Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
I don’t believe this is a topic I’ve discussed much, if at all in the past. I think it’s an interesting topic that isn’t really discussed much on social media, but there is ample research in the coach-athlete relationship space about relationships and when/how they come to an end. I experienced my first post-collegiate break up with an athlete over this past weekend. After reflecting upon it for the past couple of days, I have wrapped my mind around what (from my perspective) went wrong and how the relationship may have been extended due to extenuating outcomes (from the possible perspective of the athlete).
Before I really get started here, I think it’s important to share that I believe that a large majority of throwers at the high-school and collegiate levels throw because they have some type of goal they want to achieve and distance they want to ultimately throw. For the very few throwers at that level, I believe they compete and join track teams because they want to be part of a group of individuals that share similar passions, i.e. throwing. And for that very small group of throwers, their ultimate goal isn’t simply to throw far(ther), but rather be around a group of individuals and have fun. Not sure what the percentage might be, but it would probably be fair to say the split might look like 90/10 or 95/5.
Alright, getting back to our situation at hand. After a few text message exchanges and a Zoom chat we were well on our way to getting started and hopefully throwing farther.
The athlete sent me a few of their throws via text message and I would send back some thoughts about their technique and share some tips via the Coaching Eye app. Their five or six second video clips would turn into a couple minute videos about technique; foot placement, hips, shoulders, eyes, etc. A couple of suggestions and drills to support the new technique. We did this for approximately a couple of months. In that time, this athlete had two competitions.
Unfortunately, as their practice technique got more efficient and they were implementing mindset strategies to help support the new technique, things wouldn’t go as smoothly in competition. In my opinion, their technique improved in the two competitions we worked together, however their distances did not improve. Quite the opposite actually. Their distances from competition 1 to competition 2 in which we worked together got worse. As I’m writing this now, I’m still trying to figure out what would cause the change from practice to competition. I have a pretty good idea, but that can be saved for another post.
This past weekend we discussed how the competition went. Before long, the athlete told me they were going to search for a more local coach and thanked me for my help. I wished them the best in hopes of finding the distances they were searching for with me as their coach.
So, what went wrong…
From my perspective, this is a list of what I think went wrong in this situation. Hopefully this list can help other coaches who might be in similar predicaments with coaching athletes at any level through a club or other affiliation not associated with a school/college/university.
1. Lack of Clear Expectations
If you have got this far, you might be able to see (or read) that the expectations of the athlete were simply to throw farther. Of course I understand that. There are a multitude of factors that play a role in how well someone is going to compete (or throw) on a given day. Some factors within their ultimate control and others not (travel, weather, time of day, etc.).
I failed to share and set clear expectations for what this coach-athlete relationship would look like. In this case, the expectation of throwing farther immediately after beginning to work together (i.e. a couple of months). I should have known better. Changing technique and providing technical and mindset cues takes time and effort. Providing the cues is one thing, implementing them is something altogether.
2. Goal-Setting: It isn’t always about throwing farther, or is it?
The only mention of achieving a goal was for this athlete to qualify for a specific meet in which they need to reach a certain ranking in order to be eligible and to throw farther.
I failed to share specific process goal related outcomes/scenarios that would have removed any anxiety, fear, or apprehension the athlete had about reaching a certain ranking and hitting a certain distance in an event. Completing a certain number of physical repetitions per week, practicing mental rehearsal cues, etc. are all outcomes that can be strived for. A sole focus on throwing farther without implementing strategies discussed (see 1) sets the coach and athlete up for disaster.
3. How to Receive Information
I did not discuss with the athlete how they like to receive feedback regarding their technique and how to share information about cues and drills to incorporate. The athlete would text me their throws, I would upload them to Coaches Eye, include ideas, and send back to the athlete with links of visual cues to review from other athletes, as well as mindset activities to incorporate to better prepare for the heightened anxiety of attempting to perform well when a top ranking is on the line.
Again, if you made it this far-thank you! Essentially, from the perspective of the athlete, I believe that because they didn’t improve their distances in competition they decided I wasn’t the right coach for them and they wanted to make a change. No hard feelings at all. As I mentioned, I wished the athlete nothing but the very best of luck in their future endeavors.
I do believe that the right combination of communication, expectations, and outlining goals/aspirations makes for a healthy coach-athlete relationship. You can add accountability as well. In situations where the athlete is solely relying on their own effort in competition (diving, swimming-not relay races, throwing, golf, singles tennis, wrestling, badminton, racquetball, etc.) it requires athletes and coaches alike to take a deeper look at what is happening, not only when the athlete is successful (how they define success) but not as successful as well and be critical of what needs to better be communicated to ensure the athlete is given the best possible opportunity to reach their goals.
The postseason in any sport can be summed up by being exciting, causing a state of anxiety, and all points in-between. Much like any 80’s professional wrestling interview, it can go in a multitude of directions. From a coaching perspective, we want to get from point A to our final destination in the most straightforward way possible. As is in life, things don’t always go as we plan.
After a spectacular competition at our regional championships, we were 8 days out from competing at the DIII Outdoor Track and Field National Championships. Dylan won the regional meet by throwing 52.82m. A new personal best, school record, and meet record all rolled into one throw. We were literally on the fast track to nationals.
I’ll take an aside here and mention that going to nationals is an athlete’s reward for all the work, time, and dedication spent on becoming the best athlete they can become over the course of an indoor or outdoor season. The stratification is simple, the top 20 individual athletes qualify for the meet. It is once the athletes are there that the season essentially starts over again and that the initial seed marks and qualifying times don’t matter as much as they should. The 2022 outdoor meet was no exception to the fact that having the best seed time, distance, mark would result in winning the actual competition. The new competition where the 20th seeded individual has just as good a chance to earn the title of All-American as the top seeded individual. If you coach long enough, you probably have first hand experience and have been witness to the upsets, the meltdowns, and all points in-between.
As advertised, the men’s discus competition was held on Thursday, May 26th at the beautiful SPIRE Institute in Geneva, OH. The facilities were amazing and the officials kept the competition moving at a reasonable pace considering the high stakes nature of the competition.
After all 20 men’s discus throwers were introduced, flight 1 began their warm-ups. I enjoy watching warm-ups especially at the national meets because it tells a lot about a thrower’s and coaches philosophy on getting ready to compete. Some throwers were dropping big time throws, while others were more matter of fact with what was happening around them. I’m not sure if there is a better way to warm up, but whatever works best for the athletes is how one should handle that portion of the competition.
Also as expected, two throwers from flight 1 threw distances that were likely going to put them into the finals of the competition. In every national championship meet I’ve attended with an athlete, there are always a couple of throwers that throw well enough to secure a shot at earning an All-American award. There were 10 throwers in flight 1. There were 10 throwers in flight 2. That means that a couple of throwers from flight 2 would not be moving forward into the finals.
Dylan warmed up really well. He took his usual five warm up throws spaced out a little more than usual because of the time offered to the athletes, 20 minutes. It was the smallest qualifying flight he had competed in all season with the most amount of time available to warm up. I knew that as long as Dylan hit a throw over 50m that he would all but secure a place in the finals with the chance to earn A-A. All of our work during this 2021-22 season had led us to this point. The foundation for this competition was put down during the 2020-21 season.
Dylan’s first throw was a left sector foul. Nothing out of the ordinary for a foul for him, but the first first round foul in a couple of months. His second round throw was a right sector foul. Same thing, he’d done that before during the season. However, it was the first time he started off a meet with two fouls since his first meet of the season the first week of April. I didn’t share anything new with him in-between throws. I told him he looked good in the circle, to make some (minor) technical adjustments, and to trust everything he had done up until this point in the season.
Earlier in the morning during breakfast I shared some thoughts with Dylan about competing, taking in the sights and sounds, and enjoying the moment of earning a shot of competing at the national championships. I’d venture to guess that > 95% of DIII athletes never have the opportunity to compete at a meet like this and that what he was about to do was very special and that he should be proud of getting here. But there was also work to still be done.
As Dylan was stepping into the circle for round 3 I knew that he had to throw at least 49m to get into the finals. To be more precise, 49.05m. Dylan was thrower 8 of 10, and the 9th and 10th throwers in the flight were already guaranteed a spot in the finals. Without saying as such, I know Dylan knew the distance as well. From where we were standing behind the circle it was difficult to gauge the distance of his throw. It looked really close to the 50m line. Over 50m would guarantee a spot in the finals. The big board flashed 48.82m, 11th place. I felt this crushing blow in the pit of my stomach that I’ve only felt a few times in my life. I shook Dylan’s hand and said congratulations on an amazing season. He walked past me to sit down. As he sat down I felt a couple of tears roll down my face. I was devastated. Dylan was devastated.
I watched the final two throwers in the flight take their final attempts. As that was happening a sudden rush of emotions came over my body. A million and one thoughts were going through my mind, most of which focused on what I could have done differently/better to have avoided putting my athlete in this situation. What could I have done differently to have ensured this was not going to happen. What else could have been done. What if…
None of us said much after the second flight finished up. The coaches in attendance (Tim, Steph, Trevor, myself) and our awesome AT (Becca) just kind of looked at each other in disbelief. I pulled out my notebook and realized this was Dylan’s second lowest distance thrown of the season. He opened his season with a throw of 48.52m the first week of April. Here we were 10 weeks later with a throw of 48.82m. Any other one of his top 15 throws of the season would have put him in the finals and earned at least 8th place. 49.73m earned 8th place. Just about 3m below Dylan’s personal best. It didn’t happen on this day.
Dylan completed his senior season as arguably the most decorated thrower in Alfred State history. Dylan broke the 26 year old Alfred State discus record, broke his hammer record, broke the CSAC discus and hammer meet records, and set the regional meet record in the discus with his 52.82m throw. Since Alfred State’s transition to Division III, he is the first thrower to qualify for nationals. He won the shot-put, discus, and hammer throw competitions at the CSAC championships. Most importantly, Dylan graduated with a 3.96 GPA in Engineering. His first day on the job was yesterday, May 31, 2022. I cannot be more proud of Dylan and everything he accomplished as a thrower at Alfred State. I’m sure when Dylan is ready he will share his story, the story that began after he first stepped foot on campus. I think I’ve shared a good portion of his story and career beginning in the fall of 2020. He has a much more interesting story that led up to competing at nationals a few days ago.
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.