We all have something that motivates us, that pushes us when we don’t want to be pushed, that sparks a fire within us to go beyond what is necessary to achieve our goals.
What drives us to succeed is going to vary by individual athletes and teams. Regardless of what our goals are, we all have that special something that sparks the fire. For some the flame burns until we achieve what we have set out to accomplish. And yet for others the flame burns out way too soon. The goal may not have been realistic, the individual lacked the necessary support system, they got bored, they lost focus, or there was too much clutter in their lives.
That spark is what gets us moving towards accomplishing our goal(s). For some it may take years to accomplish what we set out to do. And yet others may not give themselves enough credit and accomplish their goal well before they expected. In both those instances and all points in-between, a road map is necessary in figuring out where we want to go.
You Have One Too
When I think of a spark for a team, I can’t help but first think about professional wrestler Tully Blanchard. Tully was a founding member of the 4 Horsemen stable in Jim Crockett Promotions. Alongside Tully were Double A Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson, and Ric Flair. In one of my favorite wrestling dvd’s, Ric Flair and the 4 Horsemen, Tully is interviewed about the 4 Horsemen after he left the stable. To paraphrase, Tully says that he was the blasting cap (or spark) that got the 4 Horsemen going-the instigator if you will. If you haven’t, go out of your way and either watch the interview or the whole dvd. You will not be disappointed.
I mention Tully Blanchard and the 4 Horsemen because much like how Tully describes himself, I believe that everyone has their version of Tully Blanchard living deep down inside them. A spark, something that gets us out of bed everyday, working towards moving one step closer to our dreams. If you don’t have something that immediately gets you out of bed every morning, think about what you enjoy doing.
We all have something that we are passionate about. What are the things that fire you up? What is your Tully Blanchard spark...
In this journey we’re setting out on, there is a specific path each of us will take with our athletes. As we begin to map out our process with our athletes, it’ll be important for us as the coach to include what is going to give our athletes the best opportunities to be successful. In this case, we act as a Sherpa.
In mountaineering terms, a Sherpa let’s the climber pick the mountain they want to climb. Then the Sherpa lays the ropes out in advance so the climber can move along the mountain faster and more efficiently. And possibly the most important part of the Sherpa-climber relationship is that the Sherpa tells the climbers what they don’t need to take in order to make their summit. Like coaches, Sherpa’s outline an action plan (or path) that gives the climber the best opportunity to be successful in achieving their goal.
As we review our 16-week outline to compete at our outdoor conference championships, as coaches we need to only include the tools necessary to get our athletes where they want to go. Where they want to go.
The critical component of planning, in my opinion, is working one-on-one with each athlete to set forth a path that gives them the best opportunity to be successful. Hence why communicating with our athletes is so critical before we set out the path.
Our role as coaches is get our athletes where they want to go. Laying out the rope (or path) beforehand gives them the best opportunity to achieve their goal. It also instills a sense of accountability. To get from A to Z, we need to make a few stops along the way. It isn’t often that we will go right to Z from A. We will probably make some stops along the way, move some rope around, and continue on our path. We may approach a path that is blocked (by no control of our own), backtrack a little bit, and then continue moving forward. How you do that is going to be determined by your coach-athlete relationships. Much of our athlete’s successes are going to hinge on a couple of critical factors: their own intrinsic motivation, why they want to achieve their goal(s), communication between coach and athlete, and a willingness to make some sacrifices along the way.
As we reflect back on our 16-week example, this is how we are broadly going to prepare for the upcoming outdoor conference championships. The following six weeks are going to be incredibly important in planning. Athlete accountability is going to be key because our athletes at Alfred State are still training from home during time. As I previously mentioned, each athlete has a general weight lifting program to follow. Similarly, they each have unique throwing programming to follow based on the equipment they have.
January 31-February 6
The month of February is going to be used as a general prep period to get back into “throwing” shape. These four weeks are going to be spent throwing indoors. Mostly because of how much snow we get in Western NY, but also because it gets dark at around 4:30pm. Our indoor training is going to be focused on each athlete’s main event (what they want to focus on for the outdoor season). In such a time crunched season, it will be difficult to excel in 3 or all 4 throwing events. We have limited practice times and dates, therefore communicating with our athletes is so important during this time. The critical ropes will begin to be placed along the mountain side during this time.
That leaves us with 8 weeks of outdoor throwing before our conference championships. In the past I used a formula similar to what I’m going to share here with my athletes about preparation for events during the outdoor season. With athletes that are interested in competing in three events (shot, discus, and hammer), the larger focus or main event will receive 60% of the throws/training time. The second event, depending on the possible success rate of the athlete’s performance will receive 15%-25%. The remaining time will be dedicated to event three.
In Luis’ senior season at Nazareth, his outdoor season was 75% hammer and 25% discus. He finished 3rd at DIII Nationals in the hammer and also held our school record in the discus for a majority of the outdoor season. We knew that he had a chance to win the hammer outdoors, and that throwing the discus would support the team by finishing in the top 6 at our conference meet. We put a majority of our eggs in the hammer basket, and it worked out well. In Jen’s senior season at Fredonia, after our SUNYAC conference championships, Jen wanted to drop discus training altogether. We knew she had an outside shot of qualifying for nationals in both the hammer and discus in 2005. She continued to throw the discus in competition, but didn’t hit the standard necessary to qualify in the discus. She entered nationals seeded 11th in the hammer.
Conference Championship Week--April 30th - May 1st
March 28-April 3
Communication is important because realistic expectations will come into play. Having a sense of where our athletes are both physically and mentally gives us as the coach (or Sherpa) the information necessary to create an environment conducive to goal-achievement and a rewarding season. I encourage coaches to have these conversations. Sometimes they might be difficult, but having our athletes express their goals is obvious in creating a culture of success.
You can succeed as long as the inner satisfaction and peace of mind that come from knowing you did the best you were capable of doing-Jim Tressel
Happy New Year!
What better way to begin 2021 than by beginning with the end in mind. We last left off discussing how my graduate program at SUNY Fredonia aligns with coaching. Beginning with the end in mind in graduate school lends itself to beginning with the end in mind with coaching. The end I will be discussing today in part 2 is preparing for our outdoor conference championships in the spring semester.
This is a very unique year. With COVID still running wild and wreaking havoc on collegiate sports programming across the country, this plan will provide a unique look at preparing for an outdoor championship (that may or may not even take place).
For the sake of this article, I’m going to guesstimate that our outdoor conference championship meet will be held on Friday, April 30th and Saturday, May 1st, 2021. I’m just guessing. Now if we count backwards, our seasonal plan would look something like this:
Conference Championship Week--April 30th - May 1st
March 28-April 3
February 28-March 6
January 31-February 6
Up until our conference championship meet, our weekly programming begins on Sunday. Our week concludes on meet day, which is typically Saturday. Again, I’m really guessing here because I’m not sure if we will have any meets on Friday besides our two day conference championships. For all intent and purposes, we may only have our conference championships on Saturday. As you can see, it really doesn’t leave us a lot of time to train and prepare. We have 16 weeks until our conference championship week.
From my perspective, this really isn’t a lot of time to prepare. Our athletes at Alfred State return to campus for in-person classes on February 1st. Our indoor season is still in doubt, so our plan right now is to move forward with a successful outdoor campaign.
Now that we have our weeks figured out, we’ll need to look at individual preparation for my athletes. I’ve had some conversations with them individually since we have been on break. Some have access to training equipment. Some have some throwing implements. They have all received programming and basic outlines they can follow while they are home. Those athletes that sit around until practice on February 1st will have missed out on about 8 weeks of training.
At this point, communicating expectations is really important. And again, everything is based on individualized action plans for your athletes. When I was coaching at Fredonia and Nazareth, each athlete’s season was based on realistic expectations. For example, at Fredonia, we have a really good feeling that Julia was going to qualify for nationals each season. Beginning with her sophomore season, she competed at 3 indoor and 3 outdoor national championships. Similar with Luis at Nazareth. We knew his senior year was going to be big, so we planned around that. For many athletes across the country, their season usually concludes with their conference championships. At this point, only 20 athletes per gender and event attend nationals. That leaves many hundreds of athletes preparing for either the outdoor season or the following indoor season.
In my next installment, beginning with the end in mind, I’ll provide you with a sample program that can be implemented with your athletes based on the parameters discussed in this article.
As this time of the year often does, it causes me to pause and reflect on the year that was. Well, 2020 was what it was. But in reflection, I think back to my graduate work at SUNY Fredonia. Immediately after I graduated with my degree in Childhood Education, I enrolled in graduate school. With a couple months off, I attended my first graduate class in August, 2004. The title of the course was Curriculum Design I.
One of the central tenets we discussed in that course was to begin with the end in mind. The focus of my project for that course was to design a 12-week 5th grade social studies unit. On the first night of class, as our cohort was wrapping up our guided activity, the last thought our instructor shared with us was, “Begin with the end in mind”. I find many parallels between that class, the graduate program and coaching track and field athletes as a whole. There is significant overlap with working with throwers too!
The fall semester of the 202-21 season, to some, may be considered a wash. For some sports teams, the winter (indoor track season) has been cancelled. Actually, the SUNYAC conference canceled their winter sport seasons back in October, 2020. At Alfred State, we are still holding on to the possibility of competing indoors. I was able to meet with my throwers a couple of times a week for a few weeks before coaches were told they were unable to practice with their athletes moving forward with the remainder of the semester.
As the semester has now officially come to a close, I’ve begun to think about our outdoor conference championships in May, 2021. Yes, I’m beginning to prepare for the end of the season by starting at the beginning.
Our throwing squad is returning in whole this spring with the possibility to add more throwers that didn’t participate in the fall. We are beginning with the end because it is unlikely we will be competing indoors. The indoor prep will serve as a great opportunity for our athletes to get in shape for the outdoor season I’m confident we will have this year.
In my next article I’ll go into more detail outlining backward design programming (yes, similar to block periodization of some sort), specific to collegiate throwers with the intentions of competing in an outdoor season.
Well, we almost made it through the fall semester. The other day we received word from Alfred State that effective immediately we were no longer to conduct practice with our athletes. Things went well on Monday and Tuesday, but some positive tests caught up from the previous weekend (Halloween shenanigans).
I feel for our athletes. I feel for all athletes across the country that have had their winter seasons canceled. I think for the most part there is really nothing much they (the athletes) could have done differently. This is a campus decision based on how our numbers have seen an uptick over the course of the past couple of weeks. For the most part our athletes have been great! As I mentioned to them in an email Wednesday night, I’m very proud of them and how they have been able to navigate this unsettling time in all our lives. With positive cases and percentages creeping up across the county and state, it came as no surprise that something like this was bound to happen. I was just hoping that we could have made it to the last couple of practices. Not only for the sake of practice, but for the valuable messages shared during practice. The aside conversations in which the athletes get to better know each other. The same can be said for the athletes getting to know me better as their coach.
The next few weeks will be telling. Although we are no longer able to practice on campus, once the athletes go home, some will have access to training equipment. Most of my throwers already own their own shot-puts and discii. Finding a place to throw may be difficult for some, but others have throwing facilities in their backyards.
Students will tentatively be returning back to campus to commence in-person classes again on February 1st. That leaves a couple weeks of November, December, and January. Plenty of training time. Tonight we are having an all athlete team meeting via Zoom. I’m going to share some thoughts with everyone about identifying a goal they have for themselves, why that goal is important to them, and some steps they can take in order to achieve those goals. For now, a lot of the work will be independent. Tim and I really can’t have contact with the kids, but we can provide them with workouts and things they can do at home until we are able to practice again in February.
I’m not sure if we will have an indoor season, but I am sure that indoor outcomes will be determined by what happens from today until February 1st. With an abbreviated season, many of the performances will be decided by the habits and actions the athletes begin to develop and establish today. Waiting for December will be too late. Beginning in January, well we would have a lot of sessions and reps to make up. Coming back in February without having touched an implement or completed some type of training session--yikes!
This is a small sample of what I’m going to share with all the athletes today. I have Liz Beaubrook to thank for sharing this image on Instagram a few months ago.
We all start with a goal in mind. Each subsequent step either takes us closer or moves us farther away from what we want to achieve. There are many paths and decisions to be made. But most importantly is this, with whatever direction you go, you don’t get there overnight. Let me repeat that, with whatever path you chose, you don’t get there overnight. We all make thousands of decisions each day. Most of which probably won’t determine the fate of accomplishing our short-term or long-term goals, however failing to make a determined effort to establish habits that would move us closer to our goal will have us move in the opposite direction. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen over the course of 13 weeks!
The other day I wrote about how we structure our practice times at Alfred State to maximize the time I have with the athletes. We are limited on the number of practice sessions we can have per week (2), and guidelines restrict our practice length to one hour. Where in the past I would spend two hours training and coaching my athletes at Fredonia or Nazareth per session, now that is the maximum amount of time we have for a week. That is still more practice time than some schools across our area that have sent their students home for the remainder of the semester.
So what do we focus on?
Well, much like physical skills that can be taught, such as proper technique in the throwing events, focus is a mental skill that can be taught as well. When I share ideas with my athletes about focus, we don’t sit down in a room and have what you might consider a coaches talk for an hour on the subject. I am subtle with my conversations because I am still getting to know this group of throwers and they are still getting to know me. And also because this group consists of all freshmen throwers, I don’t want to overload them with too much information during a one hour training session.
I’ve briefly written about it before, but focus is a complex skill comprised of five different mental components (McGuire, 2012; 2016):
Over the past few years, I have found that concentration has been the easiest component for me to teach my throwers. I equate concentration to cuing in the circle or on the runway. When I first began coaching, I would give kids half a dozen different things to concentrate on per throw. That was not very helpful. It wasn’t helpful to the thrower and it wasn’t helping me because we would both grow frustrated when something didn’t go well. Now, I usually give my kids one or two cues after they complete their throw to think about for the next one. It is a struggle at times because if that cue goes well then something else may not go well. In my experiences, working on one or two cues a session or week assists in instilling confidence and mastery because the athletes, over time, will begin to master that specific component of their throw, so then we can move onto the next one we need to concentrate on.
The most difficult component I have difficulty with is the first one, being in the present moment. I have noticed that for some athletes, it is not easy for them to turn off their academic brain and turn on their athletic brain in an instant. An athlete coming from class may have a difficult time making the initial switch. I try to give them a few minutes to gather themselves after their class before we get started. I always ask them how their day is going and how class went. That is a way to take the temperature of the group and figure out where their minds are. If they had a rough class, I know that I need to adapt my coaching style for the day to meet their needs. If they had a pretty good day, then it is probably an indication that we can continue as scheduled.
All too often I’ve attended high school track and field meets and I can hear coaches screaming at their kids to focus on what they are doing. Well, if they haven’t been taught that skill, how would you (as a coach) expect them to be able to execute on it? I wouldn’t ask a thrower to take a toe and three in the hammer during a meet if they have never practiced that skill during a training session. So why would you expect high mental strength capacities from your athletes if you’ve never trained them on those specific skill sets before?
I’ve recently written a couple of blog posts about expectations and coaching through a pandemic. When you look around at what is happening, a couple of things strike me as interesting. First, making the best out of a difficult situation looks different for everyone. At Alfred State, we have been fortunate enough to be able to continue practicing under guidelines issued by the college and county. We have limited time to practice, as well as limited days to practice, but we are still able to practice. Some colleges in New York have sent their students home and have transitioned to virtual learning for the remainder of the fall semester. I feel for the athletes that had nothing to do with the decision made by their college/university. I especially feel for those who were planning on having an indoor track season and winter season in general.
I think it’s important to really dig down and make the most out of each session I have with our athletes. We are able to practice for one hour, two times a week. In that time I’ve tried to keep things focused and very consistent. The athletes know what to expect when we are practicing. And even though I’ve only had a handful of sessions with them, establishing a sense of trust and mutual respect is going to go much farther than how many throws they take a week. Trust will be critical for when the athletes go home in a couple of weeks, they will be home until the end of January. They will be returning back to campus for classes beginning on February 1st. That means the athletes will be off campus for close to 10 weeks and without contact with coaches for almost 13 weeks. That is almost a whole semester unto itself!
Second, creating an easy to follow routine has helped us immensely. We have been able to get quality reps in over the past couple of weeks because of a consistent and easy to follow routine and a sense of what is expected during practice. For example, last night our throwers each got over 20 quality throws in within a relatively short amount of time. In the past, when we had ample time at practice, I would have each athlete count the number of reps taken per event (shot-put, discus, hammer, weight, and javelin). Now, more than ever, being flexible and adaptive to each athlete’s needs has proven most fruitful.
We only have a couple of practice opportunities left before the athletes are required to quarantine for the remainder of the semester through finals. Having established clear routines and expectations has proven quite helpful during this time. While others across the country have fewer restrictions than we do, others have already lost the indoor season. I think our athletes have adapted quite well to what lays before them. Nobody has complained. Everyone understands what they need to do in order to achieve their goals. At this point, each athlete needs to take firm control of their actions and how they will either assist or hinder them moving forward. As coaches we try our best to instill a sense of work ethic and dedication to the craft of throwing, but ultimately the next three months will prove more in regards to who has taken a step forward or step backward as we make a transition to the spring semester.
A few days before our first practice Coach OG pulled me out of the weight room to talk. I didn’t know him very well, and at this point in the season I didn’t think I was in trouble, so I didn’t really think anything of it. Once in the office, he asked me how I would qualify for four events. I told him I needed to get stronger. I knew as such because my other sprinting teammates were in MUCH better physical shape than I was. My throwing teammates, well that is a whole post onto itself.
I continued with my strength levels and that I needed to watch my weight. I arrived in August, 2000 weighing about 190lbs. I don’t remember my exact weight, but I knew I was over 200lbs. by our first practice in late October. He asked me to continue with what I was sharing. By the end of the meeting, I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to accomplish my goals. I didn’t realize at the time how difficult it would be, but I knew what I needed to do. But it wasn’t just about what I needed to do, but how to do it.
Before the season started, it was my goal to attend practice every day. I would be joining the sprinters on M, W, and F. I would be throwing on T, Th. I would also lift 4x a week in the fall. I also learned to love the ice bath, so I made it a point to sit in the ice bath every day after practice. I didn’t do much about my nutrition at this point because my weight started to drop after we began to really hit our stride during our training sessions on the track.
We had two meets that fall semester. The first weekend in December we attended a meet at Kent State. I threw the shot-put and weight. I didn’t qualify for our conference meet in either event. I didn’t run because entries were limited. I was beyond mad at myself! The following weekend we hosted a meet at Fredonia. In that meet I hit the qualifying standard in the weight throw. We threw outside—it was probably 35 degrees and I threw just over 40’. I also qualified for the conference meet in the 55m dash. However, before I went home for the holiday break coach and I made the decision that I would focus on throwing—again, I’ll share more about this later.
Coming into our indoor conference meet, I was the top ranked freshman shot-putter and weigh thrower. Back then, anyone that hit the standard qualified for the meet. I was beyond excited for the opportunity to be able to contribute to what I thought was going to be another conference championship win. Unfortunately, things did not go well that day for the Fredonia men. Actually, I believe it was the start to our program’s quick downfall to the bottom of the SUNYAC conference. For some perspective, we finished 3rd in the 2001 indoor SUNYAC championships. In our 2004 outdoor SUNYAC championships we finished last. As a team we scored 16 points. I scored 11 of them (1st hammer, 6th discus).
The ride home from Hobart & William Smith College was a long one. I didn’t quite understand what had happened. For over 20 years Fredonia was untouchable. To be honest, I thought it was my fault. I thought I had something to do with it. Even if I would have won the weight, we still would have finished 3rd. My teammate Marc won the shot-put and finished 2nd in the weight throw.
To be continued in Part 3
Expectations and Accountability
Early on in any new season that begins, a common conversation that takes place between a coach and their athletes is usually focused on expectations and accountability. When I was an athlete in high school, the conversation was more focused on team rules. Once I arrived at SUNY Fredonia, the conversation quickly turned to expectations.
I vividly remember our first team meeting with Coach O’Gorman. It was in early September, 2000, and took place in the student-athlete lounge in Dods Hall. There weren’t that many of us, maybe 40-50 athletes who were going to embark on that 2000-01 season. As a team, Fredonia was coming off of indoor and outdoor conference championships. The double decade of dominance streak was broken in 1997, but another streak quickly began in 1998. I wasn’t made aware of the streak until this first team meeting.
I sat with another freshman thrower, Erik Dalecki. We sat in the back of the room. We were the only freshman throwers, and quickly became friends once we realized we would both be throwing on the team.
Coach O’Gorman, or Coach OG as I called him, began the meeting with a recap of the previous season, who graduated, new freshmen, new transfers, completing NCAA paperwork, and what to expect during the upcoming season. One of the primary reasons I picked Fredonia was because of the rich track and field history the team had. Reflecting back now, it shouldn’t have been the top reason I selected Fredonia, but what can you do now.
Coach laid out his expectations for us—that we attend practice every day, make sure we go to class, ensure our grades are high enough to be academically eligible, to make an appointment with the trainer (if necessary), to get our weightlifting sessions in, and to take care of our teammates. To be honest, it wasn’t really what I was expecting (no pun intended). In high school we were told not to do certain things. Here, the message was about doing things that will give us the best opportunity to be successful. Coach did not mess around with grades—I should know, I almost failed one of his classes, and when I asked him about it he said, “Charlie, sometimes you gotta bite the bullet”. That wasn’t the response I was expecting, but certainly ties into accountability.
Before the first practice of the season I met with Coach OG. He wanted to discuss my seasonal goals and how I would achieve them. Again, this was my first real introduction to accountability. I told Coach that I wanted to compete in the 55m, 200m, weight throw, and shot-put at the SUNYAC conference championships. I told him I was going to be the first thrower to qualify and compete in those events from Fredonia. He asked me how I was going to do that. I told him I would hit the qualifying marks before the conference meet. That was not the response he was looking for.
He asked me again, how I would qualify for those four events. This meeting took place in October, 2000. Our conference meet was in February, 2001. Again, I said I would hit the qualifying marks before the conference meet. At this point I was frustrated. I knew he was too because he asked me to leave his office. Mind you, this wouldn’t be the last time in our three years together.
To be continued in part 2
Dr. Charles Infurna
Charles Infurna, Ed.D., is the owner and lead coach of Forza Athletics Track Club. Dr. Infurna has coached National Record Holders, National Champions, All-Americans, and Conference Champions at the Post-Collegiate, Collegiate, and High School level.