A Life Lesson From A High School Track Coach
Coach Cora 042022
My high school track coach gave me the gift of a lifetime. She gave me powerful feedback; and courageously walked through the emotional experience of it. In so doing, she made a difference.
It was difficult to receive her input. More challenging was the frustration of not being able to execute on my talent; and not knowing why.
Why Do We Resist Feedback?
Some perceive feedback as painful. To give. To receive. Often it does not feel good to give; and there is a fear of damaging the relationship.
This perception equates to many managers withholding important information. The very thing needed to grow, improve, and perform at a higher level.
Withholding feedback – information- minimizes people.
While Feedback empowers people through knowledge.
Feedback IS the breakfast of champions.
A Natural Runner
Early on I had a love for running… and proved to be fast. My first competitive race was the annual Turkey Rama Run. Here, Gary Squire and I break the county record together. The local paper listing us as the “fastest boys in the county” in the 9-11 age group. Girls may not have their own ranking yet, but I love to run. So, I run with the boys.
From Practice to Competition
By the time I am a high school freshman I have a passion for competitive running. More, this was the first year as a young athlete I had a coach. A real coach.
Every day I show up for practice and run hard. Loving it! A competitor’s heart fulfilled in the thrill of getting on the track and moving right to the front of the pack! Track practice becomes the highlight of each day!
Then comes competitive meets.
At meets, I fail to bring home the win. I can win my heat, but never the race.
The frustration of unpaid hours of practice. Of working so hard, being in the front of every practice run, even making my way to the front of the pack in my heat. Why does the win elude me? WHY?
Going from feeling like a rock star at practice to being crushed like a pebble at meets.
The anger I experience toward myself, the frustration of not knowing how to do better. My inability to change the outcomes. Overwhelmingly frustrating for a high performer. For one who loves to win!
My coach sees what I do not. My coach has feedback. I don’t listen. I don’t see the problem.
But she is a coach. So… she has ways to help me hear.
She isolates me during practice. Pushing me and timing me in runs against myself.
Over, and over, and over.
Errrggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. My anger and frustration build!
“I want to run my way; and against others. Why is she making me run by myself? Doesn’t she know I run much FASTER against others? Why can’t I have another coach? Why is she making me work harder than everyone else? It’s not FAIR!”
Maybe you have experienced similar feelings? Frustration at not being able to meet your goals? Or, rise up to the challenges presented to you? Have you experienced not understanding the actions of those you rely on for guidance? Or, not being clear on what others are trying to tell you? For me, I went right to defending my own opinions and actions! Have you?
Resistance ran deep in my young self. I had so much natural talent. Yet, I did not know how to use it, to manage it. Nor, accomplish the goals I set for myself. Each meet I felt like I was letting down the team- the entire school! I carried failure on my shoulders and the burden of not knowing what was I doing wrong- or how to change.
Why does my coach not understand this? As much as I needed the feedback, I did not know what I needed!
The worst part? What put me over the edge? The day before our state meet, coach informs me I will not run as a varsity runner, but as a JV, in the 440 sprint. She explains I will still run as varsity in the 50- and 100-yard dash, and in the 440 relay. Not the 440.
I am fuming. I worked so hard the last two weeks; and she pushed me super hard. Now, my reward is demotion? To run as JV? She is taking away MY race! This is MY place to shine! I am a rock star in the 440. How can she do this to me?
Have you ever felt this way? Frustration with those trying to help you? Sometimes we run to another supervisor, a higher up, or even HR! Yes?
I know I am not appreciating her feedback- nor the course of action!
So…I storm home and tell my father. I declare to him that I am going to quit track. I am done! She cannot do this to me!
My father’s response- a coaching moment- is wise. One that I treasure still today.
He, in his calm voice, asks questions.
“What is the reason your coach gave you for having you run by yourself?”
“I don’t know, something about I do not run at my full speed. I get in front and stay there- whatever that means.”
“Mmmmm, what did she tell you about your placement on the JV team?”
“She doesn’t make sense. I am supposed to run against the clock, not others. In the JV heat I will have no idea what the varsity runners are running. She keeps talking about me running against the clock, not others. How does that even make sense? This is so stupid.”
Then it comes…
“CC. You will make the decision you will make. I hope you choose not to let other’s actions take something away from you that you love, and are good at.”
“Furthermore, it will be very important in your life to discern different intentions. There will those that dismiss and devalue you and who you are. Know this is not about you. There will also be those that engage and invest in you. Recognize these important people, as they will make a difference in your life. As difficult as it may seem, it is very important to make the distinction.”
“For myself, I do not see your coach as someone who has dismissed you or fails to see your value. In fact, her behaviors suggest she is investing heavily in you. I am grateful for this and hope you find your way to see this. Either way, I love and support you.”
I don’t quit.
I do think it through. I come to the uncomfortable realization that my frustration is my own. My own feelings of inadequacy and inability. My lack of understanding how to change the outcome. I find it hard to trust someone else, as I did not trust myself. I throw those feelings at my coach. I blame her.
As individual contributors, lets learn to value the learning experience!!! To not shy away from the feelings that come with learning- with stretching! Recognize the people that are there to invest in you!
Leaders, have the courage to sit in the heat! People have emotions! They will react based on their internal experience. Talk them through it! Walk them through to the finish line!
The big day of the state meet dawns.
First, my name is in a different place on the Shot-Put roster. Instead of Jenkins, Cora, my coach listed Cora, Jenkins. This causes me to be one of the first up to put the shot. What a difference! Due to where my name falls on the roster, I usually walk off the finish line of the 440 and onto the Shot-Put platform. My arms would feel like noodles after sprinting a quarter mile. By changing the roster, my coach has positioned me for success. I put the shot BEFORE I run! What a difference!
After this event I start to think my coach DOES know what she is doing! My confidence is up with a strong performance under my belt!
Right before the big race, coach reminds me, “You are in a race with the clock.” Removing the competition, she has challenged my tendency to run against others in my heat. Missing out on my full capacity. Now…I must compete against the clock, NOT other runners.
This was a different race. Indeed, I am fast. I typically felt confident in my ability to get out in front of the pack in a race. Yet, I had never pushed against myself. Only others.
My coach observed things I did not. Other coaches ran their best runners in a different heat from me. Then, would put their slower varsity runners up against me. They KNEW I ran only as fast as the second fastest runner. Not at my fastest. I am known for this. THIS is why I would not place in meets, regardless of my ability. How much I practiced.
In this race, those dynamics changed. In this meet, I race against myself.
It is the investment of feedback – input- that allows us to change! To grow! To perform at our best! Sometimes we do not know as much about ourselves, as what others see and know. The gift and precious commodity of feedback helps us to see more- to change! Receiving information from my coach, I was able to significantly improve my performance.
In this race against myself, I win. I win!
While doing so I break the girls 440 state record in 1978. The fastest time for Girls 440 Sprint in the state of Oregon.
Racing against the clock, against myself. Not others. Not allowing others to dictate my performance. Not allowing myself to limit my own capacity.
Coach has handed me a lesson of a lifetime.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
Can you imagine the feelings of that moment? The jubilation when I hear a time announced that is faster I have ever run! Then, the emotional wave when the announcer proclaims a state record! This was the thrill of victory, after weeks with the agony of defeat!
I remember looking around feverishly for my coach. When I lay eyes on her she has a simple, knowing smile on her face. I ran to her and hugged her so hard. She was not as ecstatic as I was. Where is her surprise?
I ask, “why are you not surprised?” Her simple response, “Because when I run you by yourself you always run at this speed. I have already timed you several times breaking the state record. You just needed to do it at a meet. As I said, ‘stop competing against others and start competing against yourself.’”
The feedback I could not hear at first is now my ingredient for success.
Can we agree feedback is NOT a bad thing? That feedback does not hurt people nor damage relationships. Poor communication skills do!
Empty accolades are not feedback. It is praise. Praise has its place, let’s not confuse the two!
“You are awesome,” by itself provides no way to replicate the rewarded behaviors. I simply know someone is “currently” happy. Additionally, I am not given the information about what I can do to grow. Withholding this important information is disempowering.
People also often avoid giving you feedback because they are afraid to hurt your feelings. Also, it feels good to say nice things.
There are managers unable or unwilling to give you meaningful feedback. I challenge you! Do not accept this! Seek it out! Gather information you can act on to change future outcomes.
Proactively seek information on ways to be EVEN better! Find those willing to invest in you through providing insight, such as what you can do more of in the future. THAT drives motivation!
I acknowledge and accept some people do not see my value. I am grateful to those, like coach, who care enough to invest in me through feedback and in challenging me.
As a runner, I was good. However, I was not able to execute on my talent consistently and when it mattered the most. I received a lot accolades from many people. What I needed was quality feedback.
Initially I responded negatively. But, with continued effort, I realized the impact of the feedback. As a high school freshman, it was a new experience. As I move through the decades, I have become addicted to the value of feedback!
YOU are the Boss of YOU! Find those willing to give you the information you need to excel. If those who lead you do not have the courage to provide it, go seek it out yourself! Feedback is what drives your growth.
If you are a leader, can you stop feeding cold grits for breakfast? Feed people like they are champions and watch them grow into the performers they strive to be! Give meaningful feedback!