At the world championships in Moscow, I got a unique opportunity to spend a couple weeks understanding the Australian system of training and development. As a coach, it was an incredible learning experience, not only because I was learning different ways of attacking the same problem, but instead because it offered a different viewpoint. It wasn’t just getting used to shortening every word possible, such as having “brekkie” every morning (which I think I’ll keep in my every day language now!), but rather a look into perspective.
This isn’t meant to be a commentary on what is better, the American or Australian or even European system I witnessed while Jackie was training with the British girls, but rather an acknowledgment that we are biased by our own upbringings and that escaping them by engrossing yourself in another culture may lead to some profound new understandings.
Norms and bias:
There norms and blindly accepted beliefs are different from our norms and accepted beliefs. It’s an interesting phenomenon, because growing up in the American culture, there are certain “rules” that almost everyone does in training without asking the question why we do this or what really is the purpose. There are certain idiosyncrasies that have just become accepted doctrine for no other reason than that’s the way they have always been done.
What opened my eyes was the seemingly obvious observation that these pre-conceived norms differ across upbringings. We think that just because we have read Lydiard or Cerutty or whoever the guru is for that country, that we understand the history and legacy of their training culture. But what we miss is how those norms became accepted and how they are ingrained now.
Opening up your eyes to that concept can be incredibly liberating. It exposes the weaknesses of both your own system and the system you are evaluating. For example, in Australia the initial key point of emphasis has been how the week is set up. So where the hard workouts fall each week and where the long run is scheduled is of utmost important. In the Italian system, the emphasis is more on the details of the particular workout and the schedule just kind of flows, while in America we have remnants of both but definitely have the ritualized Sunday (or Saturday) long run.
From my American perspective, one of the funnier situations was my inclusion of the word “shakeout” on my schedules for Jackie. The idea of a 15-20min “shakeout” isn’t as ingrained as it might be in the U.S. (not saying it’s normally used all the time, but with most Americans would know what a shakeout jog would entail). Or another quick example, was when we were talking about “space” in between workouts. In Australia the traditional model seems to be one easy day following a moderate or hard workout, while in the American system I’d venture to guess two days in between would be more of the norm. Both are probably needed at different points, but it’s interesting to see what is used and why.
The point is that we all have our norms. Even in coaching, when I was in the UK, I could see the huge variation in what their distance girls were doing versus what Jackie was doing. In their system, that was within their norm so they saw what they did as no big deal. While inside my norms of american training, certain elements were far outside. Does it make it better or worse? No. It just highlights the fact that even if we are innovating our training, the degree of innovation is set by where the norm falls.
In psychology, there's a name for it, but I don't recall what it is exactly, but in experiments when the norm is set it impacts the subsequent ideas. For instance, in well known experiments on group thinking, if we are making an educated guess on the number of skittles in a jar, or the age of a person, or any variable, the first persons guess acts as norm setting device. If you have 20 people guess how many skittles are in a bag without knowing the others gyess, the results will be much more scattered, then if we ask the same question and give them either an anchor number, such as someones guess. We use the info as a norm setter. And we do the same thing in coaching. We have certain norms for mileage, workout volumes, intensity, and types, recovery runs, and the general setting of the training plan. These norms provide a gentle tug on on our coaches even if we don't realize it.
So just acknowledging where your norms lie and being aware of it will help to break away from the constrains of your training plan bias, and be open to at least evaluating whether an idea will work.
In the US my example would be if we took a traditional distance coach in the US, and dropped him in an Igloi system like Johnny Gray's for example, it would be so foreign that it'd be impossible to understand at first. But if you learned it and why things were done, you would probably see elements of the system that you could use in even a traditional distance training model.
Going beyond the training aspects of it, the fact that most of the coaches have had athletes since they started running is a bit different than what normally occurs in the rapid changing world of HS to college to Pro transitions in the U.S. It’s interesting to look at because one could argue that this longer uninterrupted period of the same coaching should lead to better long term development. In fact, I’d argue that that’s one of the reasons why people are scared of the American collegiate system.
The other obvious difference is that coaches aren’t hooked into a university program with the post collegiate being almost secondary. Instead, it’s the group mentality with a coach having development through pro athletes in many cases. This also means that there are fewer steady coaching jobs, as it’s not like your working for a university coaching your team, but instead simply coaching a track club.
It’s an interesting set up and I’d prefer it for long term development, but at the same time the college system helps professionalize the coaching industry, as realistically in the U.S. there are very very few opportunities to make it as a professional coach.
Above all what I noticed is there are great coaches who care everywhere. Yes, there are subpar coaches too, but just like in the US, the coaches I met with were genuine and above all cared. They obviously weren’t in it for the money, but for helping the athletes.
The Steeple chase phenomenon
The standouts are there in Australia. You had finalist for Australia in the women’s 1500, men’s and women’s 5k, a couple low 13/27:2x guys, an 11th in the women’s marathon, and a 23rd in the men’s. What’s different is the depth. This shouldn’t be surprising given the population differences between Australia and the U.S. The same could be said for the UK.
What’s the consequence of this lack of depth? One of the realizations I came to is that often the U.S. system forces you to find an event because of the depth. Would Jenny Simpson or Anna WIlliard left the steeple. Would Evan Jager still be running the 1,500 and 5k instead of the steeple if he were British? Or perhaps ultimately, would Brandon Johnson ever have left the 400 hurdles for the 800 if he was from France or the UK? Would our many 5k/10k runners left for more opportunities in the marathon if they had chances to make teams in the 5k and 10k?
I’m not sure I know the answer, but the question is intriguing without a doubt. I remember in the early 2000’s, the argument was always made that if Haile Gebersalassie was an American he would have been a 1,500m runner with his 3:31 indoor PR and would not have moved up. I can’t help but think that because of the lack of depth in other nations now it leads to the athletes not being forced into events as they can succeed at national and perhaps make teams at many events surrounding their specialty. The incentive to explore new event areas is reduced as you can be quite content making national teams and thinking that is your best event without exploring other areas. It could almost be called the “steeplechase phenomenon.”
I call it that, because in the US college system the steeple is often an event where a slightly less talented athlete can score points at conference, make it to regionals, or qualify for the NCAA’s. So often this is where you see guys who are just on the cusp at the 1,500 or 5k because the steeple allows them the opportunity to breakthrough on to the next level.
Attempt to not waste talent. Structure in place to support
At Houston, we always talk about having to have every single person develop, because we can’t handle having someone not reach their potential as we don’t have the depth that an Oklahoma State has for example. We have to develop our athletes because we can’t afford for anyone not to. The case is similar in Australia. Due to the decreased depth, there has to be a point of emphasis on making sure the talented athletes keep progressing.
That means the team structure is largely different. In the U.S., if you are the USATF coach for a worlds or Olympic team it’s largely ceremonial. Yes you play an important role of planning and making things run smoothly, but it’s not like your neck is on the line for winning medals. In Australia, the system is set up with a high performance director and coach, among others, who essentially work in 4 year cycles to improve the team, have people make finals, and ultimately get as many medals as possible.
In the U.S., it’s reliant on the individual coaches or the university system to insure the medal tally keeps going. In Australia, I’d say it’s still up to the individual coaches, but there’s a level of oversight or accountability/support. For instance, as I mentioned before, there might be just a tad more looking over your shoulder and making sure your planning training and giving the athlete what they need.
Olympic Trials or bust?
When I was talking with former Arkansas Razorback Shawn Forrest, we got to the topic of how the Olympic Trials is a huge deal. It’s a big accomplishment to make USA’s and just compete, whether it is in the marathon or on the track. It’s something that post collegiate athletes dedicate time and energy to even if they have no realistic shot at making the team.
I’m not sure if this culture is there in other countries. I think it’s one of the reasons why the U.S. succeeds; the increased national level depth pushes those above. You have more people willing to stick around a few years after college even with the slightest of hope of making a team one day.
I noticed this when watching the UK champs this year and seeing how quickly some of the distance races fell off after the first couple. In many cases, the best runners weren’t running because they didn’t have an A or B standard and they probably saw the race as the selection for worlds and that is it. In the US, it’s still the world champs selection, but it seems like it means more than that. People fight to make the trials, and will even travel there with the hope that they compete, as we saw with the men’s 5k at the US champs.
By keeping people around, it raises the ball game. It makes the Trials/champs more than just the people who have the A standard fighting it out. And every once in a while you have an athlete, particularly at the marathon trials, who rises above and makes the team.
The other issue, which may be better saved for another time, is that the US simply includes all who make the IAAF’s criteria, which countries like the UK do not for instance. I think this ties back to the depth and inclusivity, but in my mind the more opportunities available, the more likely we are to get someone to stick around just a bit longer. And sometimes those athletes who stick around just a bit turn into finalist or medal threats that may not have been predicted.
While this might not be a revelation to others, what struck me when I was talking to Jackie about the UK distance girls, is that after High School, if they are good, they essentially go pro. Everyone is an Allyson Felix, Ajee Wilson, or Alan Webb. It’s not because they get huge contracts like some of the aforementioned, but rather because there’s no bridge between HS and professional, like the US college system provides.
Of course the college system can be a horrible bridge for some in bad programs (the constant XC, indoor, outdoor racing paradigm) but if done right, it provides a bridge. In countries like the UK, if you don’t go to the U.S., it’s essentially straight professional.
I’m not sure what the consequences of this are, but one might be that for the few contracts that are out there, it’s even more pressure to do something when your young. Instead of trying to perform when you are young for a scholarship, imagine trying to perform so you get a sponsorship. And given that we know that the best 18yr olds aren’t often the best 28yr olds, it makes the game of sponsoring an athlete even more difficult.
On the contrast, many athletes in the US almost use college as the excuse to keep running. Yes, of course everyone is really there for the degree, but in the sports world what it does is delay “real life.” A college schedule is easier to combine with running then a working schedule. So you get a 5 year window to study and run. Additionally, it allows for shoe companies and sponsors to make a slightly more calculated and safe investment in a 23yr old vs. an 18-19 yr old, and it allows for exposure to build in the NCAA system. So if we can someone who wins some NCAA champs and makes a name and following for themselves, it can play in favor of the athlete in terms of future sponsorship.
I’m still mulling it over in my head on what the exact take aways are. In an ideal world, where our sport had a bigger professional following, I think many of the issues would go away. If I could sum it up, I’d say that the US system is an indivual system reliant on the collegiate system to produce coaches and athletes. The coaches and athletes are largely on their own almost no assistance, support, or interference from governing bodies. In countries like the UK or Australia, it’s reversed a little. The emphasis is still the individual athlete and coach, but there’s a level of support for some and oversight or interference, however you like to see it that is not there in the US. To some, it might seem a hindrance, but done right it provides accountability for the coach and the athlete. The key is having the coach and athlete see it as support and a team effort.
Of course there are many more differences, but these are a few general insights I thought I’d highlight. The idea isn’t to argue over which is better or worse, but instead to use the knowledge to expose the strengths and weaknesses of whatever system you are biased towards. If we let go of the pride and ego’s and logically analyze it, then we can improve upon the way in which we develop athletes. And ultimately become better coaches and athletes.
So I thank all those athletes and coaches I interacted with on this trip for opening up a different world. In particular the conversations with the endurance coaches on the Australia staff, Adam Didyk, Sean Williams, and Ken Greene were enlightening and helped me become a better coach.
And I’ll leave you with this quote from Sally Pearson’s coach Sharon Hannan who sums the process up wonderfully:
“Many coaches ask me what is the most significant factor to have contributed to the success of my coaching and I would have to suggest that it has been an open and inquiring mind, an innate desire to minimise failure by learning from others, a strong relationship with the team we have built around us and therefore a belief in myself, in my programs and in my ability to coach an athlete to their full potential.
If I was the coach today that I was in 2003, then I know that I would NOT be here in Moscow tonight. “
If I was the coach today that I was in 2003, then I know that I would NOT be here in Moscow tonight. “