Starting this past Monday I arrived in Foix, France with the US Junior National Slalom Team for the 2010 Junior World Championships. I came with the intent of supporting the team and learning more about improving my own paddling by watching and interacting with others. What is actually happening is that I am being called on by both the other coaches and the athletes to serve as another coach. The first day that this happened the athletes were doing a thirds workout down the course and each coach was given a section to watch and provide feedback. Meaning: I got my own section! While that may not seem like a daunting task seeing as I have devoted a fairly large portion of my time to being one of the athletes, it is. It requires me to focus on each run and analyze to most minute detail in a split second. In addition to my own analysis of what the athlete has just done, I must understand the water and what is happening independent of the boat on the water. Then I must put them together and analyze the relationship between the two.
The technical aspect of coaching was only my first great fear. The second great fear, and possibly more important, is that in terms of ability I am more of a peer to many of these junior athletes than anything else. While I have developed relationships with them as a mentor, friend, and occasional training partner, earning the respect of a high level athlete and providing constructive criticism is completely different. As an athlete myself I look for people that I believe have the most experience, communicate in a fashion that I relate with, and understand me as a person and an athlete. There is a respect involved in a coach athlete relationship that is unique to anything I have ever encountered before. Here I was asked to not only develop and gain that respect from the athletes, but to have it immediately.
Gaining the respect of the athletes has been the easier problem to tackle thus far. Although I feel that this always an ever evolving situation, for myself it has proven more manageable this trip. I am coaching an awesome group of kids between sixteen and eighteen that I first met several years ago. I know them extremely well. This makes my transition from athlete to coach much easier. Instead of calling athletes over and telling them to fix a stroke or a line, my tact has been to generate a thought process. I ask them what they think of a certain move. Then I ask them to look at the water with me and analyze it. Lastly we consider their strategy to come up with best solution to the problem. In essence, I am having a conversation with them, almost athlete to athlete, about the best way to solve the gate sequence. This not only takes some of the pressure off of me to solve the entire problem by myself, but forces all of us to actively think of appropriate solutions.
Thus far I believe that my thought generation method of coaching is working well. I do not presume to tell the athletes what to do, and they respect that. But I do take time to look at the problem and help them break it down from a different perspective, which they again respect. Hopefully, with a little more experience, some more knowledge, and a little confidence this can evolve into my own real coaching style.
Learning the more technical aspects of coaching is far more difficult than creating relationships with my athletes. Slalom is an experienced based sport. When you look at top racers, you realize that they are late twenties to early thirties athletes who all started racing at the age of ten. Many things are naturally learned through touch and feel, however there is a different side that must be learned through pure analysis. This is the part I struggle with the most. Having spent the last two weeks in Europe helping the US National Slalom Team compete at the first and second World Cups I have watched numerous athletes. I have learned a lot by analyzing and comparing, but as one of my best friends Erik Amason once told me, “You do not know, what you do not know.” He meant that at a certain point you exhaust the obvious basic knowledge and need the help of someone more experienced to share their wisdom. I reached that point earlier this week. I realized that I was telling athletes repeatedly to push farther into eddies, drive harder, stay in the center of the gates, and all of the basic things that you learn as an early racer. What I was craving, and still am, is a more analytical, deeper look into how to analyze the water, athlete, and then the combination of the two.
My solution was to sit next to another one of our coaches, Nic Borst, during a free session. We gave the athletes the afternoon to explore the water wherever they wanted. Nic sat down and I followed him to the water side where I listened to him tell athletes different things about the water and particular moves. As the athletes flowed down the course I began to ask him about each one. Why does athlete A do this? Why don’t they do this? Why are some smooth and others bouncy? What’s the different between being a bow or stern paddler? Where can athlete B gain speed? And so on until I ran out of questions and just asked him to tell me everything he knew. At which point he looked at me confused and said that wasn’t possible because there was just too much. I needed to ask a pointed question to get an appropriate answer. I respect that. What I have decided to do is continue in my quest for knowledge. Ask questions whenever possible and generate conversation. I believe that is the only way that I am going to become a better athlete and coach.
What I have really learned from all of this however is to respect my coaches! Their job is much harder than I ever gave them credit for. Period.
There is a wealth of knowledge out there that is mostly untapped. For any of us to be better racers and coaches we must learn to ask the right questions and take advantage of it. We must also work to pass it on to the next generation if we want to see this sport, or even just the finer points of paddling, survive. I sincerely want to be a part of that knowledge transfer. I want to turn everything I have learned into helping me become a better racer, but also one day, maybe sooner rather than later, be the one standing on the bank with a video camera and stop watch creating endless problems for my athletes to solve.