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On the Run – The Coaching Issue

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Simon Keller

You know how to run, and you know how to use the Internet. Within minutes you could find yourself a training plan written by an accomplished coach and tailored to a runner with your ability and goals. Running does not require teammates or skill sessions. Why have a coach?

Coaching takes time and energy. When it goes badly, it can go very badly. When it goes well, the glory goes to the runner. Running coaches do not make money, at least within Wellington Scottish. Why be a coach?

Over the next two weeks, On the Run will publish a series of articles by Scottish club members that together answer these questions. 

We will hear from runners who have benefited from coaching in all different ways. Some have become faster and stronger. Some have received wisdom and motivation. Some have found in a coach a lifelong friend.

We will hear from the coaches, about why they coach and how they coach. What makes coaching worthwhile, and how does a coach measure his or her success?

And we will hear about self-coaching. What are the dangers and rewards of going without a coach? How do you coach yourself, and what do you learn from being at once the coach and the athlete?

Coaching is deceptively complicated, whether you are coaching someone else or coaching yourself. I remember a story told about Ron Clarke’s final pre-race workout at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (I first read about it in Al Lawrence’s book The Self-Coached Runner.)

Clarke had coached himself to several world records and the title of best distance runner on the planet, and he was the clear favourite for the 10,000 metres. Three days before the final, he set out to do a gentle track workout, but he was used to running on feel and what he felt like doing was running fast. He ran lap after lap, faster and faster, reportedly running the equivalent of a four-mile world record, as his teammates on the infield implored him to stop. 

When the final arrived, his legs were still tired. He dropped off the pace in the closing lap and had to settle for bronze. For all his success as a self-coached athlete, at that one moment, leading into the biggest race of his life, he could not stick with own plan. 

If Ron Clarke had had a coach, perhaps he would not have done that ridiculous workout, and perhaps he would have performed better in the Olympic final. 

But then again, who could possibly criticise the training of Ron Clarke? If he had a coach, perhaps he would never have become the runner he was.

Coaching, after all, can be damaging. For all the athletes who have benefited from having a coach, there are surely many who have been destroyed. A coach who makes the wrong judgments, a coach who pushes you too hard or not hard enough, a coach who is inflexible or cares more about their own success than their athletes, a coach who restricts your scope to experiment or take your own path…these are all recipes for ending a promising career.

Dealing with runners – let’s be honest – is difficult too. Runners have meltdowns and crises of confidence. Sometimes a coach can’t be sure that the athlete is being truthful about their training. Sometimes a runner will move to a new coach without telling the old one. Sometimes a runner will simply drift away, with no explanation and no gesture of thanks.

Like all relationships, a coaching relationship can be the wrong one at the wrong time, and it needs to be handled with skill. One of the greatest skills a coach can have is knowing when it is time to stop coaching an athlete. One of the greatest skills a coached runner can have is knowing how to end a coaching relationship graciously and respectfully. Coaching requires hard conversations.

But as the articles in our coaching issue will demonstrate, the right coaching relationship can bring a multitude of diverse rewards to both coach and athlete. There is no single experience of coaching or of being coached, and no single benefit that everyone is looking for. 

Scottish’s coaching programme remains one of the best and most attractive elements of the club. Internet shopping has its place, but when it comes to coaching, we do it better.

 
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