Optimal Training Principle: Each athlete is responsible for his or her own training.
What's the point in having a coach? No seriously. Why bother? I mean, sure they may smell nice, but they also have big egos, tell dumb jokes, and repeat the same stories year after year. They are focused more on the team's success than your own, they enjoy watching you throw up after practice, and to top it off they spend most of their time paying attention to athletes who aren't you.
Why not just go it alone?
If you haven't given this question serious thought, then chances are you haven't given enough thought to your training. If you've always had a coach and never thought twice about it, you will also likely recognize your own training in the graph below:
Most athletes (myself included) have experienced this type of division of responsibility between themselves and their coach.
Under this model, the coach plans the workout (or the schedule) and you do what you are told. Your responsibility is to execute to your coach's specifications. After the workout (or race, or season) the coach evaluates your progress, and refines the next training program, which you then dutifully attempt to execute.
I'm not saying this is always the case, or that there is no feedback happening in the process, or even that you never have a say in the evaluation or the planning. What I'm saying is that in this situation, the athlete only takes responsibility for one thing: executing the workout.
That's not optimal. It may be easy. It may be normal. It may be expected of you. Heck, it may even be effective and efficient, to a degree. But it is not optimal.
For you to realize your potential, you must take responsibility for all aspects of your training. You do not just have a coach, you choose to have a coach. You do not give up responsibility for planning and execution, but rather you delegate responsibility to your coach. You do not run for the coach, but rather the coach coaches for you.
The optimal division of responsibility might look something like this:
I know, all I did was move the green line! (But what a move it was.)
Responsibility for Planning: You and your coach will share this responsibility. But it starts and ends with you. You can delegate the main planning activities to your coach. In most cases, this is the smart thing to do. They are experts, after all. But when it comes time to "sign off" on the workouts, you have to give your input, express your reservations if you have any, and ensure that you are in agreement with the plan. Don't get stuck trying to execute a plan you don't believe in. It rarely works.
Responsibility for Execution: This is all you. To execute a workout or race effectively, you need to know what you are doing and why you are doing it. You also need to know the details, like how fast you should run or how much effort you should use. And then, you have to have the discipline to stick to that plan. That means recovery runs are not run at road run pace and pace runs are not run all-out. Yes, you can fail to execute a workout by running too hard, too.
Responsibility for Evaluation: Finally, when you are evaluating your performance, you cannot settle for being told how you are performing. Your input matters, too. That doesn't mean you should ignore your coach's opinions, or even that yours are more valid. (In fact, they probably aren't...too much bias.) But it does mean that you should take ownership of the evaluation process and initiate it when you feel it is necessary. You are responsible for not hiding things from your coach, for tracking your progress thoroughly (in a training log), and for not shying away from constructive criticism...because a good coach will give it to you!
If you can't take responsibility for these three roles, you are not ready to be a champion. And having the best coach in the world probably isn't going to change that.
But, wait, I like my coach...
I am not saying you should not have a coach. Let's make that clear. What I am saying is that you may need to rethink the relationship you have with your coach. It can be helpful to actually think about what a coach is, and why you have one at all.
First off, here is a list of qualities most people use when choosing a coach:
- Experience and/or Deep Knowledge of the sport
- Passion for the sport
- Expertise in creating training programs
- Strategic/Tactical skills (developing race plans, etc.)
- Motivational skills
- Administrative skills (i.e. organizing a trip to a track meet)
- Recruiting skills (if college or private high school)
- Stopwatch management skills (3 at a time = bonus)
- Smells nice (never underestimate how important this is...)
Now the million dollar question: For how many of these do you need a coach? Only the first five relate to you, as an individual. Why not just read some books, check out the web, talk to your friends and competitors, and then just do it all yourself?
Josh McDougal did it. He was home-schooled and decided he wanted to be a runner. So he started running and studying. He read books, checked out the web, talked to friends and competitors, and basically self-coached himself into one of the top high school runners in the country. Recently he was the NCAA Cross Country Champion in his senior year at Liberty University. (I wrote about his attitude toward failure here.)
In many ways, Josh McDougal is exceptional. Mentally, many young runners simply aren't ready to take on that kind of responsibility for their training. I certainly wasn't. But that doesn't mean I couldn't have. Responsibility is something that can (and should) be nurtured and developed. It's not an all-or-nothing thing.
Here are some tips for ways to increase the level of responsibility you are taking for your training:
- Ask a lot of questions; don't settle for a vague understanding of what you are supposed to be doing--demand clarity
- Draft your own training program and compare it with your coach's; even if you go with your coach's training program, the activity will make you a more engaged runner and you will understand your training more completely
- Maintain a detailed training log, whether your coach requires it or not; if you see something interesting in it, tell your coach about it
- Read books about running, and specifically training; get some perspective around what others have done that you can use in your training
- Manage your other responsibilities proactively; i.e. don't let homework keep you up all night when you need your rest for training--get it done early
- Choose your coach carefully; if you are going to college, don't just choose a successful program--choose a coach who you feel you can trust
- Look to yourself first when things don't go right; you will fail, someday, and when you do, evaluate your role in that failure before looking to blame others
Responsibility for the Results
This last point is where I want to end. After you've taken responsibility for your planning, execution, and evaluation, there's still one final step. That's taking responsibility for the results. I'll give you a personal example of what I mean.
When I was a senior in college, my coach decided to switch my weekly tempo run--seven miles at 5:00 pace or so--to a fartlek run. I talked about it with him in planning sessions, I did my best to execute it (I often did quite well, actually, and enjoyed it on those times), and I often evaluated my progress with him. But I wasn't racing well, and I felt it had to do with my not running tempo runs anymore.
I don't even know if I was right, but I had convinced myself that was the reason. I brought it up with my coach and after talking it over he explained why the fartlek runs were a step up for me from a physiological standpoint. I understood that, but I believed my problem was mental. Mentally, the tempo runs make you tough, disciplined. That's what I felt I was missing. Yet I accepted the fartlek runs and continued to do them, and my racing continued to be inconsistent and frustrating.
Throughout that whole period, though, I was blaming my coach for not having me run tempo runs! I was certain that was the problem. And with every poor performance, I was looking at "his" training program as the problem, not my execution in races or my inability to convince him that--perhaps from a mental standpoint only--I needed to incorporate the tempo runs back into my training.
In the end, I struggled and had a frustrating senior year. And quite honestly, I can say now that it is because I never fully took responsibility for my own training and my own results. I got most of the way there, but not all the way. Ultimately, the failure was mine. Not because the results were poor, but because I didn't heed Steve Prefontaine's advice: "A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else."
As you continue to pursue your goals in running, also continue to take responsibility for your planning, execution, evaluation, and results. And if you aren't now, start to. It's never too late, and it's a necessary step toward being your best.