Mike Tyson hit the nail on the head when he said,
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
Seeded #1 (4×100, 100, 200, 400) and #2 (4×400) going into the Rhode Island State Championships, we had high expectations.
Starting the day off with the 4×100 meter relay, we believed average handoffs would get us across the line first and earn the first State Title of the day.
Then we got punched in the mouth so hard it made Kermit Washington cringe.
I started coaching high school track and field in the spring of 2001, my first year out of college.
The following video (Lane 4, black uniforms) shows the only time I have ever had to choke back tears because of something that happened at a HS track meet.
So, as the coach, how do you keep the whole meet from going off the rails when disaster strikes? Triage the situation by following these two seemingly obvious, but often neglected steps:
1. CONTROL THE NARRATIVE
If you coach girls, especially in the relays, you know there is always one major wild card smoldering like a burning ember and threatening to erupt into a full on forest fire:
So you have to act fast.
After taking a moment to sprint through the five stages of grief, send out a press release crushing the spread of a toxic and morale killing poison spreading through the team (and possibly the stands) commonly referred to as The Blame Game.
You can’t let the athletes who weren’t involved in the failed exchange let their own anger/disappointment distract them from the focus required to be successful in their upcoming events.
You can’t let athletes who were involved in the failure to execute become distracted by the false notion that failing in a 4×1 handoff makes *them* a failure or says anything about who they are as a person or how any of their upcoming events will play out.
If you let these teenagers unravel now, you might not get them back before their whole day goes nuclear.
For me it means:
1. Criticism Sandwich (positive statement, critique, positive statement)
2. Real Talk (emotionlessly explain what the error was, who made the error, how to avoid the error next time)
3. Level the Playing Field (“Each one of you has messed up at an important meet before. We all make mistakes. You know how your teammates feel right now. Be a bigger person and a good teammate and put it behind you. I don’t want to hear about it again.”)
4. Be Here, Now (Bring them back to the present moment by having each athlete verbally explain the previously agreed upon game plan for their next event.)
2. LEAD BY EXAMPLE
I’m not one of these coaches who pretend they have no ego and don’t care about winning. Coaches who make that claim treat track and field like a participation activity and not a varsity sport and they’re a major reason the sport is dying.
Truth is, I was devastated by the outcome of the 4×1. They were the class of the field. And, to be technical, I hate losing far more than I enjoy winning.
If you’re the kind of coach who comes at them all angry and critical every time they make mistakes, even big mistakes in big meets, you end up doing two things:
1. Increasing the likelihood of future failures because they become consumed by the fear of your wrath and overthink what they’re doing or run tight
2. Breed contempt and resentment leading to decreased motivation and incentive to train, compete, recruit their friends, develop a strong and trusting coach/athlete relationship, etc.
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Therefore, you must:
A) Stay calm.
Their state of arousal is already at an extreme end of the spectrum. Start bringing them back to center by displaying an even and judgement free temper.
Let them express their emotions to get it out of their system, but don’t react to it.
B) Stay positive.
I hear coaches yelling at kids all the time. Besides nothing, what does that accomplish?
Kids don’t want to compete for someone who should be spending their afternoons talking to a therapist about how daddy never gave them hugs.
But, you’ll sustain and grow your program if word on the street is that Coach Whateveryournameis is nice.
Recently I had a freshman tell me:
“I didn’t think I’d like track because I’m not fast. But you always make everything about doing your best so I don’t feel bad if I don’t run as fast as other people.”
Athletes on your team are your best recruiters, regardless of how many stats you quote them on the number of multisport athletes who went pro.
Anybody can be cool when everything is going well. That’s not what kids will judge you on. So when things are going poorly, don’t be like so many other coaches and adults who can’t/don’t get a grip of themselves.
C) Be genuine.
Kids know who the fraud coaches are. And the liars. And they *definitely* know whether or not you know what you’re doing.
After the race, the fresh(wo)man who dropped the baton came up to see me in the stands and started going into some sort of sad story about what happened that, unfortunately, wasn’t accurate.
So I stopped her and this was our exchange:
ME: Do you want Real Talk or do you want the freshman version?
HER: (pause) Real Talk.
ME: That was your fault. The outgoing runner did her job. You misread the situation.
HER: Yeah. I know.
So I proceeded to explain what the mistake was, how it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again in the future.
She said “Ok” and with that it was time to…
D) Move on.
I changed the subject to how bad ass she was for coming back 30 minutes later to not only make the 100m final, but place 5th and qualify for the New England Championships. Then we talked about how gross her leg looked.
The 4×100 hasn’t come up since.
By immediately going into individualized triage mode using the aforementioned strategies, I was able to help ensure nobody went DEFCON 1. And because they are a talented, focused, and hard working group, the sprinters ended up having a pretty nice day for themselves, finishing the day with 3 RI State Championships and a school record:
100m: 2nd (12.56) and 5th (13.18) [Wind: -1.8]
200m: 1st (24.74) [school record & PR by .74] and 5th (25.66) [PR by .25]
400m: 1st (57.33) [PR by 1.01]
4x400m: 1st (4:00.15) [season best by 11 seconds]
4x400m Relay Splits: 62.1, 62.1, 58.5, 57.3 [each athlete ran their lifetime best 400 split]
This was my first year coaching at a new school (with less than 400 girls). If you want to see the specific training progressions, workouts, drills, and exercises I used to help guide our sprinters to four Varsity State Championships (4x200[indoor], 4x400[outdoor], 200, 400) and three 2nd place finishes (55, 100, 300), as well as four Freshman State Titles (4x100, 4x200[indoor], 4x400[outdoor], 100), then please consider one of my coaching programs:
Updated on September 15, 2019 by Latif Thomas