Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 10 Mar 2007 05:57:43 -0500

Coaching Lessons


(rerun from March 2001 RW)

Coaching was the topic of the day at the Royal Victoria Marathon. At a breakfast talk of mine a woman identified herself as "self-coached" and wanted to know how to work better with that team of one. At dinner the speakers joined in a tribute to a pair of coaches who'd worked with hundreds of runners through four decades.

The honorees were Doug and Diane Clement, Canadians who met at the 1956 Olympics, later married and then founded a track club in the Vancouver area. Now they were easing into semi-retirement. In my brief salute I thanked them as representatives the early coaches who had helped me, and apologized to them as stand-ins for the coaches I'd given grief.

I mentioned the familiar and fitting line that dealing with any group of runners is like trying to herd cats. We're headstrong by nature, drawn to an activity that encourages going our own way. Through high school and college I was one wild kitty, determined to follow my own course even when it split from the coach's.

Dean Roe, Bob Karnes and others sometimes rolled their eyes in frustration over my cat-like meanderings. But they stood by me all the while, letting me make my own mistakes while trying to find my way. I'll always remember them for that, and dedicating books to them is too small a way to say thanks and I'm sorry. They helped me more than the coach or athlete knew at the time.

In Victoria I asked the runners, "How many of you are self-coached?" Hands went up all over the room. Then I told of the woman who'd used this description of herself earlier that day. She'd gone on to say that she took her leads from articles and books, and the conflicting advice sometimes confused her.

She might not have a coach she can look in the eye and ask for clarification, but neither is she self-coached. None of us truly acts alone. We all can point to people who gave us advice, encouragement, inspiration and assistance, either in person or indirectly.

I too used to pride myself on being self-coached. Training and racing plans from early high school onward were largely of my own design -- or so I thought at the time. Now I know better. Every athlete I admired, every writer whose advice I read and speaker I heard, every running mate who served as a sounding board contributed to "my" running practices.

Without looking far, you can name coaches like this who might never have known the effect they had on you. And you might not realize that you can BE such a coach without recruiting a team, and without even writing an article or conducting a workshop.

You can be a coach simply by being a good runner. By "good" I don't necessarily mean fast, but one who offers a good example of running's requirements and rewards. Then you might prompt someone to ask you that most flattering of questions, "Can you help me?"

What we do well, others might want to copy. If each of us can teach just one person to run, we have coached. If we coach just two people, we've helped the sport grow.

For all the trouble I caused my coaches, I started college with the goal of becoming -- what else? -- a coach. Life had other plans that detoured me into journalism, yet I've always been something of a coach even on paper. Nothing delights me more than relaying advice to other runners.

These usually have been unseen runners. Now, 40 years after straying from coaching studies, I have become a coach of sorts, teaching a running class at the University of Oregon [and later coaching a Marathon Team].

These students are teachers too. They show me how the written lessons translate into practice. Better yet, the runners dispense delayed justice. These frisky young cats now dare me to try and herd them, as I once dared my coaches to do.

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