Sunday, November 9, 2008

The real world of coaching

Listening to John Cook’s interview (here) was an inspiration for me as a coach. John Cook is a real coach, he talks like a real coach and more importantly, he coaches like a real coach. On top of an impressive resume as a college track and field coach, he qualified 3 athletes for the Olympics and got one medal (Shalane Flanagan). You cannot get more real than this.

There are several reasons why listening to him was an inspiration. First of all, the way he talks is refreshing. He tells it like it is. There is no kissing ass, no bullshit. No look-at-me-I-am-so-good and by the way, buy my plans/book/dvd/clinics/camps. He is a professional coach, not an amateur marketing exec. Second, he is not afraid to assume his responsibility as a coach. During the interview, he admits that he regrets some decisions that he made that had direct impact on the performance of his athletes. And third, he is not afraid of telling the truth about the state of middle- and long-distance running in the US. One of the great quotes of the interview is when Cook describes the attitude of certain athletes and coaches as “trying to race Formula 1 with a NASCAR attitude”. The same could be said about the US elite triathlon scene.

Where are these real coaches I am talking about? Well, they are hard to find. Many of the best coaches in the world have no website and are relatively unknown. You don’t hear about them on Internet forums. With professionalism growing in Olympic sports, many of the best coaches in the world do not even work in the private sector. This is one of the problems for coaches in the US. The fact that coaches need to make a living steers them away from fully focusing on elite athletes, since there aren’t a lot of them, and most of them can’t afford coaching. This is especially true in triathlon. The US “system” of relying on commercial coaches to do high-level coaching fails because coaches are not focused on that niche “market”. The fact that anyone would be hard-pressed to name an American high-level triathlon coach makes USAT’s strategic decision not to have a National Coach very hard to understand.

One thing that makes me sad about the state of triathlon coaching is that I see very few people committed to real coaching. Years and years of anti-ITU attitude and focus in Ironman racing in the US are two of the culprits for the creation of the hack industry. Everyone is too busy trying to create a business, not in becoming coaches. So up-and-coming coaches go out and copy the successful hacks, mistaking them for the real coaches. So we have an army of aspiring hacks, when we should have an army of aspiring real coaches.


MarkyV said...

So we have an army of aspiring hacks, when we should have an army of aspiring real coaches.

Let's see... guys i try to learn about... Joel, you, Cliff, Dallam, Doane, etc. And the question asked always is... "what do they (you) do differently"

Sadly, despite aspirations, the reality of the situation remains... you gotta pay your bills. :(

Ideally... what sort of system would you envision to allow for the fostering of coaching talent?

MarkyV said...

Forgot to add... and most of these coaches were never elite athletes themselves... like so many "coaches" out there. They rather focused their talents on getting others to succeed.

Dan McKerrall said...

Great post. Just had a chance to hear Mike Spracklen (Canada Rowing Men's 8 gold) speak. The one resounding comment he made was that he would never expect more out of his athletes then he was prepared to give. By this he meant that he has been at every single training session for the past 20+ years!! 4-6 hours per day, 6 days per week, 44 weeks per year. But don't mention this to the internet coaches!!!

mat steinmetz said...

Have to agree with Mark here. It ends up being hard trying to work your way into the diluted coaching industry. To become a good coach, you need to get coaching experience while learning from good coaches, not good coaching businesses (something totally different). All coaches have to start somewhere. Is that as an aspiring hack or real coach?

To be honest, it is hard to even say you are a triathlon coach anymore--especially if you are just starting out. I almost roll my eyes towards it, including myself because until you can prove that you understand coaching, you are guilty by association. Until this becomes apparent or you can prove it to others (most don't know the difference). Only in your mind are you any better than the other guy who decided to get their USAT certification after finishing their first sprint triathlon. It ends up becoming a popularity contest in the local market.

khai said...

MarkyV said...
Let's see... guys i try to learn about... Joel, you, Cliff, Dallam, Doane, etc. And the question asked always is... "what do they (you) do differently"


It could be (and has been) argued that rather than the approach outlined above, perhaps you should be asking: "what are they all doing that's the same?"