Coaches that put the benefit and development of their players first are generally not revered unless they also win. It is the rare parent who can recognize good coaching in a losing effort. We seem to expect kids to pick up positive character traits by osmosis.
Punishment leaves bad feelings that eat away at motivation. Excelling at sports requires emotional energy which is used up by negative feelings. Human energy can be created. It comes from emotions, and emotions are released by ideals. We have an untapped reservoir of energy available to us if the right combination of ideas can evoke the emotions that will tap into the reservoir. I work incredibly hard on something when the motivation comes from me. When the goal is someone else’s goal for me, I may work hard at it, but often only to the degree that I think is necessary to satisfy someone else, not to the point of achieving excellence.”
Former US Olympic Coach Dr. Joe Vigil won 19 National titles in track and cross country as a coach at Adams State, ( NCAA Division II ). Vigil’s win-loss record was a staggering 3,014-176 over a 28-year period from 1965 to 1993. He has coached numerous world class runners including Pat Porter and Deena Kastor. Coach Vigil: “I certainly do concur with you a good Positive Mental Attitude in the art of coaching is an absolute necessity, as well as a sound scientific basis for your coaching principles.
|Coach Dr. Joe Vigil near his statue|
"The art of coaching is a lost art. Many coaches are just people hired off the street that don’t know how to work with their own kids. You have to get into their hearts and minds. You must show that you are interested in their welfare and interested in the total person-- not just what they can do for you whether they are high school or Olympic athletes. You have to have an interest in their goals. I go to the library and read up on what they are interested in whether its forestry, hobbies etc. and talk to them about what their interests.
I always say “minimize the criticize, raise the praise”. Make your runners feel good about themselves and show you care about them, and they should care about the other runners on the team. We live in a very narcissistic culture. Everyone is into themselves including the coaches who often only coach for themselves. Even the great runners can lose focus. Don’t belittle the runners. Coaches have to be mentors. Even if they do not know the science behind the sport, they can show they care. Running and Track and field is the greatest sport in the world but coaches are defensive. Their pay is lower than major sports so they make a half assed effort, don’t really love the sport .A coach has to make a contribution to society, teach life lessons. Everyone has talent but it is up to the coach to find the runners potential.” Coach Vigil has coached six separate groups at Adams State for 1 ½ hours each in the freezing cold in Colorado in the same day. When asked about it he says, “A coach should never complain. A coach has to set a good example by showing a positive mental attitude and commitment if he or she wants their runners to do the same. Above all you first get into their minds and hearts-- than discipline with love and love with discipline.” Note: Another example of Dr.Vigil’s dedication, I have noticed he will show up days in advance for speaking engagements in the winter so he does not have to delay or cancel his talks because of bad weather.
Tom Fleming won the New York Marathon and finished second in the Boston Marathon, and has successfully coached everyone from high school athletes (Montclair Kimberley Academy to National Class runners.
The best compliment I ever received from an athlete I coached ( Joe LeMay) was "Tom could have be on the Titanic and he would have told the crew and passengers that they all were going to make it out of the freezing cold water!"
As an athlete I was positive-- as a coach I'm 10 times more positive about my athlete’s efforts in practice and on race day!”
Former US Olympic Coach Dr. Jack Daniels is a world-class coach and author (of the essential "Daniels Running Formula"), has been one of the world’s major distance running influences. He won 8 NCAA titles at Cortland College (7 in cross country) and is truly loved by the world-class runners he has coached that I have talked to including Jim Ryun:
Why do you think there are many negative coaches? Do you think it discourages runners from progressing in the sport?“
Coach Daniels: "It may be because many coaches don’t really know what they are trying to accomplish; do they know what the purpose is of every workout they are having their runners do? Sometimes running faster than is recommended makes for a bad workout, not a better one, especially if the purpose is to run fast and relaxed, as opposed to even faster, but struggling (with poor form) the whole time.”
What traits do you think good coaches should have?
Coach Daniels: “Each runner is an individual, and it is more important to treat them as individuals before treating them as runners. Each has specific strengths and weaknesses so you can’t expect an entire team to respond the same to every workout (or to be able to even do the same workout). The coach must be able to say what the purpose of every workout is. The coach must be willing to tell a runner that a rest day can be more important than a workout day – rest is part of the training program and can lead to more improvement than can work, when the conditions so dictate.
Can you think of any examples where positive reinforcement helped you in your Olympic and post Olympic athletic career, or any runners that you coached?
Coach Daniels: “When I won the Swedish Nationals in pentathlon, a 10-year old girl picked me some flowers and told me I looked good and that I was a great athlete. A Russian World Champion in my sport told me I could improve my running with more time and his wife sent me a present in support. You cannot get better encouragement than that – that’s a lot better than winning an Olympic Medal. “
Steve Scott held the US Mile record for over 26 years, was the top ranked US Miler for 10 straight years, holds the record for the most sub 4-minute miles (136), and is the track and cross-country coach at California State University- San Marcos:
|Coach Steve Scott|
I never responded well to yelling or negative coaches, even as a youngster. My two coaches Bob Loney (Upland High) and Len Miller (University of California at Irvine) were both encouraging and positive. It’s critical that athletes know you have confidence in them and believe in them.
I think negative coaches are that way because they’ve had negative experiences with their coaches growing up. They had coaches yelling at them-- that’s all they know, and that’s how they coach. When athletes know you care about them and support them, they’ll love you as a coach and they will want to work hard. I know positive coaches are the most successful at having their runners reach their potential. Look at Marcus (O’Sullivan) at Villanova; I could never see him yelling at anyone!
If I see someone who isn’t putting forth the effort, I’ll call him or her aside and talk to them individually. In order to have fun, you still have to work hard.
We keep things low key, it’s a sport, after all it should be fun-- it’s not life and death.”
|Coach Marcus O'Sullilvan|
Do you think positive reinforcement works better for distance runners as a motivator than constructive criticism?
Marcus: “Its self-evident that positive reinforcement as a general rule is the best motivator. Athletes want to hear what they are doing right. Constructive criticism that is well thought out and communicated to the athlete with the right timing is also important. If I feel an athlete needs constructive criticism about a race for example, I’ll digest the performance for a week or more before I say anything. That way I’m not speaking from emotion. You have to take into account what kind of day the athlete has had—that might have contributed to a bad race.
|Marcus O'Sullivan at Penn Relays|
A coach’s positive reinforcement can help an athlete reach their potential. After a bad race I won’t say anything. I’ll digest the athletes performance for up to 2 or 3 weeks after their race, and I may realize that the athlete PR’ed in that race. So you can actually turn the discussion of the race, which didn’t seem good at the time, into a positive, and provide positive reinforcement along with constructive criticism of what they can do to improve.
Can you think of an example where positive reinforcement has helped you in your career as a world-class runner?
Marcus: “Yes, my Sophomore year at Villanova after my coach Jumbo Elliott passed away, I was talking to Dr. Ted Berry (author of “Jumbo Elliott Maker of Milers” and close friend of legendary Villanova Coach Jumbo Elliott) and he said to me “Marcus, Jumbo told me you are going to be one of the all time great ones, one of the best runners we’ve ever had here at Villanova.” When I heard Jumbo said that and believed in me that strongly it really resonated with me and I thought, “If Jumbo believes that strongly in me I know I can do it”. Gaining confidence from his coaches confidence Marcus proceeded to reach new levels as a runner( 101 sub four minute miles, a four time Irish Olympian 3 indoor 1500 world championships and a world indoor 1500 meter world record 3:35 among other accomplishments.)
Once I became a coach, I really appreciated my coaches Tom Donnelly (Haverford College Track and Cross Country Coach, and Marcus’ professional coach) and Donal Walsh (Marcus’s coach from Ireland) and all the time, effort, hard work and emotional energy they put into coaching me.
It’s just like you don’t appreciate what it means to be a parent until you have kids. I remember calling my dad and talking to him about my kids. I said Dad was I like that? And he said, “Yeah, you really were just like that!” I really appreciate kids coming back years later and saying, “Coach, thanks for all you did for me, I know I was a pain, but I really appreciate it. Sometimes it’s the kids who were the biggest pain who are the most appreciative and it makes you feel great.”
Jeff Galloway has coached over 250,000 through his Galloway Training Programs, running camps and retreats, ecoaching and individual consultations. He is a US Olympian and has written close to a dozen best selling running books for runners of all levels.
|Coach and Author Jeff Galloway|
Why do you think positive reinforcement is so much more effective helping runners improve than a lack of positive reinforcement or critical coaching?
Jeff: Our left-brain (analytical side) will beat us up enough and lower our confidence going into hard workouts or key races. I feel the role of a coach is to help the athlete stay motivated, focus on the important items, solve problems, enhance confidence and advise about how to correct and avoid problems. Positive reinforcement has been much more effective in maintaining motivation and helping athletes stay focused.
My personal experience is that while coaches will praise positive performance, there aren’t that many positive coaches. Do you agree? Why do you think that is?
Jeff: “Many coaches have not been trained in positive reinforcement. They tend to coach the way they were coached. I have tried to take the best from the coaches I worked with such as my dad and Bill Bowerman and then add things that enhance the process.”
Can you give any examples of how you were helped by positive reinforcement from a coach or another runner in your running career?
Jeff: During the Olympic Tour in '72, I made a strategic mistake in the Bislett Games 5000-meter race that cost me the race. I was feeling down afterward and Coach Bill Bowerman came up to me and said “You got almost everything right—stay with it!” That statement has kept me going in my competitive career, in business, in personal areas and in my helping others to coach themselves.
Can you give any examples of runners you’ve coached who were helped by your positive reinforcement?
Jeff: “I was a PE coach at my father’s school for 6 months. When the kids would come out each day, I would try to have an incentive system for them to run or walk laps around the field. Some days I would give them pencils, another day tokens, etc. That winter the food stores had sales on oranges, so I brought a couple bags to the field and I kept increasing the threshold required to get an orange. It started at five laps and eventually got up to 12 laps (about 200 meters per lap). As the requirement got greater, more kids went for the oranges. Two years ago, at a memorial service for my father, one of those kids came up to me and told his story. He now runs marathons. He said that had it not been for the oranges, he probably would not have started running. You mentioned George Sheehan, he almost always saw the big vision when it came to running trends. “
As an Olympian, you’ve accomplished so much in running and had such a great career (Note: I saw Jeff miss the start of the NJ 10 mile race in Cherry Hill back in the early 80’s by over a minute and still run the fastest time in the race.)What do you enjoy most about your running today and what do you emphasize with the runners you are coaching today as a result of your lessons learned in the sport?
Jeff: “The most enjoyment comes from the relationships with fellow runners. There’s a bond, a magical connection that we share with one another that I believe that I believe was developed millions of years ago as our ancestors ran and walked to survive…. together. I enjoy the chance to solve problems, allowing each runner to experience the joy that running can bring every day. By sharing this, we receive even more benefits. Even those who generally perform well under taskmaster coaches will have scars when they are told negative things. The most common statements I hear from these coaches are: “You're a failure” and “You're not going to amount to anything in this sport.”
I've heard from hundreds of runners who were coached this way. Most burned out early and dropped out of running. I believe that even the stern taskmasters could get more out of an athlete who tends to respond in this way if there is some positive reinforcement in the mix.
When an athlete is not performing to capacity, I've found it productive to get him/her involved to find out why. I want my athletes to become responsible for their own motivation. I will help, but they must ultimately develop the drive they need for the goal. When there are problems in performance, I work with the athlete to find the reasons and then correct through training changes, recovery adjustments, etc.”
Doctor Jerry Lynch is considered the leading sports Psychologist in the country. He has worked with 30 National Championship teams, pro teams such as the Lakers, US Olympians like Bob Kennedy and has been a coach at the US Olympic Training Center. Dr Lynch is also the author of books like “Running Within” and “Way of the Champions”:
What are some of the problems or hindrances that you’ve encountered in the sports psychology field?
|Dr. Jerry Lynch|
By the age of 16 over 75% of them have dropped out of sports. Now some of them may have been selected for a higher-level team because of ability, but most of them have just stopped competing because it is no longer fun. That’s over 26 million kids dropping out of sports primarily because of an over-emphasis on winning. Coaches or parents who are obsessed with winning or who have unrealistic expectations that create pressure turn competition into a negative—revenge on your opponents, constant criticism etc. On the other hand, a positive attitude from a coach or parent is infectious—it can help create an environment of champions.”
We all know some coaches who believe in trying to make elite programs by focusing only on the top kids on the team and ignoring everyone else. Do you think this is a contributing factor to the number of people being turned off to what should be a lifetime sport?
Dr. Lynch: “Yes. There are coaches who are primarily concerned about “their program” and their coaching record but are not concerned with the future development of the kids and whether or not they continue to run after high school. What they don’t realize is the whole team flourishes by encouraging and working with everyone on the team. Every runner on the team has a contribution to make to the team. The slower runners make contributions that benefit everyone on the team including the top runners.”
What has your own running taught you?
Dr. Lynch: “Just about everything I’ve learned about life I’ve learned through running. Running is a metaphor for life. Running teaches you to “become something other than ordinary”. Running teaches you accountability— “Thou shall do the right thing”-- which is something that is missing from a lot of areas of our society. Running teaches you to see your competitors as partners helping you to achieve. Competitors help you to become something more than you were—to go further than you would have without them.
That’s why I believe in sincerely thanking other runners other the race for their help in helping you.”
How do you measure success?
Dr Lynch: “The success of my work will be measured 15 to 20 years down the road in the hearts and lives of the people I have worked with. That’s what motivates me now. I’m sure it’s the same for you coaching the Gloucester Catholic Cross Country boys and girls. We are lucky to have the opportunity to help people get in touch with their own greatness as they develop their spiritual values of courage and heart.”
Don Kardong finished fourth for the US in the 1976 marathon is an acclaimed running author and former President of the Road Runners Club. Don was a big supporter of children running for fitness during his tenure as President of the RRC.
Having said that, I do think there’s a time when a coach may need to treat an athlete, or an entire team, in a more harsh or critical way. If an athlete is lazy, lackadaisical or simply not paying attention, a coach may need to yell to get their attention. This can be an effective way, maybe the only effective way, to get a point across to them. However, those times should be the exception. Unless the coach is dealing with the entire team, this kind of criticism is best handled in private with the athlete. It’s incredible that some coaches think a public “dressing down” of an athlete is a good idea.
I really think negativity comes into coaching from the military influence on our culture. I’ve never been in the army, but every drill sergeant I’ve ever seen in action (admittedly, mostly in movies) yells and belittles his charges. This may work really well for that particular group in that setting, because training people to go into armed combat has special demands. It just doesn’t make sense to treat a group of athletes that way. They’re in the sport to enjoy themselves and improve their skills, not to get yelled at. Maybe sports like football are similar enough to battle that that style of coaching is effective there. But track and field or cross-country? Seems like a good way to drive athletes away.
What traits do you think good coaches should have?
Don: “Coaches need to be good leaders. They set the tone for the team and establish goals, or at least work with the team in establishing goals. They need to be calm under pressure. And they have to be good listeners. If athletes don’t think the coach is listening to their concerns, they’re going to lose motivation.”
Can you think of any examples where positive reinforcement helped you or a runner that you mentored?
Don: “My senior year in college, the NCAA Track & Field Championships were in Seattle, my hometown. I had run well against Steve Prefontaine in the PAC-8 Meet a couple of weeks earlier, and the 3-mile at Nationals was my opportunity to finally beat him, or at least to put up a good showing. This was the culmination of my college career, and I was competing in front of family and friends. Instead of winning or showing well, though, I totally bombed. I don’t remember my time or place, but I was somewhere back in about eighth. To this day, I don’t know what happened. I was simply devastated, and ready to quit on the spot. Fortunately my coach, Marshall Clark, caught up with me on the track and said, “Don, I know how you feel, I really do. But you cannot judge your entire college career based on one bad race, no matter how bad.” He buoyed my spirits at a time when criticism would have finished me off. Eventually I put that race behind me, regrouped, and began a program that eventually put me on the U.S. Olympic team.”
Bill Rodgers four-time winner of the New York and Boston Marathons was for a time the top ranked marathoner in the world and has written a number of running books.
Bill: “I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement, but within a structured environment where the coach and athlete understand each other, and how the athlete might handle constructive comments.
That’s the way it worked for me with my High School Coach Frank O'Rourke, and at Wesleyan university with Coach Elmer Swanson, and with Greater Boston Track Club Coach Billy Squires.
I don’t think the Bobby Knight approach would work very well for most distance runners!
Greg Meyers was the last American to win the Boston Marathon and was the World Record Holder at 10 miles before starting his coaching career. He is presently Associate Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI.
Greg: “I know that positive reinforcement always worked for me, as an athlete and a coach. I believe that the positive reinforcement provides the confidence an athlete needs to succeed. This doesn't mean you do get on a person for mistakes...you can still jump on an athlete that's slacking a bit or has last focus...but you need to bring it back to a positive. I'm a big believer in making the athlete accountable for their decisions...and it is their decision if they want to improve or become the best athlete / person they can be. They expect honest from their coach...but I don't believe in making an athlete feel like a loser because they made a mistake.
Coaching is an art...knowing when to push and when to lift up. Workouts you can learn in a book...coaches provide motivation and confidence.”
Jim Ryun, Olympian, former World Record Holder in the mile and first American high school runner to run a sub four-minute mile, is a former US Congressman from Kansas who now mentors hundreds of runners each year through his popular running camps:
|Jim Ryun and Coach|
He laid the groundwork to obtaining that goal in the weeks and months following that initial conversation by writing out short-term goals with exactly how we would attain them. He had me running work- outs I didn't think were possible. But I ran them because I had taken ownership of the goal.
It took 14 months of very intense and grueling workouts in the winter cold of Kansas as well as the extreme heat of Kansas' summers.
The goal was attained in June 1964 in Compton, CA during a mile race of America's best milers. I finished eighth out of eight in 3:59.
I reached my goal and that served to whet my appetite for greater accomplishments. The Lord blessed me with the talent to run and to run fast and smart. I give Him the glory and thanks due Him and do my best to impart the skills I have learned to the thousands of runners who for 36 years have attended the Jim Ryun Running Camps. http://www.ryunrunning.com/”
Qualities of the best coachesI believe all great running coaches or mentors have the following five qualities in common:
1. Endorsement- Every runner has to know the coach believes and cares about him or her-- that the coach is interested in more than the outcome of the runner’s last race. In return, hopefully the runner (and his or her family for younger athletes) will endorse the coach. Marcus O’Sullivan:” I welcome input from parents of my runners on the physical and mental aspects of their son or daughter. Do they have allergies, medical conditions, mental state etc? I draw the line at parents who want to tell me how to train their kids. That’s my job.”Saint Josephs Basketball University Coach Phil Martelli: “At all levels there should be an open line of communication, but parents should love their children and allow the coach to coach them. When you get down to it, everyone wants to do “good”, so we as teachers should reinforce it. As a coach you have to pause and remember one bad work could stay with an athlete a long time.”
2. Teachable moments- A good coach should take advantage of the opportunity to pass on a life lesson to an athlete in a respectful way. Constructive criticism has its place in every coach’s toolbox. In fact, a coach often shortchanges an athlete if he doesn’t take advantage of a teachable moment such as good sportsmanship, character, and respect and compassion for teammates and opponents.
A classic example of a teachable moment: Fly Williams one of the nation’s top scorers at Austin Peay in the 1970’s, once dribbled off the court to get a drink of water during a game and once took himself out of a game to sit in the stands with the fans because he didn’t like Coach Lake Kelly’s play selection. Kelly suspended Williams, his best player after calmly reminding him of the rules that everyone had to follow. Years later Kelly proudly honored Williams for his work with disadvantaged youth.
Jim Thompson: “The coach or mentor who wants to increase the number of teachable moments will become a student of the power of ideas—stories, metaphors and vision to help players become motivated to make more effort than they think is possible. If someone thinks highly of me but never communicates it, I do not benefit. As a coach, you can improve the self-esteem of your athletes in a number of ways. The key is to communicate that you accept and value them in ways that they can’t mistake, that you like them and that you endorse them.
3. Empathy- An athlete has to know that the coach truly cares for him or her, and is not just interested in what the athlete can do for the coach’s record or career. Empathetic coaches are not as common as they should be. As Coach Joe Vigil says, “The most important thing is to show them that you care.” All good coaches focus on the whole person and their emotional, social, and educational needs. Coach Vigil made an effort to study topics he wasn’t familiar with to build common discussion ground with his athletes. Dozens of Coach Vigil’s runners have gone onto coaching themselves because of his influence in their lives. All of the great coaches, as Marcus O’Sullivan says, see the big picture and consider the type of day their athlete is having and other variables. They are athlete focused rather than strictly outcome focused.
4. Positive Reinforcement- While constructive criticism has a place in coaching (see teachable moments above), the most valuable form of communication between athlete and coach or mentor is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement arouses positive emotions, which help to increase an athlete’s self-confidence and improve performance. Coach Daniels: “When I think of all the great runners I’ve known who have had to suffer through a tough coach-athlete relationship, it’s amazing to me that they reached the degree of success that they did. What we all tend to overlook more than we should is the importance of positive individual attention given to each athlete on the team. Nothing can replace the encouraging comments or understanding words of support from a quality coach.” A good coach focuses on the athletes’ strengths rather than weaknesses and helps to build their self-confidence.
|Famed Running Authors and Runners Hal Higdon and George Sheehan|
Courtesy of Leo Kulinski, Jr
Written by Jack Heath.This article also appeared in Runners Gazette Magazine: http://www.runnersgazette.com/
Jack Heath is the Cross-Country Coach of the Gloucester Catholic (NJ) Boys and Girls Cross Country Teams. He confirms that his coaches Browning Ross, Oscar Moore and Bill Fritz had all of the qualities of a positive coach, and that is one of the reasons he is coaching and still running 37 years after meeting his high school coach Browning Ross.