The Coach/Athlete Dynamic

I was going to approach this from an “as you move through life, your needs as an athlete change” standpoint, but as I outlined and freewrote and thought about it, there are just a few really important things to take care of on either side of the coach/athlete interaction. It’s a dynamic that can be just fantastic, but it also has the potential to be stressful if the two parties are not on the same page.

I’ve been really lucky to have mostly excellent coaches throughout my entire athletic career, across all sports that I’ve played, at all ages. There have been a few that taught me what to avoid though, and in some instances I really wish that I’d learned those lessons before I had to do it the hard way. A really good follow-up to this blog is going to be one on how to have difficult conversations, I think!

Mr. Steve Hook, my basketball coach all four years of high school (JV and then we both got promoted to Varsity). His daughter was a senior my freshman year, and watching him treat everyone fairly even with his daughter on the team was a really cool lesson in professionalism. Mr. Hook was the first coach who I felt like really noticed my hard work, and encouraged it in a way that just fed my drive to get better.

Mr. Steve Hook, my basketball coach all four years of high school (JV and then we both got promoted to Varsity). His daughter was a senior my freshman year, and watching him treat everyone fairly even with his daughter on the team was a really cool lesson in professionalism. Mr. Hook was the first coach who I felt like really noticed my hard work, and encouraged it in a way that just fed my drive to get better.

Mr. Ron Wargo, my high school swimming coach of four years and AP English teacher senior year. A motivating, tough coach who pushed us exactly right and made us laugh when we hurt a lot from his workouts. He was the special needs teacher at Skyview and therefore the team was really inclusive and so fun as a result. RIP to a great man.

Mr. Ron Wargo, my high school swimming coach of four years and AP English teacher senior year. A motivating, tough coach who pushed us exactly right and made us laugh when we hurt a lot from his workouts. He was the special needs teacher at Skyview and therefore the team was really inclusive and so fun as a result. RIP to a great man.

As you move through your life as an athlete, you become more autonomous, right? When you’re a little kid, you’re just having fun and getting exposed to sport. In middle school, you might be acquiring more expertise and developing technique in your given favorite athletic ability. Once you hit high school, you’re changing a lot as a person and an athlete (ohhhh, gangly basketball days. I blame growth spurts for so many missed layups.), and dealing with a lot of external pressure you didn’t see coming. A coach is just trying to direct angst toward results, and do his or her best to guide you into a successful future. College continues to throw change at you, but suddenly you’re an “adult.” So now you get to provide a bit more feedback to your coach on your athletic journey, because maybe you’ve acquired some knowhow by now! But you’re still such a block of clay to be molded, so also fully commit to the program you’ve committed to and trust that coach. Then, if you continue on to post-collegiate athletics, you’re kind of the boss??? And learning how to navigate relationships you thought you understood when you’re not sure where the power lies gets even more weird. That’s when figuring out how to have difficult conversations is paramount.

So, as you read this short list, think about where you’re at in your athletic journey. Should you feel like you are the boss yet? Be honest with yourself. Do you have more to learn? Are you patient enough (with yourself and your coach and the process you’re going through together)?

These are things that both of you need to do:

1.       Believe in your abilities (as an athlete).

Seems obvious. Why would you be working together at all if either one of you had doubts that you could succeed? But if both of you aren’t all-in in your beliefs that you can accomplish goals, one of you is wasting the others’ time. There will be moments in practices when you doubt yourself for a minute, and your coach can say, “Come on, I know you can do this!” And other moments when your coach might say, “Okay, we’re done for the day, we’ll try again tomorrow,” but you know you’re on the verge of finally nailing that one position, so you want one more attempt, and it’s glorious. Without that consistent hunger to improve from both of you, you’ll have a hard time being your best.

I put the second part of this point in parentheses because I think it’s important to trust a whole person, be it athlete or coach. The best coaches I’ve ever had showed me that they were also fantastic people in one way or another and expected the same from me. Of course you can make mistakes as a human! But being held to a high standard doesn’t apply to just athletics. When I drank underage with some teammates at Purdue and got caught, Coach Zuyderwyk didn’t yell or berate me, but the disappointment was so, so palpable, and it crushed me. When you know you’re representing a good person, being a good person is the only choice you have! And that should go both ways.

Jamie Myers has told me for years that he will be thrilled to be my strength coach for as long as I am a javelin thrower, regardless of my training situation. In 2017, when it became apparent that I needed a new technical coach and to shake things up a bit, it was so fun to talk to Jamie about our plans for my future: Even though we hadn’t discussed it yet, we had the same ideas about how to move forward together with new challenges for each of us! Each of our excitement about those challenges told me that we both believed in not just me, but us as a team.

Jamie! In Sacramento in 2017. We had only worked together for 8 years at that point, ha!

Jamie! In Sacramento in 2017. We had only worked together for 8 years at that point, ha!

If you have questions about your coach’s or your athlete’s belief in what you’re doing together, ask. It’s harder having question marks floating around in your mind than knowing for sure, believe me. Which brings us to…

2.       Communicate.

So cliché. But so important.

Talk about your goals. If you as a coach/athlete team aren’t aware of what the other person is trying to get out of you, you’ll probably be frustrated. A formal exchanging of thoughts on how you think your progress is going can happen as often as you need it to, but I try to keep that kind of unloading to a weekly thing (or even less) rather than letting serious overarching analysis creep into every day of my life (that’s a heavy burden and, IMO, impossible). Daily reports are for how sore you are, what you’re thinking about technique, how you slept, and things like that. And jokes and lightheartedness.

Be open about your concerns if you have them. As a coach, maybe you’re worried about a recurring injury your athlete has had and you can work on a new approach to it together. As an athlete, perhaps you’ve always struggled with a certain technical aspect of your sport that you need help with: A good coach will search for ways to help you, even if that specific thing isn’t in his or her wheelhouse. Learn together.

Another part of the communication puzzle is timeliness. If you’re expecting to hear from your coach before a certain week (maybe you work together long-distance and are receiving your programs via email, for example) and that doesn’t happen, you’re left scrambling. That doesn’t inspire confidence. If your coach is home while you’re traveling for competition and you don’t send results updates, sure coach can look them up, but what does that silence say about your ability to express what you might have learned with the person who likely cares the most? Be accountable by communicating in a timely manner.

Talk about your interaction if you need to:

When I asked Dana to be my technical coach in the fall of 2017, she was floored. She wasn’t sure for a few months if it would work, and I wanted it to be completely her decision to step on board. When she agreed, of course I was thrilled, but I also did my best to be really honest with myself about how I should approach this new dynamic of our close-to-fifteen-year friendship. I talked to my former sports psychologist about it, and she suggested I set goals for us as coach and athlete. I had never thought about such a thing before! So I brought my journaled goals for this new chapter of our friendship to Dana’s and my first coach/athlete dinner (we have them often), and we went through them together. I knew that I needed to check my ego completely if I was going to ask my friend to teach me all new technique, and I told her that. One of my goals for us was to have a blast, and while that was probably a given, the fact that we’ve been able to change so much of how I throw, travel together, and both believe 100% in where we’re going means that it’s SO FUN to succeed as a team. The key is that we talk about all that. Often.

3.       Respect each other.

There are so many nuances to this.

Respect each other verbally.

Here again is foreshadowing for a blog on how to have hard conversations. If you both do believe wholeheartedly in what you’re doing, depending on your personalities and how they mesh, tempers may flare in times of frustration. You’re going to work together again tomorrow, so keep the yelling at each other to a minimum, please! It’s better to walk away and regroup later than to damage the future of your partnership with hurtful words.

The ability to be frustrated and either contain that (channel it into positive effort) or explain why in a rational manner is a life lesson; one that I think is perhaps the real MVP from throwing or any sport! Being in a competitive mindset, getting those rage hormones going, and then turning around and being respectful and articulate is actually super fun. Amping it up in practice sometimes is important, but if the wheels come off, that’s not your coach’s fault, and from the other side, your athlete is trying their best. No one wins the blame game. Same goes for disappointing performances. They happen and you work through them together.

Respect each other’s time.

Be on time for practice. Both of you. Be focused within that practice on the task at hand. Of course you can talk about other things, but you’re there for a reason, and focusing mostly on that reason will yield the best results. This one practice per day is not the only thing that is going on in either one of your lives, so do the work on time and efficiently, and go your separate ways happy with how much you got done.

Those magical practices when I’m done with my warm-up right when Dana arrives to watch me throw, the iHeartRadio station I chose is perfect for the day, we laugh during picking time and then every throw’s technique just builds on the last are just so, so satisfying. It’s easy to stay focused, too, because we both LOVE what’s happening and want to keep it going. It’s FUN to work hard and see results, and a good coach/athlete dynamic makes that kind of practice a natural and regular thing.

Respect each other’s intelligence.

This is more in reference to everybody leaving their egos at home than actual intelligence. The best coaches know exactly why they’re having you do certain things at different times of year, so if you have questions as an athlete about that process, asking them should be totally fine. In the same way, if you’re an athlete recovering from injury, let’s say, and are supposed to be doing x amount of rehabilitation per week but aren’t, getting defensive when a coach asks about your progress is 100% your fault. Understand that people are smarter than you give them credit for, and will be able to tell if you’re not doing your job. If you ARE doing your job, there is no reason to have an ego on either side of this process.

There’s also no reason to hide anything from your coach as an athlete: The only way you can get better is to give your coach all the information he or she needs to operate at full capacity. If you have limitations, express your concerns, and a great coach will be able to work around or help you address them.

There really is so much to say about coach and athlete interaction at every stage, and I’ve had a lot of experiences along the spectrum of negative to positive. I’m happy to answer more specific questions in the comments! These three things were just kind of the biggest that I could think of this week.

I do believe that many different kinds of people can work together effectively. I’ve had coaches with lots of different personality types and been successful in various ways with each one. Learning how each person communicates most effectively takes a bit of time, but I believe it’s possible to figure out most interpersonal interactions, and it’s another life lesson that comes from sport to be able to do so!

This is Paul Merca’s photo of me attempting to “coach” Russ at World Championships in 2015. Not everyone has the coaching, gift!! Hold on to the good ones.

This is Paul Merca’s photo of me attempting to “coach” Russ at World Championships in 2015. Not everyone has the coaching, gift!! Hold on to the good ones.

Instagram questions:

“good coach that matches personality/training style vs great coach that might not”

As above, I see a lot of value in both. Obviously, if you’re enjoying the process with a coach you get along great with, you’re probably going to be excited to go to practice and get better as a result. On the other hand, being pushed out of your comfort zone personality-wise might result in learning a ton more. My advice here would be to ask yourself what you need to reach your goals. Do you need to just enjoy the process more in order to do the work? Option A. Do you have glaring holes in your training that a more advanced/knowledgeable/”great” coach might fill, but it will be uncomfortable? Prepare your mind to endure some discomfort and dive right into Option B. It’s a very personal thing.

My subsection to almost every question like this is to have something else in your life as well. My former coach and I didn’t not get along, but it was never truly comfortable, you know? But that never bothered me because a) he taught me a lot, b) we saw some success together and c) I had other things in my life that brought me a lot of joy. A coach won’t solve all of your problems, even if you get along great with them. Be happy in life in general, and that will bolster your training, promise.

“How important is it to have a good dynamic with your coach, specifically on the college level.”

Again, I’m a firm believer that many different kinds of people can work together successfully. Even if your coach/athlete dynamic isn’t great, that doesn’t mean that your coach isn’t a good coach or that you aren’t a good athlete! I do think a good coach/athlete dynamic in college is important, and I think there are a lot of ways to improve it, you just have to put in the effort. I was really grateful for mine, but a big part of that (and I was considering this even before I got your question) is also your teammates. I had fantastic teammates at Purdue who also adored Coach Zuyderwyk, and the confidence we all talked about having in him just grew as we all agreed. If maybe your team has taken on a more negative tone and that’s influencing your opinion of your coach, try being brave enough to put a stop to that downward spiral. Try something new that your coach suggests, be open to how it helps you, and then talk to your teammates about it. Change the tide and create positivity not only in your own life, but on your team.

Dating a Fellow Athlete

Russ Winger, my husband, is the coolest. We dated for about 7 years before we got engaged, and were engaged for a year before we were married. We’ve been married almost 4.5 years. That’s 12.5 years of relationship, and 10 of them happened when we were both athletes! He retired from throwing the discus (PR 66.04m) after the 2016 Olympic Trials, has lost about 50 pounds so far, and is thrilled to be pursuing other interests. I love doing life with him!

We met at NACAC U-23 Championships in 2006, on a developing elite team, but both of us had bigger goals than that level of competition. Russ threw the shotput back then, and continued to do so until I think 2014 (overall PR 21.29m). For multiple years, he doubled at USATF National Championships and made the final in both events. He is a phenomenal athlete and even better person. The highest highs of my career all have something to do with him, including both of us medaling at PanAm Games in 2015 and going to Worlds together in the same year, when I finally cracked a major championship final and got eighth.

2006 NACAC U-23 Championships, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

2006 NACAC U-23 Championships, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

I love my relationship. I am such a huge fan of Russ, and maybe vice-versa. I realize that every relationship is different, but I want to talk about what it’s like to date a fellow athlete! Perhaps you’re wondering, or are having problems that we might have had.

I’m gonna go at this from a pros and cons perspective!

Pros

1.       Shared fitness and health values.

You’re both athletes. Regardless of what sport you do, if you have lofty goals and a good understanding that disciplined, smart training and supporting nutrition and recovery practices make you better, hopefully those lessons will translate to the rest of life! For the last approximately five years of his athletic career, Russ was consistently 300 pounds, which is pretty typical for a male thrower. In his first year of retirement, he lost 30 pounds simply by not eating as much as he had during training. In his second year, he has lost an additional 20 with diet and somewhat inconsistent exercise, and has plans to lose more. I love him so much at every weight, because regardless of training, he has always been a super active person. Losing weight just helps him be that person in a happier fashion.

I’m a somewhat bigger javelin thrower. I’ve learned through experience that a lean body does not mean far throws for me, so I operate with a little bit more of a cushion while I continue in this career. I look forward to the day, though, that meals will be a little smaller, workouts will be a little more outdoor-focused, and weight falls off of me like it has Russ (and I’m confident that it will, because it did when we got married!).

Something to keep in mind is that different athletes require different approaches to the “fitness” required for their sport. It can be difficult to adjust to a different lifestyle and stay healthy (eat like a football player but no longer play football, for example), but it’s my hope for every athlete that shifting focus to a more generally healthy lifestyle after sport is possible. Focus on goal-oriented behavior rather than doing things that made you feel good while you were an athlete. Dating an athlete means that hopefully he or she can shift that positive trait of goal-setting to other areas in life.

2.       Individualism and the ability to understand each others’ priorities.

I grew up with parents who were very much in love and had a great partnership (still do), but were also really independent people within their relationship (still are). My Dad traveled a lot, and my Mom held down the home while also pursuing her own interests and driving me to every sports practice and game. I never thought the amount of time they spent apart was weird, and loved seeing them happy to be reunited.

Dating a fellow athlete is a little like that. You care about each other and each other’s outcomes, sure, but you also have your own stuff to worry about. It’s easier not to get offended when your partner focuses on his or her own goals, because you have your own. Having time to be together and focus on that is important, too, but that’s the next section.

When Russ and I were both athletes, we could train together, and I absolutely loved that. We never had the same training programs though, even though we had the same coaches over the years, so often we would each drive to the Air Force Academy, perhaps warm up near each other, and then split up to throw. If he got done before me, he would come down and film, and vice-versa. We often lifted near each other at the Olympic Training Center, and were each others’ spotters if needed, but would always be focused on different lifts and different technique, and were probably in different phases of training. We each had different priorities, but could sort of orbit around each other in support.

2015.

2015.

Dating someone who is really good at different stuff than you is cool, too. I’ve said one million times that Russ is twice the athlete I am, and I learned a lot from him in the weight room and on the track. Learning from fellow athletes is fun, and can be even easier when that person is your significant other.

3.       Built-in shared interests.

Common ground is not only the basis of friendship, like I mentioned in my last blog, but a really great place to start a romantic relationship. As fellow athletes, shared interest is built right in!

When Russ first visited me at home in Washington at the end of summer in 2006, we went in search of waterfalls to hike, I caught my first tiny fish on the fly, and we played with my childhood dogs nonstop. Over time, we’ve learned to play bridge with my parents, and now we play with Russ’s grandparents as well. We met through Track and Field, and we continued to have that in common for a long time, but we also very quickly recognized other things that we both enjoy. Again, like I mentioned in my previous blog, if you’ve both chosen to pursue sport, you might have other stuff in common, too.

Athletics will fade. It has been so amazing to watch Russ gain momentum in other areas of his life in the past two years. He is truly my leader in that process, and I can only hope to make the transition to regular adulthood as well as he has. Having sport in common is great, but it was merely a starting point for us, and I love how our relationship grew in so many different directions from that. I would hope the same for you.

Cons

1.       Different approaches to the same thing.

Personalities differ. Learning processes aren’t the same across humans. Work ethics run the gamut. Tempers either flare and the wheels come off in moments of frustration, or people buckle down and try harder.

It can be beneficial to date someone who thinks differently than you (see the last section). Sometimes, though, those differences can result in conflict. I’ve always been really good at compartmentalizing and doing what my coach tells me to. Russ is more of an independent thinker. Once, in Germany in 2010, we had rented a car to drive to meets, and were going to drive to our last practice before that trip instead of taking the familiar train route we knew. We, of course, got lost on the way, Ty and Mike were waiting for us, and we were both upset with each other for various reasons. I had a great practice once we arrived, which made Russ even more mad at me when we talked about it later.

I’m really good at being lazy when I need to be. Rest is important, and I love it so. Russ is an incredibly active person. He gets restless and bored with an entire rest day, and there have been times that I’ve agreed to an adventure and then regretted it because I’m tired. We’ve come a very long way in our ability to clearly communicate our needs to each other, and the joy we experience on those adventures together far outweighs any lingering tiredness I might feel in practice the next day, plus he lets me sleep as much as I want in the car!

Dating someone different than you is really fun, you just have to learn how to communicate your approach or needs to that person. The only way to discover those differences is to do life together, too, and realize that it’s not the other person’s fault that you’re wired differently. After that Germany practice, I just had to explain to Russ that throwing in my mind was totally and completely separate from our relationship: I forgot the fight to focus on throwing the javelin, and could then revisit it later. My focus didn’t at all mean that I wasn’t still mad or didn’t care! I just have a weird ability to turn off parts of my brain, and I think Russ learned from me how to do that a bit over the years. In the same way, his questions about technique that used to drive me crazy are now helpful ways for me to objectively watch practice video and not be complacent. It’s difficult to learn how to navigate a different personality, but really worth it to learn something new about the person you love and the different, effective ways to approach sport.

2.       Varying levels of success: Navigating the peaks and valleys together.

The shotput and discus in the United States are stronger events than the javelin. These are facts for men and women alike. It is objectively easier for me to make teams than it was for Russ. We were in the same sport, but had very different paths to travel to be “successful.”

I had a major back injury in 2007, and was in a really bad place right at the beginning of our relationship. Russ moved to Purdue in 2008-2009 to be with me in my fifth year, and was miserable for a lot of reasons (working 3 jobs, training without a coach, and simply being in the Midwest, among others). He had a sports hernia all of the 2010 season (our first in Chula Vista), when I was doing super well. He had surgery to fix it, healed for 2011 and threw big PRs, but then we both struggled through the European season and also never saw each other. I tore my ACL in 2012, but made the Olympic team anyway, and he had done really well all year but missed the team by two spots. I had surgery and then we moved to Colorado. We finally both made the PanAm, NACAC, and World Championships teams in 2015! He did well most of 2016 and then old and new injuries flared right before the Olympic Trials, but came to Rio with me as my coach, as none of my other ones were making the trip.

If you’re in the same sport, the direct comparisons of how successful you are can be really difficult to manage in a relationship. I can imagine that different sports might be a little bit easier? If only because learning about the others’ sport would seem more educational than competitive. This is, again, a lesson in communication! Every athlete is competitive, but eventually you learn that constant competition within a relationship is no good. Our friends Rich and Jackie say that when one member of the team is winning, the team is winning. And if it feels like no one is winning, you can climb out of that hole together! It’s okay to voice frustration, and it’s even okay to say out loud that you’re jealous of the other person’s success, as long as you can separate that from your romantic relationship (and SAY that).

3.       Conflicting travel schedules.

Russ and I were so lucky to have some incredible track trips together. We spent two weeks enjoying Australia and competing in 2012. We lived in Germany during the 2010 and 2011 seasons together, with friends around as well. The championship season in 2015 was amazing: We went on sushi dates at training camp and were then roommates at World Championships in Beijing. After that we went on vacation in Austria with the Kuehls and I went to Paris with Russ for the Decanation meet. Fantastic memories and experiences that solidified our relationship at each stage, for sure!

NACAC Senior Championships 2015 as husband and wife, nine years after we met at NACAC U-23 Championships! We both won in 2015. :)

NACAC Senior Championships 2015 as husband and wife, nine years after we met at NACAC U-23 Championships! We both won in 2015. :)

Those were the very rare times that we were actually together, though. Russ was in Australia for three weeks by himself before I joined him that year. In 2011, we constantly missed each other at the apartment we shared in Köln, as our meet schedules exactly countered each other for two months. He went to Europe right after the 2012 Olympic Trials, and I stayed home to rehab my ACL as well as I could. In 2016, while I was home with our brand-new Madeline and injuries, Russ traveled a lot for competition. Staying home is easier for both of us now that Maddie the Dog is in our lives. 😊

Our epic 2016 road trip!

Our epic 2016 road trip!

Dating a fellow athlete is often like a long-distance relationship. Luckily, we have practice in that field, and many people I know do too! Again, communication is key. Being willing to shave a day off of the front or back sides of a trip for the sake of your relationship is important, too, and taking advantage of the time that you do have together is key. Sometimes I pick fights before I leave for a trip, but we both know it’s just because I’ll miss him and our home!

Questions from Instagram:

“tricks to avoid constantly talking/venting about your sports to each other!!!”

               Ooooooh, good one. This can be an easy trap to fall into when you find someone who you feel truly understands you. I’m guilty of complaining a lot to Russ about one specific thing that I can’t really change in my training life, but I try to always say, “I know you’re sick of hearing about this, but I just need to vent for a second!”

               There are a few things you can do to try and avoid a complainy pattern. A) Set a timer for the complaining. Give it a limit so it doesn’t consume you. B) Always, always have other stuff to do! Take part in your other common interests instead when you feel overloaded by sport. If you don’t have something, start something new together! C) Be really honest. If your partner just doesn’t seem happy and that’s why he or she is constantly unloading on you, let them know that you appreciate their trust in your judgement and the fact that you’re a safe zone, but that you want them to be happy, and it doesn’t seem like they are. On the flip side, if you are the one complaining a lot and it’s weighing you down, do some self-evaluation and see if you need to seek other help (sports psychology) or just do something to change your situation and make it better. I’ll be writing a blog on how to have difficult conversations sometime soon!

“Yes it’s wonderful 😊 😊 “

               Agree!

“Is it hard to keep frustrations in training and competition separate from your relationship”

               It can be? But it has never been difficult for me. I really think (and again, I think Russ got better at this over the years as well) that practice is your opportunity to just focus on you, and your relationship is the time you can either talk about it in constructive ways (or a little bit of complaining if you need to), or do other stuff that you enjoy together. My relationship has mostly felt like a refuge from the difficulties I face on the javelin runway, and one of the reasons for that is that I can be completely vulnerable and open about why I’m frustrated and work through it with the person who knows me best if I need to. But mostly I just love doing other things and laughing about other stuff together. I hope that you can find such solace in another human!

               I have struggled the most to separate career and relationship when I’m injured, and I think that’s because I suddenly don’t have the outlet that I’m used to in athletics, so I’m more difficult to be around. That’s kind of a real-life thing though, and Russ has always taken care of me incredibly well, so those experiences have turned into bonding ones. I hope he feels as taken care of when he’s injured, but he’s more stubborn about it. 😊

Overall recommendation:

Go for it if you’re drawn to someone. I’m so incredibly happy with the person I picked, and continue to choose every day. We met through sport and enjoyed it together for a long time, but also like a lot more stuff about each other than the fact that we are athletes! In the same way that you grow and change as an athlete, your relationship grows and changes, and you have to keep programming good stuff to keep it healthy. Finding a partner that is motivated by goals is pretty easy in the athletic realm. Translating that to every day life and a happy partnership is a little bit different, but very worth it to do together!