What Makes A Coach?

Who said coaches have to run every single second they are coaching? Right?!

I was struggling with running even before I became ill, but I continued to coach as best I could after losing one of my greatest fans and motivators, my mother. I missed a lot of training runs and when I was out there with my group, I fell far behind or had to walk as a result of taking so much time off. There was nothing coach-like about my running and it started to wear on me. I was starting to think I couldn’t even train for my own race, let alone help others with theirs. I felt like I was a disservice to the ladies and gentleman that got out of bed early each and every Saturday to run the miles. I relied heavily on my co-coaches, but also felt like I was letting them down by not being able to help out with the mileage.

I went blubbering and sniffling to our Head Coach one afternoon after leaving work early to try on shoes – or plead for help, whichever you want to believe. And, as it turns out, one of the greatest lessons I learned that day was that it doesn’t necessarily take a great athlete to be a great coach. For me and many others I coach with at MIT the greatest characteristics of a coach in fact have nothing to do with sports technicalities. A great coach is educational, communicative, motivational and passionate. I started to think about all the coaches I had hear people talk about, but that I had never seen or heard of playing the sport itself.

It was American football coach Eddie Robinson who once said, “Coaching is a profession of love. You can’t coach people unless you love them.” I absolutely love the runners I coach. Perhaps it is because I can relate to them on the most basic premise of all: We all started running to change our lives one step at a time. I’ve stood in their shoes – scared, alone and unsure of me as a person let alone a runner, if you even wanted to call me that. I can relate to their setbacks, injuries, hesitations and fears as well as their victories, achievements and pure elation. I remember the first time I ran two, four, six, eight and ten miles. I know how important it is not to let them get lost in what become the basics to many runners. Every step my runners take is a success and I wouldn’t want to be on any other journey than that!

With the 2012 Olympics currently taking place, I’ve been spending some time observing and reading about the relationships between athletes and their coaches. In fact, there have been many studies conducted on the impact of the quality of the coach-athlete relationship on an athlete’s ultimate performance. One of the most recent and compelling studies was done by Penny Wurthner after the 2008 Beijing Olympics as part of the “Own The Podium” initiative of the Canadian Olympic Committee. The purpose of the study was to identify the factors contributing to a successful or even unsuccessful performance from both the coach and athlete’s perspectives.

After interviewing 27 athletes and 30 coaches, five key themes began to emerge from her research:

  1. Athlete self-awareness
  2. Strong coach–athlete relationship
  3. Optimal training environment
  4. Strong financial and human resources support system
  5. Excellent management of the Olympic environment (primarily by the coach and athlete, often with help from the high performance director and consultants in sport psychology and exercise physiology.)

The first three are of particular interest to me, especially the strong coach-athlete relationship, which participants in the study also viewed as the most crucial factor in winning an Olympic Medal or producing a personal best performance. Building a positive and encouraging relationship with the runners in my group is very important to me. It should be a mutual relationship built on open communication and trust. I want the runners in my group to feel comfortable coming to me with questions and concerns just as they are about personal triumphs and achievements. I care about them as individuals, not just as runners and athletes. Similarly, a number of athletes in the study also spoke of the open-mindedness of their coaches and their willingness to listen to what they each needed and thought. They pointed out that their coaches were also open-minded in the sense of being willing to bring other experts into the team, and that they cared for them as individuals.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I am not an Olympian, nor will I ever be. And I don’t foresee myself coaching Olympians either; but the fundamentals of coaching and the coach-athlete relationship is, in my opinion, the same for everyday runners as it is for elites. The goal of a coach should not only be to help an athlete attain their athletic goals and advance in his or her sport, but to make the athlete feel valued, unique and important, thus creating an optimal training environment. This is a critical piece to my coaching style. Every Saturday when we line up to run, sometimes even before the sun rises, I am there for the participants – to help them in their journey to become the best runner – and person – they can be. If I sacrifice my own training to help someone else then I am doing my job as a Coach, as far as I see it.

The study concludes by stating that while coaches must have superb technical skills and knowledge of their sport, it is not the end all, be all of coaching. The author even states in regards to technical performance on the coach’s part, “Is it enough? I would strongly argue that it is not. Competitive sport, particularly at the world and Olympic levels, is so emotional and competitive that athletes also need a coach to support them and care about them, both as athletes and as individuals. And that is what these coaches do. They care about the athletes they coach.”

At MIT we as coaches are motivators, cheerleaders, pace leaders and inspirational beyond compare. My job is to not only coach and manage participants, but to motivate and inspire them as well. And, with the network of resources that are available to me, I have no reservation about referring someone who needs help or specific medical or nutritional information to a readily available expert.

That is why I am proud and happy to announce that I recently became a Fleet Feet Training Program Certified Coach!



And this is not to say that technicalities in running and in other sports are not important. In fact, as part of our certification we also go to attend a good form clinic lead by 2004 Olympian Grant Robison.


Things like good form, proper gear, nutrition and conditioning are important for coaches to know and pass on to their athletes, don’t get me wrong – a good coach should know how to run! But, I don’t believe that is the only thing that makes an effective coach. It is persistence, motivation, passion and kindness most of all.

What do you think? Have you or do you run with a coach? What does or doesn’t make him or her a good coach to you? Is your coach’s ability to run of great importance to you?


Until the next mile marker,


  1. I think you would be a wonderful coach because you do care so much and you are knowledgable and experienced. You certainly helped me a LOT with my training plan and throughout my months getting ready to run my first half marathon in May… and that was by email… so I know that in person, or even on the phone, you would be awesome. I do so wish I could be in one of your groups one day!

    Congratulations on getting your certification with Fleet Feet.

  2. Anonymous says

    While I don’t disagree with all of your research I think it is important to remember everyone is motivated differently. Coaching and leadership to me include knowing how to determine what each individuals coaching needs really are. While some are inspired by a motivating coach others may be inspired by observing what their coach is doing. Do they walk the walk? Or simply talk the walk.

    I used to coach swimming and I was not a great swimmer by any means however one of the greatest learning moments for me as a good coach was the moment I realized I could not adequately coach anymore due to my lack of skill. In that moment I chose to take a back seat stepped down and showed up yo be on the sidelines to cheer my previous ‘students’, if you will, on. It was a tough decision but also enlightening.

    I am sure you are a deliberate inspirational and well intentioned coach. Continue looking around and inside yourself to build on your coaching skills. Congratulations on your certification!

  3. Jamie Danford says

    As a fairly new runner (I laced up in June 2011) I think, for me, the most important things I’d look for in a coach would be realistic experience and a positive attitude. And I think you’ve got both! I mean, anybody can Google running form or take a clinic, but it takes a special person to give their time to a person (like me) who wants to be able to ask a million questions and hear a million answers. I think you’re a perfect pick for a coach. 🙂

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