How Do You Judge Success? – Science of Running

How Do You Judge Success? – Science of Running
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Imagine you just started coaching a high school
cross-country team of 20 athletes for the next season. This isn’t your first go
round, so you feel confident that you can take your squad and get them ready
for a fast 5k at the end of the season, maybe even making the state
championship. Seven athletes all running to the best of their ability on the
right day.

You’re not here for the short term though. You want to build
the program. While only 7 will run at the state championship, you need depth on
your team. Just in case injuries occur and because you need athletes getting
better and better every year to fill in for seniors who will graduate. Now, of
course, you need to make sure more than just seven. You need freshman,
sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Growing, developing, being part of the team.

And because cross-country is such a grueling sport, you need
the team culture to support it. You can’t just have the athletes who are on
varsity or who have the potential to make varsity as being part of the team.
Everyone needs to be bought in, pushing for development, trying to get better.

We haven’t even gotten to the part about the lessons that
these kids will learn that will carry them through college and beyond. You are,
as the cliché goes, a “molder of men.”

Pretty soon, you’ve come to the conclusion that in order to
create the team that you want, everyone matters. You need do your best to coach
the whole team up, helping the fastest and slowest get better.

As your goals for your individuals and the teams rattle
through your head, your boss walks through the door and says “So we run things
a little different. I don’t care too much about the state championship. It’s
nice and all, but what is absolutely 100% important is at your conference meet,
and only your conference meet, I need as many of the boys as possible under 18
minutes for 5k. I don’t care if we win the meet or not, just have as many as
you can at under 18 minutes/ ”

As you sit there and look at him perplexed, he continuous:

“Also, we do things a little different in regards to what
you can do at practice as well. You’ll be given a training plan that we already
approved, written by someone in NY. It tells you what types of workouts you
need to do, and what ones you can ignore. For example, we’re not big believers
in long runs, so those should be kept to a minimum. You still have some
freedom. You can decide whether you want to do ten 400 meter repeats or twelve,
but follow the plans as best you can.”

As he finishes, you stand there, dumbfounded, wondering what
kind of cross-country program you just signed up for.

Defining Success

In this hypothetical scenario I’ve taken how school teachers
are judged and applied them to the athletic fields. In this scenario, it sounds
absurd. How would anyone coach in such a situation? Yet, in the classroom,
those expectations–passing as many kids as they can on a standardized– hold
true. Sure, there’s a lot of nuance that I left out, and my aim isn’t to hate
on how teaching is set up.

Instead, it’s to demonstrate that how you are judged as
successful (or a failure) shapes how you might coach (or teach) your kids.

In a case where having people pass matters, the extra time
and effort goes towards the “close miss” kids. The ones who are on the edge of
passing. The studs are taken care of and any extra help comes from an intrinsic
drive from the coach. The not so talented kids are neglected, knowing that they
will never run under 18 minutes. In some instances, it’s not hard to imagine
these kids being reassigned to another sport or some other trickery to get them
off of their scoring metric.

If, on the other hand, having one single super stud is all
that matters (in a case where a school just wants a ‘prodigy’), then a coach
might implement the “throw the eggs against the wall and see what doesn’t
break” approach to training.

If, on the other hand, the amount of development of everyone is how you are
judged, then now the emphasis shifts towards making sure everyone improves.
While this sounds great in theory, if you are truly judged by how much each
individual improves, then the senior whose talent is near tapped out might get
neglected for that sophomore who just ran his first meet and has lots of room
to grow. His rapid development will make up for the maxed out senior.

The point is this. As a coach, teacher, athlete or
administrator, defining HOW we judge success and failure is important. It often
plays a role in how we then do our jobs and what we emphasize. No, it isn’t as
simple as these few examples make it out to be, but if I sit here and proclaim
to the team that the conference championship is what it’s all about, you better
believe that everyone listening will put an increased amount of importance on
that meet. There will be higher expectations, more nerves, more anxiety. If I
say that you have to win at least 5 meets, then you’ve just put the emphasis on
winning at least 5 meets, perhaps enticing me to play it ‘safe’, running my top
squad at every meet against moderate teams, instead of taking risks and seeing
how we stack up against the big teams.

With every shift of how we are judged, comes a slight
behavioral shift as well. As you step back and define goals, expectations, job
requirements, and more. Really think about what message you are sending.

And if it sounds as ridiculous as our initial cross country
coach’s job, it might be time to reconsider what we are trying to do.

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