As a 40-plus year participant in the sport of running, I know the benefits of a good coach and the pitfalls of a bad one, and I've been followed by coaches on bicycles and motorcycles.
Jerr the Bear. He was a HUGE man to a high school sophomore in 1978.
He loomed large, his voice boomed and he scared me and the entire team to death. Ah yes, my first experience with a running coach was Jerr the Bear. Jerr followed the team everywhere on his bike, so there were no cutting corners, no goofing off, no hiding in the cornfields. We ran FROM him, not for him. Boy, I miss him.
Moving on to college, I ran for a former nationally ranked 3-miler. Coach D ran for Michigan in the 1960s and was good! Coach D also wasn’t fond of goofing around and he also followed us everywhere… on his Harley! Well, at least we could hear him coming. I miss Coach D, too.
Coaching is an art form. Imagine dealing with 15 or more student-athletes who are either motivated to run or not, motivated to succeed or not, motivated to persevere or not. It’s the “or not” group that baffles most coaches. Cross country, track and distance running in general are not natural sports for most young athletes. It just isn’t. Baseball, soccer, softball, football, field hockey – they all have some allure. Running is just… running?
I have tons of respect for any running coach who can tap dance through the minefields of middle school, club and high school and, to a lesser extent, college runners. Tell a kid he or she will run 3 miles as fast as they can and watch them start silently computing how to avoid practice and still be on the team. Oh, and don’t get me started on the helicopter parents. What running is not is “just run faster,” mom and dad.
As a 40-plus year participant in this sport, I know the benefits of a good coach, and the pitfalls of a bad one. Most experienced runners love sharing their knowledge of the sport with less knowledgeable-types, particularly if the less-knowledgeable ones have a real interest in learning. For a coach or a mentor, one key is to know when to share and when not to share. Bad coaches often don’t know when to turn it off. By the way, my first two coaches were excellent.
Finding a good mentor isn’t as hard as you might think, and quite honestly, isn’t for just the school-aged runner. Almost anyone can and will benefit from some sort of mentoring or coaching. It could be as simple as having someone look over your training plan and recent logs, or it could be having someone willing to stand on the edge of the track with a stop watch, barking splits (I refer to exhibit A, Jerr the Bear).
Ask around. Check with your running friends or some of the local running clubs. Visit the Road Runners Club of America’s website. Be open to suggestions, but also remember to set boundaries and let whomever know what you expect and don’t expect. After all, you are the runner, not the runn-ee.
I love to coach willing people and I love mentoring people who are unsure of their abilities but willing to try. And I love questions. That is the key to a great athlete-coach relationship… always ask WHY. Even younger athletes deserve to know why they are doing what they are doing. I learned a long time ago that every workout has a purpose. It serves the athlete well to know what that purpose is.
So go ahead, hire a coach or seek out a mentor, and watch your running performance soar. And if you hear a “ching ching” coming up behind you during a training run, it’s probably just Jerr the Bear. But if you hear a “vroom vroom,” better get moving!
Former standout Lock Haven University runner Andy Shearer is a member of the Middletown Athletic Club, the Greater Philadelphia Track Club and USA Track and Field.