High School Coaches
by Laurel Park, Sep. 3, 2001
High School Coaches
I've been fortunate that throughout my competitive career I've had the benefit of excellent coaching. In my opinion, good coaching can be the difference between a good career and an outstanding career. Every runner's potential is essentially a sum of his physical and mental qualities, but good coaches have a way of nurturing those qualities and teaching their athletes how to maximize every ounce of potential without breaking down in the process. It's not a simple task and I have tremendous admiration for the few talented coaches who are able to do this year after year with a changing stable of athletes.
I have always felt that 75% of a successful coach-athlete relationship depends on personality. You can put the most talented kid in the country with the most knowledgeable coach in the NCAA but unless the chemistry is right it's a waste of time and effort. The coach has to believe in his program and more importantly, he has to make his athletes believe in it, too. Every athlete is an experiment of one, so what works for one runner won't necessarily work for others. Good coaches know how to tailor their programs ever so slightly to mesh with each runner's personality without disrupting the core philosophy.
I have a special regard for high school coaches. These under-paid, under-appreciated and over-worked heroes are often the first and most significant influence in a young athlete's career. Good high school coaches fan the embers of greatness while bad ones douse the flame entirely. High school is the great laboratory where attitudes are formed, mistakes are made, work ethics are developed and sportsmanship is learned. Anyone who thinks that high school coaches are merely the guys standing on the sideline yelling splits in the pouring rain is sadly mistaken.
High school coaches walk a very fine line in a number of areas. They must start from scratch with the freshmen while honing the skills of the seniors and in the process avoid alienating both. They must instill the hunger for victory while emphasizing that winning isn't everything. They must teach their runners to set goals and believe in themselves yet also to accept defeat graciously. They must nurture the gifts of the occasional superstar while keeping everyone else's attitude (including the parents'!) in perspective. They must convince adolescents of the need for adequate rest and nutrition.
In my opinion, the first and foremost goal of high school running should be fun. To me, success is not measured by the number of state championships won or the number of college scholarships earned, but rather the number of athletes who continue to run competitive or not after high school. Of course, this is not to say that state championships and college scholarships should be dismissed, but they shouldn't be the measure by which the coach is regarded. There are plenty of fine coaches out there who have developed their share of scholarship recipients but have also instilled a love of running and fitness in dozens of young people. In my personal book of coaching, I'd take fifty lifetime runners over one state champion any day.
To every high school coach out there past, present, or future I send my respect, appreciation and thanks for your time, effort and care.
(This column is dedicated to high school coaches everywhere but especially to my own coach, Bruce Streight from South Lyon High School, who for more than 20 years nurtured both state champions and lifetime runners with equal measures of wisdom, discipline and humor and who, I hope, had a lot of fun in the process)