The Value of Coaches


My first job in the industry was ad production assistant at the old Runner's World magazine in Mountain View, California. My direct manager was one Derek Clayton, who was the VP of Advertising at RW.
Derek was Irish by birth, English by upbringing and Australian by choice. A former St. Stephen's harrier, Clayton was a contemporary of Ron Clarke. In fact, Clarke and Clayton trained together, from time to time.
One of my treasured memories was sitting with Derek, after work, and discussing his racing and training. I remember the memory that Derek gave me in allowing me to see his sports room. In it were his awards from Fukuoka, his Olympic citation, and his vests from the various clubs he was on.
In our conversations one of the most dominant marathoners of his generation, Derek confided in me that he should have had a coach, that it might have helped him cut back on his injuries and reached what he knew he was capable of. Clayton was a brutal trainer and needed someone to advise him on when to hold back, when to go for it. That person, in any parlance, is a coach, or an adviser..

I have spoken of my college coach, Dan Durante, and his effect on my life. I still feel it to this day. I can close my eyes, and smell the fog coming in on Los Gatos track as Paul Gyorey, Rick Allen and I do repeat miles, or 20 times a 400 meters. I can hear Dan, in his Boston accent hollar, "Okay, now a 64," after having done nearly two dozen repeat quarters. I can remember him jogging a cooldown with us as he gave us our readings, and asked us to " check your pulse". Dan would keep readings of each quarter, each pulse reading afterwards and would then talk to us about the rest of the week. Under his careful eye, I dropped four minutes off my 10k in college and ran a respectable two mile as well.

After college, for the four years I seriously raced, Dan was also my coach and advisor. We would meet on Sundays for a 20 miler, an 18 miler or a fast 15 milers, depending on the weekend. Dan had found miles of trails to old summer vacation homes from the 19th century in the Santa Cruz mountains. Dan would run with us for five or six miles and then we would get moving. As we came back up the hills, sometimes we were greeted by Steve Wozniak, just as he was doing that Apple thing, on his motorcyle, getting a newspaper. He might ride along side, say hello, ask how we were feeling, and then he was off!

After college, working full time and married, I ran 120 mile weeks like they were easy and learnt to focus my training. I then dropped my mileage, did my hard days harder, and easy days easier and began to set personal best in all distances. My coach still had a place in my life, even if it was once a week, or once a month.

I write this, as it has come to a big story recently about elite athletes changing their coaches. Now, these things do happen, but there should be a caveat: the coach-athlete relationship is art, not science. A coach is disciplinarian, confidante, cheerleader, and most of all, the person who knows the athlete's good days and bad days, and is there for both. The athlete does grow up, and perhaps, the term coach changes to advisor, but the need and the role and the chemistry are there.

But then, you get an elite athlete. Gets successful, real successful. Over a couple of years, sitting in Zurich, Berlin, Osaka, after a race, having a couple of cold ones with some buddies. He or she hears the buddies talking about running their own programs, running their own lives. Perhaps hears an agent disparaging a coach, perhaps someone notes that a certian coach is old school. Egos get involved. Feelings get hurt.

In an Olympic year, there are only a few things an elite athlete should be working on, and changing coaches is not one of them. It may work out, it may work out fine, but with all of the issues that can go wrong, why play with a relationship that has worked for seven to ten years? And with success?

At the end of the day, an adult athlete, an elite athlete knows that much of the reasons for success is because of their developing their God given talent and their working very, very hard, and being very, very lucky during their careers. But, they also have to realize that the person they call coach, the person who convinced them to move from the 200 meters to the 400 meters, or from the steeple to the 5,000 meters had a hell of lot to do with that success.

Sometimes, it is the coach just saying no. I remember getting into a workout, that after two repeat miles, out of a proposed six, I was stinking up the track. My coach, Dan, came over and pulled me off the track. " Go cooldown, and then go to bed." I was angry, but he was right. Three weeks later, I ran my fastest 10,000 meters. Running a hard day, then two easy days for three weeks did it.

It is in the details that the medals are won or lost. A coach helps the athlete in the details.

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