The real topic is one that got brought up in a Sports Leadership class I took that was taught by former Texans and Redskins GM Charley Casserly. In the class, we discussed how to get your athletes to buy into the program. In the same time frame, I listened to an interview by former pro runner Tim Broe in which he discussed his move to High School coaching.
In this interview Broe mentioned that he had to give the HS kids the dull boring work that he hated, like 400m repeats, and that they couldn’t handle/didn’t respond to the type of work he did as a pro, like long aerobic tempos and such. That struck me as strange, because my experience was completely different. Additionally, he said that at first his pro runner status got him credibility but this quickly wore off. While the purpose isn’t to say Broe was right or wrong, as his situation was completely different than mine, but I want to use these two comments as a way to look into an important but overlooked aspect of coaching runners: Getting them to buy in.
Any coach will tell you that in order for you as an athlete to succeed you have to have confidence in the training program you are doing. That does not mean you have blind faith, it means that you need to find a coach or plan that you trust to take you where you want to go. It’s the coaches job to instill this trust and confidence. So how’s it done?
As Tim Broe mentioned, past success in coaching or athletics only buys you time. As coaches we sometimes think that our past allows us to ignore the process of getting athletes to believe in our program. Our ego’s get in the way and we think: “I’ve coached X state champions, or I’ve run 13:20 for 5k, these kids will listen to me.” Newsflash: It will buy you a little more time initially, but that’s about it. This is true at any level of the sport. You have to “prove” yourself all over with each new group of athletes.
So how do we get athlete’s to buy into the program? While I won’t go over everything, there are a few key steps:
1. Be Prepared/Have a plan: Athlete’s want to know one thing- How do I get better? If you show them how to accomplish that, they will buy in. Be prepared to answer their questions and show them the way. In running this is rather straightforward. Sit down and talk with the runners, get their goals, and then come up with a plan on how to achieve those goals. Early on with my HS guys, I took the time after their first track season to write up a 4-5pg synopsis that included: what went right, what went wrong, how we were going to correct it, what their goals were for next season, and the steps we were going to take to get there. I go through that process at the end of every season on my own, as a retrospective analysis, but normally I don’t show it to the athletes. I’ll show them the end plan I came up with but not the whole analysis. Early on though, I wanted to show the athletes the details of the process I was going through, so that they would put trust in me and my plan.
“When faced with an impossible task, give them a plan.”
Kids will have high goals and you will encounter some tough situations. When you encounter a very difficult situation, have a plan that shows how to succeed. In my class, the example was given of the 1980 Olympic Hockey team. The coach Herb Brooks was faced with the task of convincing a bunch of guys right out of college how to beat the best team in the world, so he gave his players a plan on how to beat the Russians. Similarly, if you look back to the post I gad on Ryan training after mono, the situation was similar. We were faced with the crazy task of getting Ryan back to peak shape after Mono in 6-7 weeks. So what did we do, we came up with a plan. It was radically different than any other plan I’d ever come up with, and Ryan admittedly said that he didn’t think he could run as fast as he did after only doing “mini workouts”, but we had confidence in the plan.
2. Teach/Be Knowledgeable- This seems obvious, but you need to know what you’re doing, and your athlete’s need to think that you know what you’re doing. You could be the smartest coach alive, but if you can’t communicate that to your athletes, it does little good.
Throughout my HS coaching, I spent a lot of time running with all of the kids. During this time we’d occasionally discuss their training or my training ideas. The point was to give them an idea of not only what we were doing but why. A secondary goal was to give them confidence that I was knowledgeable enough to get them where they wanted to go. Of course, the key to this is of course to be knowledgeable. It’s okay not to know the answer and let them know this, but you have to let them know you’ll figure it out. This past year with Will, he had a couple of bad races in a row in the middle of the year. We were trying something different in training (giving him a midseason big down week) and I suspected that it was the cause. I was confident though that by the end of the season it would work out. However, after a bad 2mile, he felt horrible and I really didn’t have the exact reason, so I was honest with him, and told him I didn’t know why it had gone that badly, but I’d figure it out. So, I analyzed the training, talked to other coaches, and came up with an answer. In the end, we didn’t change training much as I was convinced it was just due to the different training, but the key is if the athlete has bought in, be honest. In the end, it worked out well as he got his PR in the 2mi at the biggest meet he ran, regionals.
As a coach, the goal is to teach, not train. This is a common mistake with young coaches. We have to teach athletes the how’s, why’s, and what’s, not just dictate that they should do X workout. This could be one reason why Tim Broe’s athletes needed grunt work, they didn’t know how to properly do the tempo runs. When I first started coaching HS runners, I made this mistake too but quickly corrected it. As long time runners or coaches we often assume that everyone knows how to do each workout or how it is supposed to feel. They don’t. Teach them. The same holds true for running form work. Don’t just assign drills hoping mechanics get better, teach them how to run.
3. Be Accountable- Take responsibility for your actions. I learned this lesson from my HS coach Gerald Stewart. After I had a horrible race he came up to me and said, “It’s my fault, I didn’t prepare you for the race correctly. We’ll fix it.” It was simple but profound. He was accountable for the training plan and didn’t let his ego get in the way and try and blame me or outside factors. This took the pressure off me as an athlete. Then, most importantly, he proclaimed, we’ll fix it, and he did. He went back analyzed everything and figured out a solution, coming up with a new plan.
The key with this tactic is you have to correct your mistakes. It does little good to say “that was my fault” over and over again as you’ll quickly lose confidence. But if you fix the problem and only have to use this one sparingly it works great. I’ve had to use this in my own coaching early on when I messed up the peak of one of my best athletes.
4. Get the leaders on your side- When I first started coaching HS runners, I had a couple of different talented runners. I got one guy to really buy in, while others bought in to a degree, but not fully. The one runner who bought in was the team leader and made huge gains. This subsequently led to the younger runners buying in and the creation of a culture of running success among the varsity guys. No longer was it a question of whether guys would run in the summer or show up to summer practice. The culture had changed and it was largely because I got some key runners to buy in and have success. Once others saw this success, they jumped on the bandwagon.
While the above list is not comprehensive, these are just a few of the ways to build a successful running culture. You have to get runner’s to buy into the program. This is not accomplished by being a used cars salesman, as the runners will quickly see through this. Instead, be knowledgeable, give them a plan, take responsibility, and make sure your plan works!