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The Art of Coaching (0)

Harry Marra
Oct 30, 2012


By Coach Harry Marra, Oregon Track Club, Elite


Today marks the start of my 52nd year in the sport of Track and Field.  Reflecting on more than half a century as both an athlete and coach, I know a lot of water has gone over the falls in that period of time.  The experience I have gained, coupled with a view of coaching as an art, has allowed me to evolve my own athletes from good to better to best.  This short essay concerns that knowledge-driven evolution.  I believe this to be the critical factor when assisting an athlete to reach his/her potential. The shoulders of a coach are broad and carry the huge responsibility to improve and continue to improve his/her athletes.  Every coach must take this responsibility seriously and incorporate specific tools to accomplish this if the expectation is to be successful. 


It is my firm belief that in the sport of Track and Field - regardless of the level – it is imperative that each and every coach know the basics of every skill/event being taught/coached.  This is primary for successful coaching. If in fact you do not have a clear understanding of the simple science/movement behind each of the skills (i.e. Newton’s laws of motion, basic exercise physiology relative to rest and recovery, exercise metabolism, laws of rotation and object flight, Central Nervous System (CNS) training principles), my first piece of advice would be to get training/education in that particular area. Once you have developed an understanding of the mechanics of the events, the successful coach will be able to transfer this information to his/her athletes in a seamless manner. This is the Art of Coaching – bridging the gap between potential to perform the skill and actually executing the skill correctly.


Consider what Track and Field athletes must do in order to improve in one single Track and Field event: jump on boxes; press on benches; balance on balls; swim in vests; throw mini projectiles; perform A’s, B’s and C’s; throw medicine balls; and among other things, hurdle having completed their “leads and trails.”  A quality Track and Field coach is, therefore, charged with writing meaningful training prescriptions, inclusive of all the aforementioned methods, that will collectively result in the proper execution of the event. In other words, the competition should be an artful display of all the skills practiced during the training period, having been transferred to the skill.  As you consider your practice plan, ask yourself if it results in the development of a skill that is portable to the enhancement of an event. Do not waste practice time on anything else. A power-lifting coach may be the only coach exempt from this principle.  For instance, an athlete training/preparing for the World Championships in Power Lifting is in the weight room as an end in itself. That is, he/she wants, - on the day of competition – to lift more in the clean and jerk than he/she has in the past.  Moreover, that single personal best, achieved in the weight room, may win the competition for that athlete. Conversely, a Track and Field athlete (i.e. a high jumper) is in the weight room during the Fall/Winter preparatory period as a means to an end. The goal of the Track and Field athlete is to get stronger AND THEN APPLY THAT STRENGTH TO THE EVENT FOR WHICH HE/SHE IS TRAINING. The principles of specificity of training must be adhered to in the weight room in order to attain desired results on the track/field.  It really does not matter how much an athlete can squat, if in fact he/she cannot apply that strength to improvement in her/his event.  Simply stated, strength gains without application are a total waste of time. This overview of specific strength training applied to event improvement is just one example of perfecting the Art of Coaching.


Keeping it Simple Stupid (the ever-famous KISS principle) is an important aspect concerning the Art of Coaching. Most readers would agree that the Decathlon is a pretty involved event.  Ten events are folded into a single competition; a myriad of skills must be perfected; and by the nature of competition alone (most involving just one event!), the many variables associated with the Decathlon equate to a multiplicative number of missteps that could spell disaster for the athlete and coach, or both.  Because the complexity of competition offers its own challenges, I would strongly suggest that you keep your approach to coaching very simple. I have used this model concerning Ashton Eaton’s Decathlon preparation with great success.  For instance, the cues for his decathlon training and meet preparation amount to only 18 words!!  Moreover, his Long Jump event preparation is defined by just one word: perpendicular. You may ask how this is possible.  Because of the simplicity of my approach to Ashton’s training, these 18 words recall cues that easily evoke, in-a-nutshell, the complexities involved in the successful execution of the event. These cues have evolved over the course of the training season where the coach and athlete have become one in their COMMUNICATION SKILLS. Critical in the process of developing this communication is also the ability of the coach to LISTEN to the athlete.  Each athlete will have a unique way of articulating his/her understanding concerning performance of a particular skill.  Listening, coupled with a wide base of knowledge, will allow a successful coach to develop cues that the athlete can easily understand and enhance skill visualization.  It is important to emphasize that the athlete must understand the cues, illustrating once again the need to keep cues simple.  If I am coaching three to four athletes in an event, in all probability, each will have different cues/understanding of a particular skill.  Hence, I suggest a well-qualified coach carry a small notebook with the cues for each athlete.


A coach’s ability to demonstrate physically what is being taught is critical to artful coaching. This demonstration does not need to be dynamic or explosive; it simply needs to mirror EXACTLY what point is being made.  In the same vein, a successful coach is not afraid to bring into the demonstration/explanation movements from other sporting activities. This, in fact, may help clarify a component of the skill, as the athlete may have a familiarity with the analogous event (i.e. hitting a baseball and turning the hip in the delivery of a throw in Track and Field).  These events are not exacting in their delivery, BUT the commonalities may allow for an understanding that will resonate with the athlete.  The tennis serve is another great way to teach the proper movement patterns in the javelin delivery and release.

A successful coach will practice the art of Observation. I have often said you can’t coach if you don’t have a critical eye.  Good coaches are trained observers who can successfully breakdown an ill-performed skill affording the athlete a comprehensive understanding of his/her performance. This is valuable in identifying both quality and poor performance markers. Both coach and athlete should practice the art of observation, including watching film.  Once the correction/identification has been made, the coach can reconstruct the skill while moving slowly toward competitive speed. As a sidebar, be mindful of all observations – even those off the track. Ashton’s sprint start improved tremendously because of what I observed when he was in the weight room resting between sets of the bench press!  Now his cue for the sprint start is BENCH PRESS!! He knows what that means.


I use the term shadows to describe a mock drill performance of a skill emphasizing only one or two specific aspects of the skill. This technique can be accomplished with or without the use of an implement. As I mentioned earlier, breaking down skill is so important for comprehension, and mastering the art of coaching. For example, while working to improve the discus throw, a particular shadow may emphasize the wind up to result in a correct start position. After successful repetitions, resulting in proper positioning, the successful coach may add in the successive movements of the skill.  This idea aligns itself with a most important aspect of performing a skill; IF THE START IS PERFORMED INCORRECTLY, THE SKILL WILL SIMPLY CONTINUE TO DETERIOATE. To illustrate this, consider a spinning top.  A top spinning with smooth rotation (no nutation) but with less speed than an opposing top started at a higher rate of speed but with initial nutation, will spin longer.

Rhythm is the Smooth uninterrupted execution of a skill and is the product of a good shadow. Please note that performing shadows right up to the day of competition is critical to proper firing of the CNS and therefore to rhythmic success. In that vein, warm-up completed the day prior to competition should include performance of all skills to be contested the following day. This should dispel the thought that two to three days of complete rest from an event will bring about excellence.  Rest is a very important factor in peaking in all Track and field events that rest; however, is GROSS in nature.


Blueprints (season–long plans) are vital to good coaching and thus, the mastery of the art coaching.  A good coach will meticulously outline all of the fragmented components of track and field training to align with proper execution of the event on competition day.


This short essay broadly touches on a few of the many areas a coach needs to develop in order to become a master in the Art of Coaching.  Experience and success will enhance this journey.  After 50+ years, I am still challenged each day when I arrive at practice.  This challenge keeps my work exciting and enjoyable, while my confidence insures my athletes of quality and consistence.  Good luck to all of you!

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Ashton Eaton was the 2nd decathlete to break the 9000 ‐point barrier. He is a former decathlon World Record holder (9045 points scored in Beijing 2015) and heptathlon World Record holder (6645 points scored in Istanbul 2012). He won an …
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