One thing never changes about coaching: the athletes who truly make the sacrifices worthwhile are those who maximize their potential, regardless of their talent level. Coaching elite athletes definitely massages the ego and validates your coaching methods, but the lasting rewards come with knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life, in knowing that an athlete has gotten the point of what all this training and competing is all about. When it happens with an elite athlete, it is very gratifying. When it happens with an “ordinary” athlete, it is equally gratifying. That’s what many people don’t understand about coaching.
In the past few years I have had the good fortune to coach some nationally-ranked hurdlers, most notably Johnny Dutch, on my club team. In those same years, my school team has been in a state of decline. I used to pride myself on how many good hurdlers we had, but to say that we’ve been struggling the past few years would be an understatement. The shift of my focus and energy toward my club athletes was created, in large part, by the graduation of the best hurdlers on my school team, and the lack of replacements. I was attending clinics where I was picking up many coaching ideas from the clinicians and fellow attendees, and I was learning much from the athletes and coaches I was interviewing for my website. But I had no athletes to use it all on.
In the midst of all the success with Dutch and the others, one girl on my school team has stood out. I first met Jessica Malitoris two years ago, when she arrived at Ravenscroft School as a freshman. On the first day of spring practice she tried the hurdles and had remarkably solid technique for a beginner. I walked up to her after one of her reps and said, “You must have run hurdles before.” She informed me that she had, in middle school, and that her coach was very good. There could be no doubt about that.
Jessica was a hard worker, a quick learner, and a dedicated athlete. At 5-5 with long legs, she had pretty good height for a hurdler. The only thing she lacked, unfortunately, was speed. So, from the beginning of our time together, she was a four-stepper. In the 300s she took eighteen steps for the first part of the race, and, before she got into shape, as many as twenty by the end. I really enjoyed working with her, and encouraged her to keep up the effort so that eventually she would be three-stepping.
Her sophomore year, she ran cross country to build up her endurance, and then trained several days a week with me during the winter. In those winter workouts, we did a lot of strength and speed-endurance stuff – sprinting up the bleachers, bounding up the bleachers, 800m repeats. We also did a good amount of hurdling, most of it at a slower pace, refining technique, smoothing out the minor flaws. On the warmer days, we’d do some faster hurdling, shorter sprints, and quickness drills, all with an emphasis on increasing her turnover.
By the end of her sophomore year Jes had improved to where she was the best hurdler on our team. She finished fourth in both the 100s and 300s at our independent school state meet, running in the high-16s and high-49s, respectively. Though she never three-stepped in a race that season, she was doing so with increasing regularity in practice. With the hurdles moved in one foot or two feet, she was three-stepping the second and third hurdles before reverting back to four-stepping. And her four-step was looking quicker, as I constantly reminded her that, to make up for the fact that she was taking an extra step, she had to be super-quick between the hurdles. Meanwhile, her ability to switch leads was proving very beneficial in the 300s.
While Jes felt a bit disappointed that she never three-stepped in a race her sophomore year, I didn’t feel upset at all. I knew that doing it in practice would not necessarily translate into doing it in a race. The one-and-done factor of a race cannot be duplicated in practice. You can only grow accustomed to racing by racing. I felt very confident that if she kept working the way she had been up to that point, she’d be three-stepping at least part of the race her junior year.
Throughout her junior year, I got to know Jes much better as a person. The more I grew to know her, the more I grew to respect her, and even admire her. For the first time in her high school career, I was her English teacher. Rare has been the athlete whom I have both coached and taught. And when it happens, it’s always special. Before I began teaching her, I loved Jes’ work ethic as a hurdler, but I didn’t deal with her in any other context. On the whole, she seemed a bit weird. When it rained at practice, she’d be the one dancing between the raindrops while everyone else ran for cover. When doing her warm-ups, she’d often look up at the sky and identify shapes in the clouds. “Ooh, look at that one!” she’d cry out, and then go on to explain what it looked like. Nobody would pay attention, but that didn’t lessen her enthusiasm. A normal conversation topic for Jes – in the hallways, at lunchtime, and even at practice – would have something to do with Greek mythology or the origins of the languages J.R.R. Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings. Yeah, weird.
But once I began teaching her every day in my American Literature class, I often found myself fascinated by her brilliant insights during class discussions, and also by her ability to clearly articulate her thoughts in her writing. From the first day of school, Jes impressed me with her independent nature. She seemed to be that rare teenager who genuinely didn’t care what others thought of her. She was comfortable in her own skin. That realization enabled me to see that we had a lot in common, besides a love for the hurdles. Like myself, she was an avid reader, she liked to write poetry. There was an artistic element to her character, a desire to explore beyond the parameters of GPAs, SAT scores, and going to the football game Friday night.
Sometimes Jes, along with another student that she was friends with, would eat lunch with me in my classroom. We’d share poetry and deep quotes we had found. Sometimes Jes would come by after school to extend the conversation. I found myself comfortable in her presence. She was a student of life, not merely a student of literature. I don’t get many like that. And when I do, it always makes me feel like the work I do is significant.
On the track, Jes was continuing to improve. In the winter we did more of the same types of workouts we did her sophomore year. I discovered that on the rare occasions when I ran with her, I was no longer able to keep up with her. Sure, I was getting older, but she was getting faster. Even in doing her warm-up drills, I was noticing an efficiency of effort and motion that I hadn’t seen before.
Once the spring came around, it was obvious that Jes was one of the best female athletes on our team. Elected captain by her teammates, she often helped me to show the newer kids how to do their A-skips, B-skips, and other warm-up drills properly. Her hurdling technique, meanwhile, was close to flawless. I remember thinking to myself during one hurdling workout that her technique was as good as Dutch’s, and that if hurdling were just a matter of technique, she’d too be a national champion.
In workouts, when doing 200s over the last five hurdles, Jes was maintaining a 17-step pattern the whole way. No 18-stepping at all. More than anything else, this development informed me that she had come much closer to being a three-stepper in the 100m hurdles. Her strides were longer because they were faster, not because she was reaching. She was running with excellent discipline – lifting her knees, driving her arms, allowing her knee lift to increase her stride length, resisting the temptation to overstride from the knee down.
By the midway point of the season, Jes was consistently three-stepping through the third hurdle before switching to a four-step the rest of the way. She seemed to be set for a breakthrough before lower leg pains slowed her down. Her achilles and her shins were giving her chronic problems – the kind that can derail a season if not dealt with properly. So I had her take three days off. The following Monday she practiced again, but the pain was still severe. So I had her take a full week off, which meant she would have to miss a meet. But a weekday meet, no matter how important it may seem at the time, is never as important as being healthy and prepared at the end of the year. I emphasized to her that in her week off, she needed to ice and take anti-inflammatories every day. She followed my instructions, and came back the following Monday with fresh legs.
Her first practice back, she three-stepped six hurdles without much strain at all. At the of the workout, we were both giddy with anticipation. She had never three-stepped beyond the fourth hurdle in practice. I told her, “Jes, if you can get six hurdles in practice, at the end of the workout, with no adrenaline pumping, you can get ten in a race.”
Around this time I lent her my copy of Zen in the Art of Archery, a popular book by German philosopher Eugen Herrigel. I read the book years ago, when I first started coaching. I always appreciated it on two levels. First, it gives a clear depiction of the nature of the relationship between athlete and coach. Herrigel learns through his exploration of the sport of archery that the coach’s role is to teach the athlete how to coach himself. Second, the book brings out the Zen concept of letting go, of not trying to force the issue. In reading the book, I had no problem adapting the lessons about archery to hurdling. I lent the book to Jes, feeling certain she would have no problem doing the same.
Being the voracious reader she is, she finished it in a couple days, despite the fact that she was keeping up with a bunch of AP classes in addition to my honors level course. At our conference championship meet that weekend, she was exuding a calm, positive energy the moment she arrived at the track. The sun was shining but the air was cool, and the wind for the 100m hurdles would be at her back. She and I talked briefly before the race. I reminded her to run fast, because it’s amazing how often hurdlers forget to run fast because they’re so focused on the hurdles. Usually, to avoid putting too much pressure on her, I would tell her to hold her three-step for three hurdles, or four hurdles, and then switch to four-stepping. But this time I felt a sense of urgency. The weather was right, her mind was right, and the chance to be a conference champion provided the necessary motivation. So if she was going to three-step this year, today was the day. “Trust your speed,” I reminded her, “because your speed will get you there.”
Minutes prior to the start of the 100m hurdle race, I was standing near the finish line. Directing my gaze to the starting line area, I saw the strangest sight: Jes was sitting behind her blocks, her eyes closed, her legs folded, her open palms resting on her knees, facing the sky. Look at her, I thought to myself, awed that she would sit in lotus position like that in the middle of everything, right before a race. Look at her, little Jessie Buddha. At that moment I knew she would run a great race.
And it also hit me just how great a student she was. Another book I had suggested to her was Siddhartha – Herman Hesse’s classic retelling of the life of Gautama Siddhartha. No, I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not an anything-ist. I’m a hurdle coach. And if I find something that I think will help my hurdlers to run better races and become better people, I will lead them to it. Jessie, I knew from her pose, had read the book, even though she hadn’t mentioned it to me. She was energized, yet she was calm. She was entering a mental state in which she could perform at her peak.
The race itself was a work of art. She got out of the blocks quickly and took an early lead. She three-stepped the second and third hurdles with ease and gained command of the race. At the sixth hurdle she was still three-stepping and I found myself saying aloud, “She’s gonna three-step the whole way.” She did. Her hurdling was fluid, her technique crisp and efficient. She won easily in a hand-timed 15.8, more than a half-second faster than her previous personal best.
After crossing the finish line, she did the same spinning dance she would always do in the rain. The emotion was genuine. It was pure, it was innocent, and it touched me deeply. She didn’t even know her time yet. She was celebrating the feeling, not the result. That’s as real as it gets. And before I even said anything to her, before I walked up to congratulate her, I just stood there smiling, amazed at what she had accomplished. I alone fully understood the magnitude of her achievement. She had raised her mind, body, and spirit into a heightened state of awareness, had completely let go of desires, hopes, and fears, and had thereby given herself the space to run the type of race she had trained to run.
At the state championships the following week, the hurdlers faced a strong headwind in the prelims and finals, so Jes was only able to three-step the first four hurdles before losing it. Still, she ran an FAT personal best of 16.43, and also broke 49-flat for the first time in the 300s. But what I’ll take away from it all isn’t the times she ran or even the full-race three-step of the conference meet. What I’ll take away is the image of her sitting in that Buddha pose. I have never in my life seen anyone so prepared for a competition.
Yeah, Jes is weird, but no weirder than the rest of us. The difference, I realize now, is that she’s not afraid to show it.
© 2007 Steve McGill