Advocating and Empowering - by Matt Belfield Head Track & Field and XC Coach, University of Vermont
There is no doubt that we can train and instruct athletes without considering the “whole”, but coaching to me has always been a lot more than providing instruction. We do not exist in a laboratory, so we must explore beyond science; and recognize that the realization of human potential is more complex than training rats to find the cheese.
Relationships. Coaching excellence is about relationships. Success in any arena is always about healthy relationships. These can be very difficult to develop within large track & field programs. Ideally, coaching staffs will have empathetic individuals with training experience and an understanding of pedagogy. That said, of all traits, empathy is the most important. If the athletes don’t feel that you care about them, it doesn’t matter if you’re a PhD in Exercise Physiology – athletes will fall short of their potential. Incidentally, if you are coaching in a situation that has an athlete to coach ratio of 40 or 50 to 1, I encourage you to ask your administration (nicely) if they feel that is an appropriate learning environment for these students. It doesn’t work in the classroom, and it falls short in the athletic realm as well. Just “getting a chance to participate” isn’t good enough for football or basketball, so why are those who compete in Olympic sports relegated to “participants?” Ponder how it would go if your significant other complained that you weren’t being attentive to his or her needs and you responded with “well, at least you get to participate in a relationship.” Money may be the response you get, so we should remind the powers that be that money always goes to the things we care about. Do we care about these individuals? Ask for another assistant coach to help teach the important lessons that competitive sport brings. Let’s be united in expecting support and commitment from our institutions.
We can do better. We have to do better. It’s really, really, hard; but we can choose to make having quality relationships with our athletes a consistent goal for our programs. Everyone involved needs to make a commitment to meaningful relationships that support and challenge the athletes and the coaches. I can tell you from a personal perspective that despite believing whole-heartedly in the tenets of Brianna Welch’s program for Coaching the Whole Athlete, I was challenged by her to make it even more effective for our University of Vermont team. While Brianna worked for me, it was clear that her ideas could help me be even better in developing relationships with our women -- ones that could empower them to be agents for their own success. I encourage you to challenge yourself and your teams to talk about the why and how of what you are undertaking. Set goals, establish methods for evaluation that fit the team and each of its individuals, and hold everyone accountable for the goals you establish. They need not be overly elaborate and numerous, they simply need to be specific to a stated goal that focuses on process and development of the athlete.
So what are the basics, that all of us (and especially me) need to do regularly.
1) Show up on time and truly be there for practice. Make it not just your number one priority; make it your only thing for right there and now. Be PRESENT.
2) Make eye contact with everyone that day. Even if it is 40 or 50 people. Make sure they know you SEE them. They will know that they matter.
3) Try to say at least one thing each day to everyone on the team. Encourage them with school, ask about family, ask them what their goal or pace is for the day.
4) Model the lifestyle you expect from them. Get your sleep, eat well, exercise, and share yourself with them so they know you’re a real person too.
5) Acknowledge when you yourself haven’t been perfect. Expect their best each day, but make sure they know that their best isn’t always going to be great. And that’s OK. It has to be OK.
6) Have each individual work on personal goals. Have team goal setting sessions with members of the team being active participants in the final set of goals.
7) Challenge the less talented people as much as you challenge the more talented. This is hard to do, because it often is more difficult to assess what younger and/or less developed athletes can handle. This is a critical part of the job. If they are on YOUR team, they deserve at least some of YOUR attention.
8) Love them. Yeah, I said LOVE them. Think about how you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes, and do that. It will make you feel good too. I promise. Tired, but good.
Please understand that after 30 years of doing this, I don’t have it all figured out and know that I never will. I truly enjoy the journey. Young people need mentors in their lives who will both nurture them and push them out of their comfort zones. You can be that person. You are that person. Don’t fear failure, embrace it as the learning tool that it is. Encourage these athletes to see failure as a reminder of opportunities for growth -- that there is room for improvement. Encourage them to share their goals with teammates, and anyone else they trust to love them unconditionally, whether they reach the goals or not. And if they don’t yet have these people in their lives, guess what? It’s you.
I believe that this approach to empowering the athletes will not only help with their sense of self; I sincerely believe that it will yield better competitive results. And these results will be those that you and the athlete can be equally proud of as they will come from a place of collaboration. As the athletes trust you more, they will share more about the training effect and all other aspects of their lives that will affect the overall training development. THIS is what helps you help them be their very best.
This holiday season I am so grateful for all the people in my life that challenge me to be better. Former teammates, friends, family, co-workers, and others. Always on the top of this list is my own former coaches. Some are now gone, but their impact lives on. The word and title of “Coach” means a lot to me. I never wanted the title of “Director of Track & Field and Cross Country” because I want my title to reflect how I view my vocation. It is a sacred mission to me…to be entrusted with the education of young people. “Coach” to me means teacher, counselor, bio-mechanist, physiologist, whisperer, and one who inspires. I invite you to think about what the word coach means to you and then go be the best on you can be.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to Brianna for the opportunity to grow through this exercise.
Happy Holidays everyone,
I am fortunate to serve as the Head Coach for Track & Field and Cross Country at the University of Vermont. Prior to coming to Burlington, I served student-athletes at Ithaca College, University of Redlands, Colgate University, and my alma mater, The Catholic University of America. I have coached All-Americans in the jumps, throws, and distance events, including a two-time national champ in the high jump, and champion in the hammer throw at the NCAA Division Three level. I have turned my attention predominantly toward the 800m up though 10K in the last dozen years, having coached Morgan Powers-Rainville to a second-team All-America spot in the 2012 NCAA Division One Championships, where she ran 33:42 over the 25 laps. One more name drop: assuming all goes well in the world, Yolanda Ngarambe (UVM class of ’14) will be representing her home country of Sweden this coming summer in Tokyo in the 1500m, as she achieved the “A” Olympic standard when she ran 4:03 at the 2019 World Championships.
I enjoy hiking and biking, watching football and basketball (my other high school sports) and occasionally sing and play guitar around the local area, but mostly at my house. I got into this whole coaching thing from being a high jumper who wanted to help others learn to jump. So a quick nod to Richard Fosbury for his flop technique which allowed me to be relevant as an athlete.
My wife Bonnie and our two daughters Arianna and Brooklyn are so very kind to endure my lifestyle as a coach and manage to handle my need to be competitive with everything I do.
The women I coach always seem to want to know who is my “favorite” but I’ve told them that the title will continue to go to my colleague Joe Gingras (who coaches our men) as I’ve learned so much from him on coaching distance events and am lucky to call him friend.