Mea Culpa: A Coach Learns a Lesson… Again

FasterSkierFebruary 22, 2011

Pete Phillips has a coaching resume that is one of the best in North America.  He is currently the Head Nordic Coach at Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vermont.

The races this last weekend had a lesson in them for me. Unfortunately for one of my athletes it was a lesson I have already learned and should have remembered but did not. I didn’t pay for the refresher either; he did.

As coaches we can get preoccupied with something and we can miss, or overlook some important unconscious messages coming in from our athletes. Even after doing this for thirty years, I missed a big one.

Two weeks ago, at the third of four race weekends in our season, I pooched the kick wax on the classic day. It wasn’t wrong, but I missed some pretty obvious weather signs, and put too much on. The skis climbed well, and didn’t ice but they were slow and on the courses we were working that was a bad thing. I was mad and my focus narrowed. The stage was set for the refresher to begin.

With four kids on the right side of the bubble for New England’s JO team but still too close for comfort, I was determined not to foul the wax again. We had a good plan for workouts leading in, a couple of head colds went down for some rest, recovered well, and the training end of things was chugging along almost on autopilot. I was able to really focus on getting skis cleaned, edges smooth, and on the pattern of the weather. The test fleet was zeroed out and ready to quickly eliminate a lot of the guess work at what is almost always a klister race. The team seemed happy and up for the first day’s skate race and things went well but I was missing something. One of the athletes had a decent skate day, but not quite what we had expected or hoped for. It wasn’t from easing off because he thought he was “in”; he worked hard but the snap wasn’t quite there. The bilge alarm was going off and I didn’t hear it or see it. I was thinking about getting things right the next day. I didn’t have all the sensors out and I missed this one. The long and short of the rest of the weekend is that we did have good wax but the same athlete ran out of gas at about 7 kilometers, dropped two places in the standings and ended up on the alternates list. What happened?

For the two days of the race weekend I missed obvious signs of a lack of energy, and after the first day of racing I made the serious mistake of not looking into the lackluster performance more closely. Re-running the race tactically or technically is not what I mean; what should have been done was putting in a little more time listening to and looking at the athlete himself. Hind sight is agonizingly clear here. He had not been eating well, probably for some time. Sunday’s race went off at noon, and his breakfast at 7:30 consisted of “a bagel and cream cheese, and a blueberry muffin”. I subsequently found the bagel and cream cheese wrapped in foil on the console of the van.

He had raced 10 k’s on Saturday, ate lunch on the fly, and had a decent but smallish pasta dinner. On Sunday he ate one blueberry muffin (read simple sugar), at 7:30 AM and at noon tried to race another 10 K’s at 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Thinking back, my guess is that breakfast the day before, the day of the skate race, was similar. What really makes me ashamed of myself is that we are at a ski academy and I see the athletes everyday several times. In fact, I remember thinking two weeks ago that he looked a little thin and that I needed to nag him a bit about keeping up the calories. Of course this may not have been the only reason things fell off. The competition put in two excellent races in a row, and skied hard and well. But still, he went to the line without being sure the tank was full.

I can preach taking care of himself and eating well and wisely on his own and talk independence until I am blue in the face, but the reality is he is seventeen and I am supposed to be teaching these things. For the time being the buck, or at least 75 cents of it, still stops here.

So what is the point of this mea culpa? I guess it is perhaps to share the fact that no matter how long we have been doing this, we should still go over the check list with each athlete each time. Make a better time budget to do a better job.

The other thing is that especially with juniors, and I think even more so with American juniors because our breakfast choices aren’t very good to begin with, and if there are two working parents, the choices generally stink, they need to be reminded and educated about food and its role in one of the toughest sports in the world. We need to be on that much more than we are, and instead of being victims of marketing and instant simple sugar fixes, and expensive bars we need kids to buy into more slow burn dense fuel as part of the training regimen. Convincing kids to do intervals is easy. Convincing them to eat right is a bigger project, but it has just jumped to the top of my pile.

Thanks for listening. Go eat a can of sardines.


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