Imagine you just started coaching a high school cross-country team of 20 athletes for the next season. This isn’t your first go round, so you feel confident that you can take your squad and get them ready for a fast 5k at the end of the season, maybe even making the state championship. Seven athletes all running to the best of their ability on the right day.

You’re not here for the short term though. You want to build the program. While only 7 will run at the state championship, you need depth on your team. Just in case injuries occur and because you need athletes getting better and better every year to fill in for seniors who will graduate. Now, of course, you need to make sure more than just seven. You need freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Growing, developing, being part of the team.

And because cross-country is such a grueling sport, you need the team culture to support it. You can’t just have the athletes who are on varsity or who have the potential to make varsity as being part of the team. Everyone needs to be bought in, pushing for development, trying to get better.

We haven’t even gotten to the part about the lessons that these kids will learn that will carry them through college and beyond. You are, as the cliché goes, a “molder of men.”

Pretty soon, you’ve come to the conclusion that in order to create the team that you want, everyone matters. You need do your best to coach the whole team up, helping the fastest and slowest get better.

As your goals for your individuals and the teams rattle through your head, your boss walks through the door and says “So we run things a little different. I don’t care too much about the state championship. It’s nice and all, but what is absolutely 100% important is at your conference meet, and only your conference meet, I need as many of the boys as possible under 18 minutes for 5k. I don’t care if we win the meet or not, just have as many as you can at under 18 minutes/ ”

As you sit there and look at him perplexed, he continuous:

“Also, we do things a little different in regards to what you can do at practice as well. You’ll be given a training plan that we already approved, written by someone in NY. It tells you what types of workouts you need to do, and what ones you can ignore. For example, we’re not big believers in long runs, so those should be kept to a minimum. You still have some freedom. You can decide whether you want to do ten 400 meter repeats or twelve, but follow the plans as best you can.”

As he finishes, you stand there, dumbfounded, wondering what kind of cross-country program you just signed up for.

Defining Success

In this hypothetical scenario I’ve taken how school teachers are judged and applied them to the athletic fields. In this scenario, it sounds absurd. How would anyone coach in such a situation? Yet, in the classroom, those expectations–passing as many kids as they can on a standardized– hold true. Sure, there’s a lot of nuance that I left out, and my aim isn’t to hate on how teaching is set up.

Instead, it’s to demonstrate that how you are judged as successful (or a failure) shapes how you might coach (or teach) your kids.

In a case where having people pass matters, the extra time and effort goes towards the “close miss” kids. The ones who are on the edge of passing. The studs are taken care of and any extra help comes from an intrinsic drive from the coach. The not so talented kids are neglected, knowing that they will never run under 18 minutes. In some instances, it’s not hard to imagine these kids being reassigned to another sport or some other trickery to get them off of their scoring metric.

If, on the other hand, having one single super stud is all that matters (in a case where a school just wants a ‘prodigy’), then a coach might implement the “throw the eggs against the wall and see what doesn’t break” approach to training.

If, on the other hand, the amount of development of everyone is how you are judged, then now the emphasis shifts towards making sure everyone improves. While this sounds great in theory, if you are truly judged by how much each individual improves, then the senior whose talent is near tapped out might get neglected for that sophomore who just ran his first meet and has lots of room to grow. His rapid development will make up for the maxed out senior.

The point is this. As a coach, teacher, athlete or administrator, defining HOW we judge success and failure is important. It often plays a role in how we then do our jobs and what we emphasize. No, it isn’t as simple as these few examples make it out to be, but if I sit here and proclaim to the team that the conference championship is what it’s all about, you better believe that everyone listening will put an increased amount of importance on that meet. There will be higher expectations, more nerves, more anxiety. If I say that you have to win at least 5 meets, then you’ve just put the emphasis on winning at least 5 meets, perhaps enticing me to play it ‘safe’, running my top squad at every meet against moderate teams, instead of taking risks and seeing how we stack up against the big teams.

With every shift of how we are judged, comes a slight behavioral shift as well. As you step back and define goals, expectations, job requirements, and more. Really think about what message you are sending.

And if it sounds as ridiculous as our initial cross country coach’s job, it might be time to reconsider what we are trying to do.

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