By Anne Stricherz
Many cross country coaches keep running competitively during and beyond the season as a personal priority. Joining running clubs and training alongside other runners allows one to experience other coaching styles first-hand while gaining new insights, ideas and tips into the sport. Even working out in a class at a gym can prove to be personally and professionally worthwhile.
For example, when I told one instructor I use his term “aggressive breathing” with my team, we had an interesting conversation about how important but challenging it can be to know what terms resonate with those you coach. Yes, we all learn through reading or talking to other coaches, but “learning by doing” adds another dimension. When a coach transitions to an athlete, many valuable lessons await.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to row with the Lake Merritt Rowing Club in Oakland, California, the very place where I learned to row before college. It is wishful thinking to say that returning to Lake Merritt after not rowing for so long, was “like riding a bicycle.” Muscle memory forbids athletes from forgetting the baseline fundamentals of their sport, so the experience was not in vain; however, returning to the role of athlete requires practice, patience and coaching. A transitional experience like this can be humbling, challenging and insightful. It can afford a coach with a newfound and deepened appreciation for what it means to be the one in need of instruction – there is much to learn, lose and love in the process.
What to learn
Do not underestimate the importance of communication
The key to any good relationship is clear and continuous communication. Coaches know they should articulate, explain, reinforce and even model what they expect of their athletes; however, several instances come to mind where the temptation to not communicate presses.
For example, my cross country team begins practice by gathering in the bleachers to learn the plan for the week in addition to the day’s workout. It often appears as though about 10 of the 70 girls are listening. Coaches compete with a bevy of distractions – the football team, what their athletes ate for lunch (or didn’t!) and the demands of the school day.
Like me, you may wonder if it’s really worth your time. Yet in my return as an athlete, I appreciated knowing what is expected each day of the week: Mondays are for technique, Wednesdays are aerobic, Fridays combine drills with hard pieces and Saturdays vary because we have more time to row. This plan thoroughly helps mental preparation. Athletes may think they need to eat something hearty because workouts on Wednesday are physically demanding. Trust that each individual athlete reaps some physical, mental or social benefit in team communication.
From time to time, every coach is not as organized as he or she would like to be. We can all recall frenzied times when we weren’t at our best. Coaches are leaders, and they are expected to be in control – though it may be difficult to admit otherwise.
From my perspective now as an athlete, my teammates are significantly more focused when we are informed of the day’s workout before we hit the water. Otherwise, a general anxiety lingers in the boat until we know what is expected of us. Ideally, both athletes and coaches would always come to practice organized and prepared. For those times when coaches are not organized, they owe it to their athletes to communicate what they can.
Communication is a two-way street
At times, practice is long and arduous, even from the coaching perspective. Occasionally, coaches don’t want to take that extra five minutes to talk to a runner about something they hope will just go away or that an athlete can fix on his or her own. However, in returning to the role of an athlete – the person in need of coaching – I crave that outreach.
Athletes are hungry to know what their coach sees, and many truly want to improve. The interior monologue of the athlete raises questions such as “Did I make the adjustment she recommended effectively?” or “How can I increase my flexibility?” Such conversations are better suited for when we are “off the water.” The time after practice allows for dialogue and creative problem-solving.
One time, my coach even drew a sketch to visualize how to amend my stroke. Although we laughed at her illustrations, she helped me grasp the technique. Good coaching does not assume that athletes will improve by doing; good coaching initiates outreach so that athletes can succeed. Communication is paramount.
Here lies a paradox: It is important to let teens advocate for themselves and approach those in authority with their questions. My transition to athlete has reminded me that this can occasionally be difficult to do. Is now the time to ask? Is it really a big deal? Upon resuming coaching, I will encourage my runners to take the initiative to communicate with me as I will with them. Provide a presence that indicates that you are open and willing to talk. Encourage your captains to model this philosophy of communication. It takes time and may even be a risk, but it is central to improving individually and as a team.
What to lose
Many of us carry biases that can get in the way of good coaching. Returning as an athlete has helped me recognize one bias I carry that is worth losing. Many view this generation of young people as coddled and cajoled by the belief that is a winner. My response to this mentality has hindered my skill as a coach. To combat the belief that these kids grew up receiving prizes for everything, positive feedback should only be given when it is deserved. My transition from coach to athlete has encouraged me to think otherwise.
Not all of our athletes are maestros or naturally competitive. They need encouragement, and a little affirmation can go a long way. On the water, rowers are frequently told what they need to fix by both the coxswain and the coach. When a rower hears that they have made a good adjustment, he or she thrives. It can sustain focus and increase the desire to try to repeat the positive change. When the athlete doesn’t hear anything, it is very easy to get depressed. Different coaches have different philosophies such as “sandwich a recommendation between two commendations.” Whatever ratio of positive to negative remarks you decide to give, be sure the positive is loud and clear.
What we love
Without a doubt, athletes love being on a team. Athletes join organized sports because competition and play is fun, and so is being a member of a team. Obviously, without seven other rowers and a coxswain, crew is a different sport. Being on a team again has helped me realize the value in committing to something larger than myself and my own goals. Being late or missing practice impacts others.
Returning to the role of athlete gives a deepened appreciation for the unique talents each individual brings to the whole. For example, when I told my teammate, Dana, after practice that I loved rowing behind her, she was caught off guard and said, “Most people don’t like sitting behind me because they get wet” (due to her backsplash). When I responded by saying, “You pull harder than anyone else on this team and I know you’re extremely competitive. I’m competitive, but I need someone else to fire me up,” I verified what I know in myself through the example of another athlete. I will encourage my runners to recognize the gifts their teammates bring to the team and learn from their example. Who on this team runs hills hard? Who really knows when to pass a girl? It is much more fun to learn and work together.
Not all coaches may have the opportunity to participate in a sport different from the one they coach, but participating on a team, pushing yourself as an athlete and setting goals can be a great opportunity to test yourself and examine what you can learn, what you need to lose and what you love about the sport. There are things to take with us and things to leave on the water – or on and off the trail – as a coach or an athlete.
About the Author: Anne Stricherz is a teacher and cross country coach at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, California. She is currently writing a book entitled Sports & Spirituality: A Symbiosis.