About 16 years ago to the day I began my first student teaching placement in Pine Valley Elementary School. I was placed in Mr. Saxton’s 4th grade classroom. As was customary back then, all students that were student teaching would have the opportunity to visit the classroom they were going to be placed in that fall during the first week of school. I was very fortunate to be placed in Mr. Saxton’s classroom. At that point, he had been an elementary teacher for 15 years. I was nervous, excited, anxious, and concerned all at the same time for very different reasons.
A lot of my close friends were also student teaching that fall 2003 semester. For some reason though, many of those friends that were also varsity athletes decided that they wouldn’t be able to compete in their respective sports and student teach at the same time. Essentially, they quit their sports because as they said, “needed to focus on their student teaching and didn’t have enough time for their sport.” I couldn’t believe it. These were some of the best student-athletes on campus at the time, and for real reasons they only knew, decided they couldn’t balance athletics and student-teaching. Reflecting back on that time in my life, if I wasn’t able to student teach I probably would have failed out of SUNY Fredonia. I made it through student-teaching in both the fall and spring semesters and accomplished all of my athletic goals and then some during my senior year. I did so because of three things I incorporated that I didn’t specifically do before.
October, 2004 senior picture taken for the SUNY Fredonia website. This picture was taken on my first day of student teaching.
1. Structure and Routine
For the first three years of my collegiate experience, I did not follow a routine that was going to lead me to having academic success. I didn’t study that much. I went to class on occasion. I did well enough to remain academically eligible and compete on the track & field team. The only structure I had to my day was between the hours of 3pm and 7pm. Track practice would begin at 3pm and typically last until 5pm. We would then hit the weight room for a couple of hours, have a late dinner, and play video games. This went on until the summer between my junior and senior year.
I received a letter from SUNY Fredonia suggesting that if I didn’t get my act together I’d be at risk of becoming academically eligible. That stopped me in my tracks. I made it through three years of courses in the education program and would have been stuck if I wasn’t able to student teach and graduate with my degree in childhood education. I realized that summer that if I didn’t crush student teaching I would have wasted four years of college.
Student teaching and methods courses saved my professional and athletic careers. Our method courses were scheduled between 10am and 2pm. We didn’t have any classes scheduled during the early part of the morning because it was encouraged that we complete group work before classes started later that morning. Missing methods courses was not acceptable. If you missed more than three courses you would have been dismissed from the course, not allowed to student teach, and pretty much dismissed from the program.
This schedule built-in a structure/routine that I hadn’t incorporated before in my academic career. To prepare for student-teaching, I would get up every morning at 6:30am, have breakfast, and arrive on campus by 7:30am. I then immediately got to work with my classmates. At 3pm I’d go to practice, be done in the weight room by 6pm, be done with dinner by 7pm, work on class projects, and be in bed by 9pm. The routine not only helped me academically, but it also made me feel more comfortable with my senior season in track & field.
I kept a similar routine once student teaching began. Since I was really close to campus, I would be at practice by 4pm. I would get my reps in with my coach, be done with the weight room by 6:30pm, have dinner by 7:15pm, then I would grade my students’ work and prepare for the next day. I would be in bed by 10pm.
For a couple of months that fall and spring semester, I pretty much did the same thing in the same order every day. For the first time in my collegiate career I had established a routine that left me feeling as though I was making positive progress with my academic and athletic goals.
2. Process Focused Goal-Setting
The first three years of my athletic career at SUNY Fredonia I was driven by outcome goals. During my freshman year, I was happy to have qualified for both of our conference championships in the 35lb. weight throw. I simply wanted to throw far enough to qualify for those two championship meets. I had a teammate that was a senior that was one of the best shot-putters in our conference. I knew I couldn’t get to his level in the shot-put, so I focused all of my attention on the weight. I managed to sneak into the SUNYAC championships ranked 12th as the top freshmen thrower. I threw in the State meet on my birthday in 2001. I finished 15th out of 16th. Through my sophomore and junior seasons, I had a few meets in which I finished 2nd in the weight throw and placed in the top 3 in the hammer. I still hadn’t quite figured out the discus and shot-put, but I was making small improvements.
My initial thoughts were that I was making progress because I was working hard. I wasn’t working smart however. I was so focused on distances and places that I lost track of the little things I needed to do in order to achieve my goals. Up until this point in my college career, I had wasted a lot of time doing things that ultimately did not help me achieve my throwing goals. In no particular order, those things were; playing video games, not sleeping enough, not paying attention to what I was eating, and partaking in a vibrant social scene with my teammates.
The summer between my junior and senior season was a time of change. The coach that recruited me to Fredonia was replaced by someone that came from Wisconsin. I was excited because the Wisconsin schools are known for having top tier throwers every year. When I learned that our new head coach was a long/triple jumper I immediately felt concerned. I knew this was going to be my final season at achieving my goals, and now I was stuck with a jumping guy as a head coach. I also found out he was going to be my throwing coach.
I had a lot of negative thoughts and feelings built up inside of me before our first conversation that August, 2004. I went into the track office and introduced myself. We made some small talk, and then he started asking me questions about my training habits and my outlook for the upcoming season. I told him that I wanted to win the 35lb. weight throw and hammer throw championships that season at our SUNYAC championship meets. He then asked me about my previous performances and finishes. At this point I was more concerned about the season because I didn’t think he did his homework. He was inheriting a decent roster, I was one of a couple of returning scorers, and finished 2nd twice the previous season at SUNYACS. Yet he didn’t know that. I guess I thought he should have known that.
As we were discussing my training habits, he asked me a lot about why I did certain things and if I thought they aided my performances. The sense of anxiety I had before our conversation was beginning to go away. In that moment, I knew this was going to be a good season. I felt as though he cared about me. Not just about the throwing me, but the person. I told him I was going to be student-teaching in the fall and spring, and that my schedule would be structured. In order for me to accomplish my goals, the old me (staying up late, playing video games, and not taking training seriously) needed to go.
I explained all of this to Coach Barr. I told him I wanted to win two championships and go to nationals. I didn’t care how far I threw, as long as I won!
He told me to start writing down what I thought I needed to do in order to achieve those goals. As he explained to me, and as I have related to my athletes in the past, falling in love with the process is much more important and will have a greater impact on performance as compared to chasing numbers. I didn’t understand that before. I thought that if I worked hard I would accomplish what I wanted to accomplish. In 2003, I learned that there is so much more to it than that!
3. Focus on the Things You Can Control
I was all-in on working with Coach Barr. The lifestyle that I had led before the summer of 2003 was not going to help me accomplish my goals. In fact, after I left my meeting with Coach Barr I was flooded with emotions. I had wasted three years of my collegiate throwing career. I didn’t make much progress between my sophomore and junior year. Even though I placed in the 35lb. weight throw, hammer throw, and made the finals of the shot-put competition at our conference meets, I wasn’t getting better. As I previously mentioned, all I was doing was chasing numbers.
What I didn’t realize is that I was really focusing more on what others around me were doing. Depending on how you look at it, I was fortunate to have competed in the pre-social media era. We had to wait days for results to appear from meets across the country. Today, results are posted live.
On our first official day of practice in late October, 2003, Coach Barr addressed our team before we began our workout. I don’t remember word for word, but he shared his thoughts about focus and that we should only focus on what was within our locust of control. Nobody had ever told me that before. At meets I would always pay attention to what others were doing, how they warmed up, how long they took, what they were wearing, etc. I really couldn’t get out of my own head.
After a few weeks of practice, I met Coach Barr in his office. I asked him to go into more detail about the focus stuff. It was new to me, and I wanted to learn more. He shared some stories of his jumping days, specifically when he competed at the Olympic Trials in the long jump and triple jump. He said that if I wanted to be great, I needed to only pay attention to what I was doing because that was the only thing I had control over. He also asked me to keep a journal of my throwing sessions, lifting sessions, and to write down my thoughts about how a particular practice went.
By our first meet in the beginning of December, I thought I had figured some things out. That is, until I saw who we were competing against. For a couple of months, I thought I was on the right track of focusing on what I could control, but at that meet, I reverted back to my old throwing self. Rather than focus on what I needed to do in this meet, and focus on the plan we had for our first meet of the season, I got nervous and become very anxious. It was a long three-hour ride home that Friday night.
The one thing that Coach Barr told me to work on during the long break was my locust of control. I started writing about it in my throwing journal. For each session, I would write out everything that was in my control. Ultimately, by mid-January it became very clear that a pattern had emerged. I had control over my attitude, effort, and mindset. I couldn’t control a lot. And as we transitioned to our outdoor season, the list of things I couldn’t control became quite large (weather/elements, the time it took to get to the meet, who was competing with me, etc.).
When reflecting back on my senior season, I accomplished one of the three goals I set out for myself. I won the 2004 SUNYAC hammer championship, held at SUNY Cortland. I also finished 6th in the discus, scoring 11 points for my team. I set a personal best in the hammer and discus throw’s that weekend. Unfortunately, I did not win the 35lb. weight throw championship that winter. I finished 4th at the SUNYAC meet, although I did throw a personal best that day. I didn’t qualify for nationals. Far from it actually.
Even though I did not accomplish all of my personal goals, I learned more about life and coaching that season from Coach Barr that I could ever thank him for. All of the long nights of practice together, the road trips, and conversations at meets prepared me for my career in coaching. I didn’t know it at the time, and he probably didn’t either, but in a way, it was as though he was mentoring me to become a future coach. In May, 2004, coaching was the furthest thing from my mind. I was enrolled in graduate school and would be beginning my teaching career that fall.
All of the conversations we had I kept track of in my journal. The little nuggets of information that I do think he realized he was dropping. His outlook on coaching and teaching was different than all the previous coaches I had worked with. He spent a great deal of time discussing focus and mindset with my teammates. Before he arrived, we never had conversations like that. I’ve told Coach Barr in the past that I cannot ever repay him for guiding me through my senior collegiate track & field season. Thank you, Coach Barr! Thank you for believing in me, inspiring me, and teaching me not only how to throw farther, but about life and how to stay focused on myself and not those around me!
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.