-Athlete Relationships

One thread that many of the best runners have in common is that they have had a long term coach-athlete relationship with the same coach.  Meb Keflezighi has worked with the same coach, Bob Larson, for well over 15 years.  Deena Kastor worked with Coach Joe Vigil for well over a decade from her college graduation to her rise to road and marathon dominance.  Galen Rupp has worked with Alberto Salazar since his early high school days. 

Why is a good long term coach-athlete relationship so important?  When a good relationship is formed it produces great fruits because of the synergy of experience and knowledge that is created and that synergy increases exponentially over time.  The longer the coach and athlete work together the better they know each other and more in-depth they can understand how and what works best for the athlete in numerous scenarios and situations.  Reaching your potential in distance running is much longer than a few month endeavor and so it helps greatly to work under the same general philosophy (even while the details are fined tuned) for a long period of time.   The coach provides the expertise, experience and an impartial and often big picture prospective, while the athlete provide the in-action perspective and feedback from training and racing, as well as the dreams and goals to be achieved.  This is not a synergy that can be maximized in a short period, but one that needs to grow and blossom over time.  As Meb, Deena and Galen (all Olympic medalists) have found out, that long term relationship can help them achieve new heights and realize dreams. 

Notes/Observations About Good Coach-Athlete Relationships
  • Whenever an athlete is pushing their limits physically to improve, there will be minor set-backs and injuries along the way, this is an inevitable truth of sport.  A good coach-athlete relationship should help minimize those occasions but cannot eliminate them all together.  An athlete or coach should not jump ship on the relationship because a set-back happens but rather communicate and work with the other to determine why it happened and how to prevent it from happening again.  This requires open and honest communications and analysis from both parties.  Often what is learned will produce greater results in the future, a benefit potentially lost if either party abandons the relationship, taking their perspective with them. 
  • Flexibility – Both the coach and athlete have to have a healthy level of flexibility in order for a good coach-athlete relationship to work long term.  While there needs to be an over-all philosophy and structure (such as what I outlined in my last blog post) that both parties buy into and believe in, there has to be flexibility in figuring out how that philosophy will best be implemented for that athlete.  This is something that can change slightly and will be fined tuned through-out their time working together.  Coaches who have a “my way or the high-way” mentality and athletes who have an “I’m moving on at the first sign of a problem” attitude never put themselves in a position to reap the benefits of a good long term coach-athlete relationship. 
  • Partners Not Adversaries.  Both the athlete and the coach need to view each other as a valuable and trusted partner in the relationship.  They are working together as a team to get the athlete to their goals.  This type of beneficial relationship requires good communication, openness, honesty and respect from both parties.  Athletes need to be careful not to surround themselves or give undue influence to people (often athletes who have had bad coach athlete relationships in the past) who view coaches as people to blame when problems arise or who encourage them to defy or hide things from their coach.  Coaches need to facilitate communications and remain as flexible as possible in order to help the athlete adapt to often less than ideal real world situations and scenarios.  Coaches need to be sensitive to the athlete’s personal situations and realize they are often dealing with many conflicting priorities in their life.  Athletes need to realize that the coach is there to help them reach their stated  goals, and are simply reminding and advising them what they think (from experience) it will take to realize those goals.  The better they communicate the better partners they can be in fine tuning the program, and greater their chance of success. 
  • Thoughtful.  Neither the athlete or the coach should enter a coach-athlete relationship lightly.  The athlete needs to research the coach and understand their philosophy and ask questions first.  The coach needs to talk with the athlete and understand them and their running goals and personal situation. Each needs to make sure that other is someone that they can work well with so that the potential is there for a longer term relationship.   

I have been lucky to have a few great longer term coach-athlete relationships, and I can say it is very rewarding to both parties.  I love to see the athlete develop and learn more about themselves and feel honored to be a trusted partner in that process.  I have also been a part of several potentially very good coach-athletes relationships that where regrettably cut short due (in part) to some of the reasons talked about above.  As much as the former is rewarding the later can be heart breaking for both parties as well.  But the rewards of 2 people, each passionate about the endeavor, working together to accomplish great things, always trumps the potential heart breaks and that is why I (and many others) continue to coach.