It is with a happy heart that I display my favorite photo of this year. It accompanied a Runner’s World online announcement that former high school superstar Jordan Hasay has joined the Nike Oregon Project where she will be coached by Alberto Salazar.
Did I say happy heart? Did I say “with glee”? I misspoke. Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy.
Hasay’s decision is, I have no doubt, the result of my unceasing subliminal hypnotic message: “Jordan Hasay – call Alberto…”
Scroll back five years to when Jordan Hasay was in high school. Her coach was Dr. Armando Siqueiros, a full-time physician whose methods were humane and made tremendous common sense.
As a scientific thinker, Siqueiros realized that training runners is a simple question of balance. Success comes by carefully doling out hard work that challenges the body to improve, with rest that gives the body time to repair and strengthen itself.
Siqueiros knew that rigid schedules that don’t account for individual needs can ever bring an athlete ultimate success. What counts, first and foremost, is the needs of the individual athlete. (You can watch several videos with Dr. Siqueiros here.)
It’s an idea that is so purely logical. One wonders why coaches are tempted to ignore it. Coaching to the individual is the simple secret of building great athletes and great teams.
Nowhere has the soundness of this common-sense concept been more abundantly proved than in the success of the Fayetteville-Manlius high school girls’ cross-country team. Here’s F-M coach Bill Aris talking with LetsRun, not long before the F-M girls won a record seventh-straight Nike NXN Cross-Country Nationals in 2012:
The reality of our program has nothing to do with triple-digit mileage. It has nothing to do with killer insanity, although certainly at certain meets I’m known to look and appear insane – in fact, probably would embarrass myself if I saw myself on tape. The fact remains that our program is athlete-centered. It always has been.
Since 2004 when John came aboard – my son John, assistant coach – we have made a focus and a practice of having everything revolve around what is best for the athlete. Clearly, any good coach in the country is – should be – doing that, and I think most do. And certainly we’ve done that all the way back to when I started back in ‘92 at F-M….
The bottom line, it’s really pretty simple. We start with the athlete’s mind and their heart. And people think, “Well, he’s sandbagging again, he doesn’t want to talk about workouts.” That’s – no, that’s not true, that’s our priority. You start with the mind and the heart. We try to find out what makes a kid tick. We talk to them, we spend time with them, we ask them – this is in advance of any serious running – and find out what motivates them and what they aspire to do and achieve, even if they’re runners, or even if they’re not runners yet. Okay. And our emphasis is on getting them to see what we may perceive as their potential. And when they see it and they invest of themselves or, as they say, buy into it, then the rest of it’s easy.
You know, everybody talks about the training, and yeah, certainly training, physical training is – clearly, objectively, it’s essential, or else forget it. I mean, you can’t just run fast on waking up in the morning and having a good attitude. But the fact is, you’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. You’ve got to believe and trust your coaches. You’ve got to believe in the aim and the purpose of your program philosophy, and that’s really what it’s all about.
When Jordan Hasay ran in high school, I admired her intelligence, her fearless running, and her boundless cheerfulness. She was just a charming, magnetic kid.
But I was gloomy about her decision to enroll at the University of Oregon. Forty years after Arthur Lydiard acidly proclaimed that the U.S. college system destroys runners, very little has changed. With few exceptions, coaches and athletic departments continue to be as much concerned about their resumes as the long-term careers of the athletes under their care.
I read a wonderful book recently, Clients First: The Two-Word Miracle, by Joseph and JoAnn Callaway. The Callaways live in Phoenix, Arizona, where they built a hugely successful real estate business by doing the unthinkable: they based every single business decision on the best interests of their clients, regardless of the inconvenience and expense to themselves. While countless other agents were biting the dust during the subprime mortgage debacle, the Callaways thrived. They encapsulate their philosophy in three simple words: Honesty, Competence, Caring.
Few would doubt that most U.S. college track coaches are honest. When Jordan Hasawy entered Oregon, I feared that her mentors would care less about what was good for her as an individual than what she could contribute to building the Oregon Ducks into a Very Big Deal. Coaches who place the athlete’s needs second to some other agenda receive a D- in caring and competence, in my gradebook.
Sure enough, even as Arthur Lydiard would very likely have predicted, her career at Oregon can best be described as wobbly, with lots of second- and third-place finishes, and few wins. This is purely unacceptable. It’s a demonstration of coaching incompetence. Hasay won the Footlocker Cross Country Championships as a high school freshman, repeating as champion in her junior year. Her talent was tremendous, and at Oregon it was wasted.
Under Dr. Siqueiros’ care, Hasay’s unique needs were continually monitored. Dr. Siqueiros constantly urged her to temper her tendency to race every training run in headlong pursuit of a PR. At Oregon, those reins seem to have been loosened. In the college races where she disappointed expectations, she looked tired.
Lydiard’s critique of the U.S. system was that it expects runners to race at their peak for three hard competitive seasons in the space of just nine months. When you think about it, it’s insane. Cross-country no sooner ends than indoor track begins, closely followed by the outdoor season. The result is that runners can never take time off to let their bodies recover from the hard competition of the preceding season, or to build an endurance base with 10 or 12 weeks of moderate running, followed by six weeks of increasingly intense speedwork.
Since Arthur Lydiard, it’s been clear that low mileage and lots of speedwork is no way to build top-level distance runners. Lydiard famously predicted that his runners, with their huge endurance base, would scamper away from the competition in the late stages of the distance events at the Olympics. When the other runners were dying, Peter Snell was just getting started. His finishing kick, built on a solid endurance base, devastated the field in the 800 and 1500, where he won double Gold in 1964.
Just 30 years later, in the late 1990s, researchers would confirm that aerobic metabolism, built during weeks and months of high-mileage running, is much more important at distances down to 400 meters than sports scientists had previously known.
In her first race under Salazar, the 2013 USATF 10,000 meters, Hasay placed second, destroying all of the seasoned pros except the superlative Shalane Flanagan. Could Alberto’s magic have kicked in so quickly? I’m dying to know what he told Hasay about preparing for the race. I’m purely guessing that he ordered her to give her body enough rest.
The Runner’s World announcement of Hasay’s signing with Nike/Salazar noted her up-and-down college career.
Hasay was a high school sensation of proportions nearly equal to what Mary Cain experiences today. She set the bar for her race results so high that even though her agent Simms’ press release can justly call her “the University of Oregon’s most decorated female athlete,” her collegiate career was, in relative terms, viewed as a disappointment. She won NCAA indoor titles in the mile and 3000 as a sophomore, but was thwarted in NCAA cross country, finishing second in 2011 and third on two other occasions. Her best NCAA placings in outdoor track were three thirds, including her final college race this spring, a 5000 won by Abbey D’Agostino of Dartmouth.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere my handy-dandy, new-agey notion that the world has recently emerged from an age of materialism, and that we’ve entered an age of energy-awareness that began roughly at the end of the 19th century. (For details, see the excellent book, The Yugas.)
Whether you find it credible that the sages of ancient India were able to predict these changes millennia ago, or that the world passes through regular, repeated12,000-year cycles of ascending and descending evolution in human awareness, the fact remains that nowadays energy is very much in the air. All of the major inventions of the 20th century were based on energy. And in athletic training, we now know that whatever increases energy and removes blocks to its flow, whether by diet, rest, supplements, or appropriate training methods, helps ensure success.
The ancients foresaw that during the emerging energy age, the individual will increasingly be seen as important, and that institutions will be judged by the extent to which they help individuals maximize their potential.
I relish my new-agey view of athletes like Jordan Hasay. I find it more enjoyable to follow their lives as individuals, rather than measure them by the yardstick of what they can do for the University of Oregon, or for the fickle fans of Hayward Field.
That runners can train successfully through their college years without interrupting their long-term development is, again, abundantly clear. Cam Levins’s coach at Southern Utah University, Eric Houle, bent the hallowed tradition of the three-season year, allowing Levins to omit a competitive season when it conflicted with his long-term development. The result was that Cam Levins was able to maintain high mileage and dominated the college distance events at the national level in 2012.
Bill Bowerman, the founding genius and soul of Oregon running, did exactly the same thing – he carefully monitored his runners with unswerving attention to their individual needs, with a view to their long-term success.
For example, Bowerman gave Steve Prefontaine harder workouts and less rest than Kenny Moore, simply because Pre’s phenomenal body could take it, whereas Moore needed longer recovery. Where Pre could bust his butt several days a week, Moore thrived on a single brutal workout every two weeks.
Similarly, the way Alberto Salazar monitored Galen Rupp’s college career is an example that other college coaches should follow. Salazar’s focus was on Rupp’s long-term progress. When Rupp began his professional career, he was far ahead of his competitors. The proof was his Olympic Silver in the 10,000.
The U.S. system needs to change, lest it be discredited and abandoned by wise athletes in the age of energy-awareness. Young runners, aware of how the college system can destroy them, will find ways to protect their progress and their joy.
The system won’t change quickly. The hallowed Oregon aura will continue to attract runners.
I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard between several Stanford professors. The discussion turned to professors’ salaries at Stanford and Harvard. It seems Harvard doesn’t pay very well compared to other top schools.
“Oh yeah,” one professor drily remarked, “Harvard expects people to be attracted by the prestige of teaching at Harvard. As a result, they get the kind of people who are attracted by the prestige of teaching at Harvard.”
The ancients tell us that happiness and success increase when we behave in ways that expand our awareness – when, for example, we train in ways that give us greater health, love, inner strength, wisdom, and joy – instead of sacrificing our happiness in a frantic search for short-term results.
Coaches should start building their careers by doing what’s best for their athletes. It may not be the quickest path to career success, but it’s the surest and safest.