In celebration of National Coaches Week, I share some of the most important lessons learned from working closely with amazing coaches and people. These philosophies, mind-sets and values have been in-valuable to me in sport and life.
1. Communication: Don't just say what the coaches wants you to say
Channeling my inner Polly-Anna, I used to pretend everything was always ok, even when it wasn’t. At the high level, the coach-athlete relationship relies upon honesty. As an athlete, it is really easy to want to pretend everything is “ok” when it is not. Mike Van Tighem used to tell me “you can’t positive think your way out of an injury” meaning that ignoring what was going on wouldn’t make it disappear – sometimes you actually have to acknowledge the truth to move forward.
Hiding injuries, feelings of doubt and life stress outside of sports is not going to make you a better athlete. Mental and emotional health goes hand-in-hand with performance: it is impossible to be at the peak of your game when you are hiding concerns. When a coach wants to know how you are doing, they aren’t just being polite – they actually need to know so they can make appropriate adjustments to your program. Don’t worry, you aren’t being a whiner, you are just being honest – so if you are super stressed with school, work, relationships, suffering from insomnia, feeling run-down, or concerns about a “niggle”, the coach is the person to confide to. They may not be able to solve all your problems, but they can take factors into account when setting up your program or make adaptations to the workout for the day.
2. Enjoy the Process
Around when I was 16 years old, I started putting so much pressure on my results that I started to hate racing – I would suffer pre-race anxiety to the point of throwing up, and after poor races I would be so hard of myself that I would be a real downer for myself and others. Mike and I had a series of meetings to shift my thinking back to why I loved running in the first place. The joy is in the journey as much as the results. It is also where you often find the best results. There are plenty of stories of early childhood burnout from coaches and parents who prioritize results over process. I am so fortunate that my coaches and parents always emphasized the process – the journey – with me so that 25 years later I still love to be fit, healthy and competitive.
3. “Sometimes doing your best is not enough, sometimes you must do what is required"
I learned from Mike and Matt Dixon (@Purplepatchfitness), to trust my body to do what it is trained to do. Ironically, the pre-race strategies I received from Mike prior to the 2004 Olympic Trials and from Matt before 2016 Ironman Arizona, were remarkably similar: do your best, but do what you are trained to do…the results will follow. I had two of my best races after being told very directly to stop thinking so much. Doing what is required means trusting your body to maximize its potential on the day based on your ability and preparation. We have a tendency to over-think and over-evaluate, which often results in under-performing.
4. Friends off track; competitors on track
Many of my best friends are people who share my love of sport. They are also often my biggest competitors. I remember at the Pan Am Games (2011) when I arranged to meet a friend to warm up with for the 1500m. The guys I was sitting with at lunch were on the Canadian field hockey team – they looked incredulous when they heard I was warming up with a competitor! An American! How is that possible? But truly, who really understands the highs and lows of racing and training than the people who do it along side you? The minute the gun goes, friends are just bodies - but before and after they can be friends. Good coaches foster good sportsmanship between teammates and competitors.
5. It is not a zero-sum game: being empathetic and sportsmanlike
Don’t be that rotten person who is no fun to be around when things don’t go well. Take some time – alone or with a small trusted circle – to review, evaluate and express honestly (#1) how you are feeling, but publicly, be happy for those who have succeeded on the day. And when people are having a rough go – it is also nice to reach out and lend support. It is amazing how many friends you have when you are on top, but when things go sideways, people seem to either not care, or be too nervous to reach out. Some of the most meaningful interactions I have had with people have been when I have reached out when I see they are struggling or vice versa. After all, its just a sport. Ruth Brennan Morrey recently wrote a great blog about this concept of creating community through support for each other.
6. Be an athlete and not just a runner
This was all Dena Evans – our Stanford Cross Country coach who played soccer and ran track at Stanford. She made us have push-up competitions and encouraged us to think like “athletes” not like runners. It was important to be strong, to be athletics, and to have an athletic mentality. Endurance sports are more than just having a big engine. I think that this mindset really helped me transition to professional running and later triathlon. Being strong in the weight room, being agile, being powerful, being quick, being coordinated, etc – are all good athlete skills and will translate to better performances and future success. It takes patience and commitment but is worth the effort as it will help minimize injuries, as well as make you stronger in the long run for your sport. Its also amazing how many long course triathletes came from other sports backgrounds: rowing, hockey, soccer, track, etc. Being an athlete opens up doors to new sports and also improves performance in running and triathlon.
7. Living with integrity
I think “integrity” may have been Vin Lananna’s (Director of Stanford Track and Field while I was a student-athlete) favourite word. It took a few years for the meaning to really resonate with me, and the older I get, the more it means. Quite simply, do what you say you are going to do. It is easy to set big goals, but with goals comes commitment, process, and grit. Don’t expect results over night, but be patient and they will come. If you have a performance goal, be reasonable and realistic, but stick to the process and get it done. Don’t just talk about it - put the wheels in motion.
I had a really really really hard time with patience during my early career. Not only did I want results immediately, but I also had a really hard time exercising patience during a race. I would make a strong, early move, and be fried when the real race began. Patience applies both to the process of training and the execution of racing. It has been a very important word for me in short track races and long endurance races. Patience, patience, patience….and then GO GO GO. Nothing happens over night, but takes weeks, months and years.
9. Setting high expectations, but racing with no expectations
This is a Matt Dixon phrase for sure….and he will be quick to explain that “no expectations” is NOT the same as LOW expectations. It is about trusting the process and trusting your body to get the job done while not obsessing about the results. We all have goals - that's what makes us athletes. But to consistently succeed, you need to do the training, and be confident when you toe the line that you are prepared and ready to execute a good race plan. This is super hard to do when racing for time or a Boston Qualifier / Kona Spot,because a fraction of a second makes all the difference in the world. However, sport psychologist will agree that minimizing expectations lead to better outcomes. Usually this means staying relaxed and patient, while still going as fast as possible – which seem contradictory but seem to work for me!
10. Help me with # 10!
Share a good one for # 10 with me: what important lessons have you learned from working with a coach? PM, email, FB message, comments, etc all welcome because I need one more!
A big thank you to all my excellent coaches and all the other great ones out there doing their best to help athletes succeed in sport and life!
Thanks for reading!