I just got back from the ECAC Division III Indoor Track & Field Championships held at Ithaca College. Besides being a championship meet, the ECAC meet can be considered a last chance qualifier for DIII Indoor Nationals for teams on the east coast. In order to compete at this meet, you need to meet specific standards across all running, jumping, and throwing events.
During a break in the competition, a few coaches and I took advantage of the coaches hospitality room, had a great lunch, and engaged in some pretty good conversation about what it takes to throw far. Not just throwing far in college, but throwing far after college as well.
Dr. Angela Duckwork with two of her students at Hamilton College, February 21, 2017. Photo credit Charles J. Infurna.
One of the coaches, a high school chemistry teacher and coach of over a dozen All-American throwers at the DIII level, brought up the topic of deliberate practice. Below you will find Angela Duckworth's definition of deliberate practice.
Dr. Angela Duckworth speaking at Hamilton College on 2.21.17. Photo credit Charles J. Infurna.
If you have not had a chance to read Angela's book, I highly encourage everyone to do so. An easy book to read with limited psychological jargon, with great insight on what variables need to be present in order to be considered a gritty person. As the picture suggests, there are four steps to deliberate practice, discussed almost verbatim today at lunch.
Step #1: Set a stretch goal
Now, in Angela's talk a few weeks ago, she spent a lot of time talking about stretch goals. She discussed the notion that stretch goals should be realistic, and not so far-fetched that they could never possibly be accomplished. For example, if you are a male 40' shot-putter your freshman year of college, it may not be that realistic for you to set a stretch goal of winning the following season's national championship. A more realistic and manageable goal might be to throw 45' the following season and score in the conference championship.
I spent a great deal of time at the beginning of the this season meeting with my athletes to discuss their goals. I believe it is important for coaches and athletes to have these types of conversations not only at the beginning of the season, but throughout the season. You may hit that 45' throw in the first meet of the season. Now you can have a conversation about next steps/goals for the remainder of the season.
Step #2: 100% Focus
In my humble opinion, I believe this is the most difficult step in the deliberate practice process. For those of you reading this, you may coach high school or college athletes. Therefore, we coach athletes that are between the ages of 14-23. No offense to any athletes in this age group, but some of you can be easily distracted. None of my throwers bring their cell phones into our practice racquetball court. This eliminates the potential distraction of checking their latest Snapchat or Instagram comment.
It is important to stress to our athletes that from the time they begin practice until practice is done, that they have their minds on practice. I see it pretty much everyday with my athletes. They just came from class and found out they did poorly on a test. Or their boyfriend/girlfriend didn't text them back in 10 seconds (insert sarcasm here). Believe me, I understand that. However, it seems that some athletes still have difficulty with focusing on something.
I have tried implementing a one cue rule for myself. Rather than tell my kids two or three or four things they didn't do well, I have made it a goal of mine to only tell them to focus on one thing. Get that thing right, then we move onto the next thing. Some athletes hear the same thing for two or three weeks. It is much easier to focus on one thing, than try to focus on multiple things at the same time.
Step #3: Get Feedback
In some cases, this step may be the easiest for coaches and athletes to work with. Hoping your coaching relationships with your athletes are healthy and open, this should be an easy step to grasp. It is important for us as coaches to provide our athletes with honest and constructive feedback. Try to emphasize the positive while working together on the negative. I elicit feedback from my athletes as well. Now, I don't ask them how every practice went, but I do want to know what cues work better for them than others. I try not to provide a lot of feedback at meets. By meet time, everything should be pretty much worked out. Yes, we do encounter some things at meets, and we adjust. I've noticed that the coaches that speak to their athletes the most at meets, especially big meets like nationals, don't tend to fare as well as other athletes that have minimal contact/conversation with their coaches. You are already at nationals. Focus on the positive, provide healthy feedback, and know what cues work best for your athletes.
Hammer practice with Luis Rivera before DIII Outdoor Track and Field National Championships, May, 2016. Photo credit to Nazareth College.
Step #4: Reflect and Refine
This may be the most crucial step in the deliberate practice cycle. For the coaches reading this article, how often do you sit back after a meet and reflect on how the meet went? Reflecting on track meets has probably given me more grey hairs than anything else in my life.
Do you reflect on goals with your athletes? As coaches, are you open to receive constructive criticism and feedback from your athletes? I usually only have this type of conversation with my athletes a couple times a year-once after the indoor season and then before they go home for the summer after our outdoor season.
I believe it is important for me to know what I need to work on in the off-season to become a better coach. Just as we expect our athletes to complete our conditioning and training programs while they are home for the summer, we as coaches should work on things that can help us be more efficient coaches. I have seen many posts this year on Instagram or videos on YouTube with coaches sharing how they work on their craft over the summer. Some coaches read. Others attend conferences and workshops.
What do you do to help yourself grow as a coach?
As always, thanks for reading. If I missed anything, please let me know. Leave a comment below.
Two of the books I've read this year. If you have not had the chance to read any books by Jon Gordon, The Hard Hat would be a great one to start with. Champions is a great book that provides interesting insight into the development of Olympic Swimmers. Dr. Daniel F. Chambliss is a professor at Hamilton College, located in Clinton, NY.
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.