Or should it be accountability and expectations? It probably isn’t as difficult as the old adage of which came first, the chicken or the egg. But maybe you can’t have one without the other.
Today I recorded a podcast for the Forza Athletics Life and Coaching Podcast. The theme of the podcast centered around our expectations and how we hold ourselves accountable to them. My specific focus was centered around sports, and in this case track & field.
As a throwing coach at the Division III level I hold my student-athletes accountable for their actions. Our track & field program, along with Nazareth College, has very high expectations for our student-athletes. We expect them to go to class, study, complete their assignments, and graduate in 4 to 6 years (depending on their major). If they do not meet some of those expectations, we as coaches are notified of it. We receive an auto-generated email created by a professor indicating that a specific student-athlete may have missed two or three of their classes this week, didn’t complete assignments, or received a low score on a test/mid-term/paper.
When I first started coaching at Nazareth over 5 years ago, I received more of these emails than I would have liked. I would spend time discussing my concerns with a thrower, ask them if they needed assistance in the classroom, and what the consequences would be if they didn’t receive adequate grades (they would not be academically eligible if their cumulative GPA fell under 2.0, thus meaning they couldn’t compete/practice until their grades were high enough). That conversation was usually good enough to get them back on track. Essentially, it was taking any guess work or grey area out of it. It is not something we as coaches can control. Our NCAA compliance coordinator would also be made aware of their grades, resulting in missed practice and competition until they had increased their GPA.
The next part of this blog post is where the expectations and accountability conversation gets tricky. I’ll provide you with an example from this past season. You can tell me if you think I handled this situation properly. You can also share your thoughts, and maybe discuss what you may have done differently as well.
Last July, one of my athletes posted on Twitter that his goal was to win the 35lb. Weight Throw at the 2018 DIII Indoor National Championships. Not a small feat in itself, nor was it such a stretch that it was impossible to accomplish. During Tyler’s sophomore season, he threw a personal best of 16.80m at the ECAC Indoor Track & Field Championships held in New York City. He finished 8th in the 35lb. Weight Throw. It was a 5m improvement from his freshman season. During the 2016-17 season, following up his sophomore campaign, Tyler threw 15.80m. Even though he didn’t set a personal best, I thought it was still realistic to possibly win Nationals, especially knowing that it would probably take 18m to get there. Once there, anything is possible. So, in theory, Tyler needed to throw another 1.20m this season to give himself a chance at accomplishing his goal.
We exchanged multiple text messages after he posted that tweet, especially about how the summer would prove to be extremely important if he really wanted to win Nationals. I specifically told him he couldn’t wait until September to start training. It was important to start training then. I sent Tyler a program that Luis completed one summer before returning to Nazareth. In the famous 8 week ‘Beef Packer’ program written by Derek Woodske in 2004, Luis put on about 20lbs., and came back to campus ready to throw far.
In our situation for this season, that was not the case. I knew the second I saw Tyler that he did not complete the program. I was almost certain he didn’t complete any program. That was my first red flag. I spoke to him about it. Expressed my concern in August, however he assured me he was ready for the season to begin.
I didn’t have much contact with Tyler until the middle of October, almost two months after our first meeting of the season. Again, from my observation I could tell something was wrong. Still didn’t seem like any progress was made in the weight room. We had a similar conversation again. And again I was assured that it was ok. This was red flag number 2.
Our season started off pretty well. No breakthrough throws, but Tyler made the finals in every meet through December and into January. However, it was at a meet at SUNY Brockport, after the shot-put competition was done, that Tyler and I had our first real discussion of the season. I expressed my concerns about his expectations and how his actions weren’t supporting his stated goal of winning Nationals. I also expressed my concern that he didn’t seem committed to that goal, and that it was beginning to slip away. I perceived his initial take to be earnest and a bit concerning. However, as the conversation progressed I felt as though it had indeed slipped away and that Tyler also realized it had slipped away.
I didn’t question his heart or desire to compete. It was more a question about how he was handling the process of wanting to become a National Champion. The goal is great. The process of realizing that goal was not going well. It was actually non-existent. There really wasn’t a process. The focus was only on the outcome. Not on the process of moving forward towards that goal.
To make matters worse, Tyler was teammates with Luis, the 2016 DIII National Champion in the 35lb. Weight Throw. He knew what Luis did to realize that goal. They practiced together. Lifted together. Did all the mundane things together in preparation for realizing that goal. Maybe Tyler didn’t want it as much as Luis did. Or that training for that one moment in time was not really worth it after all.
Winning a National Championship is not something decided at that meet (not always). I know, that doesn't make much sense. Please let me explain. Yes, of course the person who throws the farthest at Nationals is going to win. More often than not it isn't a surprise. To qualify an athlete obviously put in the work necessary to throw far enough to get there. Typically there isn't that much of a difference in distance for throwers at Nationals. The top 10-15 athletes may only be separated by 3 meters in the hammer, for example. The preparation that it takes in order to win at Nationals is started well in advance of that magical weekend. It begins in the summer. Or it even begins the year or two before. It isn't something that just happens a couple of weeks before. The work needs to be put in. You definitely earn the victory at Nationals. It isn't a fluke. And there is no such thing as a lucky throw.
The process begins after the previous season ends. One cannot take a summer off, not train, and not do anything that will move them towards achieving that goal. Unfortunately, we cannot decide in February that now I want to be National Champion in March. For about 99% of throwers it doesn’t work that way. Daily commitments, daily actions, and habits need to be formed and completed well in advance. For some, like Luis, it was a four-year journey. Tyler tried making it a one and done.
After our discussion at Brockport, we decided that Tyler should not compete in our next meet and think about how he wanted to approach the outdoor season. Rather than go into another indoor meet not prepared for competition, we took a weekend off. The reaction I got, well the reaction I was expecting but didn’t receive was red flag number three.
I’ll leave you all with that for now. Reflecting back on our season, there are a couple of things I should have handled differently. For one, Tyler and I would have had a more serious conversation back in July when he decided he wanted to be National Champion. I would have discussed the new habits and traits he would have needed to develop in order to realize his goal. Like they say, hindsight is 20/20.
How would you have handled the situation? What would you have done differently?
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.