Thoughts and Lessons from the Olympic Trials
Four years ago, I had my first Olympic Trials as a coach. It came right after my tumultuous time with the company who shall not be named. I had one athlete there who had a shot to qualify for the Olympics, but bombed out in the heats. It was one of the hardest things I’ve dealt with as a coach. You spend years planning and perfecting the method to get to a point, then execution of the plan fails and you’re left picking up the pieces.
Four years later, I had three athletes here. One who came to me with 2 stress fractures and having not run a PR in 4 years, another who had the standard but then developed mono in the months leading up to it, and another who ran a marathon PR in April and decided to go for a fast 5k less than 3 months later. Across the sea, I had another athlete who after stepping in a hole on a run and fracturing a metatarsal and missing 3 months of training, sealed his Olympic spot at the Irish national championships off of about 2 weeks of training.
In other words, there was no perfect build up. These weren’t athletes who had the luxury of spending the last year primed and ready to go with a calculated plan to get to the top.
So, with 4 years of perspective, or perhaps jadedness, here are a few lessons I’ve learned about the world of the Olympics that the casual fan or young coach should try to understand.
“You are never as good or as bad as people say you are.”
Every Championship/Olympic cycle we appoint geniuses and dunces of coaching.
The funny thing is it changes. Four years ago, despite having several women on the team Jerry Schumacher was panned as not being able to coach women. Pundits thought he trained them too hard, that only Shalane could handle, and he was a better men’s coach than women’s. Fast forward, and Jerry looks like the guru of women’s coaching. The truth is, Jerry is a good coach, but like all good coaches, sometimes you look like a genius, other times you look average.
That’s the nature of natural elite sport. There is volatility.
The same thing happens in my own coaching. I was sitting at a restaurant enjoying a conversation with someone who knows me from my college coaching. They commented about some of the male collegiate middle distance athletes I’ve coached, then asked if I had any experience coaching women or if I thought I’d be good at it. Another good friend who was there who knows me from the post collegiate world, laughed and remarked ‘Almost all of Steve’s good pro athletes are women distance runners!’
If you went back and looked at every US or world championship, great coaches, legends of the sport, lay an egg in terms of performance. It happens. It doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their genius; it’s just how good clean, natural running goes.
As one of the top pro coaches remarked to me this weekend, it’s about putting them in position, and then it’s simply a “roll of the dice. The difference between top 3 and 4th or 5th or even 6th is so small. Sometimes you end up on the good side, other times on the bad.”
And often that difference occurs because of nothing we can control.
The point is that training success shifts, sometimes for no reason. When you read reports of this coach having figured it out or this one being a bum, it’s never as good or as bad as it’s portrayed.
Luck plays a large role
Molly Ludlow is an Olympic medalist caliber runner when she is on. She’s consistent and fast, but she’s ended up 4th too many times to count. It’s heartbreaking. Ludlow would have made the team this year except for bad luck. No offense intended to the three who made the team, but Ludlow is an equal to them on any given day. She just happens to have had the worst luck at championship meets in history.
We like to think that as coaches and outcomes we control more of the outcome than we do. But much of the outcome for the non-dominant athletes depends on having a little luck and taking advantage of it. We like to tell ourselves that it was all our strategy and positioning that did it, but the reality is far from the truth. In order to make teams you have to be supremely fit, put yourself in position, then get a little lucky.
The search for perfection kills athletes:
Athletes think they have to be perfect to make the team. Look at the guys who were cranking last year or even indoors, and see where many of them were come Trials time. Go down the yearly best times this year in events like the women’s 800m or the men’s 1500m, and the performances in 2015 were superior to 2016. While every individual situation is different, a large part of this Olympic drop occurs because athletes are trying to be perfect.
They think that in order to make the team, they need to be on their A+++ game. So they bump up the training and go all in. The problem is, they show up cooked and fried, having crossed over the dangerous razor’s edge taking them from potential locks for the team, to also-rans in the final or even missing the final altogether.
Athletes and Coaches overcook it, thinking the only way to get there is to be perfect. When if you look at many of the athletes, a solid race would get the job done.
It’s not a surprise to me that many of the athletes who found their way on to the team, actually struggled with injury or layoff sometime during the year like Charles Jock or Emily Infeld and Colleen Quigley. Perhaps the injury was a blessing in disguise.
Emotional Control Matters
Watch the athletes who make teams and there’s one thing almost all of them have, when the chips get laid down they have emotional control. Whether it’s Kim Conley, Bernard Lagat or Hassan Mead bouncing back from disastrous 10k’s to make the 5k teams or Brenda Martinez rebounding from the 800m fall and 5 races later inching herself on to the team, they have the emotional resiliency to forget about the races they had and forge through.
It’s also about having the emotional control to resist the “freak out” moment in the race, make a stupid move, or be concerned about what others are doing around you. Nurturing the ability to stay in the moment before, during, and even after the race separates those with the talent to make the team and those who come up short.
For all you High School and College kids who just went or are considering going Pro, this will be the hardest thing that you will have to develop. College buys you some time in figuring it out, straight to the pro’s means you have to figure out how to gain control while being simultaneously thrown into a pit of fire. Best of luck.
The Trials cause quarter-Life Crisis :
The public thinks that athletes are racing for Olympic glory, to represent the US. While this is true and of foremost importance, athletes are also racing for the opportunity to continue their dream.
Olympic trials are where quarter-life crisis occur. It’s where athletes finish and have to reevaluate life. Do they want to do this for another year? Another four years? Will they be able to afford to?
It’s 4 years of imagining a day and seeing their dreams come crashing down in one instant. It’s hard to explain the emotional impact of having to deal with that realization in a single moment. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to step off the track, knowing that that could be the last race you ever run. To go instantly from the best shape in your life to thoughts of never running another step competitively.
The trials are so much bigger than making a team, it’s a life defining moment, where we ask 20-30+ year olds to deal with and cope with a conscious altering moment with no outside help and zero coping skills.
When explaining to normal people, I often use the analogy of imagine if you went through 4 years of college, passing tests, making good grades, perhaps getting an award or two, but then when it comes to graduation time, whether you can obtain your degree and continue on your path depends on one single test. How you did for the past 4 years does not matter or count, the only thing that determines whether you go forward is if you pass this test. And if you don’t pass this single test, then you have two options. Start all over again in college, 4 more years of work, all for the opportunity of taking this test again 4 years. Or you have to change to completely different program and try a different life path. Those are the only two options.
And by the way, in order to pass the test, you have to get an A.
That’s what athletes face when they show up to the Olympic Trials. Instead of reporters awaiting athletes as they step off the track in disbelief, perhaps we should have grief counselors…
The bottom line is athletes are competing for much more than a chance to represent the USA, they are competing for the opportunity to keep doing what they are doing.
Company’s pay on potential:
While the finances in our sport are never discussed unless it comes out in a law suit (e.g. Borris Berrian’s contract), one thing that is clear is that companies pay on potential. This isn’t a democratic set-up where if you make the finals or run X time you get this amount of money. No, it’s how much perceived potential do you have.
If you look at the research on World Junior Medalist translating to Senior medalist, the transition isn’t smooth or as expected. One of the reasons that this paying on potential often doesn’t work is because we have an internal bias to expect linear growth. We expect nice growth curves and assume that the younger the athlete is the longer they have to grow and develop. The history books are littered with phenoms who didn’t improve. Development does not occur on a nice neat trajectory, it ebbs and flows as life becomes difficult.
We are blind to it though, and instead center on finding the next outlier like Alyson Felix.
While, we are talking about High School kids, in the off chance that someone reads this who is a phenom who went pro, surround yourself with a support team that actually has your best interest in heart. Too often others see $$ signs for themselves or potential rides on the bandwagon to stardom. Agents should do a better job to protect young clients from making dumb decisions, but alas, they get paid, so the guidance that is often should be there, simply isn’t. There are too many agents, coaches, athletes, companies in our sport who don’t have the athletes best interest as their priority. It’s sad.
Drugs are a problem:
Sorry, had to include this. But regardless of what you think about athletes, coaches, and groups. It kills the sport. Magic moments don’t leave us with awe, instead they leave us with “was that clean?” That’s sad. Whether the conjecture is right or not, it’s caused irreparable harm.
As I sat waiting for my flight, I saw an interesting tweet that said “Group training works!” in reply to the number of athletes who made teams who are on a group. It’s an easy stat to point to, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous, in the fact that the vast amount of talent in this country resides in groups… And there are plenty of people in those groups who bombed.
Group training works partly because of contagion. Jerry Schumacher is a great coach, but part of the reason why his women performed so well is because they got on a roll. The momentum of everyone being successful makes it where every athlete who races next feels like they are destined to run fast. Doubts melt away and the inner confidence comes to fruition.
The opposite is also true. Danny Mackey for the Brooks Beast is a great coach, his group got off to a rough start, and it become contagious.
As a college coach, I’ve seen it both ways. I’ve had awful meets where someone we count on to run fast bombs, then everyone trickles down following his path, and great meets where kids like Zach (“The Stew”) knocks off a huge PR and every single person following him drops a huge PR. Motivation and confidence are contagious.
It works in both ways. Danny’s team wasn’t as bad as they showed, but that’s the way contagion works.
Heartbreak is the name of the game:
Max Paquette and I calculated out that a little over 88% of the athletes at the trials go home devastated, meaning they don’t end up top 3. While the joy and enthusiasm seen from the winners is the main story, the carnage of the rest is tough to watch. With favorites not advancing out of semi’s, veterans failing to make teams, and generally craziness seemingly around every corner, the trials are harder than the games themselves. It’s an emotional roller-coaster that is difficult to watch.
In a sport where we measure progress in 4 years cycles, it’s always interesting to look back and see what’s changed. Teams I thought were difficult to make in 2012, are now on another level. Events that looked weak at the beginning of the year are anything but, and certain fields which you assumed would be strong, saw a fleeing of competitors to ‘water down’ the fields. No event is easy to make, and it’s why I think the strategizing to find the ‘easy event’ almost always backfires.
Inevitably at the trials, you spend a lot of time at meetings, with agents, coaches, friends, and potential athletes. It’s almost like the secondary event of the championships. In hours of conversations, you have come to jesus meetings with athletes, frank discussions on how to get better, and reflections on what went right or wrong. As a coach, you think back to what you could have done better. As a fan, you see all of the things wrong with the sport, and discuss with others how to champion change.
According to research, it’s at these times when we are vulnerable, and confronted by a harsh, perspective altering event that we are most open to change. It’s at these points when we either retreat further into our hole, confirming our reality, even if it’s a false one, or we get the guts to move forward and correct some of the issues we see. As a coach, my hope is to never settle and always be looking for ways to get better at my craft. This next week, I try to dedicate myself to evaluating what went right and wrong this year and what are the 3 things that are actionable that I need to focus on to get better as a coach. I have to take advantage of this brief window where my bias gets out of the way and I can see the big picture just slightly clearer.
As a fan, my hope is that some of the conversations I heard around Eugene continue to grow and develop. It’s easy to feel inspired when the running world is at your doorstep and you can rally around the group to talk about change. But the momentum can’t die once we all leave town, it’s a critical, brief window, where we have a chance to continue to make our sport better. The trials offers that once every 4 years. Don’t miss out.
Thanks for writing such an honest post. While of course, as a viewer and fan, I felt sympathy for the athletes who didn’t make the team, you’ve made clear just how much of an impact a missed trials’ opportunity has, and that my sympathy does not go nearly far enough! As always, I appreciate your transparency as a coach.
Great insights, Steve. Thanks for sharing. Good to see you in Eugene.