After Japan’s Naoko Takahashi won the gold medal in the marathon at Sydney Olympics, the secret of her victory was revealed. “Coach Koide kept telling me that I would someday win the gold medal…pretty much every day!! If someone tells you you’d win the Olympic gold medal, 365 days a year, for several years, you’ll soon believe that it would happen…!”
Well, while this IS a part of this coaching story, this actually reflects the unfortunate reality of all the BS public seems to have come to believe simply because it’s repeatedly mentioned elsewhere. This is the danger of internet culture of the 21st century. After a while, even I had started to feel that Alberto Salazar is actually a victim of all the shenanigans at the US Indoor Championships a few weeks ago, and then a baseless accusation of his fellow athlete, and now Mary Cain’s withdrawal from World Indoor Championships… It seems that he had been a focus of criticism on several accounts. The incidents in Albuquerque last weekend really ignited undue oil-spreading over the trickling fire. I’m not here to judge his personality or to speculate what was really going on behind the seemingly well-protected curtain. Again, we just simply don’t know just exactly what had happened at the Indoor Championships. Salazar was quoted by saying: “I just tried what every other coach would have done – to protect my own athlete.” Well, for the record, if in fact he kept pushing the appeal even after the officials made the FINAL decision of No-DQ, then it is plain “wrong”. Right or wrong, we have rules and you simply cannot over-ride it just because you are “trying to do your own athlete a favor.” You just don’t threaten your kid’s teacher to get an “A”, would you? That logic just ain’t gonna work. However, that dogged determination to get the best whatever for your athletes may be something you would want a coach to have. For example, if he knew this “shenanigan” was going on behind the curtain, why didn’t Barker stay there and argue? (or did he?)
I was watching a video clip series of Adam and Kara Goucher. I could see Coach Salazar repeatedly saying “This is what all the top athletes in the world would be doing…” Again, I don’t necessarily agree with that. Again, I’m not trying to judge the approach here. But I would say it is totally WRONG to judge something or someone when you have no idea what you’re talking about. The actual fact is; while watching those clips and listening to Salazar talking about some of his coaching approach, I felt; “Huh… That sounds so much like a lot of Japanese coaches…”
When Greg McMillan told me about what Coach Vigil told him (“Athlete-centered, coach-driven, administratively-supported”), I could not help but think about how Japanese system works. When I was recruited to Hitachi as their corporate sponsored running team coach, we had me as a coach, head-coach/team manager and one athlete. In fact, who would be on the team (as an athlete) was secondary. That’s up to me and the team-manager to decide. It was totally driven by us. But our goal is to totally “serve” athletes. Our goal is to do anything and everything that we felt is good for the athletes. As a coach, I had paced my runners many times – even in the actual competition. This does not mean, however, that athletes were the boss. Hardly!! We were the boss – totally!! And they knew it too. And the company (Hitachi) was 100% behind us. We added 7 other runners and we now had 8 athletes (7 of them teenagers). We took them to New Zealand for a 4-week long training camp. We built a new dorm for the athletes, hired a nutritionist and a cook, managed $3 million annual budget. While I was back in Japan last November, I visited Team Mitsui-Sumitomo dorm. They had built a 300m track right outside the dorm — their own track all to themselves! This is definitely a kind of situation that could receive a stiff bashing with jealousy on internet… So that’s the kind of competition Salazar and his group would have to face. In a way, I feel, if Salazar can get $h!t load of $$$ to do whatever he wants/can to help athletes perform up to his/her utmost very best potential (within the rules of fair-game, that is), why not!? We did (do).
Many of history’s great coaches (not all…) had been quite dogmatic and stoic. Look at Cerutty or Stampfl or Kiyoshi Nakamura… Of course, Bowerman and Lydiard included. Nakamura was known as quite a violent athletic coach, verbally as well as physically. It was right around the time when he met Toshihiko Seko that he had by then realized slapping the athletes didn’t quite produce results. So he turned his attention to himself! “I don’t hit athletes any more,” he told a group of young runners lined up in front of him. “But if you all dedicate yourself to become the best runner that you all can be IF I slap myself, I’d be more than happy to do so…” And he started to slap his face, as hard as he could in front of all those shocked teenagers. Stoic and, well, unorthodox? To say the least!! He had all his runners, Seko and other runners, all lived in the apartment complex he had built behind his house and they all had meals together. When Nanae Sasaki, his only female athlete at the time, was having a weight issue, he would make a comment about how much she ate. Sometimes he would yelled at her, saying; “Why can’t you understand! If you can’t stop eating, I won’t eat either!!” and slapped his chopsticks on the table and stopped eating his own meal. But, you see, that was his way of saying: “I won’t let you struggle alone. I’ll struggle with you,” and she got it too. In this respect, he was quite different from some other coaches, such as legendary – in various ways – Ma Junren of China. Reportedly, he would sit in Mercedes Benz, smoking a cigar, yelling at his girls while they were running a 30-miler! ;o) Cerutty was definitely more like Nakamura. He wouldn’t just sit around, watching his runners going up and down the sand-dune, puking at the end of the workout; he would go up and down, probably even harder than anybody, puking together. Arthur was the same; he wouldn’t just send his runners around the Waiatarua – he would be running with them, often leading them up the hill. At the time when Seko was training for L.A. Olympics, Nakamura had a heart murmur, high blood pressure, and fighting with a stomach cancer. But, when Seko was out running laps after laps around the Imperial Palace in the rain, he would be out there, standing and watching. The story goes that, one time, a team’s assistant coach offered an umbrella and he refused and said, “My runner is drenching wet. How can I stay dry and comfortable?” When I came to the US, from the get-go, I figured this approach is not going to work in the US — right or wrong. There is definitely a line we need to have between a coach and an athlete. But the tolerance level is quite a bit different.
If there’s one coach in the US I can think of who was a lot like Nakamura or Cerutty, it was (wait for it…!) legendary Coach Bill Squries (often known only as “Coach”). Coaching athletes, and coaching by caring, was his life. And athletes respond to it. This is one of a HUGE factors for Greater Boston Track Club dynasty. One of my favorite stories is when Dick Beardsley was a young up-and-coming runner and competing at Falmouth Road Race, all the runners were crammed into this house to stay. Coach Squires got up in the middle of the night and found out Dickie was sleeping on a couch. “What the hell are you doing! You have a race to run tomorrow… Take my bed!!” he insisted. Later that night, Dickie got up to go to the bathroom only to find out Coach sleeping in a bathtub! Coach Squires went above and beyond to take a good care of me as well. I was a young “nobody” from Japan (“How ya doing, Downtown Tokyo!?” he still calls me) and, right from the get-go, he opened up his house during the Boston Marathon week. “Just take care of my cat, Flash,” he would tell me and let me stay at his house for a whole week. Of course, what do you have to do to take care of a cat? (Not much) Here’s a man who would give up so much for his runners…or just a running enthusiast.
As some people might know, but perhaps a little known fact, Coach Squires took a young high school kid from Massachusetts under his wings and trained him with the herd of Greater Boston Track Club runners including the Kind of the Road, Bill Rodgers. He was nicknamed “Rookie” and developed into one of the fiercest competitors on the track and the roads. Alberto Salazar. Salazar rose to the international phonon when he was under the guidance of Bill Dellinger of University of Oregon. But, really, it was Coach Squires who developed the foundation into the young Salazar. The story goes; when Salazar was making the breakthrough as a coach with Kara Goucher, he would fly Coach Squires in to Beaverton, checking to make sure he’s doing “things right”. “Al has done a marvelous job,” Coach approves. “He kept her on the track, you see?” I can see, as a coach, many things that Salazar had done correctly. Years ago when Galen Rupp was still at University of Oregon, I received a phone call, asking my opinion on how Salazar is coaching him when he’s still competing for U of O (under Vin Lananna). I felt the interviewer was trying to put words in my mouth, trying to get negative opinion from me. But, in fact, I felt it was a golden combination of opportunity. Salazar found this “gem” as a teenager and decided to put investment into this young potential, took him under the wings and develop him in a long-term point of view. They targeted high school records first, then NCAA titles, and then moved onto international competition and Olympics. This, to me, is a very Japanese-like approach. And it worked out very well. It was a very well-calculated approach that he took with Kara Goucher moving up to the marathon as well – he didn’t just throw her in a marathon; she competed a very low-key 10-miler on the road first, then a half marathon… A very smart and well-calculated move.
But what’s even more impressive and admirable of Coach Salazar, as far as I’m concerned, is the fact that he never forgot his appreciation to his old coach(es). I have visited and stayed at Coach Squires’ place many times (I even cleaned Flash’s puke on the carpet before!!). Every time I go there, there’s something from Salazar – be it a box of Nike shoes, a running book that he had published… And they are all signed with a note: “Thanks, Coach, for everything!” I have met Salazar a couple of times; once when I actually requested to sit down and meet with me when he came to Twin Cities. I called him up and made an appointment. “I’m a friend of Coach Squires…” Not wanting to be a total stranger, I told him. He readily agreed to make some time for me. “I’ll do anything for a friend of Coach Squires,” he said. He seemed like a likeable, nice guy. But, really, much more than that, I admire his affection and appreciation to his old coach. That tells something about Salazar…as well as Coach Squires.
Lydiard was quite a dogmatic figure. I had been yelled at by him twice. It’s not pretty. His approach, definitely, was “My Way or High Way!” When he spoke, we listened. This actually may not work well with a mature thinking individual – this approach probably led to a rift between Lydiard and Peter Snell before Tokyo Olympics (which, as we all know, mended in time for the Games). All successful coach more or less have that sort of personality. When Dick Quax was coaching Lorraine Moller, however, their coach-athlete relationship was quite a bit different. Lorraine was well-experienced mature adult athlete. She didn’t need another “head” to think for her. “He was my left-side brain,” she says. He didn’t take over her entire “head”. Many actually act like one. But it’s actually understandably so. Nakamura said; “…a coach needs to know 8-times as much, not just about the sport but about life as well, as the athletes.” There’s a good reason why coaches are usually older. They had experienced successes…and failures. It is in fact better if the coach had made more failures – that’s how we learn in life. Soh Brothers beat Toshihiko Seko only once (L.A. Olympics). But when they retired and became a coach, Soh Brothers (granted, they were a team) turned out to be a lot better coach than Seko. In fact, Seko was never much of a coach. Seko’s teammate, later himself became one of the best coaches in Japan, Yasushi Sakaguchi, told me that Seko was too much genius of a runner. “He did everything Nakamura gave him and handled it fine…and went out and ran great. I tried it once and thought it would kill me! So I modified it when I give it to my athletes. Seko, on the other hand, gives it the way he did it and wonder why they can’t handle it!” It’s knowledge, experience and, probably even more importantly, how you deliver it that would make a great coach.
And now the new “heat” against Coach Salazar is that he pulled Mary Cain out of the Worlds. Had he pushed her too much at such a young age? Is it wrong to pull her out of the international competition like World Indoor? Again, I’m not here to judge the action; but, when I heard about the news, the first thing I thought about was when Lydiard cancelled some of the competitions in the US in 1954 and returned Murray Halberg back home to “build right back” on his first oversea competition as a 20-year-old. The coach’s job is not to please the sponsor or general public. I’m sure some would very much like to see if Cain, herself only a 17-year-old, can medal or not at the Worlds. But that’s not why Salazar is coaching her. I vividly remember when I visited Coach Bob Sevene at the Athletics West office in Eugene, OR, back in 1986. While visiting him, he received a phone call from Joan Benoit. He put her on the speaker phone (so I can hear it too). “There’s this 10k race and I should run it…” (Joanie) “Why?” (Sev) “Because my sponsor (Nike) wants me to…” (Joanie) “What, is that a legitimate reason?” (Sev) The case closed. After the call, Sev turned to me and told me; “Joanie didn’t run 83 World Championships by plan. Our focus was 84 Olympics…” A coach would have to be a shield, Nakamura once said. Athletes would receive lots of criticisms. It is coach’s job to take care of it, deal with it, ignore it, or fight it! It’s a part of what “athlete-centered” means.“When you coach someone,” Arthur used to say, “you’re giving a part of your life.” Far too many people, particularly in the US, think “coaching” is just giving a schedule and call it a day. You, as a runner, send a check to your on-line coach, or many actually think coaching is a volunteer job, and miraculously you improve your time… When I was at Hitachi, I was away from home 200 days a year, for both competitions and training camps. Is it too much? Well, in a society where a company would send your husband thousands of miles away, living alone (called “Tanshin-funin”, meaning “working elsewhere all by yourself”) is quite a common practice, yes. Would I personally approve it? Not really… Again, I’m not here to judge good or bad, right from wrong. But maybe, if you want to achieve some greatness, something might have to give. When his first wife, Jean, passed away, I called Arthur and checked out he’s okay. I never heard his voice so “down”. “Running destroyed my (first) family…” he said. Behind his revolutionary success, which we all benefited, there was a great personal sacrifice. It really takes a very special spouse to support that. When I talked to Sachi Yamashita, the coach of Yoshimi Ozaki (the silver medalist in 2009 Berlin World Championships marathon and two-time national ekiden champion team, Daiichi-Seimei), she shared the great pressure she feels and gratitude to her loving husband who supports her 100%.