Bob Sevene is one of the coaches who has had a profound impact on my coaching career. In a speech he delivered many years ago called, “Building Your Own Road to Success,” Bob began with a line I will never forget: “I could have coached Mary Decker all wrong and she would have gone out and run a 4:20 1500.” That line really surprised me because it’s something I never expected a coach of elite athletes to say. From that point on, I was hooked. I copied just about every word Bob shared after that.
Bob’s point was that, as coaches, we can get carried away by our own sense of importance. He emphasized that distance running is basically 90% attitude and ability, and 5% coaching.
Bob believed that all coaches basically have five methods at their disposal: overdistance, fartlek, intervals, repetition, and sprint training. Over the years, we have learned a great deal about each of these, and most coaches have developed a good grasp of these methods. But Bob said that it is the skill at applying these elements that separates the average coach from the great coach, or, more realistically, the average athlete from the great athlete.
Bob also impressed me with his candid analysis of the top training systems that many of us have adapted to our specific situations. Bob pointed out that younger coaches need to understand that these well-recognized systems were designed by individuals who have worked with high quality, genetically gifted, world-class athletes.
That made sense to me, because even in my limited expertise as a small school high school coach, the years I was most frequently invited to speak at state association clinics were the years I was blessed with state champions or record holders.
Bob believed that the problem with focusing on “winning coaches” is that these coaches can be influenced by the particular athletes they have been training. He applauded their approaches, though, and acknowledged their contributions to the profession; noting that their programs are not only solid, but based on years of experience and experimentation. Nevertheless, the reality is that these coaches work with athletes between the ages of 18 and 30 who have been training and racing since their early teens. Their performance levels also have made them attractive to club coaches, and this means that they have advanced training ages.
Bob’s insights focused on coaches like me—individuals who work with high-school-aged runners with varying degrees of motivation, commitment, and talent. Distance runners are not made overnight, but over years of focused training. Because of this reality, Bob emphasized the importance of patience and gradual development. Long before approaches like David Brailsford’s concept of the “aggregation of marginal gains,” Bob grasped the significance of small gains adding up to remarkable improvement.'Patience is really the only secret recipe for a prolonged and successful career.' ~Bob Sevene Click To Tweet
He noted that the legendary Boston Bill Rodgers ran for more than seven years before his first marathon and, even with that background, he did not finish the race. “Patience,” Bob said, “is really the only secret recipe for a prolonged and successful career.”
Bob enjoyed sharing the objectives that he tried to achieve through his training. He mentioned the significance of developing speed, building strength, and sustaining gradual development.
“Incorporate speed,” he said, “or near all-out speed, in every workout.” I liked that, because it fit with my emerging overarching philosophy. It emphasizes the significance of training to race and not simply training to train.
I also found three other points of his to be great advice. First, he believed in devising training simulators of what he referred to as the “critical psychological stages of competition.” These are things like hanging with a competitor and drafting, racing tactics, and what he called the “moment of truth”—when an athlete needs to go through what he refers to as the common denominator of all racing: the ability to handle pain.
Second, Bob suggested creating ways to avoid boredom, and increase motivation and enthusiasm. This concept is still held in high regard to this day. As contemporary coach Frans Bosch notes regarding strength gains, “Variability, and avoiding monotony, must be major cornerstones of training.”
Third, Bob emphasized maintaining consistency in life rhythms and patterns. Without regularity,” he said, “even the best training is all but useless.”
So Bob, if you’re reading this, thanks for all that you’ve done for me. You were the first “big time” coach who advised me to evaluate the ideas of others, not with the intent of immediately adapting their proven systems, but to see if I could incorporate their ideas into my overarching philosophy. Your goal was to help coaches like me to think, and to evaluate our training in order to add—or in some cases, get rid of—the ingredients for achieving our goals. “Above all,” you said, “devise your own system of training geared to the lifestyle and goals of your athletes.”
Your great advice served me well for the greater part of the first 40 years of my coaching career, and perhaps explains why I still look forward to fall cross country and spring track.
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