Track Coach

Interview With Boo Schexnayde

Irving “Boo” Schexnayder has long been regarded as a leading authority in track & field training, particularly the horizontal jumps. He spent 18 years on the LSU staff, producing 26 NCAA champions during his collegiate coaching career. He served on the U.S. team coaching staffs for the 2003 Pan Am Games, the 2006 World Championships in Beijing, and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. One of the stalwarts of USATF Coaching Education, he has chaired a number of technical committees over the years. He was happy to answer Track Coach editor Russ Ebbets’ questions in a recent interview.

Boo Schexnayder

Boo, what have you been up to since you have “retired?”

I keep hearing about my retirement but I’m as busy as ever. I just don’t work for a school at the moment. I’m doing consulting work with schools, universities and pro sports teams, speaking at clinics and conferences, still involved in coaching education. Most of my work is outside track. I have a lot of off-the-track interests that I am trying to devote more time to as well.

How did you get into coaching and specifically, track & field?

I always wanted to coach from the time I finished high school. Coaching was problem solving, infinite numbers of variables, with a people/personal side to it as well. The level of challenge hooked me. I was supposedly an engineering student, but was reading all of the coaching books in the library. I had an interest in track from doing it in high school, and when I started coaching football at the high school level I immediately wandered into track coaching in the off season. I was much more of a football coach than a track coach then and my motivation was to become as good at coaching track as I was at football. In my early career I turned down collegiate football opportunities for various reasons, but a door to collegiate track opened for me and I felt it was right at the time. I’m happy I did but wonder at times what my life … and bank account … might look like had I stayed in football.

Track & field has a long history of innovation from fashion to function, lycra to weight training to precision timing. How have you cut through all the hype to adopt procedures or products without buying into every new fad and winding up with a garage full of junk?

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” is a cornerstone philosophy for me. I’m a skeptic by nature. I deliberately hesitate to implement new things until I am truly confident and sure about how I’ll use them. If you are confident in your coaching abilities and philosophies, frivolous things are less tempting, so I remind young coaches to define goals before they design processes. Coaching is fun and effective when you as a coach are comfortable in your own skin and confident in your own ability. A favorite quote of mine is that “timeless truth doesn’t sell”. Truth is effective but it’s boring and a poor commercial model. Fads and gimmicks will always be around. The greatest challenge in coaching is staying true to your principles and not getting distracted by shiny things.

The execution of fundamental movement patterns can become so routine that the lack of attention can lead to sloppy, inefficient execution. How do you impress upon your athletes the need to remain focused during this routine, mundane portion of practice and to strive for technical excellence?

It won’t be important to the athletes until they know it’s important to you (the coach). If you stay true and send a constant message they eventually come around. Subtle but consistent pressure on athletes to make changes is critical. Pressure in coaching may have bad connotations in today’s societal context but pressure can be applied appropriately. Nothing changes without pressure … I tell young coaches all the time, if the athletes haven’t changed, you haven’t coached. I’m happy to deal with an athlete who is struggling to master a skill, but not one who isn’t committed to change. I hear athletes say sometimes, “it doesn’t feel right” … how do you know what it’s supposed to feel like if you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before? As a coach you can’t let those statements rock your confidence. Athletes need to understand that there is a right way and a wrong way, I assume they chose me as their coach because they wanted to be coached, not because they wanted to do it their way.

Regarding football, how did coaching that sport differ from coaching track & field? What did you learn from football that you feel made you more effective coaching track and field?

Football culture is military … everyone has a job as part of the mission. It helped me to understand training group dynamics more. I required every athlete to contribute to the training group, and there were lots of ways to contribute besides scoring points. Mentor or tutor a teammate, set up hurdles… do something! I noticed how teams bonded in football, not through silly team building activities but by going through really tough training together. Football helped me understand how individualism could exist within a group culture. Football has a no-excuses mentality we could learn from, we’re jealous of football but we won’t do what football does. Track as a sport has suffered because coaches have too much say over sport governance. Nick Saban might be the most powerful guy in football but if they tell him he has to play Auburn at 11:00 am he does, and he’s not looking to play the 4th quarter later that night because it’s too hot in the afternoon, or send half his team to a different game because they have a better chance to qualify there.

Conversely, what do you feel football coaches could adopt from track & field that would help that sport?

In most cases, a much better understanding of training, and a better understanding of the actual physiological demands of their own sport. In my consulting work it’s frustrating sometimes that team sport coaches want results like mine, but won’t prioritize like me or implement a process similar to mine.

The possibility of information overload today is real with “answers” to every question available via the cell phone or Internet offering instantaneous solutions that could be as right as they are wrong. What sources or starting points should a new coach be conversant in before they veer off into the uncharted waters of the world wide web? What is a book or video you’d recommend with good basic advice?

So often the answers you find appear great on the surface but when you examine the genuine underlying science, you see why they are ineffective. I’m not sure innovation and technology aren’t crippling more coaches than they are helping. So much of it is biased or commercially driven. For example, I deal a lot with hamstring rehab and am highly successful with it, but what I do is the exact opposite of what most trainers and doctors do because they are stuck in tradition, know science but don’t apply it, are subject to fads, and commercial and insurance factors dictate choices. I don’t have a book or video to suggest, they often have their own commercial bias. A solid understanding of sports science and development of a strong personal philosophy are a must. An understanding of what you are trying to accomplish is a good start … establish the goal before the process.

Over the last 4-5 years mental health has landed on the radar screen of the general public. Do you feel that the psychological strength of an athlete comes from the mindset that is expected and exhibited throughout a season at the daily practices? What practice routines or thought processes did you promote that created a competitive mindset that allowed your athletes to compete and train with positive expectations, if not fearlessly versus individuals riddled with groundless fears, self-doubts and an inexhaustible pool of excuses.

I believed in subjecting them to reality. Rationalization and self-pity are the two most worthless human behaviors and I am totally intolerant of them. I’m far from a mental health expert, but it’s obvious to me that young people today aren’t capable of handling negativity as young people could years ago. It’s an unfortunate side effect of societal progress. Being a coach, I think of the overload principle, which when applied that tells me the only way to help them is to allow them to be exposed periodically to small doses of negativity, so they can work through problems and gain confidence. A safety net philosophy, where we protect them from very damaging situations seems sound, but trying to prevent them from ever encountering negativity is crippling them. Let’s not forget that sometimes success is just as scary as failure, because it takes us out of a comfort zone and creates expectations. Eliminating fear of failure and understanding failure as part of the process of improvement is freeing and enlightening.

Did you ever use any pre-testing to find out learning styles of your athletes? What I’m asking here is finding out if the athletes are predominantly visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners and then using that information to tailor training communication.

Not formally, but I am highly respectful of this aspect of coaching. It was drilled into my head as an education major in college, and I quickly learned that being non-compromising in what needs to be done is fine, but it is not an excuse for a lack of creativity in the delivery process.

We convey ideas through language. How much emphasis do you place on how you say things? Did you give much thought/planning towards creating meaningful snippets that underscore the old training maxim that “words cue action?”

It’s the most important thing we do. All the great coaches are great communicators. Word choices determine context, clarity, nuance, and much more. More verbiage is no substitute for skilled verbiage, and sadly, this is the only aspect of coaching that doesn’t have a steady stream of commercial and technological methods available for those wishing to improve. Every coach should tape themselves at a meet, and then listen to it later outside of the meet context. It’s shocking how inane we sound at times.

I have worked with many “teachers” who felt repetition was beneath them. What role does repetition play in your practices? From the design of a practice session, to the drills, to the language used to the methods of presentation.

That egotistical approach to the teaching profession kind of sickens me, how can you call yourself a teacher if the students haven’t learned? I remember an instructor in coaching education who repeatedly got bad student evaluations and wore them like a badge of honor, he saw them as a validation of himself as tough and non compromising. How can a room full of bad grades validate you as a “great” teacher? High bars for students are fine, but don’t lower bars come first? Expecting students to deliver good work and show commitment should not be confused with a realization that students learn differently and at different rates. An athlete who doesn’t pay attention and as a result needs more repetition than another is unfortunate, but we have to meet them where they are. I always say that the mark of a great coach is the ability to reach different types of people. The athletes that always have their act together don’t really need you as a coach, they’ll be fine without you. The troubled ones need you.

In a collegiate system I always have thought one of the challenges facing the college coach was to get new recruits “all on the same page” in that most recruits arrive with different training histories, competitive backgrounds, even different levels of physical condition. What fundamentals (mental or physical) did you strive to establish first before you could start more serious training? What were the steps to this process?

Training is serious from day one, but serious and dangerous are two different things. Activities done at the onset of a training year in a good system are productive but low risk, and corrective in many ways. Some would have you believe that a lot of corrective work must be done before beginning training, what they miss is that good training systems have that type of work embedded in the program from day one. I try to select an entry point that will accommodate reasonable levels of readiness, and I am ready to individualize if needed. Choosing an entry point that is too low wastes very little time, but an entry point that’s too high can wreck somebody. All that being said though, they must feel challenged from day one and every day afterwards. Athletes feel good about themselves when they accomplish something difficult, and when we are too easy on them we unfairly steal that feeling of accomplishment from them.

How did all this get managed? Did you use some form of testing? (30m sprint, STJ, VJ, etc.) or did you send out fitness plans prior to an athlete’s arrival with fitness expectations for Day 1?

Testing is a big part of what I do, but I don’t pretest. Testing doesn’t tell you everything, and there are many simple tests athletes can perform well on even when unfit. I did send simple workouts to be done prior to the “official” start of practice. I usually had upperclassmen doing those in town and new athletes could jump in and train with them; that was an effective ice breaker.

In a related issue did you ever have a training manual or a copy of written expectations, book list, that would be given to the new recruits before they arrived on campus that detailed the expected levels of fitness and of personal behaviors?

I did not, but expectations were thoroughly communicated early in the recruiting process. I also stressed that there were enough hours in a day to do well in school and sports. I believed in realism in recruiting. Being fake in recruiting means you get athletes whose priorities don’t match yours. Some recruits failed to sign with me because their priorities disagreed with mine, but that’s ok; better that I learned then. There were recruits who watched a really, really tough practice on a visit, then suddenly decided that our business school wasn’t good enough for them. My reaction… “well, you go find a good business school”.

How was resistance training introduced? No doubt some recruits came from highly organized Olympic lifting programs while others had little more exposure to weight training than a Universal Gym. What level of proficiency did an athlete need to exhibit before you felt comfortable introducing more complex training?

I assume everyone knows nothing and teach everything from scratch, and I am extremely patient. In most cases those athletes who think they know a lot really don’t, and reteaching is often needed with those who think they are competent. I think a fault of a lot of coaches is that they feel uncomfortable doing remedial stuff with a very talented athlete, but it doesn’t bother me. With a good coaching job, they get out of the remedial stages very quickly. If you’re spending months doing remedial stuff that’s a coach failure, not an athlete problem.

How do you incorporate video analysis? With the advent of cell phones is the visual feedback you give immediate, on the practice field or do you schedule a formal sit-down debriefing where you dissect a performance?

I think video is wonderful, but often overused and misused. We rely on it too much and don’t develop our verbal communication skills or coaching eye. We show an athlete a position that they should be in for only 1/100th of a second and they assume paralysis there. I like to film practice and look at it myself afterwards for confirmation. I often watched video with athletes in the office away from practice, and much of the video was of other athletes. When immature athletes watch video without guidance, they often fail to realize what’s important, and they often see what they want to see.

Do you do an “all team” session, where one can learn from another’s application of a principle or poor technique? Or were these reviews more individual in nature?

As a football coach, I quickly learned that putting a bunch of people in a room to watch a coach guided video session together was a sure way to put most of them to sleep. My video sessions were all individual, and a significant portion of the session was watching other elite athletes in the event (not necessarily teammates).

Your programs have been blessed with countless athletes who could be characterized as legitimate superstars. What role do these athletes play in your program with regards to mentoring young talent? Granted, this is not a job everyone aspires to or feels comfortable with but I’m sure you’d agree that your success stories all have a chapter or two of successful mentoring.

Mentoring younger athletes is something many of them did very well, and that was an important part of team chemistry. But I don’t think you can, and I never tried to, force someone into a mentorship role. During my time under coach [Pat] Henry at LSU the culture was incredible, accountability was incredibly high, and levels of positive peer pressure were off the charts. It was easy to coach winners in that environment.

Were your team captains or designated mentors taken aside and given specific expectations that you had for them with regards to mentoring? What were some of these expectations?

There were times when I called in older athletes and discussed with them the antics of a talented but troubled younger one. I wanted them on board and understanding of why I might be seeming to handle that troubled athlete differently. They typically responded positively because they were good people themselves and also knew they needed the troubled athlete’s contributions to succeed as a team.

How do you change your presentation style when you are addressing coaches at a clinic versus athletes on a practice field? Obviously, there are usually age differences here but how do you focus on maintaining attention but also selecting content?

The biggest difference is that I kept athletes mostly on a need-to-know basis in most cases. I didn’t feel it was necessary that they be able to write a thesis on the long jump (a coach should be capable of such) but they did need to understand their unique strengths and weaknesses and their individual strategies for using their strengths and avoiding their habitual problems.

Over the last 30 years what generational shifts have you noticed? I have always felt that at the end of the day the same job needs to be done, be that run, jump or throw. Have you noticed any attitudinal changes and if so how have you changed your approach to teaching or coaching?

I keep hearing young people have changed but I’m not so sure. Back in the old days you were expected to coach “hard”, but even then, there were athletes who didn’t respond to that. In the teacher’s lounge you would hear a saying, “the trouble with education is never the kids, it’s the grown-ups”. Years ago, you were the coach and athletes bought in immediately because they respected that title. Now athletes, in those first few weeks, are figuring you out and deciding on their degree of buy-in. However, once you get the buy-in and the athlete has decided that you as a coach can get them where they want to be, things are the same as they have always been. They don’t expect you to be perfect, just right most of the time. In my later years of coaching there was nothing I couldn’t get an athlete to do if I framed it correctly.

What is the structure of your daily training plan? How similar is it as you cycle through the semi-annual or annual training plan?

I issue training on Mondays for the entire week, I don’t want them to experience surprises and I want them to get mentally ready for technical and tough sessions. There are always exceptions but I try to keep the same themes on the same days throughout the year. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are speed/power themed, Tuesday and Thursday fitness and restoration-based training, Saturday the big tough running day. It was funny to see their eyes go immediately to the bottom of the page (to Saturday) as soon as they received the piece of paper. With some events Wednesday was another running day. With older athletes, I worked in longer training cycles.

In spite of all the successes you have had there have no doubt been setbacks, disappointments and frustrations. What procedures have you personally adopted to keep yourself on track and to stay motivated, to recover or to keep moving forward?

I think a strength of mine is the ability to fearlessly self-evaluate and criticize, sometimes maybe to a fault (I’ve been told). When I think of all of the great coaches I’ve asked for help, they were all humble. I’m sure it was because to get to that level you have to fail a lot. I think I have a healthy philosophy, I look at problems as opportunities for growth, problems are like vitamins for coaches, like spinach for Popeye, they are your greatest blessing, the biggest problems present the biggest opportunity for improvement.

Specifically with your athletes. How have you counseled athletes who have suffered through disappointments due to their own making, dealing with a fluke injury (e.g. rolling an ankle getting out of a pit) or having an exceptional career but the “poor timing” to have a competitive career against one of the sports all-time greats and always being second fiddle?

My faith helps here, I think God has a way of teaching you the lessons He wants you to learn. Chasing fairness in life is admirable but expecting fairness in life is unreasonable. I don’t preach to the athletes but I do help them understand that negatives often spur us to great things, possibly in other fields. One of the greatest disappointments of my young athletic life was my impetus to get into coaching … that worked out ok long-term for me. It’s important to realize the story is never completely written until they close the coffin.

I have always marveled when a team has two superlative athletes who excel in the same event at regional or national competitions. At the NCAA Indoor Meet in 2004, your guys (LeJuan Simon, John Moffitt and Willie Bradley), placed 1-2-3 in the triple jump, your event. What do you recall about that competition?

Those guys were tremendously different. Simon was a highly recruited star, Moffitt wasn’t highly recruited at all, and Bradley just showed up and asked to come out for track. Watching them train together and bond, you could foresee something special happening. I remember that day, coaching hard to get them through early anxiety, and then just settling in and watching once they were zoned in, how John’s big jump spurred Lejuan, Willie moving into third on the last jump because of the importance of the team title race. The feeling of being proud of them (especially in light of the previous day’s long jump), outweighed the happiness of winning.

Throughout that indoor season the possibility of multiple All-Americans had to have been discussed, but was a 1-2-3 ever addressed? If it was how did you manage to keep practices challenging but not cutthroat?

1-2-3 was never spoken, even though it was accomplished a couple of times in earlier invitational meets. I did (in the fall) allow practice to be cutthroat at times, after all you can’t learn to win if you can’t handle losing and know how to react to it. When someone gets their butt kicked in a practice and comes back strong next time, that produces confidence and understanding that, ultimately, success or failure is your decision. Inseason practices I kept low key, saving emotional energy for the meets.

And for the athletes – what was their mindset? Was this season a “team effort” (my success is our success) or was it necessary to keep the athletes separated preventing training and competitive efforts from overriding a greater goal?

They were all experiencing success and bought in, so I could get them to do anything I needed them to do in training. John winning the long jump in the same meet tempered his disappointment at getting 2nd in the triple jump, but I’m sure John and Willie wanted to win too. Ultimately, they were supportive of each other, they understood their roles on the team. The idea of winning a team title was sold as early as the recruiting process, I never dreamed that my jump group (including my pole vaulter) would literally win it by themselves. But I think they did dream it though.

Finally, how did you dodge the favoritism bullet? (You care more about XX than you do about me!). I am sure you wanted all three guys to do well but attitudes or negative self-talk can shift in a moment with a breakout performance, an inopportune injury or bad competition.

There was no bullet to dodge, I failed twice that day because I coached each the three to win that competition. I think they would all say I sincerely invested in each, and I think they all had a healthy view of competition. In recruiting, when I had a great athlete on the team or signed to come, I would always remind recruits … you’re going to have to compete against that person regardless of who you sign with, so why not come to compete against him in practice and benefit from the same training?

What rules did you have for practice? How were they enforced? What were the penalties?

I’m a standard person, not a rule person. I think rules are kind of dumb because there will always be some unusual situation that validates breaking a rule, but never a situation where standards shouldn’t be upheld. Spending a lot of time preaching rules to kids sends messages to the athletes that the coaches expect trouble. I think we sweat the small stuff way too much (nagging athletes) and the big, important things get lost. I was a coach who was “cool” most of the time and I didn’t make a big deal about minor infractions with athletes who were generally in line. When something was serious or habitual however, I came down hard without any confusion or compromise. It was brief and over immediately after… holding grudges is another unproductive coaching behavior. Penalties were always being pulled out of training… taking away what they loved.

How did you like to see an athlete approach competition? Did you generate a to-do list that essentially scripted a competitor’s timeline, or did you allow the athlete to formulate their own plan and then suggest tweaks as a season or career progressed?

Every athlete in each competition had a technical plan that we had discussed before… what must be done, what was likely to go wrong, and how we would react to that. As far as the mental and emotional preparation, I left it up to them unless there were problems. Interestingly each great one developed a preparation ritual of sorts. When certain athletes struggled in preparation, I pointed out those examples to them. The night before major competitions, there were no festivities and team building foolishness, they were in the hotel, quiet getting mentally ready. There were rare occasions where I refused to coach an athlete at a meet because of some (very, very serious) preparation issue. It sent a message to the entire group as well.

Artificial Intelligence is slowly and insidiously creeping into our everyday lives. What fears or hopes do you foresee within coaching for this ever-expanding technology?

I’m sure there will be some eventual AI program that takes a video, digests it, and spits out feedback, and it will be wildly popular (although maybe not … track coaches might not be able to afford it). But the brain is so much superior to AI … I hope I get to coach against that AI program.

To say that coaching ed initially had a “cool reception” is a laughable understatement. For the vast majority of established coaches who succeeded on recruiting prowess and a strong opinion, coaching education was maligned or dismissively marginalized. You were one of the first “big time” program coaches that shifted that attitude recognizing the import of sport science and how it could be applied. What in your background led you to believe this was a prudent career path?

Oh yes…. What we take for granted today was very controversial then. The idea that the coaching process could be governed by science rather than instinct was foreign at the time. I can’t say I ever made a conscious decision to push that philosophy on others, but I guess people try to copy successful people. I’m a problem solver by nature and an engineer at heart so it was instinctive and natural to me. My mentors were the same way. Meeting like-minded people in the curriculum development process reinforced this.

At one time you had written much of the Level 1 curriculum with an exceptional degree of conciseness and clarity. What “rules” do you set for yourself when writing and how do you adhere to these rules? Do you have any set writing goals, times of day, word counts, etc.?

Thanks for the compliment. When writing momentum is everything to me, I sometimes have writer’s block but when I break through, I can pound out hours consecutively because I have a vision for the organizational structure of the document and the finished product. When the draft is done, I read every line looking for ways to simplify it and to be sure the reader isn’t relying on any assumptions that aren’t addressed earlier in the document. Nuance is cool in speech but you can’t rely on it in technical writing. I believe strongly in “logic trees”, based on the scientific model, where your answer to a question brings you to a specific action (or another question)… a flowchart-based approach to training, teaching, and problem solving. It’s how I operate as a coach and it underlies my writing.

Are there any educational theorists that you have modeled your communication or presentation style from? Are there any models that set the standards of your style?

I was an education major and I studied them all, but I’m just being me. Football taught me the importance of the clarity of the message. Teaching algebra taught me that thought processes and logic should drive the teaching process. I’ve had people who have asked me how I can teach a 36-hour course and never glance at the notes, it’s because it’s all organized into neat folders in my head. Good decision making comes not from passionate reaction but from logic, the scientific method, deductive reasoning, and the times I’ve failed are times I’ve wandered from those things.

Howard Cosell sarcastically called sports “the toy department of life.” What about sport has offered you a lifelong challenge? I am sure the opportunity to “do something else” has been ever present but not acted upon. What has been the attraction, the appeal that has generated a lifelong enthusiasm and a level of achievement and contribution that is world renowned?

Humans seem to have an innate drive to compete and appreciate competition. How else can you explain the popularity of sport in society? It’s the chase to master the unmasterable. chasing perfection and victory with no promise of gain if you win. If you live for challenges, how can you not love this? The peripheral challenges and work have kept it fresh for me too. The coaching education work, meet management, venturing outside of track for performance coaching and consulting, all kept work life exciting and stimulating.

What are your coming goals for the next few years? Is there anything in particular you feel you’d like to get done? One last thing?

I really don’t have any, I’m just taking it as it comes. I like consulting work because you’re constantly problem solving and it changes from client to client. A lot of people have asked me to write books but I can’t write a book because I feel my story and personal development isn’t complete yet, maybe one day I will. I think if a sports-related challenge came about that was totally different from anything I’ve done it would be very tempting. Keeping up with my off-the-track interests is becoming more of a priority.

Thank you for doing this and for all you have done over the last few decades.

Thank you, Russ. At one time this magazine was all we had. It was a cornerstone of professional development for my generation of coaches. The past editors of this magazine are legendary figures in the sport, and you have upheld that standard admirably. Thanks for keeping this going and for maintaining that quality and tradition.