Some practical advice and “words of wisdom “from a coach who has coached for over 40 years and has coached track & field/cross country at every level from middle school to open, elite athletes. Thorson, who retired in 2017 as a the director of track and field/cross country at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, is an NAIA Hall of Fame coach and a four-time national coach of the year. He guided the Marauders to 46 conference championships and has coached 403 collegiate All Americans in 29 years of college coaching.
By Mike Thorson, Assistant Coach (Hurdles) University of Mary Former Director of Track & Field/Cross Country at the University of Mary
Our objective here is to offer some insights in to the world of coaching in a number of different areas, including (1) Relationships (2) Balance (3) Athletes (4) Culture (5) Preparation (6) Goals (7) Assistant Coaches (8) Motivation (9) Discipline/Rules (10) Defeat (11) Shortcuts. First, a few general thoughts:
1. You are never done learning as a coach. Read, attend clinics, do on-line clinics and make use of mentors and other coaches, including your own staff.
2. Understand that improving as a coach is an ongoing work in progress. It never ends. Many coaches don’t understand this. Understand that you can always learn more and improve. Don’t always think that “you are the smartest guy in the room.”
3. I am a better coach now after retiring two years ago because I am still learning. I now have time to write, do research and analyze my coaching and training.
4. You have to continue to learn because teachers are constantly updating, improving and changing their methods and teaching. Great coaches are great teachers! The reality is coaching is teaching.
5. Coaches must embrace change. There is no progress without change and change can be very difficult for most people.
6. Control what you can control. Understand that some things are out of your control and figure out another way.
7. Don’t allow negativity to “suck the life out of you.” Look for positives and retain your passion. I was fortunate to retire and still have the passion, to still have that burning passion to coach after 40 years of doing it!
1. Coaching is about people, managing people and relationships. Relationships are the core of athletics and coaching. At the end of day, it is about PEOPLE!
2. Coaches don’t need to be liked by athletes (although it helps). But they need to be respected. And that respect must be earned.
3. One of the best ways to earn that respect is to CARE. Care for the athlete in the sport and in life.
4. Show athletes you care. Be sensitive to today’s athletes. They are not worse than in past years as many people say. They are different. They have grown up in a totally different world than most of the people who are coaching them. That is the reality and we must recognize it.
5. Treat athletes like they are your own children, like they are a part of your family. You will treat them much differently. I know that after having coached one of our daughters at the University of Mary.
6. You are a role model whether you want to be or not. Accept that.
7. Show athletes that you are totally committed to their best welfare and your program. Athletes see through the phonies and the fakes very, very quickly.
8. The best coaches will be the ones who can communicate and relate best to their athletes. Myron Schulz, former U Mary football coach and Hall of Famer, was an assistant track & field coach in our program who coached national champions despite a lack of technical knowledge in the sport. How? He could relate. He could communicate. And he could motivate athletes. Athletes loved him! They performed above and beyond for him!
9. A part of relationships that many coaches fail to consider is their interaction with the community. Relating to and being a strong part of the community assists in building strong community support for the coach and his/her programs.
1. Don’t let your coaching define you and encompass your identity. One of my former assistant coaches always said that “coaches allow their success to be a reflection of who they are, and that isn’t right.” Find a balance with family, religion and your social life. Take time for your own physical and mental health. You will be a better coach for it.
2. Many coaches take themselves way too seriously. Don’t get me wrong. What we do is vitally, vitally important. We are shaping and molding the lives of young people! But many coaches, including me, took winning conference and national championships as the end all. And it isn’t. It is important to put into perspective what we do.
3. I had several occasions where it was very clearly put into perspective and I learned what was really important in life! One was when a pole vaulter in our program was hurt in a gymnastic accident and I sat with his mother when the physician told us her son would likely never walk again, but would hopefully regain some control in his hands and arms. Another was when a senior sprinter who was a student coach for us committed suicide. I had to call his parents from where I was recruiting in Washington and try to explain what we knew about the situation. It may have been the toughest telephone call I have ever made. Winning didn’t seem so important in those two particular occasions. Things were definitely put into perspective.
4. One of the greatest satisfactions and rewards in coaching is seeing your athletes reach new levels of excellence in athletics, and more importantly, in life. A balance in life will allow you to enjoy the rewards and thrills with your athletes and family. It was truly delightful at my retirement dinner two years ago to have many former athletes come up and thank me for making a difference in their lives. Not one talked about the All-American awards they won. They were all so grateful and appreciative of how the University of Mary and our program had shaped and molded them into the people they had become. I was reminded of the famous John Wooden (UCLA) quote: “A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” Oh so true!
1. Locate athletes who have a burning passion to excel and will do whatever it takes to achieve success. We have had many, many standout performers. Three that stand out that would do whatever it took and had an unbelievable passion to excel:
1. Jamey Mulske (8-time national champion, 21-time All-American, 2-time National Meet Outstanding Performer award). Jamey sprained her ankle in the triple jump in 1998 at the national championships in Tulsa and then limped over to the starting line and won her eighth and final national championship in the 400-meter hurdles!
2. Mandy Schroeder (4-time National Champion, 11-time All-American). Mandy won two of her 11 All-American awards at the national championships in 1999 in West Palm Beach FL with a broken foot. Not a stress fracture. A broken foot.
3. Joe Koch (6-time All-American, 11-time conference champion). We went out over Christmas break one year and shoveled one lane on our outdoor track and Joe ran 200-meter repeats with spikes in 10 degree below weather.
Obviously, all three athletes had serious, serious passion to excel. Those are the kind of athletes you want in your program.
2. Find athletes who want to invest and have an ownership in your program.
3. Find athletes who want to be motivated and have an edge, athletes who have an ego. The great athletes all have them. All of the truly great athletes want to compete on a “big stage.”
4. Find athletes with character. “You can’t coach character” is a quote you see often and it is true.
5. Recruiting: It is hard work that needs to be done on a very consistent basis, whether you are a college recruiter searching worldwide or a high school coach looking for athletes in the hallways.
6. You have to be a salesman and sell your program, your vision, and yourself. Be honest and positive. There is zero value in negative recruiting.
1. The culture that you want to build is structured through core values and a core group of athletes who believe in your vision, your philosophy and your program’s values.
2. One of the best methods to build a culture is the principle of conformity—people conform to a group and have an inherent need to fit in. They will follow the crowd, so to speak. They will fall in line. We as coaches have to assure that the athletes ” fall in line” with the correct core group that believe in the culture you are trying to build.
3. You need great leaders to assist in building your culture. You can’t do it by yourself. Great teams have great leaders! And not all leaders are born, as some people suggest. They can be developed. And that is one of the tasks of a coach who is attempting to put his or her own culture in place.
1. The key to success is planning and preparation. You have to have a plan for success. We termed our plan the U Mary process—a plan that developed and evolved over the years. Faith and trust in the process was essential for the athlete to be successful. One of the best examples was our distance coach, Dennis Newell, always having his athletes ready to perform at their highest level in the championship events. Certainly some of it was his training. But a bigger part may have been mental. Coach Newell’s athletes firmly believed and trusted his process! They competed well in the “big” meets because they believed they would.
2. Understand that the process does not happen overnight. Good things will happen, but it will take time and patience. We live in a world where most people today want immediate results and success. It is the job of the coach to instill in athletes the need for patience.
3. Talent doesn’t typically win anything. Preparation does!
1. Goals are essential to success for both the athlete and the coach.
2. My personal goal was to work diligently with every ounce of strength I had toward excellence. “Excellence doesn’t just happen” was the very first slogan we put on a team t-shirt 26 years ago and it is still very, very true today!
3. Perseverance and consistency are a must. My thought process was to work each and every day to build a culture of excellence!
4. My personal goal as a coach was to get better each and every day. I wanted to do at least one thing daily to enhance my own coaching or program. Sometimes that meant working on vacations. Sometimes it meant doing just a little bit extra at the end of a long, tiring day. Every day means every day.
5. We always stressed to our athletes that most limits are self-imposed. There is nothing wrong with dreaming and shooting for the moon. That is a good thing. But short-term and intermediate goals are more important if you are to realize your long-term goal (s). You must have a plan if you are to realize your goals was our message to athletes.
6. Expectations and goals go hand and hand. People will rise to their level of expectation. Don’t be afraid to have very high expectations. Yes, you as a coach will be disappointed at times. But more often than not, athletes and people in general will rise to your level of expectation.
1. The goal is provide a setting where assistant coaches feel comfortable and in control of their role. The best assistant coaches have a great work ethic, are dedicated, loyal, possess great communication skills, excellent relationship abilities, and most of all, have a true passion for the sport.
2. Good assistant coaches have initiative. They “take the ball and run with it.” They don’t have to be told to do every little task. They see something that needs to be done and they do it! My last graduate assistant, Amelia Maher, had projects finished and on my desk in the morning before I even thought about them. Those kind of assistant coaches are invaluable.
3. Good assistant coaches have a growth mindset. They like to try new things and believe challenges help them grow.
4. The head coach must delegate duties. But don’t delegate the farm away. Don’t delegate out of laziness. We gave our assistant coaches a job and we expected it to be completed with the results we were seeking. Coaching is a “results business.”
5. Emphasize that it is okay to make a mistake. Just don’t make it twice.
6. Demand loyalty. That is a must.
7. Make assistant coaches very aware of the coach/athlete relationship rules and that there are very definite lines that cannot be crossed.
8. Passion trumps all. The person that comes to mind when I think of passion is Howard Hausauer, an All-American thrower in our program who was my first throwing coach when I arrived at the University of Mary in 1993. He made demands of his athletes as he had trained. And that was extremely hard. Extremely! Howard quit football as a sophomore in high school despite being marked for stardom. He had his Dad build a throwing ring in a vacant lot near where he lived and he spent every day in the summer and fall throwing and training with Brian Fehr, a high school and college teammate. They trained every day, with the goal of getting in at least 100 throws a day. Howard went on to be a high school national champion in the shot put. That’s passion!
1. The purest form of motivation is inner motivation. You as a coach can build on that and take it to the next level for the athlete (s).
2. A great motivator is peer pressure. Your job is to assure that the correct peer group or core group of athletes is providing the peer pressure.
3. Always encourage athletes to never be content. Life is a constant competition, whether you want it to be or not. Always be ready to adjust and reset goals. “You are either competing or you are not.”—Pete Carroll, Coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
1. Be honest, be consistent and be fair and you will have very few issues. Remember that people want discipline and structure in their life. They may not admit it, but they do.
2. Make decisions based on what is good for your program and typically you will make the right call.
3. Understand that not all decisions will be popular. You can’t worry about what other people will think.
4. Admit when you have made a mistake and are wrong. You can’t always be right.
5. Standards are much better than rules. Our premise was that there is a right way and a wrong way. Do what is right.
6. There is much more opportunity for a coach to be “backed into a corner” if you have an overabundance of rules. A coach loses credibility and respect very quickly if all of the rules are not enforced fairly and consistently.
1. Every experience, whether positive or negative, can be valuable. Much can be learned from defeat and setbacks if you allow it to. Our motto: “Turn negatives into positives.”
2. Use setbacks as opportunities to get better. Our women’s team lost the conference indoor championship to an over-achieving University of Minnesota-Duluth team in 2014. We were simply out-performed. We went right back to work after the defeat and easily won the conference outdoor championship. How you rebound and move forward from failures and setbacks will really dictate your success.
3. Don’t be afraid to allow your athletes to take risks and fail at times. Failure is a very, very strong emotion and much can be learned by the athlete when he or she takes risks and fails.
1. There aren’t any shortcuts to success. There are always more efficient and more organized methods and ways, but coaching is plain hard work.
2. There is no substitute for hard work. “Effort=Results”—Roger Penske, car racing owner and winner of the Indianapolis 500 18 times! More often than not, Roger is correct.
3. Time management and prioritizing with the correct organizational skills are key to success.
4. You do need an element of luck. But don’t rely on it. You don’t “luck out” very often. “The harder I work, the luckier I get”—Rollie Greeno, Jamestown (ND) College, legendary coach in a number of sports, including track & field/cross country.
One can see that the job of a coach is a big one. Huge in fact. And so very important. We will leave you with three important thoughts:
1. Understand that you have to be you. Don’t be afraid to do your own thing and take a different path from others. Make your program your own. I became a much better coach when I figured out I had to coach like ME and not my mentors.
2. Understand that you as a coach/mentor are the most important element in an athlete’s life. You are their vehicle to greatness! You provide the ride and the beneficiary of course is your program.
3. Coaching isn’t a normal job. Coaching is a LIFESTYLE. My wife always says, “Normal people go to work on Monday morning and put in their 40 hours. Some enjoy it. Some don’t. But it’s a job.” “Coaching isn’t a job to you, “ she would continue. “Coaching is who you are. It’s your life. It’s a lifestyle. And she’s right!