Some Reflections on the Coach-Athlete Relationship


I have known Alberto Salazar for nearly twenty years. Even before that, in college, I had the distinction of running in some top cross country invites and seeing Alberto Salazar, Rudy Chapa, Steve McChesney, and company romp to victory. I would be about 3/4 of a mile back and while I was holding on for dear life, the pace and fury of Salazar duking it out with Rono, Adrian Royle, Herb Lindsay et al have never left my memories.

Alberto has been always gracious and considerate. He answers emails and I have enjoyed watching him go from elite athlete to an elite coach, learning as he goes, instilling confidence and strength in his athletes. It has been fascinating to observe.

The late Emil Zatopek told me that he was not happy when he coached. He said it was hard for an elite athlete to not just get out there and run, but to analyze and observe the young athlete was quite difficult.

Alberto Salazar and his group of athletes are an example of why distance running in the US is on the rebound. I have been lucky to observe Galen this season at several events and speak to Alberto for a few minutes on his activities. Here are some of my thoughts:

The coach athlete relationship is a delicate one. I am quite prejudiced because I was lucky enough to have both very good coaches, and coaches who were well meaning, but perhaps did not have the technical Knowledge. By the time I was in college, my college coach was coach, cheerleader, reality check, and a man seriously possessed by scientific inquiry. The pursuit of knowledge was at the core of Dan Durante's method. He one time, I remember, had me run a twenty mile run, in the heat of the day, taking ten ounces of water every two miles. For the first ten miles, I felt sluggish, but by fifteen I felt amazing and even finished the run with two runs up an eight hundred meter hill. The next day, I felt recovered! It was lesson number one on hydration and how it personally affected me. Under Dan's direction, I made big improvements over all of my personal bests, and took up the marathon as well.

Having a coach in the U.S. for more than four years is unusual except for the most elite of athletes. That has been changing over the past decade, and the renaissance in US distance running, from Brad Hudson, to Peter Rea and Zap, to the Brooks Hanson Distance Project, to Alberto Salazar's group, is telling! In fact, I believe, the US is really the only country, besides Kenya and Ethiopia that truly gets it.

For the past four weeks, as I have been flying around to various events and meetings, I have seen Alberto Salazar and Galen Rupp. Alberto was one of the premier distance runners of my era, and a man who had millions watching the New York City marathon during the early 1980s as he battled the best of the best over 26.2 miles.

I remember Alberto from college, as I had a bird's eye view of his prowess over cross country from about three quarters of a mile back on the Stanford XC course each fall for four years. Alberto battled Henry Rono, Josh Kimeto, Samson Kimowamba, and many others over that tough 10,000 meter course.

Alberto has coached Galen Rupp since high school. This year, Galen, who ran a superb 10,000 meters last year, is red shirting track at Oregon to pursue his Olympic dream. This indoor season, he has run two one mile races, a 1,500 at Birmingham and will finish the indoors at the US champs next weekend. A levelheaded young man, Galen is learning the ins and outs of professional racing, and those lessons will come into play this spring and summer when he battles for a place on the US Olympic team.

In our short conversation on the bus as we went from plane to terminal in Frankfurt, Galen told me that he is taking no classes this spring, just focusing on training. I congratulated him on his personal best this season-he had just run 3:43.96 at the
Birmingham meet on Saturday. Galen expressed relief that he would be moving back up to the 10,000 meters. Getting beat at shorter distances is good, and working on speed is good, but Rupp likes his distance.

Alberto Salazar has a small group of athletes, with Josh Rohatinsky, Kara and Adam Goucher, Galen Rupp, plus two others, I believe. Alberto is preparing them for the experience in Eugene, where the toughest team to make will be decided, and also Beijing.

I remember Adam getting in shape last winter under Alberto and how he shined at the US champs this past summer. His gutty drive over the last two laps in the 5,000 meters changed the complexion and results of that race.

Kara Goucher an a personal best of 8:57 indoors for the 3,000 in Birmingham as well, as she runs her third race indoors. Kara had won the mile at the Millrose Games in a last lap dash.

I am reminded of Kara's comments after Osaka on how she did not worry about anything but the race. Alberto had convinced her that she had done all that she needed in training and now, focus on the race. That ability to convince one's athletes that all is ready and now is time to race is part of Alberto maturing and feeling comfortable as a coach.

As I was grabbing an espresso in the Birmingham airport, I saw Adam Goucher and we chatted. He had recently recovered from ankle surgery and was very pleased that all was going well for his training to resume.. That battle between pushing too hard and just enough makes the sport an coaching athletes as much of an art form as a science.

Flying and travel are just not fun sometimes. Frustration abounds. It is how to manage that frustration that makes the difference. As we were trying to get on the bus from the Birmingham flight to the Frankfurt airport, no one was moving and there were a dozen people trying to get on the bus. Alberto, increasing the volume of his voice, not yelling, but probably using his coaching voice, encouraged the group of Germans, French and Spaniards, to move a bit in order to get all on the bus. He did not have to get angry, but an effective method of communication was found, and the dozen people, including Galen and himself got on the bus and made their connections. A good skill for a coach, and a father. Alberto smiled after he got on the bus.

Salazar, in evolving from athlete to coach, has become the Zen master of a small team of athletes who look to him for direction, suggestions and encouragement in this silly thing they do, and we, as fans love to watch: putting one foot in front of the other, and challenging oneself to running faster and faster...the coach-athlete relationship will be the difference in a few months in Eugene, Oregon, when 700 plus athletes toe the line for their chance to make sports history.

We wish them all well for 2008 and will keep you updated on Alberto's crew.

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