Junior Runners & The Infinite Game

As a coach my philosophy regardless of the athlete's ability, age or background is to help them play an infinite game.  Help them, teach them, guide them to ensuring that they lead a healthy and balanced lifestyle. This includes developing sustainable long terms routines that I believe are the cornerstone of success.

An opportunity some 15 years ago fortified this approach when I was made the head cross country and track and field coach for Brisbane Girls Grammar. Arguably Brisbane's leading private school for girls.

I had taken over from a coach who had been in the position for about 15 years. A typical old school crusty type coach in his 70's . The girls and the school loved him and he led them to great success having won the prestigious QGSSSA cross country and track and field titles consecutively for the last 15+ years.

To be the number one girls school in Brisbane was very important not only to the school but also the parents! As soon as I took over I had numerous parents calling me and wanting to talk to me to tell me their expectations. The school were fantastic and gave me the support to run the program how I wanted to.

I remember my first session with the girls. They were very receptive to me and ran with vigor and heart during that first session clearly wanting to impress the new coach.

After a couple of weeks just watching, listening, observing and not saying too much the time came for me to talk to the girls about a new way of doing things when it came to the way they trained. The previous coach was all about long runs, hard long efforts effort at a high intensity and not allowing for any individuality in training sessions. The girls and the school didn't know any different and why would they, they had been winning.

However we were dealing with growing young women from ages 13-17. I have seen many amazingly talented girls at this age who were incredible. But when it came to running later after they left school, they had burnt out due to injury and a loss of enjoyment for the sport. They and their coaches played the finite game, the short term approach.

As I spoke to the girls I appeared all calm on the surface but underneath I was like a duck paddling for his life. I was about to tell a group of teenage girls who had experienced years of winning, who adored their previous coach that I wanted to change everything when it came to the way they trained.

I told them my number one priority as their coach was I wanted to enjoy their running so when they left school it is something they continued to do. I said yes I want them to train hard but we're going to train less than what they used to and I said we're also going to teach them how to run properly. You could have heard a pin drop as the look on their faces was, you are crazy, you want us to train less. But we won't win.

And then I said it, "girls my number one priority is not winning the QGSSSA title this year. I want us to train hard, have fun and compete hard but it is more important to me that this year you feel as though you have improved and you love your running. It's something you will want to do because you want to not because you have to."

It was almost like I had committed a mortal sin by saying our number one priority was not winning. They knew no other way other than long, hard running and trying to win. That was not my definition of how you should coach developing teenage junior runners. I wanted to play the infinite game, not the finite game of trying to win an annual shield to put on the school wall.

I was going against everything they had ever been taught. But I also knew that I had a responsibility to their health and how they viewed running. That meant I was coaching the infinite game which changed everything in the way we trained.

I taught them how to run properly. I asked them what did sessions feel like, what was their body telling them when they were running, I spoke about endorphins, the mental battle all runners play and what happens when their brains release dopamine and how it can make them run faster.

We ran less, we played more games, we had less structure in our training and girls were put on different training loads based on their ages, abilities and experience. But every time we did that I explained why we were doing it and what the outcome would be. I encouraged them to ask questions and taught them about looking after their bodies so they could run for their whole life.

But that didn't mean for one minute we didn't work hard when we trained. And we were still going to give ourselves the best shot at winning that year. However that was a secondary goal to what we were trying to achieve on a daily basis.

I had parents calling me asking me what the hell was I doing. I've got no doubt they were having discussions with the school and that I didn't know what I was doing. At no time did the school put any pressure on me and they fully supported my new approach which made it easier. I knew what I was doing was right, I had no choice but to play the infinite game. We could still achieve success and potentially even win again with a completely new approach.

At times I had to give talks to the school and the parents about how things were going. Before the main competition it was tradition that the coach gave a big speech on why they were going to win. The school had a great culture, a very inclusive culture about being part of the cross country and track and field teams. In giving this talk again I was like the duck, all calm on top but kicking like crazy underneath hoping my talk would have the desired effect.

I felt we had had a great preparation, the girls bought into my way of doing things and from my view point they looked and appeared ready to go. On race day it was interesting to see how some parents were clearly hoping they would not win. The previous coach was even there to watch and was still trying to influence things but to me frankly I didn't care. I was clear in my coaching philosophy and comfortable about what I was doing. Did I want to win, you bet. But if we didn't the sun was still going to come up the next day and the girls would go home in their fancy cars and to a big house. Life would be okay.

We did end up winning and kept winning the next couple of years while I was in charge. I learnt so much and thoroughly enjoyed my time as coach for Brisbane Girls Grammar. I like to think I did impact the junior runners in a positive way and gave them some lessons about running, about life and they understood why I was playing the infinite game.

About Mark

Mark is one of Australia's most experienced and knowledgeable triathlon coaches. With over 25 years experience coaching at all levels from kids, youth, adult and elite professional athletes across the World. He loves seeing people change their lives through triathlon.

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