Coach Spelic

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a slice of my coaching heaven (Zug, Switzerland)

One of the privileges of my professional life has been to serve as a coach to our school’s track and field teams. I started coaching at the school in 1992. 25 years ago.

I have taught at the school for 21 years.

I have been a parent for 23 years.

If I add on my first 2 years of teaching and coaching at a small private school in the Washington, DC area – then I have 27 years of coaching track under my belt.

I love the sport. I love my athletes but I am not the best track coach in the world. I provide guidance. I offer feedback. I model my expectations. And there are certainly better skilled, more knowledgeable and focused coaches than I. But coaching is my thing.

Coaching is where I develop relationships with students which go beyond instructing and assessing the results. We laugh, sweat and struggle together. I ask them about their lives in progress, how they are feeling and what they are feeling. And often they tell me.

Sometimes they ask me about myself, about my running history: which events I ran, what my best times were, which distances I liked most. Recently one of them discovered my Twitter profile. They asked me: How come you have so many followers? Through my writing, I told them.

When my athletes ask me about school records and past highlights, my memory is remarkably thin, especially when it comes to hard data. I almost never remember times or distances, but I do remember the people. I remember so many stories of athletes and our conversations. Of finding one athlete’s ‘just right’ event at the final tournament of her senior year. Of the boys 4×400 relay that ended with a remarkable swan dive and made me weep in the stands. Of the Spanish teacher’s son who’s poetry of jumping was almost too beautiful for the competition in which he was entered. Of the skinny sprinter girl who went on to attend my alma mater, run track all 4 years there, become an outstanding geophysicist and who is now a high school teacher who coaches teams of her own.

This sport has given me so much. It is what I know. To coach young athletes is one of the single greatest privileges of my professional life. This is the passion that found me long ago; the gift that keeps on giving.

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Adventures at The Running School

 

Not me. I wish… Image via pixabay.com

I recently attended a two-day training in running theory and practice: Running Technique Coach offered at The Running School. Over the last 3 years I have heard from several of my PE colleagues in Europe that Mike Antoniades and his team at The Running School were game changers and have a lot to offer us.  I decided to book a course in London to see for myself what all the fuss is about.
When it comes to running I think I know my stuff thanks to over 30 years’ experience competing, coaching and teaching.  As a result of the course, while I do know quite a bit, I now see, feel and understand that there is 1) so much more to learn and 2) that I will be able to improve my own running and that of others better than before. The course kept its promise and I am happy I went.
When Mike Antoniades, who led the course, talks about running, his love for the movement performed well and to the best of each individual’s ability comes across loud and clear. Storytelling features strongly in Mike’s presentations. He uses a variety of case studies to illustrate how runners and movers at every imaginable ability level have trained and practiced according to his methodology and gone on to achieve remarkable results. Some of these case studies were accompanied by before and after videos which proved helpful to us novices in recognizing changes made. Mike has spent decades delving into the intricacies of the human body that converge to yield functional running: biomechanics, physiology, neurology, and psychology. What struck me is that his love comes not from having been the best or fastest runner, but from having learned how to recover from injury. Getting better is at the heart of his practice and that makes more of a difference than one might imagine.
Mike has worked with some ridiculously high level athletes, Olympians, pros, European and World Championship material in numerous sports (soccer, American football, track and field, triathalon, rugby) and he emphasized that everyone has room for improvement. The motor interruptions caused by injuries large and small have repercussions throughout our movement lives.  For top athletes, the ability to stay healthy, functional and in good form presents huge challenges to the body systems. Deliberately practicing the most efficient running technique which reduces the risk of injury and increases speed can go a long way in serving the ultimate performance goal of the individual athlete. And for the rest of us the same is true even if we’re not aiming to qualify for a championship team. Essential to the Running School’s practice is this understanding: “Everyone can have their own perfect running technique based on what they are trying to achieve and their body type.” (Running School Manual, Running Technique Course, 2013., p.24) This point was critical for my buy-in to a visibly well-marketed methodology: seeing that the uniqueness of the individual including their goals, histories and specific physical state provides the starting point for determining a program rather than the other way around. Among exercise and training offerings designed to appeal to many this capacity to adapt to and accommodate the individual is not always a given.
Our group of 8 students between the ages of 20 something and 60ish demonstrated plenty of individual diversity. Granted, we were all fairly fit individuals including 3 PE teachers and 4 personal trainers who brought various  movement histories along with us. My goal for the two days was to complete the course without injury. I had been running a bit more consistently for the last 4 weeks in preparation (35- 70 min. 3 times/week) and so felt in reasonable cardiovascular shape but also keenly aware of tightness in both Achilles tendons and the hamstrings.
In total we spent up to maybe 5 hours outside doing the practical sessions. The first 90 minute session allowed us to experience the technique training as athletes going through the full warm-up, technique instructions, a series of practice drills and runs complete with individual feedback. We did this on a grassy area in a nearby park.  In the afternoon we returned to the same space and after an initial review of the mornings points and exercises we were challenged to each take a turn instructing the group in the two fundamental skill areas: leg cycling and arm motion. We each had four minutes to instruct. Think about this: Each person instructs – stands in the center, gives directions and feedback – while the others do the exercises. That means each person completes a total of 8 rounds of practicing proper technique within the nearly 2 hour session. Pedagogically, this worked a charm – lots of physical and mental repetition to reinforce the best technique and the opportunity to teach it to others extends and anchors the learning in a remarkably lasting way.  On the second day, our outdoor session involved 6 minute instruction periods for each participant to carry out which took us a step deeper in checking our understanding of the content as well as focusing attention on delivery-how to be brief, upbeat, encouraging and still give runners the necessary feedback for improvement. (You know, like good teachers.)
The practical sessions had a huge impact on my learning. It was in the doing and processing the doing that my many questions arose. I had so many questions over the two days! What if folks aren’t interested in running faster? Do well-trained athletes need longer to re-pattern their movements? What to do if individuals’ fitness levels are poor (i.e., unable to run more than for short bursts)? What are your tips for recovery between sessions? Why so many reps of this exercise? and how often per week? And what about Paula Radcliffe’s technique? (British Olympic marathoner – look it up) This almost never happens to me in traditional PD sessions. My brain was fired up trying to process and connect all this new input to previous knowledge and experience. During the sessions on theory, Mike’s interjections of stories helped me make sense of the information he was presenting and give it a home in my brain that was feeling pretty full.
When I first sat down to write this post I found that I kept coming back to the past. My own running past. I’ve been a runner for almost 38 years. And my earliest experiences were so positive and affirming that I kept coming back. This course helped me appreciate the fact that I had very good coaches and teachers along the way from whom I learned good technique. Having run track all four years of high school, two years of college and then as an adult with varying levels of intensity, I can count myself as fortunate to have sustained very few injuries. I can likely attribute much of that to good technique. What I also found in reflecting on that long running past was how much love I have for the movement and the sport. That explains why coaching track has been my most consistent professional gig, why examples of excellent running form are easier for me to retain than best times, why I enjoy the camaraderie among runners of various ability levels.
Upon returning from the course I tweeted out:

Truly the running technique course was among the very best professional development opportunities I have taken in many years. I learned. I am applying what I learned. I am sharing what I learned. I look forward to adding to what I learned. I’m inspired, fired up and ready to roll (or cycle, would be more appropriate here.). I can hardly wait to see what’s next.

Use your arms!

Clearly using their arms. Image via pixabay.com

Clearly using their arms. Image via pixabay.com

I’ve been a track coach for more years than I have taught. For the bulk of my coaching years I have focused on sprinters. While I know a fair amount about technique and training, when the athletes are on the track and in the race, there is not very much I can do for them. I do my best to remain present, bear witness, offer support.

That said, I do have one habit I use to boost their efforts. I find a space outside the track where athletes will be able to hear me. Especially for the 400m, I like to stand near the last curve. From there I watch and wait for my athletes to approach. I shout:

“That’s it. Now pump the arms, pump the arms!”

“The arms! That’s it, your arms!”

That’s what I do time and time again.

Why? Because it works.

Any  hard-running athlete who hears: “Move your legs faster!” when coming around the bend will unlikely feel helped and might be justifiably annoyed.

But the arms, well, that’s something many athletes can do something about. It may not feel like much, but a little stronger swing of the arms back and forth, elbows bent at 90 degrees – that may just be enough to pull someone through to the finish line faster than they thought possible.

I wonder in school how often we stand by and exhort our students with what amounts to the equivalent of  “Move your legs faster”? When what they really could use is a reminder to activate a part of themselves that feels more under their control in that moment.  “Stop for a moment. What thought or thoughts just went through your head? Can you remember? Tell your neighbor.” Rather than demanding that students pay attention, why not  offer an opening to have them locate their attention at that moment? Acknowledge that thoughts are and may be elsewhere and gradually guide their attention back to the topic at hand.

When we shift the focus onto what students can control, we remind them of their own power.

We do this by asking students about what they can do when they say they can’t.

Or by offering choices within an assignment.

Or by allowing students to come up with a different way that they’d like to demonstrate their learning.

There are many more ways for us to bolster our students’ sense of efficacy than we may recall at any given time.  That said, students may well experience more drive and persistence when  they are encouraged to focus on the elements of their performance that they feel are actually under their control.

When our students are in the race, let’s find ways to tell them “Use your arms!”

Leaders of Color Roundtable – A First Assessment

Early on in my coaching venture I articulated where I hoped to be most active and with whom. My goal was to work with leaders in education. I suppose I envisioned work with title-holders: principals, chairs, heads, coordinators. In many ways, they remain a primary target group and yet I am noticing a shift in focus.

In the fall I initiated a Roundtable Group for Leaders of Color and I publicized it through a message board of the National Association of Independent Schools website. My vision was to create a safe space for participants to share and exchange ideas at the intersection of identity, leadership and education with colleagues from a variety of schools. Groups were designed to be kept small (2-5) and scheduled to meet online monthly for 90 minutes.  Two groups emerged and our conversations thus far have been especially rich, nuanced and edifying.  Our topics have included leadership, identity, hiring and being hired, collaboration and competition, and individual school context.

As the meeting convener I create an agenda and offer some reading related to our topic and share these electronically. Here’s what I have learned so far:

  • Reflective conversations can be hard to come by for all of us working in schools.
  • When educators claim the opportunity to listen and be heard by colleagues who can relate, space is created for further reflection and grounded practice.
  • Opportunities specifically for leaders of color to engage with each other in this way appear to be few and far between.
  • At the close of our session there is a mutual gratitude for the time and support that we have shared with each other.

Of all of the initiatives I have started this year, developing  these groups counts as my proudest.  As a concept and practice, the Leaders of Color Roundtable has a future. Each conversation opens the door to much wider dialogues happening in our respective school communities while providing ample room for the individual to explore related terrain.

6 months into this work – the work of  groups: of space making, support fostering and community building – this is the work I recognize as genuinely soul-stirring for me. The more I work with and in groups, the more I realize how much self-care benefits from outside support. Going forward I relish the opportunity to engage more fully with groups, with leaders of color, with the gifts of humanity to create bonds which support, uplift and encourage.

 

*If joining such a group interests you, please contact me via Twitter @edifiedlistener.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Back in August I joined a professional life coaches group on LinkedIn. As a freshly minted leadership coach testing the waters of self-employment for a year, this seemed like a wise idea. Here’s my picture so far:
There are a ton of coaches out there, scattered across the globe.
Since we’re all on this particular networking platform it makes sense that people use the space to call attention to their unique offerings.
Sometimes a contributor posts a link to a useful article or interesting video.
Some coaches post questions, usually about the business side of things.
It seems that the vast majority of us need or would like to have more clients. Some folks have some tricks of the trade they are willing to share (for a small fee).
Several contributors seem like actors in an empty theater, just hoping that someone, anyone will stumble across their special slice of heaven on offer.
If you read a few introductory tag lines, you may be overcome with either infinite optimism that You Can Change Your Life Right Now or perhaps remarkable cynicism that what sounds like so much snake oil marketing is perhaps just that, backed, however, by someone with really good intentions.

The more notices that land in my in-box, the more convinced I become that this probably is not the right group for me. If more of the conversations were about the practice of coaching – good, bad and in between – I would feel more inclined to stay and contribute. As is, I feel like just one more face in that immense target audience who ought to be wooed, won over, impressed and ultimately sold. That’s not what I came for and I see this set-up is not serving me. At all.

My year of self-employed coaching is going just fine if I allow it to just go. Focusing on doing my best coaching every session with every single client is the best way I can think of to retain great clients and attract new ones. Extolling the virtues of my offerings through random social media appearances will likely never appeal; recruiting the most interesting and forward-thinking clients I can discover absolutely does.

If you happen to fit that description (interesting and forward-thinking), I am on the lookout for you and the lessons you have to share. Until that time, thrive, be happy and pay no mind to the snake oil sale underway in your neighborhood.

The Way of the Coach

pixabay.com CC

pixabay.com CC

Professional coaching is a passion. When I immerse myself in the process of accompanying my client, then I feel much closer to my very best than in many other situations. And some of my deepest learning related to coaching has come about by instructing others in the practice.

Back in 2005 I trained a group of high school girls to become peer coaches in their school community.  I designed the course and wrote all the handouts. This was during the early stages of my formal training.  Re-reading the materials I developed for them at the time, I am struck now by the clarity of my belief in the power of the coaching alliance.  In preparing them to conduct full coaching conversations I wrote the following:

 

You are the most important resource in coaching others: your precious attention, presence, and personal style. When you turn your attention and focus it intently and generously on your conversation partner, you are already doing your partner and the world a great service. Every time you open your ears and heart to not only hear what your partner is saying but also to feel and understand what he or she is experiencing and offering, you become a source of energy rather than a drain. You create space rather than close it off. You welcome and accept the other rather than dismiss him or her. This is the role of the coach and each of us possesses the wonderful potential to serve those around us in this way.

When you step into the role of the coach, bear these things in mind. Your presence and capacity to listen are to be given the highest priority. As long as these two channels are completely open and free, your competency in the coaching role will grow and become increasingly natural. You won’t need to grope for the next right question. The questions will come on their own, because you are there where your client needs you to be. Finding the best questions for the situation, person and intended direction require time and practice but above all, begin with your willingness to truly accompany and be with your conversation partner.

Be patient with yourself. Free yourself from feeling that you need to provide your partner with answers or advice. The attention you shower on your client and the first rate listening you offer are already huge gifts that can make a substantial difference to someone.

Thank you for your willingness to make the world around you a better place.  (Peer Coaching, 2005)

While it has been nearly a decade since I wrote those words, they are a great help to me today. I know well that professional training takes plenty of time, money and a strong commitment to work, above all, on oneself. Professional coaching programs abound and are expanding around the world. Be that as it may, learning to listen fully, deeply, and without judgement need not cost large sums.  Cultivating a form of conversation which empowers, uplifts and sustains others should not require certification. We can all learn these skills and be purposeful in how we apply them in the varied situations we face.  These are the inroads to building trust and modeling empathy. As Tony Sinanis argues in a recent post, we need both trust and empathy to build successful schools, and I would argue that this holds true for human organizations, in general.  The way of the coach provides valuable guidance on this path.

Let us take heart, be brave and risk being as present as we possibly can with our fellow travelers.  Or, how else shall we set about making that proverbial difference?

 

The Scale Tipper

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In coaching, the star of the enterprise is the client, not the coach. The client does the work, sets the goals, and follows through. That’s how results are achieved. The coach facilitates this process by raising critical questions, offering direct feedback and providing a source of unswerving commitment to the client’s agenda. Clients build their own momentum toward the desired outcome. The coach’s assist tips the scales in favor of success.

As a coach I am your dedicated scale tipper.