Simplicity. Basics. Fundamentals. These things have popped up on my coaching radar time and time again over the past year. In the past 12 months I have been around North America taking notes, studying, talking, coaching, and learning. Through out them all has been an interwoven thread of simplicity and the sophistication that comes from that. Point blank…..coaching and athlete success is all about simplicity. It is not about making things exciting, new, different, or one of a kind. Rather it is about being able to understand and do the simple things exceptionally well.
This past week I got the chance to witness simplicity at its finest through the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centres Combined Events Mentorship Program which had us watch two of the greatest athletes in the world, Brianne Theisen Eaton and Ashton Eaton train in Santa Barbara. World medals, commonwealth gold, and Canadian records for Brianne and Olympic gold, world records, world titles and countless other accolades for Ashton. But this wasn’t just the athletes on display as the week also included about 12 hours of contact time with Coach Harry Marra. Now full disclosure is that this week was extra special as I was many years ago in the same training group as Brianne when she and the rest of the Humboldt crew drove to Saskatoon (my home) for practice. Then when I retired from my own athletic pursuits in 2006 and started coaching full-time I got to help her out a few times as I was assistant coach to the group led by Todd Johnston. So when she took me for a tour of Santa Barbara and pointed out the breath taking views, celebrity homes, and a bachelor tv show location we were able to catch up, chat about the past, future, and reflect about our starting points back with the Saskatoon Track and Field Club. I have been extremely impressed by her for years and continue to be very proud of her. But back to coaching and this amazing week.
Some take aways and a few key notes from the program:
The program that these three work in (Harry, Brianne, and Ashton) is extremely unique.
The focus and intensity of their practices was impressive. No moment was off limits for improvement. Simple shadows would be on the schedule. However the focus, intensity, and significance that all placed on the drills was huge. Technical development, physical and mental connections, and overall event mastery were on display all the time.
The interaction between coach and athlete and even athlete-athlete-coach was also very unique. The dialogue was back and fourth. It was supportive. It was flowing in all directions. I have heard Dan Pfaff talk about elite athletes needing PhDs in their events and hearing the conversations between Harry, Brianne, and Ashton makes me believe that these two are definitely well on their way…that is if they don’t have it already which they probably do.
Homework, debriefs, and self reflection where motor patterns are further developed are also an integral part of the program. On occasion these debriefs are simple emails, short and to the point, while at other times stretching a page or two incorporating technical cues, feelings, thoughts about the past, goals and ideas for the future. A great display of athlete ownership and personal responsibility.
I didn’t see anything new and I didn’t expect to, however I did see a few different applications of exercises and routines. For example I knew that medicine ball routines were a frequent warm up modality for Brianne and Ashton but never really understood how it fit in. But after being able to see it first hand I can definitely see the benefits. Will it be implemented into my program immediately? Doubtful, but will I give it more thought and look further into the process and implement it when it really makes sense? Definitely!
You can’t be afraid to develop and train for goals. You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there for all the world to see. While it is true that if you don’t put yourself out there you won’t be a failure the ability to then achieve success would be severely impacted.
I love getting together with my coaching colleagues. Sean Baynton from the CACC was the organizer of this event, Les Gramantik was our Canadian mentor coach and then the following were fellow apprentices: Simon Louise-Seize who coaches out of Laval (also my roommate for the week), Kurt Downes from Windsor, Ming Pu Wu who used to coach in China, then Montreal Lake Saskatchewan, and now Winnipeg, Nick Stoffberg from Edmonton, and Gar Leyshon from London.
Chats on the way to the track, at the track, during the awesome lunches at Westmount College, at the beach, the hotel, over dinner and wine sessions (it is wine country after all) were all productive and insightful. There were also tons of laughs and great stories over tapas and wine. No matter the topic or who was speaking at the time there was something to be gained. A note to be made. A tidbit to be rememberd. A previous idea or application of knowledge that could be built upon. The cross pollination between us all in terms of experiences, ideas, background, education, etc makes us all able to contribute. The brainstorming and idea generation was huge and just getting together with these guys was an awesome coaching education experience.
The combined events are awesome. I have had a huge respect for the event and the athletes who choose to accept the challenge that comes with it. As an athlete I trained with many decathletes and heptathletes and as a coach I quite enjoy the variety that comes with it. I also competed or practiced in all the events at one point in time (thanks Saskatchewan Legion Camp) so I do get it. But the number of events that Brianne and Ashton covered in a day was an eye opener. This wasn’t just touching on the event to say you did it. This was a deliberate focused practice. While the time in minutes may have been short it was still purposeful and effective. In my vocabulary I would refer to it as micro-dosing. This concept although not foreign to me was displayed in a new format and made immediate sense.
Building off of this micro-dosing was the continuous display of motor learning. Coach Marra is a true master coach. His experiences pass over 5 decades and his understanding of all the individual events is something that I aspire to one day achieve. He embraced teaching opportunities but also let the athletes work through it alone at times. He connected events, movements, and how the body interprets it all. But this leads me to the thought that expert coaches help bring about continuous displays of expert level athletic performance. What I mean by this is that it is far easier to have a flash in the pan. To get an athlete to have a great year. But to do this safely and in a manner at which the athlete can be at the top of their game for multiple years and cycles in a much more difficult situation.
Egos. Harry is a great coach and Brianne and Ashton are two amazing athletes but they all know they aren’t perfect. They know they aren’t maxed out. So what do they do? They seek out help and listen when opportunities present themselves. The week prior to us being down the group utilized the skills of coaching legend Tom Tellez. Also the interactions between Les, Brianne, and Ashton were embraced by Harry. At times coaches can be very possessive and almost psychotic about the interactions the athletes that they work with have with other coaches. Now I am not naive to think that everyone is as fundamentally respectful and as honest as Les was in this situation but I doubt that this group would shy away from listening and learning if it presented itself. In the end while everyone has an ego I was able to see humility, honestly, and a desire by the coach to turn over all stones and search for ways to help the athletes that he works with.
There are many roads to Rome. Commonalities exists at all times but individual differences in the athlete, the coach, the group, and between them all are apparent. Equipment, facilities, weather must also be noted but the path to success is dynamic. It is always flowing and changing. Know and truly embrace science, fundamentals, and the basics. Master those and proceed from there.
So that is my breakdown, recap, debrief, and period of reflection for the trip. An awesome week that has left me feeling energized and motivated. Coaching is tough and at times it is draining. I am human. I have good days and bad days but after this week I am riding a definite high. Plus the increased vitamin D from the sun and lack of snow were also huge benefits.
One of the blessings about flying across the continent is that you get a lot of time to yourself. This time for me on the way back home to Saint John has been the perfect time to jot all of this information down on the notes page of my phone. But after all of this learning and reflection I can say that I am excited to get back to my group but not the snow. To coach, teach, learn, and grow with an amazing group of young men and women. I love my job and am always blessed to be able to be such a big part of their lives. The honour and trust that comes from being a coach is very special and I thank everyone who has been apart of this journey with me.