By Bryan Mack
The greatest part about coaching the sport you used to play is getting to help others experience the same feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie that you experienced, but on a larger scale. It’s extremely rewarding to be a part of that process. However, just because you’re a former athlete, that doesn’t mean you have all the answers—it’s still a long road full of mistakes.
We all start our coaching careers from different angles, and the entry point from which we start plays a role in the way those mistakes present themselves. Former athletes have an insight into the players’ experiences that may initially create rapport, but that background also comes with a unique set of challenges that we must overcome to efficiently transition from athlete to successful coach.
Below are four common mistakes young coaches make as they transition from competing to coaching. I have made all of these mistakes myself, and am in a constant battle to prevent myself from continuing to repeat them. Being self-aware of your shortcomings is the first step to correcting them, and ultimately becoming a better coach.
Copy-and-Pasting Your Program
“It’s what I did, and I got better.”
Probably the most common mistake athletes make as we transition to a coaching role is repeating what we did as an athlete in the hopes of passing that same success along to our athletes. Although done with the best intentions, your training was designed for athletes at your specific level, with your resources, on your schedule, and a methodology that was influenced by your coach’s philosophy, mentors, personality, work ethic, and biases, to name just a few factors. All of those variables will always be present in your decisions as a coach, but they do not manifest the same way for you as they did for your coach.A mistake athletes make as we transition to a coaching role is repeating what we did as an athlete, says @TJMack53. Click To Tweet
The ranking of KPIs (key performance indicators) such as acceleration, top speed, speed endurance, and work capacity—and the time spent at each—will differ greatly for athletes of different levels and genders, such as a male collegiate short sprinter and a female high school short sprinter. For a high school female, a bigger emphasis on speed endurance and work capacity is necessary due to lower training age, the need to achieve top speed earlier in the race, and less distance being covered while at that speed—meaning a larger percent of her race will be deceleration. The male collegiate sprinter, on the other hand, may get 70 meters into the 100m dash before deceleration occurs. Consequently, the density of speed endurance can be slightly deemphasized for the male.
The reverse can also be true. How efficiently are you spending your time training a male collegiate sprinter for the 100m dash doing intensive tempo intervals 3x a week, when the training adaptation from that stimulus constitutes 30% of your race? Copy-and-pasting will yield underperformance.
Even variables like weather and location affected what your coach gave you as an athlete. Whether you realize it or not, your program’s training methodology was influenced by the weather and what you were able to do at any given time of the year. A change in location could completely derail your previous training if your program called for Block 60s in January, but the Northeast’s weather will prevent you from even glancing at the track until April, let alone spiking up.The varying personality types from coach to coach may alter the success of certain methodologies, says @TJMack53. Click To Tweet
Another example occurs in personality differences that influence coaching styles. The varying personality types from coach to coach may alter the effectiveness of certain methodologies: A very level, mellow demeanor may be contraindicating to administering a Tony Holler-esque “Feed the Cats” program, where creating an extremely high level of athlete arousal is needed to make that low volume dosage effective. It’s not impossible, by any means, but when you take a coach’s personality into consideration, you may realize that their way of leading and communicating with their athletes was an extension of their personality and not a chosen method.
The inability to step outside of your success and biases to seek new information can box you in. Like all things, there is a spectrum—once headed too far in the other direction, a different problem arises.
The Walking Textbook
This problem stems from the opposite playing experience of that mentioned above. When a former athlete feels they did not have a positive competing experience and could have achieved more if given the opportunity to train at a higher quality, we run into this archetype. The “walking textbook” effect comes into play when we place a higher emphasis on science than on people. Every coaching decision we make is determined by the latest research. We forget that we coach the people in front of us and not the parameters of the most recent studies; we think finding the perfect workout is more important than the athlete’s intent, so we spend more time writing and tweaking the program than on building an environment where the training is done with purpose.
After my first year of coaching the sprints, one example always stuck out to me. Pretty much every resource for information I used at the time (books, manuals, interviews, podcasts, etc.) said to do acceleration or absolute speed work on Monday. So, I did. Every single week. While I thought I was executing the perfect program, I missed the obvious reality right in front me: Some of my athletes weren’t ready to train the Monday after a meet. Had I been less attached to the prescription, I would have swapped Monday and Tuesday, done a general day on Monday, and then assessed whether athletes were ready to hit it on Tuesday.When we are too reliant on research, we can miss opportunities to build trust with our athletes, says @TJMack53. Click To Tweet
Now, there are worse problems than being too reliant on the research, but where this mistake is really going to affect your program is the working relationship between you and your athletes. You’ll miss the opportunity to build the type of trust that comes from involving them in the training process and valuing their input. I won’t ever say that you can’t be effective being the textbook, but you’ll miss some crucial coaching moments.
Lack of Long-Term Vision
This mistake is extremely common in former athletes who start coaching without strong mentorship. Thinking back to our mindset as a young athlete, we all remember the feeling of needing to PR every meet despite our coach’s reassurance that the process would take care of itself over time. As we got older and we experienced bad practices, bad meets, and even bad seasons that turned out fine in the long run, we started to learn that performance can have up waves and down waves, all while ultimately trending upwards until the most important meets of the year. Essentially, when we’re young, we can’t see past the next meet. Over time, we learn to see the big picture.
When an athlete transitions into coaching, sometimes we must relearn that process from the coaching perspective. Where does an athlete need to be in November in order to lead to success in May or June? What does a 24.00 200m in May look like in the first few indoor competitions? A young coach’s gut feeling is a fear of failure, because their instinct isn’t based on any experience in long-term success.
We often panic after a bad performance the same way we used to as a young athlete—our gut instinct is to do more work, or even alter the program as a knee-jerk reaction to make KPI No. 1 the skill or quality our athlete just underperformed in this week. The long-term vision solution is to stay the course. Stay healthy, continue training your KPIs, and you’ll be right where you need to be four months from now, when it matters.Trust in your program and look long-term, says @TJMack53. Click To Tweet
During my apprenticeship program at ALTIS, I remember Dan Pfaff commenting on young coaches and this remark of his will always stick with me: “Experienced coaches’ worst fear is doing too much, young coaches’ worst fear is not doing enough.” Resist the urge to panic, resist the urge to do those “where are they at” workouts in season, resist the knee-jerk reaction to a poor performance. Trust in your program and look long-term.
Cookbook Coaching: What, How, Why?
Everyone starts their coaching career enamored by the “what.” “What’s the best workout for a 200 runner who decelerates the last 50?” “What’s the ideal workout for a triple jumper with that horrible second step phase?” “What drill can help you get a faster start?” It’s why you can go to any coaching clinic or seminar, and most of the people just want to be given a workout.
When we athletes transition to coaches, we’ve known the “what” for the past 4-10 years but have very little experience understanding physiology, physics, and kinesiology to know why our coach gave us what they did. But we are still highly competitive after the transition, so to find success right away, we latch onto the “what” for quick results and disregard seeking the “why.”
Often, this problem is a continuation of the first mentioned problem above if not solved. Don’t get me wrong—there is value in trying to get experience using someone’s program and seeking success early—but if you don’t seek to understand the how and why behind the what, the odds are very unlikely that you will have a high success rate in any training group, and even fewer odds that the ones who do find success are performing at their potential. You may have the super stars at the top, but then there are 25% who have a moderate career and 25% who don’t get past their high school (thinking collegiately) PRs, while the other 25% is a mix between the athletes who lose their love for the sport and those who are out for the season.
Imagine printing off a Gordon Ramsay recipe and preparing that recipe 30 times in 30 different kitchens, all with slightly different variables. Some have convection ovens, some have standard ovens, some have burners that burn hotter than others, some have restaurant-grade frying pans and pots, some have just a microwave, etc. What are the odds that meal comes out Gordon Ramsay quality all 30 times just because you used a Gordon Ramsay’s recipe? Some may be restaurant quality, some may be passable, some may taste great but look awful, some may look great but taste awful, some may be completely inedible, and one time the kitchen may burn down before you even finish. Why? Because you didn’t understand the ingredients used in the recipe. You applied the exact same recipe to every situation without knowing how or what ingredients to manipulate in response to the slight variations to end up with the same quality meal.If you can’t apply ‘what, how, why’ to your training menu, you don’t understand the ingredients, says @TJMack53. Click To Tweet
The same goes for applying the “What, How, Why” to the training items on your menu. You can’t make changes to your program to account for the variability in people to yield the same results because you don’t understand what you’ve prescribed. How can you effectively train the 100m dash if you don’t truly know the KPIs of the event, let alone whether the workouts you’ve chosen efficiently change those KPIs? If you’re doing a workout and your “why” is to get strong or build a base, ask yourself how exactly do you define strength? Building a base in what? If you can’t answer these questions, you don’t understand the ingredients.
As we go through an athlete’s career, we WILL guess wrong and there will most likely be injuries that pop up here and there. When we guess wrong, our job is to problem-solve and find the ingredients responsible. And when an athlete gets injured, we must work with our physio staff to construct a Plan B that keeps in all the necessary ingredients to minimize the training gap while on the mend.
Good luck with either of those if you only know the “what.” We can’t reverse-engineer what we never engineered in the first place. Cookbook coaching may yield some superstars, but will ultimately fail in maximizing the potential of a roster.Cookbook coaching may yield some superstars, but ultimately fail in maximizing a roster’s potential, says @TJMack53. Click To Tweet
The most important thing is to accept that failure is inevitable. Like Pfaff says: “The school of hard knocks is the best teacher!” The best we can do is put ourselves in a position to make the most educated guesses possible through education, experience, mentorship, and self-evaluation. The latter will always be the most difficult, as self-evaluation requires us to acknowledge our mistakes. But every mistake, including the four mentioned, presents an opportunity to grow and become a better coach.