In Praise Of a Good Coach by Don Kardong - 1999

In praise of the good coach by Don Kardong Cross-country season kicked into high gear last weekend here in my adopted hometown of Spokane, Washington. Cross-country was where my running career started, way back in 1964. Now, when high school teams start racing around parks, golf courses, and other available swaths of open turf, I feel like a new cycle has begun. For me, the running year starts in September. I grew up in Seattle, and in 1964 we looked to Spokane to see what long- distance running excellence was about. The phenomenal Gerry Lindgren of Spokane's Rogers High School had rewritten the national high school records in the early part of the decade. We marveled at his successes, and our coaches--the good ones--went scrounging for his secrets. My own coach, Larry Eason, did exactly that, and he quickly developed a solid base of knowledge. He also went looking for recruits, coaxing me and other prospects out of our comfortable teenage lives and into a regime that included lung-searing hill repeats and spirit-testing long runs. We responded to the challenge, to his interest in our success, and to his love of the sport, and before long we were one of the best teams in the state. It was years later, after I had enjoyed a successful college career (under another great coach, Marshall Clark), that I got to know Gerry Lindgren's high school mentor, Tracy Walters. It wasn't hard to figure out why Lindgren and hundreds of other young runners had thrived under his tutelage. Like my own coaches, Walters was caring, hard-working, and passionate about the sport. When he shouted encouragement, you could hear all that and more in his voice. Over the years, I've learned that all great cross-country coaches share those qualities. They care about every runner on the team. They work hard in developing an effective training system, and in keeping their runners on task, year-round. And they're passionate about what they're doing. I've seen high school cross-country coaches produce powerhouse teams with vastly different training systems and philosophies. I know one who ran his program like a marine boot camp, another like a new-age self-realization institute, and a third like a Richard Simmons fat-burning video. All three managed to attract huge numbers of runners, and all three programs enjoyed both individual and team success. Why? Because no matter what the system, kids can tell when a coach cares, when a coach is working hard to help them succeed, when a coach is passionate about the sport. How do you get a group of teenagers to believe in themselves? To run hill repeats until their quads burn? To train in the off-season, when no one is watching? To pass that runner, the one just ahead? A good coach figures out a way. It was a joy last weekend to watch some great coaches at work at the first big meet of the season. They raced from spot to spot on the course, shouting encouragement. They took photos (and by the end of the season they'll have a shot of everyone on the team). They consoled runners whose races were blowouts. They found a way to connect with every runner on the team, and to say the word or two that would make a difference. We hear that high school runners these days won't do what's necessary to reach great heights--that they're distracted, spoiled, lazy. Some things, though, don't change, like the way teenagers are wired. And when there's a hard-working, caring, passionate adult in their midst, they seem to rise to the occasion. We responded that way to great coaches in the '60s. Kids were doing the same here last weekend. And that's a pattern I hope I can enjoy seeing repeated for many Septembers to come. Don Kardong, a '76 Olympic marathoner, is president of the Road Runners Club of America and a senior writer for Runner's World. Next week (Sept 29): Craig Masback on America's long-distance runners