Recruiting reflections

Honesty time. I have such a love-hate relationship with recruiting. On one hand, I absolutely love the act of getting people excited about your program. I like building a strong future. And I feel it’s a way for me to pour some effort into the team.

I’ll never get to hold a baton again. I’ll never take a 6th jump or explode out of the blocks. Those days are long past. But I can put some extra effort into making sure we find the right guys to carry our torch and defend this track.

Those are the aspects of recruiting that I love. What I hate is that it robs me of the present moment. At it’s core, recruiting pulls me away from the ‘now’ and forces me to imagine any number of possible futures. It makes me spend all spring, summer, and fall in search of people to help replace our graduating seniors. Let me say that again – all spring, summer and fall. In other words, during the spring of someone’s junior year, life is trying to ask me to imagine a program without them. That I hate.

But, I guess it’s like all things in sport. It’s a constant pendulum swinging between being “happy with what you have” and “driven to want more.”

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The Goal Keepers

I like my job. I take it pretty seriously. And as a result, I have somewhat high expectations and standards for myself. A lot of that stems from what I interpret my actual job to be. It’s not my job to win track meets. It’s not my job to get athletes to PR. It’s not even my job to teach technique or PE classes.

I am a Custodian of Goals. People bring me their goals and then trust me to guide them towards them.  In some cases, I’m helping people chase down life goals for them up to this point. Honestly, it keeps me up nights. It feels a lot more stressful to be responsible for a person’s goals versus just training them to PR. Admittedly, sometimes the weight of it gets to me.

Over the years, I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had some pretty great assistant coaches to help share the load.  By signing on, they all knew it meant getting held to the same standards and expectations that I hold myself. I don’t expect perfection from them just as I don’t expect it from myself. But I do expect their best.

I expect them to be the hardest working individuals on the team.  We should be unflappable and resilient. We need to be the foundation that athletes can build their career from.  We must be motivated by the never-ending puzzle that is chasing a PRs.

And every time we hire a new assistant, the process begins anew. Obviously we hire coaches with incredible talent and immense potential, but you never truly know a person until you’re in the trenches with them.

This summer I learned a lot about one of our assistant coaches. And it wasn’t from anything at the track. I needed some help getting our house ready for sale. Nothing huge, just some painting, yard work, new bathroom, etc. Setting out, I didn’t expect each of us to put in 80+ hours that week. It just happened.

But what made it all the more impressive was that we were “squatting” in my empty house. No bed.  No couch.  No nothing.   Actually we didn’t have running water for a few days.  Wake up, work. Lunch, work. Dinner, work.  It was in one of those post-dinner “works” where I realized this coach was truly up to being a keeper of goals.

As we walked back into the house at 10pm, his first instinct wasn’t to head to bed or read a good book. The first thing out of his mouth was “So, we gonna paint that banister or what?” He got to work on the bannister and I tackled the bathroom.  In that moment, this man’s work ethic, sacrifice, and loyalty rang true.

Here at Williams, we strive to build teams rooted in Passion, Trust, and Respect.  We have a number of more tangible values that we focus on, but the ultimate goal rests in those three.  Obviously work ethic, sacrifice, and loyalty are always key ingredients.

Being a coach isn’t a 9-to-5 job. (Just ask my wife.) And being a coach isn’t even about simply doing the jobs on your to-do list. It’s about searching out the things you haven’t yet written on your list.  You’ve got to be motivated to scour for ways to make your athletes, your program, and yourself better.  You’ve got to know your own weaknesses and double down to overcome them.  If you’re not willing to take a hard look in the mirror or you just want to tread water, then maybe you’ll be a coach, maybe you’ll even win a few track meets…but you’ll never be a Custodian.

Cognitive Dissonance

It’s safe to say that if you own a twitter account, watch the news, or simply live on the planet earth, you’ve experienced an avalanche of cognitive dissonance in 2017. You’ve experienced this whether you know it or not. And it’s led me to reflect on how this all-too-human trait presents itself in my sport.

What is cognitive dissonance? Simply put, it’s self-deception. More broadly, it is our natural drive to reframe and alter any evidence that challenges any of our deeply held beliefs. We’re incredibly inclined to invent new justifications or causations that will support, rather than dispute, our point of view.  We may even outright ignore the evidence altogether.   We all do it.

As a characteristic, it has its strengths. In moderation, it’s “sticking to your guns.” However, at some point, it goes beyond that. It goes way beyond defending your perspective to outright ignoring irrefutable evidence that is right in front of you. It’s everywhere.

Police and prosecutors unable to admit they wrongfully convicted someone in the face of DNA evidence saying the opposite. Doctors explaining away why a patient had complications or even died. Politicians revising history to protect their records. Me refusing to admit to my wife that I took a wrong turn. Because even when the road ends with a dead end, I obviously did it on purpose because this was the scenic route.

Essentially, cognitive dissonance is our instinct to never admit that we may have been wrong or made a mistake. We protect our self esteem and perfection at all costs.

I’ve started wondering if there is a modicum of cognitive dissonance involved when an athlete is slow to (or refuses to) trust a new coach or system. It happens in every program in the country. I can point to a handful of times I’ve had to overcome it.  It’s a tough situation that almost universally leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Believe the training is wrong for you –> I won’t PR with this training –> Less effort, less confidence, less sacrifice –> Regression –> I told you this training wasn’t going to work.

But what leads to that first assumption; the belief that the new training won’t work. Perhaps there is an element of cognitive dissonance involved with that first step. Maybe the roadblock isn’t an inability to trust the new training system. Rather it is a failure to believe that you can improve in many different systems. That there is no Holy Grail system for you.

By asking athletes to go “all in” with a new program, some may perceive coaches as asking them to admit that what you did in the past was wrong. That what they chose to believe in was incorrect. That they made a poor decision to invest in that old system. And that is a difficult thing to ask anyone to do.  To admit an error.

But that’s not what’s being asked.  The new choice is not a reflection on the past, it’s a reflection on the future.

So, the real first step should be to ensure that athletes understand that it’s not the workouts that make the PR. It’s them, their work, and their drive.  And the promise that if things aren’t going in the right direction, that we’ll try something new.

And that is where we, the coaches, come in in curbing our own cognitive dissonance. Your workouts are not an extension of you.  And so, deciding that a workout may not have been right is not admitting that you are a bad coach. It is imperative to assess your training plans critically and honestly.

Lucky for me, I have a pretty objective sport. If we aren’t PRing, we make changes. Pretty simple. Sometimes it’s the workouts that get adjusted, sometimes not. But it’s never productive for a coach to dig their heels in and defend their training to the death. You don’t have to aggressively stick to your guns here. Don’t tell the athlete “believe in my system because there is not Holy Grail” but then act like you have the Holy Grail of systems. It’s just not a good look.

This is a pretty new train-of-thought for me.  I’d be interested to hear what some of you think.  I’m sure you can find numerous flaws in my logic.  Any thoughts?

Asking the right question.

Do me a favor. Take a moment and reflect on either the long jump or triple jump. In your opinion, what is the single most important element in the event? In other words, if you had to tell your athlete only one thing to focus on for the event, what would it be?

I’m not kidding. Take a moment and pretend you’re the coach. Maybe you’re talking to an athlete, maybe you’re giving a presentation to other coaches, what would you pick as the #1 focus of the horizontal jumps?

Did you go with posture? How about acceleration mechanics or pushes out of the back? Top speed? Speed at take off? Take off position? Air mechanics? At best, in my opinion, these are all a distant, distant second, like not-even-in-the-rear-view-mirror second place.

My answer is simple. It’s try to jump as far into the sand as possible. That’s it. The only critical element of the horizontal jumps is how far you jump.

Don’t roll your eyes at me. I’m constantly amazed at how many athletes and coaches lose focus on this simple fact as they pursue technical perfection. When looking to improve, too many people ask the question “What do I need to fix (or what’s wrong) with my technique?”

Seems like a harmless question, right? But it steers the conversation. It leads it in one specific direction and eliminates too many other variables that may also address the “only critical element” of the jump – how far you land in the pit. So change the question.

What do I need to change in order to jump farther? That’s it. Simple fix. This is a much more vague, open-ended question. It has so many more potential answers. And to be honest, for both the coach and the athlete, it’s scary as hell. This puts it all on the table. It’s technique-plus. Technique plus effort, focus, sleep, nutrition, lifestyle, character, determination, resilience…

For the athlete, it’s scary because they may have to examine and evaluate deeper aspects of themselves and their role in the process. It’s safe to say that the reason a PR isn’t happening is because of technical flaws. It’s a whole other beast to admit that a rough patch, plateau, or regression stems from choice or disposition. That means it’s controllable. That means that my situation is my own making. Who cares if you talk to a coach and they tell you that you just need to fix your posture to improve? But if you start talking about consistency or effort or focus and it’s an entirely different conversation.

For the coach, it’s equally scary. You better be ready for this. You better know your stuff or know where to get the resources. You better check all judgment at the door and focus on progress. You better have built a relationship where you can say “I believe you can do better.” and your athletes trust and respect your opinion.

Technique is easy. You have to admit that. This is track and field. A high school physics class could break down the technique for each and every track and field event. We’re not trying to put a human on Mars. We’re trying put a human a few centimeters farther into a sand pit.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I talk about technique a lot. You better know it inside and out and be able to teach it if you want to keep your job. But there’s a lot more there too. For me, it’s probably 50/50. The answer to the question “What do I need to change to jump farther?” is technique related 50% of the time. The other 50% it’s entirely something else.

As always, there are costs and benefits to every situation. If you’re only focused on technique, then the cost is that you may be abandoning a huge chunk of potential gains, but the benefit is that you likely don’t have to have many difficult conversations.

On the other hand, everything is fair game. Sure, there are some harder conversations and personal choices, but they’re worth it for those needed centimeters. At least in my opinion.

Kid Icarus

As a coach, which camp do you fall into? Do you prefer to do 100% of 75% or 75% of 100%? It’s an honest debate. And one we should all reflect on at times.

No, this isn’t some word problem where one train leaves New York at 10am traveling at 60mph while a second train leaves Boston at 11am traveling at 75mph, so at what point will America actually build a high-speed rail system where trains go faster than horse and buggies?

It’s simply a question about how you frame your workouts. Do you prefer to ask your athletes to do 100% of a 75% volume workout or do you have them do 75% of a 100% volume workout? Obviously the numbers are meaningless, but the concept is crucial.

Sure, we’d all prefer to do 100% of 100% but that’s just not the reality, so which camp are you? Coaching is an imperfect science (if it’s even a science at all). No workout goes exactly as planned, especially collegiately. Personally, I’ve found it more ideal to have my athlete’s attack with 100% vigor a 75% loaded workout. This is far more productive physically, emotionally, and psychologically than constantly pulling the plug on a workout after it’s 75% completed.

Tommy Riley

Clearly, there is a cost and a benefit in each situation. On the one hand, we have a confident athlete who completed a workout, but maybe got a less than perfect total training effect on the day. On the other hand, we have an athlete who potentially fully maximized their training, but may have a crack forming in their confidence, as they were unable to finish the task at hand.

This is an easy choice for me. And it’s easy because of the word “potentially”. Those gains are far from guaranteed; they’re merely potentially there. Oh, that desire to hit the bull’s eye. To write the prefect workout. To thread the needle and maximize a day’s training. It’s a myth. I stopped chasing it.

In reality, there is no bull’s eye you’re aiming for. It’s not even the eye of a needle you’re hoping to thread. No, you’ve become Icarus trying to fly as close to the sun as possible without your wings melting. There is inevitably a huge cost when you continuously push yourself closer and closer to that sun. And it’s good to be reminded that it won’t be you falling to earth. It’ll be your athlete.

Maybe I’m over cautious. Maybe I’m weak-willed. (I’ve never been called either to my face, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.) But I don’t believe in rolling the dice with my athlete’s wings. There are other ways to make them stronger. I’ll take my 100% confident, healthy, and hungry crew any day of the week.

You’re stressed. Use it.

TEAM – Some don’t think it’s too important in Track & Field. You’re in the circle alone. No one is with you on the runway. And for sure, no one helps you run your race. There are more than a few coaches who feel that you can just suit up a collection of talented athletes and the sum of the parts will be good enough.

Sure, they might be good enough to win a meet. But the irony is that by solely focusing on the individual, by abandoning a team-centric approach, you seriously risk that that the individual ever achieves their full potential. Ironic isn’t it.

And I don’t even mean this from an anecdotal perspective. I mean it from a physiological one. For brevity sake, I’m going to assume that you know that we want to avoid a fight or flight response when we compete or train. Blood moves less than ideally, hormones are out of whack, and is it really sustainable to constantly be fighting for your life.

So what’s the alternative?  What are our other options?  Well the body has a lot more at it’s disposal than simply fight or fight.  We’ve evolved.  We can respond to stressful situations in a number of different ways.

First up is the challenge response.  And yes, I’ll admit that it’s possible for an individual to turn his or her stress mindset into a challenge response. This can hook you up with the increased focus without the fear. The increased confidence, the increased power, they’re there too. But the biggest difference is in the hormones. Your ratios are a lot more conducive to a quicker recovery and growth/learning from the experience. And isn’t that what coaching/training is all about…work-recover-learn. Rinse and repeat.

But where the “collection of individuals” approach to developing great athletes fails the individual is by forfeiting the tend-and-befriend response to a stressor. Coaches, tell me if this is something that you’d like to see in your athletes during your championship meets.

“[This] response makes you social, brave, and smart. It provides both the courage and hope we need to propel us into action and the awareness to act skillfully.”

“In times of stress, both men and women have been shown to become more trusting, generous, and willing to risk their own well-being to protect others.”

“When we care for others, it changes our biochemistry, activating systems of the brain that produce feelings of hope and courage.”

The Upside of Stress – Kelly McGonigal

Act skillfully. Hope. Courage. Brave. Trust. Generous. Willing to risk. Seems pretty good.

This is where team-first mindsets take the individual to a whole other level. Because you only activate this stress response when you have bigger-than-self goals, by supporting others, and viewing stress as a shared experience. In other words…TEAM.

Stress will always be a part of the athlete’s life.  And we want it to be.  It’s the proverbial “shot in the arm” that give us the juice to produce.  Imagine what your LJ PR would be if you could go into “lift the bus off the baby” mode whenever you wanted.  We want stress.  As coaches, we need to teach our athletes how to work with it, how to harness it – not how to eliminate it or bury it.

Who are you with two fouls on the board?

Way back in 2006, I was a young, scrappy, green, interim head coach. I was blessed with an incredibly talented, hard-working team. And on it, we had a very talented pentathlete. So here I am, at the 1st event at my 1st championship meet as a head coach and our #1 seed opens up with Foul, Foul in the long jump.

nate scott 2

We talked. We made adjustments. But as he walked to the back of the runway waiting for his 3rd jump, I found myself thinking about myself. What does this mean about me as a coach? Am I a good coach? What does this mean about my future? Do I need this jump to keep this job? And so, as he tore down the runway on his third attempt, my heart jumped into my throat.

Fast forward to 2017, I was a less young, scrappy, little less green head coach. I was blessed with an incredibly talented, hard-working team. And on it, we had a very talented jumper (who was a less talented pentathlete). So here I am at my 34th National Championship as a head coach and our jumper opens up with two sub-par jumps. Nothing that will make finals.

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We talked. We made adjustments. But as she walked to the back of the runway waiting for her 3rd jump, I found myself thinking of her. How much she wants this jump? How much she’s capable of this jump? How much she’s earned this jump? How can I get her to trust that it’s there? And so, as she tore down the runway on her third attempt, my heart jumped into my throat.

Good push – Check.

Coach’s mark – Check.

Full board – Check.

PR – Check.

Begin breathing again – Check.

2006, 2017 – Same result, different me. I was the only major change. And I don’t know if anyone could palpably tell. I work to keep this hurricane raging below the surface and keep it all locked down. But does it trickle out? It can’t not, right. No one can keep it all bottled up. It has to affect who you are.

If a coach is worried about their livelihood…if they’re worried about keeping their health insurance…if they’re worried about their family while at the runway then what does that mean? Is the coach there to guide the athletes?  Or are the athletes there to protect the coach?

These days, I’m happy with who I am when life backs me up against a wall.  I feel I’m able to stay true and be who others need me to be.  But I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what 2027 will bring?