When I first started coaching in 2004, I was tasked with coaching my friends. Most of the athletes on the SUNY Fredonia team at the time were my teammates from the season before. For the couple of senior throwers on the team at that time, we had a history together. I only had a couple of freshmen that season. I also had an athlete that decided he wanted throw, with no prior throwing experience.
For the athletes that I was teammates with in the past, I didn’t find it that difficult to coach them. Initially things went pretty well. It wasn’t until they didn’t throw as far as they wanted at the beginning of the season that we ran into a couple of problems. I found it difficult back then to have difficult conversations with my kids, especially since they were my previous teammates. I failed to lay out expectations for them. I didn’t ask them what they expected of me. It was difficult.
It wasn’t difficult with the new throwers on the team. Tim, Nick, and I worked really well together that first season. The same can be said for Alex and Garrett. We had some good chemistry. It took until the outdoor season, but we finally figured each other out. It took time. It also took a lot of work on my part.
I wasn’t sure where the proverbial line was. I didn’t treat them like my friends, however I did make some mistakes. First, I trained with the kids a couple of times a week. I wanted to continue my throwing career, and there were times where I wasn’t cognizant of what I was doing. I was taking away time from them to satisfy my needs. Second, I trained with them in the weight room too. I think they enjoyed training together. It added a little bit of intensity to what we were doing and what we were trying to accomplish in the circle.
I made sure to speak to each thrower for a good amount of time at each practice. We only had five throwers my first season, so it was relatively easy to spend a lot of time with each thrower. We spoke about classes, course work, families, and what they wanted to do after graduating. I shared things about my personal life as well. At the time I thought it would show my vulnerability and that I was more than just a coach. I’ve discussed it before, but I was enrolled in grad school and was teaching full-time. I didn’t have a lot free time on my hands, but what I had I tried to dedicate as much as possible to them.
Now, I begin each season with a discussion about expectations. You can read more about that in a previous article I wrote about expectations. I believe that the more time we spend sharing and discussing expectations gives everyone the opportunity to share what they want to get out of the season. More importantly it tells me what I need to do to help my athletes realize their dream(s) and vision, whatever they may be.
The conversation also brings a sense of accountability. If either person in the coach-athlete dyad deviates from the expectation, it helps hold us to what was previously discussed. This part takes some time. It takes trust and a willingness by the coach to have these difficult conversations with their athletes. Now they may not always be difficult to have, but if you have an athlete that is not meeting their expectations, you as a coach need to know how to approach and begin the conversation. Some of my athletes prefer this type of conversation before we throw. Some after practice. Others can have a conversation during (but I prefer to not have that conversation during a throwing or lifting session). However, once your athletes know that you as a coach want them to reach their goals, it helps establish the relationship and make it stronger. Speaking about expectations also provides your athletes with some autonomy. It gives them a sense of control over the conversation, what they expect from their coach, and how they want to get to their destination.
Autonomy is important. There is an abundance of literature out there about the relationship between autonomy supportive behaviors provided by the coach and athlete outcomes and performances. Athletes that perceive their coaches to provide more autonomy supportive behaviors feel more comfortable with their coach and tend to have more rewarding athletic experiences.
As coaches, do you give your athletes an opportunity to be a part of the process? What would your athletes say about you? Would they perceive you to be autonomy supportive, or would they say that they don’t have a voice in deciding and/or planning out their athletic endeavors?
As always, thanks for reading ~ Charles
Defining a Team Culture
This is a difficult topic for me to write about. I’ve had other coaches ask me on multiple occasions how we ‘do’ things at Nazareth College. Up until a couple of years ago, I never really spent that much time thinking about it. We just did ‘it’. Unable to define what ‘it’ is up until recently, I’ll give it a shot today.
As our throwers were arriving to practice on Monday, I asked them how their weekend was. We had a meet the Friday before, and going more than two consecutive days without seeing my throwers is very uncommon. As we were discussing the practice format for the day, they told me they got together on Saturday and had a potluck lunch. They organized this on their own. I was very pleasantly surprised that they organized such an event, on their own, without any prodding from me or any of the other coaches.
Like I mentioned, up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t really pay attention to our team culture. It ultimately ended up coming back to bite me in 2017. I was left confused, shaken, and distraught in the fact that I had lost my kids. No, not at a track meet. But lost in a sense that they didn’t believe in me and our program. I assumed (it is never ok to assume anything) that everything was ok. The year prior our seniors handled anything that may have come to the surface. If there was an issue brewing, they let me know. Otherwise, they handled most of the team bonding and culture building on their own (another big mistake).
After that 2016-17 season, I tried my best in 2017-18 to approach things differently. I was more positive at practice. I was more cognizant of my words/phrasing of things in conversation. I always thought I expressed an interest in their majors, life activities, and other happenings that college students have to face and deal with on a regular basis. Unfortunately, a lot of what I tried to implement was viewed in vain. I had one senior athlete that had been with us through the very best of times and the very worst of times. My attempt at being a more positive and nurturing coach faltered.
Thinking back to the 2014-15 season, I called or emailed some of my former throwers while I was working on my doctorate. A lot of our presentations and group projects were focused on our leadership abilities, decision-making skills, and ways to overcome adversity. I presented about situations I faced as a throwing coach at two very different NCAA Division III institutions. I asked my former throwers to create short videos about times we agreed, disagreed, handled adversity, and overcame obstacles together to realize their (the athletes’) goals they had set out for themselves. A lot of what came back centered on positive coaching skills. They shared their thoughts about open communication, goal-setting, and transferring track skills into life skills.
Getting back to coaching at Nazareth, I spent a lot of time over the summer thinking about how I was going to approach this 2018-19 season. With a new group of throwers, I wanted to make sure that we shared our expectations for the season, goals we wanted to achieve, and plan out how we were going to do that. Before our season officially started, I met with each thrower individually. I asked them to share their ideas for the upcoming season, how they liked to be coached, and how we could balance their coursework with practice times.
Most importantly, we shared expectations. I asked each person individually to share their expectations they had for me and what I expected of them. This part of the conversation is what I believe has helped establish our Nazareth College throwing culture. Let me correct that, these conversations shaped our culture because each thrower shared their expectations with everyone else. We kept those expectations posted in our practice area. Every day we had practice, they were reminded of what they expected of themselves, what they expected of me, and what they expected from the group.
Each day we talked about our expectations. What we expected from ourselves and our team. It wasn’t until we started discussing recruits and who they would stay with for their overnight visits that I realized we had come together as a group. As I was sharing details about how overnight trips typically went, one of the athletes asked me if the recruits had to throw with us if they decided to come to Naz. I was caught off guard, and wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. Another athlete said, “Yeah, if we don’t like her can we tell you? We don’t want anyone to come that isn’t going to fit in with our team.” It was at that moment that I realized we had finally come together as a team and had established our culture.
We established our culture by:
When I first started coaching, the 22-year old me would not have felt comfortable with my athletes sharing what they expected of me and what they expected of their teammates. There were times during my first couple years as coach that I did not feel comfortable having difficult conversations with my athletes. I was afraid to have the discussion. I remember my stomach getting tied up in knots at the thought of having a difficult conversation. Now, I encourage my athletes to share their thoughts on a daily basis.
We had just finished our weight room session this afternoon when I asked them what they thought of the past couple of weeks. They shared what they liked, didn’t like, and what they wanted to try differently. The younger me would not have wanted to change course. But, I value their opinions and only they know how they feel after a training session or weight lifting session. I also met with a couple of throwers individually. For some, plans have slightly changed. For others, we are staying the course because, as they told me, they feel comfortable with how things are going and that they are making progress every day. For the couple that asked to make some changes, we are going to do so. It’s not what is supposed to make me feel comfortable, but what makes my athletes comfortable.
You never really know how a group of individuals are going to gel when brought together for the very first time. This season, unlike any other of my career, brought five individuals together in October, and were declared teammates. The first time in my coaching career that my whole group of student-athletes were freshmen.
Now, just because they come together because they are teammates does not necessarily mean they are going to become a true team just for the sake of doing so. It takes a concentrated effort by the coach to create a culture that will indeed bring everyone together. Unlike more traditional team sports, track & field is a little different. Yes, we are a team striving to win a team championship. However, each individual has their own goals they want to accomplish as well. It takes a balance between managing each athlete’s goals with the larger expectations of the group.
I didn’t need to bring this group of individuals together. They brought themselves together. Now we met often before the start of the season, but two of the five were playing other sports at the start of the season. Another athlete missed the first week for other reasons. We started with two. Grew to three. Then really gelled with five. I realized they were a tight group that had bought in when they told me if it was ok to tell me if they didn't like a potential recruit if they thought they wouldn't fit in with our team. As I coach, I knew they had definitely come together after that moment in December after one of our practices.
For their first semester experience involved with collegiate track & field, I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised with how they each managed their own expectations of what collegiate track was like as well as the academic rigors they experienced in their specific majors. A couple of interesting things about this group of athletes. First, they are a very focused group of individuals. They understand the importance of their academic successes, but are able to put those thoughts aside for the hour or two that they are at practice. Second, we did not have any issues with cell phones during practice. Unfortunately, I have had that issue before. We spoke about at the beginning of the season, and that was it. Ultimately, they are able to eliminate distractions for a couple of hours and focus on what they need to do. Third, they are goal-oriented. At the beginning of the season I asked everyone what they wanted to accomplish by the end of the fall semester. To my pleasant surprise, not one of them wrote down a distance they wanted to throw before the semester was over. Rather than write down outcome goals, each individual wrote down process goals. Again, in the past a typical goal that may have been written was more about throwing a specific distance in the shot-put or weight throw. Not with this group.
They concluded the fall semester having broken the women’s indoor shot-put and 20lb. weight throw records. I wasn’t surprised the records were broken. The fashion they were broken did catch me a bit off guard. First throw by Gabbie broke the shot-put record. Similarly, first throw by Ally broke the 20lb. weight throw record. Gabbie increased her record in round 6. Three throwers threw farther than the previous weight throw record. Three girls over 40’ in the weight (a coaching best for me), as well as three over 10m in the shot-put (a coaching best for me).
I cannot say enough positive things about our six pieces of five (if you know, you know). I’m very proud of how dedicated they were to learning how to throw the weight, increase their understanding of shot-put mechanics, and the patience to take each practice one at a time. When I was an athlete, I couldn’t wait to throw in our first meet. Now, as a coach, I wish I could slow time down in order to have more deliberate practices completed. Most importantly, I’m most proud of their academic accomplishments. They all performed well this fall, and all earned a GPA greater than my first semester GPA. It isn’t difficult to achieve that feat, but I have shared some of my collegiate academic stories with them.
Another piece to the collegiate puzzle, and what I feel is most important, is the opportunity to develop a positive, supportive, and nurturing coach-athlete relationship with each individual. I’ll put my research hat on for a moment, but past and present empirical literature suggests that the coach-athlete relationship is the number one most important factor from the perspective of the athlete that led them to achieving their successes in athletics. I can provide a detailed reference list if you would like, but 20 years of literature in team, individual, professional, youth, and Olympic coach-athlete dyads suggests that the more powerful and real the relationship is between the athlete and coach, the greater success the athlete feels they have achieved.
We will continue to build our culture at Nazareth College. We will remain steadfast on accomplishing our academic and athletic goals. Our telescope vision is in place. Our microscope goals have been carefully planned and discussed. We know what we need to do this semester to take another step closer to realizing our visions. We are ready.
Ally, Bailey, Gabbie, Grace, & Katie, I look forward to another great semester of growth, development, learning, and long throws!
Your Coach ~ Coach Infurna
Trying Something New at 36
I’m sitting just outside my five-year old’s wrestling practice, and I just got a little emotional. Well, actually a lot of emotions are running through me as I try to capture these thoughts. My wife and I have encouraged him (our oldest son, 5 year’s old) to try out a variety of different sports. We have played t-ball, a little run of gymnastics, indoor soccer, swimming, and now wrestling.
Parents are not allowed to sit inside the gym and watch practice. Tonight he asked me to stay. I told him I would love to watch him practice wrestling. There are a couple of families here with me, sitting outside in the hallway. We can hear the young wrestlers (K-6th grade) talk, engage in some laughter, and transition from drill to drill as they warm-up for tonight’s activities.
I’m not sure what the flood of emotions is right now. Maybe it is because I’m watching him through a small window in the door. He caught me watching once, stopped mid run, and blew me a kiss. I’m getting teary eyed just writing this down.
He hasn’t been afraid to try anything new. We ask him if he is interested, and more often than not he says yes. He wasn’t interested in trying Lacrosse. He isn’t interested in Football. Basketball, well not quite.
This past weekend my wife and I took our two oldest boys ice skating. It was my first time being on skates. And to be perfectly honest, I was terrified. The assistance apparatus they have is built for young kids, not adults. My kids took to it well. My wife knows how to skate. I, on the other hand, held onto the side glass for dear life. I made it around the rink a couple of times. I got the biggest right tricep pump of my life. I could not have held onto that little lip around the glass any harder than I did. I also got the biggest cramp in my left hamstring (probably from trying to brace myself and stabilize). Like I said, I was scared to death.
My kids fell a couple of times. They got right back up and continued on their way. I couldn’t keep up with either of them. Even the three-year old was moving faster than I was. I’m 6’1”. It’s a long way down if I fall. Not as much of a distance for my little guys. I was so scared, in fact, that I registered for ice skating lessons with my two boys. They said they wanted to learn and try it. My wife is already a pretty proficient at skating. So, at 36 years old, I’m signed up for ice skating lessons. Similar to my kids, I’m registered in the most novice section they had. I’ll be skating with a group of three to six-year old children. Not just because I’ll be learning with my children along the way, but because, much like them, I have absolutely zero experience ice-skating.
They say that age is merely but a number. My number isn’t that big. I’m going to turn 37 in February. This is the first time I’ve signed up for something new at this stage of my life. I’m excited to learn something new. I’m especially excited to learn something new with my two oldest boys.
As always, thanks for reading ~ Charles
I’ve attended my fair share of high school track and field meets over the past five years. While in attendance, something that has always struck me as odd is overhearing conversations between high school coach and athlete that sound something like this:
High School Coach—“Focus on what you are doing. You can (insert technical tip here) better.”
High School Athlete—(Looks at coach with a puzzled look)
High School Coach—“Do you understand what I need you to do?”
High School Athlete—(Still looks puzzled) Ok.
Now, I’m embellishing a little bit, but if you are someone that has attended a sporting event, you’ve probably heard an adult (coach, parent, grandparent, etc.) say something to an athlete about the need for them to focus on what they are doing. To be honest, I’ve never had a coach tell me to focus on something. That can be for a couple of reasons. First, I wasn’t that important to what was going on in the game situation at the time that it was necessary to be told to focus. Second, I may have looked like I was focusing in on what I was doing. Third, my coaches just didn’t ever tell someone to focus. Maybe they just assumed that we were focusing on what we were supposed to be doing.
In my track and field throwing career, I never had a coach tell me I needed to be more focused on what I was doing. Whether at practice, in the weight room, or in the middle of a competition, they never came over and had that conversation with me. Again, maybe I wasn’t that important to what was going on or they just didn’t tell their athletes to focus. I’m not quite sure. I’m also not quite sure if that was a good thing or bad thing.
I’m writing about this topic today because a few months ago I listened to the best podcast episode of 2018, which emphasized focus, and how coaches can teach their athletes to focus on what they need to do. I’ve written about her in the past, but Dr. Amber Selking has one of the best podcasts available to anyone. She brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her episodes about mental strength and mental conditioning. A few months ago she interviewed her mentor Dr. Rick McGuire, the godfather of mental strength and conditioning. In this interview, Dr. McGuire speaks about focus, breaks it down into five teachable tips, and goes into very specific detail about each tip and how coaches can teach their athletes to focus. You can clink the link below to listen to the complete interview between Dr. Selking and Dr. McGuire.
The reason why I’m sharing this with everyone is because it is something I’m going to emphasize for myself in 2019. I’m going to spend diligent time practicing the skill of focus, and how I can better focus on what I need to accomplish during a particular day, week, month, and year. I’m also going to begin teaching the skill to the athletes I coach at the collegiate and high school level.
I did begin working on the skill with one of my high school athletes the other day. I wrote the five parts of focus up on one of our whiteboards in our practice facility. I asked the athlete that I was coaching that day if anyone had ever spoke to him about it. He answered no. We spent about fifteen minutes discussing the five tips, what they mean, and how he can practice the skills at home, at practice, and in the weight room. I took a picture of the whiteboard, and sent it to him. I also sent him a text that included the link to Dr. Selking’s podcast link.
Since I started training for my upcoming powerlifting meet in March, I’ve spent a lot of time training in the garage with my two oldest boys. The commotion in the garage while attempting to squat, bench, and deadlift has been a bit overwhelming at times. However, I have begun implementing the training tips that Dr. McGuire and Dr. Selking discussed in their recent podcast.
Just today I asked my five-year old to hold the camera while I attempted my squat top end set of 455lbs. (78% of my max) for 6 reps. It took a lot of patience and concentration to be in the moment while completing this set. I’ve been really emphasizing step one of being in the present moment when working out with my kids in the garage. Even though they are running around and playing, I’ve made it a point to remain in the moment, and work really hard to not think about what we just talked about five or ten seconds before I un-rack the weight until after I re-rack it.
It has been a challenge working on the five steps of focus as an adult. I do wonder though how an elementary, middle school, or high school athlete feel/think when an adult tells them to focus on what they are doing, when in all likelihood the adult in the situation probably hadn't taught the athlete the skill to begin with.
Here’s to a fun-filled, engaging, rewarding, and focused 2019!
As always, thanks for reading ~ Charles
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.