Do coaches know when they are coaching?
Yesterday I got the chance to have lunch with my good friend and mentor (even though he might not realize it) Dan Chambliss. We met at the Dark Horse Tavern in Syracuse, a short drive away from Rochester.
I enjoy getting together with Dan to chat for many reasons. First, I always arrive with questions for him about coaching, research, etc., but then end up leaving with more questions than I originally arrived with. Second, he takes the time to listen to my ideas and thoughts. Third, he asks questions back. Yesterday was no different than any of the other opportunities we’ve had to get together over the course of the past five years.
Dan asked me about the projects I’m working on, and as you probably already know, I got really excited when I started discussing my current coaching project. I just received IRB approval to conduct the study which is focused on American track & field throwing coaches. I won’t bore you with the coaching interview guide and all that it entails, but one of the essential questions of the study is…
How do you (coaches) know what to say to a thrower when they do make the decision to engage them (the thrower) in conversation during, a) practice, and b) during a meet?
I may have even stumped Dan when I shared this question with him. I believe it is an important one. When I reflect back on conversations I’ve had with athletes during meets and at practice, I really need to think about a few things. First, why did I engage the thrower? Was it to make a technical correction, ask them how their day went, how much work do they have, etc.? Second, how did I know what to say to them when I engaged them in the first place?
It may sound complicated, but here is an example.
The other day I watched back some video from when Luis threw at the 2016 DIII Indoor National Championships. In some of the clips I taped of his throws, I can hear the dialogue we had after the particular throw. In the heat of the moment maybe coaches don’t think about what they are going to say or not say, but just act on gut feeling or instinct. But then again, how did we learn this behavior? Did we learn this from a mentor, years of coaching experience, because we saw someone else say something to their thrower after a throw (good throw or not so good throw)?
I do remember telling Luis after his second throw that he was in very good shape (he had just moved into 1st place) and that if he felt ready, that he should put the hammer (no pun intended) down in round 3. I said that to him for a couple of reasons. First, I knew that he probably felt comfortable with the throw he just completed. Second, he was ready to take his next throw up a notch. Third, I wanted to say something to him that I thought would keep him focused on what he was going to do next.
In my mind, I was thinking that my job for that competition was to keep Luis as calm and relaxed as possible in order to keep his mindset in the right place during his first three attempts in the prelims. I also understood that attempting to make major technical corrections at the most important meet of the year was not a good idea. Similarly, making even some minor corrections would probably have been distracting. Honestly, nobody taught me to act that way. By this point in the season Luis and I had built up a relationship of trust and respect and I knew that he would listen to what I said to him at the meet without saying too much to him (if that makes sense).
Now that everyone is probably confused (or not), I’m really excited to move forward with this upcoming research project. As coaches I think we know deep down why we say things to our athletes during meets. But perhaps we don’t know why we say what we do until we have a moment to reflect back on a competition and think about it.
Of all the coaches I’ve been around, I think I’m the most laid back of the bunch at meets. I try not to say too much because we are at a meet and I don’t want to flood my throwers’ heads with what they need to do. I try to keep them relaxed, calm, and focused on the great things they are doing. Sure, depending on the situation (learned behavior) I may re-direct a behavior that they (the thrower) is exhibiting, but that is probably for another blog post.
So, getting back to my initial question, if you are a coach that is reading this,
Do coaches know when they are coaching?
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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.