We coach how we were coached. Then what?

Phillips Exeter Academy Coach Ralph Lovshin celebrates a victory in the early 1950s. He was my coach in the 1970s.

When talking about coaching, it has always seemed true to me that people coach the way that they were coached.  It is a lot like parenting that way.  This generally applies to style.  Yellers vs. non-yellers is always a good example of a coaching style category.  But it also applies to technical issues, including the workouts and training program.

The interventions in that feedback loop would be the things we learn from other coaches at clinics and in other places, the success or lack of success of the training program in specific situations and with specific athletes, and finally from new ideas and trends, delivered by books, articles, and other presentations.

My coaching style was probably shaped most by my high school coach at Phillips Exeter Academy, Ralph Lovshin, a great man who is worth his own post at some point.

Don Amidei

Much of the program that I follow as a high school coach is probably similar to what we did in high school, as well—mainly because it was just a fundamentally sound approach.  But my college coach, the late Don Amidei, taught me some things at Northwestern University.  And running with the University of Chicago Track Club in the early 1990s I got some exposure to the program of the late Ted Haydon, who was gone by the time I started running with that group but whose basic workout program is posted on their web site, www.uctc.org.

One style issue coaches face:  To post ahead of time or not to post.  From my first year of coaching track at Ignatius in 2003, we have posted on a bulletin board our schedule of workouts for the week.  Now we also circulate that information by email and on a team web page.   When I took over for cross country in 2006, I did the same thing.

Those posted workout plans are the basic blueprint we follow year to year, updating them and adjusting them.  They are not set in stone, but the changes are probably on the order of tweaks, as opposed to overhauls.  We have made adjustments, adding and subtracting things, changing time tables, doing more and doing less.  But especially in our distance program, athletes from 2003 returning in 2011 would recognize what we are doing.  For that matter, my high school teammates would recognize it, too.

In Illinois any high school coach must contend with the Joe Newton approach.  I know its shape and outlines, if not the details.  I don’t, in fact, own Newton’s book, Coaching Cross Country Successfully (Here’s a quick synopsis.)  After 27 Illinois cross country championships, the success of the Newton approach, at least in Newton’s hands, cannot be denied.

We have competed against York in our cross country sectional, I believe, every year that I have coached.  But the spectre of Newton’s program loomed largest for me when I coached the son of a Newton program believer, Pete Connelly, a long-time elementary school coach at St. Alexander’s School in Villa Park and now the girls cross country and girls and boys track coach at Montini Catholic High School.   Pete was, in fact, a wonderful team parent and colleague, who from time to time would challenge, politely and constructively, some of the things we did in our program.  It was always a little bit tricky knowing that his Newton-shaped ideas were probably different from my own.  But while his son Jimmy probably did not have the full success that either of us hoped for him, he improved every year and did well against tough competition, finishing his senior year with a win in the sectional track championship and a personal record of 4:19 for 1600 meters.  Pete has also watched our program improve and develop.   Between Jimmy’s success and our improvement, we have done well enough that Pete has sent us a second son to train.  Joey starts at Saint Ignatius as a freshman in August.

There are many approaches to evaluating the success of a program—and here we mean just the running and competition success.  Tweaking and adjusting each year, we engage in some annual self-evaluation.  Our basic questions:  Did our runners improve as the season developed?  Did they peak at the right time?   Did what we were doing work for all our runners?  Outsiders to our program might evaluate our numbers:  How many boys run under 10:00 for 3200 meters?  How many under 2:00 for 800?  How many freshman and sophomores run under 5:00 for 1600?

And of course there are the simpler evaluations:  Where did we place in the conference championship?  Where did we place in the sectional?  Did we qualify our runners for the state meet?  What place did we finish at the state meet?

But a few years ago at our end of season celebration, my team—really, a physician parent and knowledgeable student of running, Michael Kelleher— gave me a copy of Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes, MD, DSc, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Capetown.  The book is an encyclopedic (big) tome, like a Bible of the sport, really.  Its basic approach is to weigh the prevailing ideas about running and training against scientific research and the latest tenets of exercise physiology.   A second approach is to collect somewhat more anecdotal evidence from the greatest running performers, and from their stories, distill some basic training truths.  Basically, Noakes is one of the world’s leading book authorities on running and training, and Lore of Running, now in its fourth edition, spells out his truths.

So one of my summer projects, along with this blog, has been finally to read the book and then evaluate our approach against the principles and ideas suggested by that kind of authority.

It has become clear to me that my blog entries tend to wander—and they get longer then they should be.  My intention when starting this blog entry was to write about Noakes.   So why don’t I stop here for now—and tease you with a promise to tell you more about Timothy Noakes—and how I think our program stacks up—in my next blog?


1 Comment

Filed under coaching, running

One response to “We coach how we were coached. Then what?

  1. Jim

    Interesting read. As an old Catholic Leaguer (Leo ’69) and NU (’73) grad who ran for Coach Amidei, I was certainly influenced by Coach A’s style during my brief, 3 year, high school coaching career.
    Thanks to Jerry Lenza for an intro to your blog.

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