Don’t Take it so Hard, Coach

While we can all agree that coaches must not allow themselves to live vicariously through their athletes, we would also have to agree that it is kind of hard not to. The quality of the coaching is generally measured by the performance of the athletes. If they succeed, you succeed; if they fail, you fail. The level of their performance serves as the basis for evaluating your performance. There’s no way around it. The success of your athletes is the foundation upon which you build your confidence and credibility. To be more direct, it is also the foundation upon which you build your resume. But is it possible to separate yourself emotionally from the performance of your athletes, to not take it home with you? Not only is it possible, it is necessary.

The younger you are as a coach, the harder it is to separate yourself from taking everything personally. You’re still in the mode of, “If I was out there running, I could whup all their asses,” or, “Back in my day, I never would’ve let a sucker like that beat me.” That’s why it’s hard to coach when you’re young. But even as you get older and your body lets you know that there’s no way you could go out there and do anything without pulling muscles you didn’t even know you had, the competitor in you still wants to win, so distancing yourself emotionally from the performance of your athletes, while at the same time giving all you have to facilitate their success, is a very difficult thing to do; it is a constant balancing act, and you have to continually look yourself in the mirror to make sure you’re not allowing yourself to lose your identity and peace of mind for the sake of a few races.

I know that I’m someone who gets very emotionally involved on the day of a big race. Back when I was competing, I didn’t like to talk or socialize with anyone, even my closest teammates, when an important meet was coming up. I would be getting into the zone the night before the race, so, on the day of, forget about it. Leave me alone. As a coach, I’m still the same way on the inside, but on the outside, I’ll control my emotions and focus on mentally preparing my athletes for their competition. But once I’ve done that, and all I can do is sit in the bleachers and watch with everybody else, that’s when I revert back to who I was as an athlete. Back then, I would pace back and forth in my lane in the moments leading up to a race. That’s how I kept myself calm; it’s how I channeled my nervous energy. Recently, at the USATF regional youth track meet this past summer, our team had hurdlers competing in back-to-back-to-back races. In just about every age group, we had somebody who was trying to make it to nationals. Well, without even consciously thinking about it, I started pacing back and forth in the bleachers. My coaching partners and team parents around me were getting annoyed with me and giving me funny looks, but I didn’t even notice them until one of them said, “Hey Steve, you need to calm down.”

If you’re anything like me, you can’t help but get emotionally involved when your kids are competing. When you put a lot of time in with the athletes, when you see them grow and start to “get” what this sport is all about, and what training and competing are all about, you desperately want to see them do well. You desperately want to see that glow in their eyes that can only come with success. It’s not about your own ego; you want it for them, so that they can have some positive memories to carry with them through the rest of their lives. So, I’ve basically decided that, the whole thing of “Hey, it’s just a race,” and “Whatever happens happens” and “Just do the best you can” simply doesn’t work for me. I’m a competitor; I want my kids to win. My approach now – and it works better than you might think – is to be philosophical after the race. I know that sounds stupid, but check it out: Deep down, I know that winning isn’t everything, that there are plenty of important life lessons to learned from losing, that a genuine effort, win or lose, is worthy of praise, and can often even be very gratifying. I also know that, win or lose, the daily tasks and routines of life – going to work, paying the bills, etc. – don’t go away. And I also know that the people who really know me and really love me will still love me no matter how my kids do at a track meet. After a race, I find it easier to acknowledge all that, and to see the truth of it much more clearly. I even find myself wondering sometimes why I let myself get so emotionally involved to begin with. The honest fact of the matter is, if I know my kids truly did give their best effort, I am genuinely at peace with their performance, win or lose. That wasn’t always the case.

I remember in one of my first years as a coach, I had a girl who was four-stepping and doing very well with it in the 100m hurdles, at least on the level of the small conference we were in. At a rival school there was another girl, a taller girl, who also four-stepped, and was running the same times as my girl. When they met head-to-head in two dual meets during the regular season, the other girl won the first meeting, and my girl won the second time around. So, I felt confident going into the conference meet that my girl would win again, as she was peaking at just the right part of the season. But then I got faked out. The other girl three-stepped at the conference meet and beat my girl decisively. I was so disgusted with myself. Why hadn’t I seen that coming? Why hadn’t I planned for the fact that the other girl might learn to three-step? Why hadn’t I taught my girl to do so? Why had I allowed myself to grow complacent? I tormented myself over that mistake. Daytime, night-time, waking, sleeping. It was all I could think about, and I could not forgive myself.

Since then, I’ve come to realize that making mistakes is part of coaching. The best you can do is prepare yourself for all potentialities, prepare your kids for all potentialities, and put your training on the track when it’s time to put it on the track. I made a bone-headed mistake this past summer when I let a kid run in a relatively meaningless invitational meet although he was nursing a sore groin. He was a warrior – one of those kids who hates to miss practice and especially hates to miss races for any reason – so he convinced me he was good to go, although he really wasn’t. He ended up aggravating the injury, and, looking back on it the next day, it was glaringly obvious to me that I shouldn’t have let him run, that I should have pulled rank on him and said, “No, you’re not running. Stay off your legs until your groin gets better.” But I let him convince me to let him run even though I could tell in practice that he wasn’t attacking the hurdles with his usual aggression. But I didn’t beat myself up over my mistake this time. I just made a mental note to myself that I need to be the one to make the decision on whether an athlete sits out or not. My general rule is to trust the athlete, since it’s his body, and he knows what he’s feeling. But now I realize that the intensely competitive athletes will straight-up lie to you if they think you won’t let them run, so you have to be able to see through that and base your decision on how they look in practice and while warming up, not by what they tell you.

The truth is, the performance of the athletes on any single given day doesn’t prove anything about your worth as a coach one way or the other. Even the acknowledged great ones struggle. Pat Riley won five championships in Los Angeles, but couldn’t ever win another one in all his years of coaching the Knicks and Heat. (Yeah, Michael Jordan may have had something to do with that, but you get my point). Mike Holmgren went to two super bowls with the Green Bay Packers, won one, but hasn’t even made it to the playoffs in all the time he’s spent in Seattle. Has he? So can we call those two coaches geniuses who simply lost their competitive edge? I don’t know, but all those championships couldn’t have been an illusion. Ultimately, consistency over a period of time will provide the evidence that you’re doing something right, not just having a prodigy here or there whom you can ride to fame and glory. The reason that coaches like Bill Parcells, Roy Williams, and Mike Holloway, to name a few, are so well-respected, is because they have achieved success year after year, with varying personnel. As a coach, it is important to not get caught up in comparing your success to that of other coaches. Don’t start counting how many of your kids made it to regionals or nationals compared to so-and-so’s kids, etc. When you start doing that, especially if you start doing it on a regular basis, that’s when coaching does become egocentric, that’s when it is more about you than it is about the kids, and that’s when you need to take two steps back and re-evaluate your motivations for being a coach.

A final I’ll mention has to do with an excellent piece of advice I once received from a coaching friend of mine a few years ago. The words he spoke to me were simple, but true: “You can’t want it more than they do.” The point he was making was that if a coach wants an athlete to succeed more than the athlete does himself, then there’s really not much of anything the coach can do for that athlete, besides just grow more and more frustrated with him. It’s rather deflating to work with kids, to put time into building their confidence and self-esteem, as well as their skill level, only to have them continually look for reasons to miss practice or avoid challenges. You can’t teach work ethic, and you can’t teach a love for the sport. Losing sleep over kids who lack self-motivation is a trap we all fall into, especially when the kids are exceptionally talented. But we have to detach ourselves emotionally from kids like that, and focus our energies on the ones who care.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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