It’s hard to explain but sometimes coaches have that little bit of magic, says Steve Trew…
Back when the world was young, our first two sessions in the pool after the Christmas break were always the same. Session one would be a 10 x 400m individual medley while the second was 10 x 200m butterfly. The sessions were at Crystal Palace pool so a full 50 metres length (actually 55 yards back then) meaning there wasn’t even the minimal luxury of multi turns in a smaller 25m or 33m pool. We all swum the same swim and rest times and, as we weren’t all natural fly or even individual medley swimmers, some of us suffered more than most. Christina did. Christina suffered a lot. While we were just about enjoying our 30 seconds or so rest in between the butterfly 200s, Christina would still be swimming in. Christina got maybe 15 seconds rest after the first rep, then less and less. After rep number five Christina was getting a minus recovery so for her it became a 1000 metres non-stop butterfly swim (did you know that you can still see tears in water?). As she came in with the final 200 metres to go, our coach leaned down and said: “This one is for me, Christina!”
His words cast a much needed spell on her and Christina swam that final rep 10 seconds faster than she had swum the first. A different day and a Friday evening at the Enfield track with the middle distance squad. Our coach wasn’t there as he had a meeting directly after work so the session set was 4 x 600m with five minutes jog/walk between reps. It was a typical quality session as we were looking forward to National Championships that were in a few weeks time.
But something wasn’t quite right with us. Maybe the weather was too warm or we’d all had a tough week at work. We were aiming for 83 seconds for each rep, which was fast but do-able. We ran the first one in a sluggish 88 seconds and it felt that if anything we were about to get slower as we went through the session.
Just as we were gearing up for the second rep we saw our coach’s car arrive in the car park. He asked where we were up to and we told him the time of our first rep. “Right, let’s start again,” he said, the firmness of his words invisibly reaching into us and building us up.
As he instructed, we ran that first rep again. It still felt tough but we ran it in 83 seconds that time. We did the second in 84 seconds and then the third and fourth back down to 83 seconds again. He had managed to motivate the entire team.
If any sports people ask me what makes a good coach my answer, most of the time, is communication. I guess whatever standard of athlete a coach is working with, we assume knowledge. What is also important is how the instructions are put across. Athletes and coaches both know the concrete factors that are required for success, but the extra bit that makes the difference is the unquantifiable. The pure guts and determination to keep going when you don’t think you can, the real love of training and hurting, the sheer joy of physically doing something to the best of your ability. A great coach brings that out with words, apparently magic words. Sometimes it’s humour (when you hear a squad of athletes laughing during a hard session you can be pretty sure that something good is happening). Other times it’s being tough, hard and demanding. It is about knowing the individual athlete as a person rather than just an athlete. Knowing what you have to do to press the right buttons, how to coerce, persuade and even bully the very most out of that individual to ensure you’re getting the best out of them.
Coaches don’t choose athletes, athletes choose coaches. The athlete perhaps sees a coach working with a group and likes what they see. Knowledge plus personality along with a healthy helping of fun equals a successful coach. The second part of the equation is that a successful coach equals a successful athlete. Remember the old cliché – if you want to be a successful athlete, choose your parents wisely. Well there’s a second part: choose your coach wisely, too.
Steve Trew is a magic athlete, sometimes he can even make himself disappear during training sessions. Steve is an advisory coach for Speedo, he can be reached for all things triathlon at email@example.com
Read more from Mr Trew and our other knowledgable coaches and athletes in our pro triathlon section…