Defining "The Best"

Defining "The Best"

Defining "The Best"

A couple of weeks ago I was scanning the index of a message board on a popular running website and noticed an interesting thread. "Best college for female cross country runner?" the subject of the lead message stated. Curious, I accessed the thread and read through the message and the twenty or so replies that followed. The writer, a high school junior who'd run fairly well during the previous cross country season, was starting to think about colleges and wanted some suggestions. A flurry of responses ensued which included recommendations ranging from the usual powerhouses (Stanford and Wisconsin) to lesser-known Division II and III schools. A couple of specific coaches were named, which prompted some vigorous pro-and-con debates: "Jane Doe is without a doubt the best coach I've ever seen... friendly, caring, and her athletes always show up ready to race." "Yes, Jane is wonderful for the athletes that she thinks are worthy, but good luck if you're a walk-on or have anything less than all-American potential." "Jane is more than willing to spend time with any athlete who is committed and will work hard." "Jane might be friendly and caring, but forget about improving with her program. My high school teammate ran 5:05 her senior year and never broke 5:00 in college, plus she was injured nearly every track season." And so on. This pattern was repeated for several well-known (and not so well-known) coaches.

I found this thread interesting for a couple of reasons. First, from a purely personal standpoint, I know a couple of the coaches mentioned and it was interesting to read the variety of opinions about them and their coaching styles (some of which I agreed with and others that sounded completely foreign). Second, it illustrated an important point that often gets lost in this kind of discussion: What is meant by "the best coach"? Is a measure of how much athletes improve under his or her guidance, how they develop as people, the number of NCAA qualifiers the coach produces, or something else? There are as many perspectives on "the best coach" as there are collegiate runners. I could name ten coaches at random and for each one I bet I could find five former athletes who think he/she is terrific and five who think he/she is a moron. The characteristics that make one coach "the best" for one athlete are not the same ones that would make her "the best" for a different athlete. It depends on goals, priorities, personalities, and expectations. I am friends with several coaches who are very knowledgeable, very personable, and very successful at what they do, but I would never train with them because I know it wouldn't work out - their personalities or their programs just aren't "right." It might be the perfect environment for someone else but not for me.

I've long held the opinion that kids should not pick a college based solely on its athletic program. Obviously anyone who has run well in high school wants to go to a place that will help him fulfill his athletic potential. But despite the hours spent in practice and at meets, athletics is only one part of the college experience. College becomes "home," and it's important that that the student like his "home." The location, the curriculum, the culture - all of those are important variables in choosing a college. It's a lot easier to deal with the ups-and-downs inherent in any athlete's career when the athlete is happy and comfortable in his surroundings. I initially enrolled at a college in the deep south and made it through about five hours of freshman orientation before I ran screaming from the place. No way this Yankee from the Midwest could handle life on a small, rural southern campus. Yet I have met many people who graduated from that college and absolutely loved it. It just wasn't the right place for me - by a long shot.

Similarly, I don't think it's wise to try and figure out who is "the best" coach for a certain athlete based on other people's perspectives. Behavior that is perceived as attentive and caring by one person might be perceived as overbearing and intrusive by another. Some athletes need constant oversight and some prefer a hands-off approach. Some athletes thrive under the energy of intense coaches while others crack from the stress. It's also hard to determine a coach's talent based solely on "outputs" - in other words, what was the end product? A "successful" (however that may be defined) athletic career is dependent on many factors, the most important of which is the package of mental and physical tools that the athlete brings with her when she arrives on campus. Some athletes are bundles of undeveloped potential looking for the right environment in which to blossom. Others, as a result of hard work in high school, might be on the cusp of mental or physical burn-out. Improvement in college is not a guarantee. It happens to most athletes but not to all.

I've also long believed that you don't necessarily need to develop a friendship, or even to personally like your coach, in order to benefit from his guidance. You do, however, need to have respect for him as your coach and believe in his program. There is a difference between liking someone and respecting him. There are a lot of people whom I respect but don't necessarily like. The source of the respect - his background, his knowledge, his authority, his accomplishments - is irrelevant. You can be motivated to work hard and make sacrifices for someone you don't like, but it is difficult to do that for someone you don't respect.

So, what would I suggest to that young female cross country runner? First, I would urge her make a list of the features of a college that are important aside from a good running program - location, curriculum, size, public/private, etc. Then, I would tell her to examine her own personality and the factors that motivate or frustrate her. Are there certain characteristics that are common among her favorite teachers (demanding, nurturing, flexible, authoritative)? Is she self-motivated or does she prefer supervision? Does she follow rules or is she a free spirit? Third, I would suggest that she think hard about her academic, social and athletic goals and prioritize them. There are no wrong answers, but it's important to consider these issues before she lands on a campus and finds that the various demands on her time are not commensurate with her goals. Then, when seeking information about a specific athletic program, try to ask questions which prompt objective and not subjective responses. How are practices structured? Does the coach oversee everything from warm-up to cool-down or does she have a more "hands-off" style? Are there tacit expectations regarding "unofficial" workouts such as morning runs, cross-training, strength work? How does the coach interact with the athletes? What is her attitude toward participation in non-athletic clubs or groups (sororities/fraternities, musical ensembles, academic clubs)? How does she respond to different situations (injury, illness, academic demands, burn-out)? Are there team rules and if so, what are they and how strictly are they enforced? The purpose is to find the best match between the structure of the program, the student's academic/athletic/social goals, and her personality.

Finally, I would remind the young runner that no coach will be perfect. The best she can do is inform herself as much as possible before jumping in. She will discover things about the coach that she likes and things that she doesn't like. If she has made the wrong choice, she can transfer. Definitions of "the best" are not carved in stone.