Successful Training for Runners Begins With a Focus on the Individual

Three themes run through joyful sports.

(1) The purpose of sports is to increase happiness and decrease suffering.

(2) Happiness increases when we train “expansively” – in ways that give us more health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy.

(3) To know which actions will give us more joy and which will only bring us pain and suffering, we can consult the built-in meter that’s installed in our bodies at our birth.

That unfailingly reliable gauge is intuition, the calm, detached feelings of the heart.

This isn’t something we can do in lockstep as a team. Each athlete’s training has to be unique, because no two bodies, brains, and hearts are alike. Add the vagaries of weather, sleep, diet, and the stress of work and relationships, and the need to make our training individual becomes even more urgent.

This is why the great coaches focus on the individual. In a recent article, I talked about Bill Aris, whose high school girls’ cross country teams have won seven Nike Cross Nationals. Bill spends 80 percent of his coaching time trying to understand the individual runner’s needs and devising ways to help her achieve her potential.

Great coaches at every level – think John Wooden in college basketball, Phil Jackson in the NBA, Bill Walsh and Pete Carroll in the NFL, Jim Counsilman in college swimming, and Tara VanDerveer in women’s college basketball – are all, entirely, completely about the individual.

That’s why it’s inspiring to find a newly hired coach at the elite level who understands this.

Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr
Steve and Michael celebrate another championship. (Click to enlarge.)

I’ve long admired Steve Kerr, the NBA legend who played for the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Steve’s play was inspiring because he seemed to have a unshakably positive spirit and a level head – and, boy, could he bury three-pointers.

This summer, the Golden State Warriors, a hugely talented team, hired Kerr as their coach. From the first day, it was clear that Kerr was cut from the expansive coaching mold.

Steve immediately set out to get to know his team. Not as a team, mind you, in the sense of asking the other coaches, “What are this group of guys like?” Kerr went to great lengths to get to know them individually.

This is from a San Jose Mercury News article by Diamond Leung, “Busy summer for Warriors coach Steve Kerr”:

To see Andrew Bogut, Kerr and his wife, Margot, made the long flight to the center’s native Australia. Kerr said Margot connected with Bogut’s girlfriend. At one point over lunch, Kerr pulled out a tablet and showed Bogut clips on how the big man might be used in a new system that emphasizes ball movement and includes triangle concepts.

“To me, that’s my job,” Kerr said. “Coaching is about relationships. It’s about connecting with people. It’s not about me sitting in the facility drawing up plays.

“I want to meet the families and get to know everybody. It’s all part of it. The stronger all these bonds are, the better job I can do, and the more I’ll understand them and vice versa.”

I’m looking forward to the Warriors’ season. I’m wondering if Kerr’s methods will vibrate success throughout the team’s organization, as Bill Walsh’s did in San Francisco in the early 1980s, and Pete Carroll’s did in Seattle in 2013. The odds look good.

If there’s a lesson for the individual runner to be learned from the expansive-minded legendary coaches, I believe it’s this: go ahead and learn from the best teachers. But whether you adopt the training methods of Arthur Lydiard, Percy Cerutty, Bill Bowerman, or Franz Stampfl – don’t take a too literal approach. Take the proven principles, but adapt them to your own needs, which change daily and at every moment.

p.s. The day after I posted this, the Mercury News published another article about Kerr’s quest for success in the NBA.

This time, Kerr traveled to Seattle to soak in the wisdom of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. See “Warriors’ Steve Kerr watches, learns from Pete Carroll.” Carroll’s remarkable philosophy was the subject of a wonderful article by Alyssa Roenigk at ESPN Online, “Lotus Pose on Two.”

My respect for Kerr deepens daily — clearly, he isn’t a coaching know-it-all. We’ve seen how coaches who ignore the past, thinking they know better, are doomed to repeat past failures. Pete Carroll is emerging as a towering figure in the pantheon of legendary coaches. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve Kerr joins him one day.

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