The article below was recently written as a guest contributor for the online magazine TrackMom.com. The thoughts are mine alone. You may agree or disagree but I thought that they were worth sharing.
The Conflict within … The Good Coach
By Ron Jackson
(Preface … Ron Jackson is a thirty four year veteran of youth track and field. He has served in various capacities from Club Coach, local USATF Association President and Vice-Chair Operations of the National Youth Athletics Committee of USATF. He is a 9 year veteran Referee of the TAC / USATF National Junior Olympics before retiring in 1991. He currently serves as the Director of the United Age Group Track Coaches Association (UAGTCA) a long time, non-profit sports organization located in Philadelphia PA advocating for youth development in the sport of track and field.)
I have often been asked, over my years of association with youth track & field,
what is my greatest sense of accomplishment and conversely what is my greatest
disappointment. I can say unequivocally that my greatest sense of accomplishment
has been my work with our local Track Coaches Association. Greater than the joy
that I shared at the accomplishments of the athletes I coached and even greater
than the satisfaction of seeing so many fine boys and girls turn into
outstanding men and women. I have been fortunate
to meet and work with many fine coaches and some great ones as well.
I have been fortunate to meet and work with many fine coaches and some great ones as well.Working with them through our local coaching association gives me the sense that so many other young athletes will share in the great bounties that this sport has to offer. We have provided a legacy and structure that should endure for many years to come. Of that I am most proud.
Disappointments have been many and it would be hard to pinpoint a single one. If pressed, however, it would probably be that as adults we continue to make the same mistakes year after year, much to the detriment of our children’s development in the sport. We usually mean well but more often than not we get distracted by a false sense of urgency that makes NOW more important than WHEN. I often say that they call it development for a reason. It is not called developed because that would signify a completed task and not a work in progress. I truly believe that a coach at any level should expect the best out of their charges and be prepared to accept nothing less. That means that we should not be disappointed when an athlete does not win but only when they do not perform or prepare as expected. I have said many times that Excellence should be an expectation not a Goal. We should expect that our athletes will prepare and perform excellently and not be surprised or satisfied when they do. I submit that winning and losing is circumstantial and can be manipulated by a crafty coach or meet administrator. The pursuit of excellence, however, cannot be engineered. It comes from within and is the single most important trait that is derived during development.
That brings me to the most important point of this discussion. I believe that the development of any athlete starts at a very early age. It is influenced by many factors, the most significant of which are the coaches and training that they are exposed to. Like any great building or structure it must start with a great design. I'm sorry that I can't tell you where to order the design. I will only prompt you to thank our Creator for your good fortune if you are amongst the chosen. Many great designs, however, do not come to fruition as great buildings. There are many factors that can affect the outcome. Poor workmanship, inferior materials, timing, etc. but the single most significant factor is poor oversight at each stage of construction. While a bad engineer can doom the most well designed project, a good one, in their chosen field of expertise, can save one from certain failure. I have never seen or heard of any major project that has been engineered by only a single individual. Most have had the collaborative efforts of many who are experts in their field. If the mission is truly to produce a great structure then the recognition of the needed input of many experts is an accepted part of the project. So it is with athletes. True, I believe that they are born with the gifts necessary to achieve success in the sport but those gifts must be identified, nurtured, cultivated and finally harvested in order to produce a successful athlete. I believe that every coach along the way plays a necessary role and is instrumental in the successful development of the young athlete. Someone must introduce them to the sport, plant that seed of competition and water the budding flower. Someone must cultivate the young athlete in an environment of faith, trust and yes even love. The athlete must truly believe that what they are being asked to do is truly within their grasp just because Coach said so. Someone must not only prepare the young athlete for success but for failure and disappointment as well. They must also be prepared to share those failures and disappointments with their charge. That is the mission of that very first individual who calls himself or herself coach. They must teach, cajole, listen and yes discipline their charge. They must prepare them for all eventualities. They can revel in any successes, bemoan any disappointments but most importantly they must prepare their athletes to move on to their next stage of development confident of success. As stated earlier no great building has a single engineer and no successful athlete will have a single coach.
Those of us who suffer with separation anxiety really have to be prepared for a hurricane of emotions as our athletes develop in the sport. We must recognize that our role as friend, mentor and trusted advisor will survive any challenge if we are honest with our athlete and with our self. As they move from age group track to high school and possible collegiate programs they will need us more than ever. They will probably not use us in the same capacity but almost inevitably to the same degree. They will be faced with the very real possibility that they will be exposed to a completely different set of circumstances. They may not be fully prepared for what they are experiencing and they will turn to the one they trust the most. For the first time they may be faced with a different and more compelling mission. They may be asked to place their individual success on a parallel path with team success. They may be asked to sacrifice that individual success for the benefit of the team. That, in and of itself, may not seem significant but if your athlete has always been programmed to believe that hard work in their chosen specialty is their quickest and surest path to success then It may suddenly become an enigma. If they are suddenly asked to forget all of that they have been taught about self development and to just do what needs to be done so that the team is successful, how do they cope? If it means that they are not immediately doing what is best for them but what may only be best for the group, where do they turn? It may not be so obvious to them that even though the mission has changed it is essential that they take the next step in their personal growth. Your athlete will now be judged with the collective and all of your previous suggestions of individual achievements to the contrary will be viewed in a different light.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer but there are ways to prepare for these eventualities. We can remind our athletes that they are not what they do but rather what they prepare to do. They are what they train to be. If they are the best 400 meter runner on their team as well as a budding 1500 meter star and they are asked to run the shorter distance for the team but they are allowed to continue to train for their best event then they will remain a 1500 meter runner who can run the 400 meters. After all, they will be what they train to be.
The mission at the high school and collegiate level is significantly different than the mission of the club coach. That is a given and must be respected by all concerned. The conflicts are natural but can be managed. If managed well, everybody benefits, most certainly the athlete. If managed poorly then nobody wins especially the athlete. I believe what is most often forgotten in this equation are the thoughts of the athlete. They will naturally gravitate towards the people they trust, the ones who have demonstrated that they truly have their best long range interests at heart. The anxiety that arises from the thought of losing control of a person that has been created molded and nurtured by them is very frightening to many coaches and one that some choose not to accept. The reality is, however, that control was never theirs to lose. Control belongs to the athlete and is facilitated by the coach. A good coach teaches his or her charge how to take control of their own development, how to make good choices and use all of the resources that are available to them to achieve their goals. The good coach will always be one of those resources.
I conclude by reminding those who may be faced with these difficult questions that they are not alone. Every coach, every person, in fact, faces similar questions at some point in their personal development and how we answer will ultimately determine the measure of success we achieve for ourselves and our athletes.
Please send your comments to <Ron Jackson>. I would love to here from you.