There comes a time in a cross country coaching career when the last steps are taken to cement a personal coaching philosophy. Done too early, the philosophy will lack the experience that is necessary to really have meaning. Done too late, it will not serve as the guiding light that it needs to be to join the ranks of successful coaches.
There is a common progression of leadership development that cross country coaches follow in becoming confident in what they do. It begins with nothing more than ambition and desire that eventually gathers experience and results. This is the formula for success.
Cross country teams that are thriving and successful can be described in many ways, but what they all have in common is a coach that is a steadfast leader. The list of commonalities in successful cross country coaches is short. It is well worth the time to see if you have the broad traits present in your coaching philosophy as you build your teams to the next level.
1. Successful coaches ask the most questions. Whether it is endurance coaching, the business world, or whatever, the people with the best resumes seldom talk about themselves. They want to ask questions about what you do. They ask questions about your program, and your situation, how things affect you. It may not be because they are uncomfortable talking about all their success, more because they may be looking for anything you do that they may want to incorporate into what they do. There is just a natural curiosity there. Others usually seize the moment to brag about what they or their athletes have done or will do. We have learned to avoid these types of people.
2. All successful coaches have an ego. Now get over it. They may not talk much about themselves, but what they do say may seem a little strong to you. They have a strong level of confidence and are sure of themselves. This turns a lot of people off that do not want to work that hard. Others justify their own feelings by thinking they would not like to be like them any way. Or, that their own program does not have the built in advantages of the successful coach.
3. All successful coaches look for the “go” button. Every human being is capable of being motivated. Athletes come to your team for a variety of reasons; the important part is they have joined your team. There is not a go button that motivates all athletes; indeed there is a separate one for each. It is the coaches, not the athletes, job to find that button. Understanding each athlete’s parents motivation may help, but the important piece is in understanding the athlete you work with every day.
4. Successful coaches know that motivation must follow science. In the United States we have the greatest sport specific scientific base in the world. Our biomechanical, physiological and psychological labs have the best scientists and technology. Yet, so many coaches of all disciplines fail to truly understand the science behind their sport. Endurance, speed, flexibility, strength and coordination are the components of every sport. When to apply concepts such as overload, recovery, and periodization must be designed and applied before we are ready to motivate the athlete to perform. The coach must constantly study the research material, subscribe to technical publications and listen to the scientists. This will help much more than copying what they do at the school down the road.
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5. Successful coaches have more expectations than rules. Setting up rules is a big part of successful discipline. Many coaches go completely overboard with this, trying to anticipate all that could possibly happen, and setting up rules to address them. Obviously, there are societal and team rules that everybody must follow, but they are few. Everything else is based on expectation. Discipline and motivation is a very personal thing. Successful teams have athletes that have earned certain things due to their history of contribution to the team. The more they contribute the more trust and understanding that are earned. Everybody is not treated the same, fair is seldom equal.
6. Successful coaches never take ownership. My team, my runner, my program, these are all ownership statements. It is never “my”. That is not what a team is about. The coach is just one of the vital parts that must constantly be present for success. Too many coaches imply and even say things that the athletes view as misdirected ownership. You own things, not people and teams.
7. Successful coaches know that professionalism costs nothing. To be a professional indicates that you are at the pinnacle. Your coaching career must be treated that way. If you treat it like an after-school activity, that is how it will stay. If you treat it like a profession it will be so much more. Coaching involves constant study, planning and improvement. Little things like how you dress, and how you greet and address people needs to be done as a professional. Athletes usually love their coach, because unlike their parents, the coach is always showing them new and different things. Do it as a professional.
8. Successful coaches never follow a compliment with a “but”. The initial contact the coach has with an athlete following competition is the main basis for their relationship. Compliments make a point, and criticism makes a point. Do not mix them into the same sentence. Most of the time you will give them something positive to walk away with, leave it at that. On the other hand, if the effort was poor, let them know immediately. If it was mostly good, the next practice will be a perfect time to add in the things that were not so good.
9. Successful coaches do not see problems, only challenges. Putting a successful team together is a great challenge, and you should treat it that way. The challenge is compounded with a public that feels they can do a better job. Like all challenging occupations, there will be problems. Focusing on the problems diminishes your ability to see the big picture, and thus make the crucial intuitive decisions that occur at every practice. To view something as a challenge, rather then a problem puts hope into your thinking and communication. The athletes will perform better with that mindset.
10. Successful coaches work in isolation. Your program is your program, a unique set of principles and expectations that are specific to your team. It needs to be studied, modified and kept updated. Research needs to be done. All of this calls for private and secluded work. In Europe, the best coaches have a small building away from their house that serves as a secluded office to study their work. Away from distractions, and other influences. The most important realization is the one you make that what you do is indeed unique. Not just a program that you copied from others.
The cross country athlete meets the sport at the coach. You will have challenges to your professional, personal, and emotional existence if you choose to be a career coach. Success does not have to be measured in conference and state championships. However, these will follow after forming a strong philosophy for your program.
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Cross country coaches should read the science of their sport, and they should also read about the lives of successful coaches outside of running. The principle for success, professionalism, and preparation is best learned while not cluttered around training. It is about dealing with people as much as dealing with the sport.
Success is something all driven people hope for. Winning is important, but not the only important thing. A coach does not have to win all the time, but they do not have to apologize for winning either. Set a philosophy that matches your personality and go with it.
P.S. An ideal way to succeed as a coach is to learn from other successful coaches. You can do just that at the Complete Track and Field Summer Clinic, held at Harvard University:
Scott Christensen is the head track coach at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, MN.