The Importance of Coaching/L’Entraîneur Important

Unlike most of what’s been posted so far, this will be an original article, the opinions expressed those of John Lofranco. We are a collective, but I will take editorial privilege now and then.

It’s been a decade since I started my coaching career, so I thought I would expound on my thoughts on the job. The idea is to give the reader an idea of my philosophy of coaching. Il me semble qu’il y a des entraîneurs qui se pensent trop important: quand un athlète a des succès, leur coach prennent les accolades, mais quand elle manque le résultat, la responsabilité reste avec l’athlète. En effet, c’est l’inverse de la situation des avocats: personne n’aime les avocats. Si on gagne notre cas, c’est parce-qu’on avait raison. Si on perd c’est à cause de notre avocat pourris, ou, de l’avocat pourris de la partie adverse.

I’d say this is about half right. In my mind, the coach can take some responsibility for what the athlete achieves, right or wrong, but let’s be serious: the athlete does all the work. I say this as a coach who spends many hours each week thinking, writing and communicating with his athletes, in order to help them reach their goals. And these athletes for which I am responsible (I don’t like to say “my athletes” as it implies a possession that just isn’t there) have succeeded. Every season, most of these athletes run big personal bests. Liz Mokrusa went from 1:44 in the half marathon to 1:27 in seven months. Ryan Noel Hodge went from 17:00 in a 5k to 15:44 in just over a year, then down to 15:07 in the next year. I would love to say this is all because of my great coaching. First of all, however, what a sharp track mind will notice, is that the times being run are ok, but not that fast. The move from 17min to 15min is not that hard to do with a little commitment. To go from 15 to 14 is probably twice as hard. And then to go down to the 13min range, well, then we are talking about getting everything firing on all cylinders: recovery through nutrition, sleep, sports med; race prep via focused mental performance; consistent high mileage which enables high quality interval work; all the supplemental training in the right amounts, at the right time; and the rest of one’s life sorted out to support the training life. In order to put all that together requires a certain situation, and the coach is merely a cog in the wheel.

Without being falsely modest, the real answer is that, as a coach, and as a training group, I merely provided these athletes with the opportunity to improve. The athletes seized the opportunity. Not all of the athletes in the group have made such significant jumps. The coaching can’t be good for some and bad for others, can it? By the end of this article, you’ll find that my position is not as diminishing of the coach as it first seems. The coach and the athlete must work together to get the best out of each other. So, what can a coach do to ensure more athletes do take advantage of what we offer? As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

The answer is simple. Communication and motivation. I’ve read a fair number of books and articles about distance running training. Daniels, Coe, Lydiard, Noakes all provide the basics for training design. But anyone who can read these books, and who has a minimal knowledge of distance running, can make a series of workouts that lead towards improvement. There is no special, magic workout, that the pros do that anyone else can’t. The pros train more: faster and longer. That’s it on the training side. There are no secrets. Despite this, there is debate on the appropriate mix of training. We posted an article on that recently. The point is, a coach can’t take too much credit for designing a training plan, as the constituent parts are all there for the reading.

So, why have a coach? A coach is still necessary, of course, because a) someone has to make the training plan, and b) it is true that the training needs to be specific to the individual. So a coach needs to know the athlete, know his or her history, abilities, and tendencies, and be able to evaluate all that, in the context of creating a plan. This is slightly more complicated than clipping the “PB your next 5k” article out of Runner’s World, or following a Running Room clinic. Steve Boyd, the coach at Queen’s University and Physi-Kult Running Club, wrote a good post about why every runner needs a coach.

This is an on-going process. Once the training is designed, the coach has to monitor the athlete’s progress. In my case, there are a lot of text messages. For all the criticism of how technology may be messing with our brains and our social interaction, the text message has really enabled coaching to be much more immediate. Perhaps this creates too much of a reliance of the athlete on the coach, a kind of paralysis and inability to make decisions on his or her own. I don’t see it that way, though. Athletes tend to make their own decisions, or at least, they know what the right decision is. Often the communication with the coach serves not to tell the athletes what to do, but to confirm what they already know. They just need to hear it from someone they trust.

That’s the key right there: trust. The magic, if that’s what you want to call it, is not in a special workout. It’s in the athlete’s trust in the workout. Whether we do 5×600 or 6×500, if the athlete believes in the work he or she is doing, (and assuming that training follows the basic principles) and the athlete gets the work done, there will be improvement. The athlete’s trust in the workout will necessarily come from their trust in the coach. Part of that is going to be based on the coach’s knowledge in the field, but it’s based more on the relationship that is established between coach and athlete.

Every athlete’s needs are different. There are some athletes who just want to know the workout, and will just go out and do it, no questions asked. Usually, these athletes are easiest to work with, as long as everything is going well. If the plan as written is too much or too little, sometimes it’s harder to get these athletes to deviate from the plan. They might take it as a failure that the training is changed. The challenge for the coach is to convince the athlete that that is not the case.

The other extreme (of course, athletes fall all along this continuum) want to discuss and challenge every part of the plan. My experience is that almost every athlete has some of this in them, and it would be good for every athlete to be as engaged as possible with the training. I’m very much against a “command and control” regime of coaching. I understand that for some athletes, that approach can work best (although it doesn’t need to be executed in a harsh way), but for the long-term benefit of an athlete, nothing is better than taking control of your own destiny. By that I mean learning to listen to your body so that you know when to hold back and when to give’r. Knowing what you can take on and what you have to leave aside. At the beginning of a coach-athlete relationship, the coach has to divine these things from an athlete, and the only way to do that is by athlete feedback. As the coach gets to know the athlete more and more, the coach’s responses to athlete feedback will be more and more accurate. At the same time, the athlete must also grow, and be able to give more accurate feedback. As this happens, the coach needs to trust the athlete. The essence of command and control is really a lack of trust in the athlete by the coach. The best coach will be able to balance their own knowledge of the sport with the athlete’s knowledge of him or herself.

Where does the coach fit then, in the organization of the sport as a whole? The reason I ask the question is because the structures of the sport often fall to the coaches to organize. Coaches are race directors, team managers, statisticians, accountants, webmasters and fashion consultants, among many other things. Sometimes this leads to the attitude that it’s all about the coaches. Rules are made to make things easier to administer, rather than to make things easier for athletes. Distance running is a simple sport, yet it is unnecessarily complicated on many fronts. I’m sure that most coaches and administrators (or coach-administrators) have their hearts in the right place. What we try to do in our group (and we have to fight against established rules to do so) is to set up the simplest, easiest most comfortable environment for the athletes to do their thing. Athlete-centered, athlete-focused, athlete-minded, call it whatever you like. Every decision a coach makes should be made with this question in mind: what is best for the athlete in this situation. Hopefully the relationship that has been established between the coach and the athlete will allow the coach and athlete to make tough decisions together. And everybody gets faster.

A recent article from New Zealand makes the case against administration, and the case in favour of coaches. (Thanks to TNFNorth for the link.) I just wanted to share it because I think it illustrates the conflicts that can arise when people lose touch with what is going on on the ground. It’s very difficult to administer a sport organization, especially one involving individual athletes and coaches. There are so many different needs, and any general decisions are inevitably going to disadvantage some members of the constituency. As I advocate for coaches to defer to the enlightened athlete in decision making, I think a similar case can be made on the administrative front: if administrators charged with organizing and promoting the sport are too far removed from the people they are meant to serve (the athletes), then they should defer to the coaches (who serve as a proxy for the athletes, with whom hopefully they have a trusting relationship) in making general decisions.

If you made it all the way to the end, congratulations, you have the patience of a saint! As I said, I wanted to take the opportunity to set down my philosophy of coaching, to give people out there an idea of how we work in our group. I would love for people to disagree with me: make yourself known in the comments section! I know there are coaches out there who take different approaches. I am open to hearing about them, and I am open to changing my opinions on this: if it enhances the athlete’s experience, I’m all for it.