Coach @’s Corner 5:19.11

May 19th, 2011 in Articles by 0 Comments

Each week Coach @’s Corner addresses a variety of topics related to high school coaching, self-coaching, and our sport at large. Have a question or something you’d like us to address? Contact us using the methods at the end of the column.

What is a good coach? I often struggle to answer that question, mostly regarding myself.  Speaking generally, I’ve encountered a few good coaches along the way. What qualities did they possess? What connections did they make with athletes that fomented success? What knowledge and experience did they bring to the table? Was it a pure understanding of cutting-edge training methods? Or was it more of a human connection? Talent identification or recruiting ability? Maybe all of the above?

My high school cross-country coach, David Curtis, possessed many of these qualities. I truly believe his intensity as a person and a teacher also made him a great coach. He had coached cross-country only for a few years before I arrived in his program, but his methods were seasoned. In fact, I don’t think I realized how good of a coach he was until my junior year. His efforts as the architect of our cross-country program guided our school to a Massachusetts All-State Championship – a huge upset by our small school of only 700 students.  This was back when all the teams got on the line. No divisions. One race, 200 kids, small and large schools together.  One team champion.

How did Coach Curtis pull this off? First of all, he knew how to motivate high school kids. He took seven kids with moderate track speed (two sub-10s and two sub-4:45s for the top four runners) and put them through workouts he had read about or heard about along the way. He had no Internet to consult, just word-of-mouth and the occasional book on running that someone may have passed on. Coach Bob L’Homme, the head of our track program, had come onto to collaborate with him but for the most part, it was new territory. He was first and foremost a biology teacher and basketball coach, much like my junior high school mentor and he translated his knowledge to our distance training. There was a summer running program ,consistent weeks of 40-50 miles; there were long runs up to 12 miles; there were repeats on the WWI Memorial ski slope; there were 6 x 800-meter workouts in cemeteries; there were Fartlek workouts on the roads around Bishop Feehan High School. We loved to run and he took full advantage our enthusiasm.

In races, we all wanted to be in the top five on the team. The top seven was nice, but scoring was a huge honor. I was #4 most of my junior year but beat some of my more talented teammates head-to-head in various races because Coach Curtis encouraged, no –  demanded – a  fierce team competiveness with each other.  He would scream at us to pass each other in the final stages of races if our teammates were faltering. He created a healthy competitive environment that groomed the younger runners to challenge the older runners. We all wanted a piece of each other to the point that opposing teams fell victim to our intra-squad rivalry. When a photo appeared in the newspaper from an early-season dual meet of the top three runners crossing the line in a tie, I clipped and hung it in my room as motivation. I had been five feet behind them but was left out of the photo.  Coach Curtis remarked, “You satisfied with that, Atwood?” or something like that. He knew I wasn’t, and he got inside my head many times that historic season.  He had a dictionary of catch phrases that motivated us.

However, Coach Curtis also got in the heads of kids on that team who had other struggles in life. A friend was involved in a terrible car accident and, later that fall, his parents separated. Coach Curtis was there for that. One kid was making bad decisions with alcohol. Coach Curtis was there to discipline him, then help get him back running. Coach Curtis also demonstrated compassion, empathy, and a fatherly manner. I guess that’s another quality I’ve run into with good coaches…they are fatherly. They to motivate, to discipline, but to also counsel.

When you say “good coach,” you tend to think of the Bowermans and Dellingers of the world . I actually had the pleasure of meeting Dellinger. He was a genius of a coach but he was also a patient, understanding, guy with experience as an Olympic medalist in the 5,000 meters and experience guiding figures like Prefontaine, Salazar, Decker, and Centrowitz – among others – to success. I met Dellinger twice – once as a runner at his Newport, RI running camp in high school. I visited with him again four years later in hopes of getting some advice to head out to Oregon, go to journalism school and coach maybe as a graduate assistant. I was 21 and naïve, but he still took the time to talk to me. As laid-back as he was, he seemed to have the attitude that such a position was something I’d have to earn up the road. They had probably hired some elite collegiate runner at that point – who was I but a regional-level runner with no experience?

In the end, meeting Dellinger was fantastic. Doesn’t get much greater than that. However, I still recall the guidance of my own high school coach, Coach Curtis being even more significant in my life. He took me from a rather low-achieving freshman to a junior who finished 29th in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that year . I sometimes hear his fiery cry of “Drop the Hammer, Atwood!” as I stand waiting for my own athletes to come over the hills at Franklin Park. He was a good coach.

Michael J. Atwood was a standout runner at Boston College (class of ’93). For his full bio, click here. Presently he coaches the defending Eastern Massachusetts Champions – Foxborough High School. He qualified for Boston ’12 by 6 minutes and has plans to run a sub-three-hour winter marathon.

Have an opinion or question on good coaching? Let us know in the comments below, or reach Coach Atwood here.


Author: FasterThanForty

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