I recently spent three days in Albany, NY attending a P-3 Instructional Learning Summit. The purpose of the conference was to bring school districts from New York State together and discuss upcoming curricular changes that will be rolled out during the 2020-21 school year. Even though this conference wasn’t focused on sports or coaching, I did find one big takeaway that is directly related to coaching and how athletes build their sport specific skills.
The keynote speaker spent a great deal of time discussing how kids learn through play. One of my big AHA moments came when she began talking about 21st century skills and how kids learn.
Cultivating 21st Century Skills: Successful Learning
The four traits of successful learning she began discussing directly relate to how athletes learn sport specific skills. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to spend some time applying these four skills to how athletes learn how to throw, develop their throwing skills, and how participating in track & field develops life skills that can be applied and implemented to their life.
1. Mentally Active
What does it mean to be mentally active in sport, and specifically mentally active in throwing? My interpretation of mentally active learning in throwing is what an athlete is doing when they are not in the circle, but outside of it. Think about this for a moment. Do you ever notice or pay attention to your athletes after they have taken a throw and stepped out of the circle? What do some of your athletes do? Do they engage with their cell phone, engage with their peers, get a drink, or do you see then not say anything but mentally play back what just happened? This skill may be difficult to observe however it may be something that you know as a coach when you see it. Being deliberate and focused may be another way to explain what being mentally active is about—thinking about and visualizing what you are going to do in the circle before you step in the circle. Rather than going through the physical motions of throwing for the sake of getting reps in, athletes are thinking about what they want to do before stepping in the circle and making an effort to focus on a specific skill that they may be working on for the session.
Of the four 21st century skills, being engaged may be the easiest skill to observe during a throwing practice. Are your athletes engaged in practice? Is there a lot of conversation going on between you as the coach and your throwers? In my experiences, I feel as though my throwers are more engaged in practice, meets, and the season as a whole when they are given the autonomy to be part of the planning process. I have been told on more than one occasion by other coaches that I give my throwers a lot of say in how we practice, what events we practice on given days, and the events they will be competing in at meets. Yes, I am guilty of all three. When I ask my athletes how they are feeling, what they think they want to focus on during that session, or what events they think they will compete in the best at a meet, and I am making them think about those questions among other things. Giving athletes autonomy leads to heightened levels of engagement, which I think is what we want from our throwers. Now, don’t get me wrong. I typically have a flexible training session plan in my head before practice, but I more often than not ask my athletes what they think they should be focusing on for the upcoming session. This gives them an opportunity to think about what they are going to do during that session, but most importantly it makes them think and have to verbalize why they think they should focus on that particular skill or set of skills during that session. I do this with high school throwers as well. It makes them feel part of the process and invested in how practice is going to be structured because they are providing input about it.
3. Socially Interactive
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. Are your athletes socially engaged and interactive during practice? You may be thinking that this skill is contradictory of the first skill I introduced, mentally engaged. I think you can be socially interacting with your peers and coach while also mentally engaged in the throwing skills you are focusing on during practice. I have only coached a couple of collegiate athletes that were not socially engaged and interactive with their peers. Unfortunately, they did not last long as members of our team. I don’t believe all throwers on the same team have to be best friends, but I do believe they should be able to get along with each other and be respectful.
4. Building Meaningful Connections to Their Lives
This is the skill that has the longest lasting effect on athletes. Through throwing, how are we as coaches able to build in opportunities to connect throwing to the real world? At times I probably spend more time than I should trying to build in “life” conversations in practice, traveling to meets, and at meets. For the most part, I don’t believe my younger athletes know the conversation is happening. My juniors and seniors probably sense when the conversation is beginning to happen, but they humor me and engage. These conversations have the longest lasting impact, yet they may not manifest themselves for two, four, or six years down the road. Some of the skills I’m referring to are; 1) communication skills, 2) how to overcome adversity, 3) positively channeling our emotions, and 4) engaging peers and those in authority.
What are other 21st century skills you see that are valuable in coaching? How are you able to adapt and implement those skills?
As always, thanks for reading ~ Charles
There may come a time in your life when you may need to make a decision that will alter the course of your life’s path. For some it may come when deciding to attend college or go into the workforce. For others it may be making the decision to attend college A rather than college B, C, D, or E. Further down the road, the decision may be about getting married, moving away from home, accepting a new job across the country, etc.
Sometimes, the decision involves a combination of the decisions listed above, with an added twist. Chasing a dream with little chance of achieving or reaching it. A dream that requires equal parts physical and psychological effort. A dream that can be realized once every four years. The Olympic dream.
In the past I’ve written about being a dream chaser. Chasing a goal that stretches us emotionally. Physically. It tests our strength. It tests our resolve. It tests our grit and resiliency. What are you willing to sacrifice in order to achieve your goal? I know what one person is willing to sacrifice. I also know someone that was afraid to chase.
After Luis graduated in 2016, I encouraged him to continue throwing as a graduate student. I encouraged him to apply for graduate assistantship positions; coach, train, and go to class all while continuing to chase his goals. Luis did just that. He was our graduate assistant at Nazareth College for two years. He just graduated with his Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management, the Puerto Rican National Record in the 35# Weight Throw, and the opportunity of a lifetime.
I’ve always encouraged my athletes to ask questions if they weren’t sure about something or simply wanted to learn more. I reach out to coaches all the time. I ask questions. I also answer questions when asked of me. I see it as a way of paying it forward. I have always similarly maintained that you never know what opportunities may be presented to you if you keep your options open, are willing to learn and listen, and are able to escape your comfort zone. Keeping with the theme of this post, I encouraged Luis that if he really wanted to continue throwing and chasing his throwing dream, this was the time to do it. Graduate degree in hand, Luis applied to a multitude of jobs across the country in the hopes of securing a position that would provide him time to train.
Sometimes the relationships we develop and nurture manifest themselves over time. You never know how you interact with someone in 2015 will influence a decision in 2018. Case in point-you only have one opportunity to make a first impression. Make it worthwhile. While attending a conference in December, 2015, Luis and I had the chance to speak with Jud Logan and some of his athletes while attending a conference at the Spire Institute. Those conversations, along with constant communication after the fact, paved the way for Luis to be granted a great opportunity. An opportunity that I think most throwers in the United States covet but may not be willing to take up.
Luis made the decision to chase his dream. He made arrangements to move to Ohio and drive a few times a month to Ashland University to train with Jud. While making these arrangements, he applied for a position as an Admissions Counselor at Ashland University. Interviewed for the position and was offered the job. At this point, I believe there was still a little bit of doubt and some trepidation in regards to moving away from what he knew to really realize his dream and take advantage of the opportunity presented to him.
On July 2nd, Luis started his new position in Admissions at Ashland University. He also got his first training session in under the rebuild phase, two years out from the 2020 Olympic Trials. Now, there are no guarantees that he will ultimately throw 75m and make the Olympic Team. However, he has put himself in a much better situation than he was before-comfortable in what he knew and what he was accustomed to.
This story may not be like many others that I have heard about, read about, or learned about from the people that experienced a similar situation. In 2002, AG Kruger, fresh off of a stellar Division II throwing career, packed up his life and drove to Ashland University to give himself a chance at making the 2004 Olympic Team. He brought with him a personal best throw of just about 65m in the hammer, and in two years threw far enough to make the Team. Alvin and Calvin Harrison (400m runners) slept in their car in Santa Monica, CA just to train with the Santa Monica Track Club. They had successful careers in the 400m and as members of the 4x400m relay team. That is a short list of occurrences, but these three individuals made ultimate sacrifices in order to chase their dreams.
For those of you that are still reading, how far are you willing to go in order to achieve your goals? What sacrifices are you willing to make in order to realize your dreams? One of my favorite YouTube video’s is of former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz speaking at the University of Texas on April 8, 2015. In his presentation to the Texas football team, Coach Holtz lays out five questions for the team to ask themselves about what they are willing to do in order to win and become champions. You can watch the video by clicking the following link https://youtu.be/_eWqyIBtn8I.
I believe most people have dreams and goals. Things they want to accomplish in their lives. Some aren’t willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve them. That’s ok. Like my conversation with Dan Chambliss a few months ago. He pointed out that it was ok if my athletes didn’t want to be the best throwers they could be. It is still difficult for me to accept that. Dabo Sweeney, Clemson’s head football coach, may have said it best on Jon Gordon’s podcast, “Would you rather live with the pain of discipline or the pain of regret?”
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.