Let me start by saying that this is my personal view, based on my own experience both as a former athlete and as a coach. There are coaches out there with different ideas and mindsets, but I just want to take you on a small journey through my mind.
Finals, personal records, victories… Of course, they make you happy as a coach, but actually they are just the topping on the icing on the cake.
The journey to any performance starts way earlier. Weeks, months, even years. It is a long road that requires dedication and sacrifices, both from the athlete and his or her coach. But it is a beautiful road, lined with hundreds of encouraging and happy moments. You see your athlete grow, you can track the progress they make and see the hours of work you both put in pay off by looking at the small details. You make adjustments, step off the road to take a break or even make a detour if needed. Yet, you always come back to the main road that leads you to that one moment, that one event that you have been building up to. And then you have to let go… every single step you have taken side by side with your athlete and now it’s up to him or her. You have to stay on the outside looking in.
No matter what happens at that moment, you know that you did everything you guide your athlete to go out there, on their own and give it all they have. There are a lot of external factors that you don’t have any control over that influence the performance, both positive and negative. The greatest joy I have at these moments is knowing that my athlete did everything he or she could, irrelevant of the outcome. A positive one just makes it more joyful.
The journey can take a long time. While Moses Kiptanui broke became the first man to go sub-8 on the 3000m steeplechase in 1995, he started his journey in 1992. 3 years of work and dedication with hundreds of beautiful and happy moments.
Each of these small steps gives me joy and happiness. Seeing an athlete finish a tough speed session for the first time within the given parameters, or noticing the small changes in running form that you have been working on for months come naturally, or just getting that late-night text message saying “Thank you, coach, I loved today’s session. I feel great.” These moments are the cake and the icing on it. The topping is optional.
Am I disappointed when an athlete doesn’t perform as expected? A bit a first, but then I look at the bigger picture and take all the available information into account, and as long as he or she left everything on the field, I cannot be sad.
The journey also has its bad moments, and I’m not talking about setbacks or injuries. They are part of the job and always in the back on my mind. I’m talking about days and moments an athlete forgets what being an athlete means. The moments that the commitment and dedication are not there.
I am not talking about professional athletes, this also goes for the recreational runners. I completely understand that there are other priorities and more important things in their lives, but whenever there is a commitment to do a certain session at a specific moment, that moment, those 60 or 90 minutes, you are an athlete, whether you run a sub-2 marathon or can barely run 3k.
I have people who run with to lose weight, and when they come to me in the middle of a workout and complain that they don’t feel well because they had a big piece of cake half an hour earlier, that disappoints me.
When you are working for months focussing on evenly paced runs and you look at the data of their latest run and the pace is all over the place, knowing they are able to do a lot better, that disappoints me.
The balancing act
As a coach you know there will be good times and bad times. On any journey, there will be sunshine and there will be rain. But is my journey spoiled when it rains on the last day, while the previous 300 ones were filled with sunshine? Not at all. We still have other destinations to go to and more journeys to make.
I can pretty quickly assess the capabilities of my athletes and I’m never far off with my predictions (which is a lot harder for recreational runners than for professional ones), but it always saddens me to know that an athlete is not living up to his or her potential. I like to see my athletes thrive, shine and be world champions in their own private worlds.
I want them to enjoy the journey, follow the path ahead of them and if it starts raining, I’m there with an umbrella for them.
By Gert Rijkx, founder and head coach of QuadraCoach. Former athlete and certified athletics coach with over 25 years of experience in coaching, training and motivating runners of all levels