Leadership in running: coaching winning individuals and teams

This post is about my lifetime running coach, George Gluppe.

A young George Gluppe running

George Gluppe: the young sprinter

The idea for writing this post was provoked by questions from one of my blog readers, Gina Pinsonnault. She is doing masters degree research on leadership in both team and individual sports, and asked me how my coach had contributed to my successful running career. When I gave her questions some thought, I realized that George, as a role model of a coach, has taught me a tremendous amount about the qualities a coach should have in order to inspire his athletes and lead them to success in their sport.

Before I get to Gina’s questions and my answers, I’d like to introduce George Gluppe.

  • George was born in Hawkesbury, Ontario in 1933. With little coaching, he became a star sprinter in high school and got a scholarship to the University of Michigan. He was a world-class sprinter for years, narrowly missing qualifying for the Olympic Team in 1956 after getting the mumps. He was also Canadian Decathlon Champion later in his open career.

    George Gluppe as a masters runner

    George Gluppe: the masters athlete

  • As a masters runner, George competed at a world-class level for years, travelling to numerous Masters World Championships. He held a World Record for age 39 in the 400m. As a master, he competed in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and masters’ pentathlon.

    George with high school girls' relay team

    Coach George (right) with team manager Gord Garshowitz and high school 4 x 400m runners Andrea Tschipper, Anonymous, Kathie Knox and Lindsay Whillans. This was a 1976 team; I ran with some of these girls on the 1977 and 1978 relay teams.

  • At the same time he was competing as a masters runner, George coached track, cross-country running and wrestling at the schools where he taught, first in Montreal and then in Toronto. He became my coach at George S. Henry S.S. in 1975, when I started running with the school’s cross-country team. George coached winning teams at George S. Henry for many years and produced many OFSAA individual champions, relay teams and cross-country teams.
    • George with a boys' relay team

      George George with his ace boys’ 4 x 400m relay team about 1978

  • George was forced to quit running when he was in his mid-sixties because of crippling arthritis in his knees. Though he found this immensely frustrating, he kept coaching the Phoenix Running Club in Coquitlam, B.C. George now has little mobility because the arthritis is even worse in his hips, but he still goes to the gym and competes with me on the bench press.

In the following section, I’ve copied Gina’s questions directly from her email. My detailed answers are derived from my own personal experiences of training with George. However, I’ve made generalizations about what I learned about effective coaching from his interactions with me and many other athletes.

Q. What are specific things that your coach did that made him a good leader?

George exemplified many of the key qualities of a great coach:

  1. Passion. George loved running; he was fanatical about it, and he shared his enthusiasm with his athletes.
  2. Positive attitude. This is obviously related to passion. George gave his athletes lots of positive feedback—compliments about performance or effort in workouts, his belief that we would do well in competition, and his certainty that we would continue to improve with hard training. He chose not to dwell on weaknesses. For example, because I had never been an athlete before, and because I had very weak, thin legs, I had a poor running style at first. If he had paid too much attention to that when I started, it would have undermined my belief in myself and I probably would have quit.
  3. Knowledge. George read widely about running, both in sports journals and popular magazines. He watched meets on TV and live meets whenever possible. With us, his athletes, he shared his knowledge about the science of running and the training methods and races of both past and contemporary great runners.
  4. Decisiveness. A good coach has to be decisiveand have a plan for each specific workout as well as an overall plan that will allow a team or an individual to achieve their goals. This is related to the next point:
  5. Establishes rules, discipline and attitudes for a team so that everyone works together efficiently. Some examples of rules and attitudes a coach might enforce:
  • Being on time for workouts or drives to training/competition
  • Being present at workouts consistently
  • Keeping a training log
  • Communicating with the coach and other athletes as required
  • Being cooperative and encouraging with other athletes at training sessions/competitions
  • Being a good sport whether you are winning or losing.

6.   Leads by example. This can refer to attitudes, comments and behaviour. In George’s case, it also included setting an example as an athlete. At club workouts he often did our speed-oriented workouts. One of his favourite activities was running 400m repeats so hard that he would be “eating grass” on the infield after each one.

 Intuition. This is the final, elusive quality of a great coach.  Maybe it can’t be taught, or maybe it is the result of  very broad, personal and long-time experience. It’s the ability to recognize talent in a young athlete, even someone who has big superficial flaws, as I did. It’s the ability to understand what kind of psychological approach an athlete will best respond to. It’s the ability to sense when an athlete is overtired, or is missing something in their training—and to go with that intuitive sense to make changes to a rationally planned training schedule.

Q. What specific things did your coach do or say to prepare you for a competition?

The main thing George did was give me confidence that I was in top shape and ready to perform well, based on my successful completion of extremely difficult workouts, my times achieved in workouts and my good performances in recent races.

Sometimes George would give me more specific advice related to strategy—how to cope with a certain course in cross-country, for example. Another part of strategy was advice about how to race against the athletes who were my main competitors. We would analyze what we knew of their strengths and weaknesses based on previous races.

As I gained experience as an athlete, I didn’t need specific instructions—I knew all of this myself. But I always benefited from his reassurance that I could do it—the classic “pep” talk. Sometimes the most important thing was for George to express sympathy about my nervousness and remind me to stay as relaxed as possible.

Sometimes, I learned after running a good race that George hadn’t really been as confident as he had pretended to be beforehand. If I didn’t do well, George would explain that he wasn’t surprised because he had known there were problems before the race. However, he always believed in having a positive attitude about a race and projected that confidence very well. If he had doubts, he kept them to himself until after the race. I only realized later, as I matured as an athlete, that George was almost as nervous about my races as I was.

A good coach understands his athletes very well and knows the best way to get an individual athlete “up” for competition. Some athletes need an appeal to their ego and to their desire to win. They need to be told, sometimes in a rough and aggressive way, that they are superior to the other competitors and are going to trash them. Other athletes need to be reminded of personal goals, such as achieving a certain time or finishing position. Others need a lot of reassurance and comforting. A good coach can alter his psychological “style” depending on the needs of the athlete.

Q. Are there differences in leadership in individual and team sports? For example, is it important to have leaders amongst the players?

I can’t say I know a lot about leadership in team sports because running is the only sport I’ve ever done competitively. However, within the sport of running, I loved the camaraderie of cross-country running teams. Also, athletes function as a team when they are doing workouts with a school or club group.

The main difference between coaching a team and coaching an individual is that when coaching a team the coach has to be the clear leader, the decision-maker, whereas when coaching an individual, the coach can work with the athlete in a more collaborative and flexible way.

A team can’t function well if there is more than one leader. Suppose a group of runners is doing a workout and several runners have different ideas about how fast the sprints should be done, how many of them should be done, and how much rest should be taken between each one. This doesn’t work. The coach has to have a clear plan for the workout that everyone will follow. He will allow for individual differences in the speed each athlete will run, depending on ability. He may direct some athletes to do a shorter workout if they are out of shape, injured or recovering from an illness.

The point is that the coach has to be in charge or the workout will disintegrate into chaos. The coach has to be able to project confidence about the reason for doing workouts in a certain way. He should be able to explain the overall strategy and goals of doing the workouts he has planned.

That said, it is human nature that within teams, natural leaders will emerge. [I may have been one of those; one of my teammates in the York University Track Club gave me the nickname “The Little Dictator”, and for some reason it stuck!] However, they must be subordinate to the coach, who is the overall leader. Leaders amongst the team members can be helpful by answering questions from inexperienced and younger team members. They can also be very effective in promoting the positive spirit of a team by encouraging and complimenting other team members.

Q. How has leadership affected your performance throughout your running career?

George is the only coach I have ever had. I would say he was instrumental not only in my running success, but in my becoming a runner at all. What I needed initially was the belief that I could even be an athlete. Next came the idea that I could be a world-class athlete. To me this was a laughable idea, but George repeated it steadfastly until I believed it.

Like all great mentors in any area of achievement, George was fanatical about his life’s work of running and coaching. He transmitted his love of running to me. It opened up a whole new world for me, and added a new facet to my self-identity.

In addition, because George cared so much about my performances, I think I was always racing partly for him. I knew he would share my joy and sense of achievement when I ran well. His caring was a motivator—I wanted to live up to his expectations of me.

George’s leadership also affected me technically as a runner, because he has always believed in the importance of speedwork, even for endurance athletes. Ever since I started running at age 16, I’ve always included a lot of speedwork in my training—George has influenced my philosophy of training for middle-distance and long-distance events in that way specifically.

I wouldn’t say that George was a “perfect” coach—he had his weaknesses, like everyone. But he was the perfect coach for me.

He made me understand the qualities a good coach should have: Passion, a positive attitude, knowledge, decisiveness, discipline and intuition. Now I would like to ask my readers who are coaches and/or athletes: What have I missed? Would you like to share any thoughts or stories about your own coach or coaching experience?

George Gluppe in 2009

George Gluppe in 2009: my friend

About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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14 Responses to Leadership in running: coaching winning individuals and teams

  1. steve pimentel says:

    I agree with everything you wrote Nancy, I really loved the pictures. Just one thing to add, George was athentic and a caring coach. He was the type of coach who didnt care about where you came from. Running for him was a universal concept belonging to everyone, bringing people together, regardless of status or talent. My older brother who ran for George Vanier told me find to George Gluppe when he realized I really loved running and was serious about training. When I met George on the indoor track he was the coach of the competition. I was nervous to ask if I could join his club. When I did have the guts to approach him, he gave me a big smile and said no problem. The best part was when he said I will pick you up at 3.45 on Don Mills in front of your school. Of course with him saying “dont be late or else you loose your ride”. Every Tues and Thrusdays off to York we went, I never felt so special. That was the begining of a fantastic experience.

    • nancytinarirunswrites says:

      You are right to emphasize that George was a caring coach, Steve, and that he shared his love of running indiscriminately. And his giving you rides–George did that for a lot of people–he went far beyond the normal call of duty of a coach.

  2. Harry Jacobs says:

    Very nice post Nancy, while George did not coach me through a grand running career, it was my pleasure to have him coach me from 72 – 76 on the Wrestling team at George S. Henry. Even after I lost my weight between Grade 12 and Grade 13 he allowed me to run the a couple of 3000 meter races even through I came in last both times, it did not matter, because I crossed the finish line with a smile on my face.

    I remember posting on Facebook, when I went to run my first marathon at age 50, and George reminded me that the last half of the marathon starts at 32Km. I continue to run 5km – full marathons (my 55th birthday I am running a marathon in Maui) and while it has been 36 years since I graduated high school, I still consider him a great influence in my life. I may never finish first in a race, but every time I cross the finish line I consider it a victory.

    Harry Jacobs Class of 76 George S. Henry.

  3. nancytinarirunswrites says:

    I remember George mentioned you contacting him about your marathon, Harry! Good luck in your 55th birthday race! You sound like a good planner.
    We can all be proud to have been part of Henry’s awesome running teams.
    Nancy, Class of ’78.

  4. George Jennings says:

    George was the only coach I ever had as well, Nancy, In many ways, he was also my surrogate father when I came to Canada.

  5. Laird Sloan, Ph.D. says:

    This is written on the day I heard of George’s passing. All the above comments are about George as a coach but I knew him as an athlete. I first met George when we were both in high school and competed in the Maxville (ON) Highland Games (run on a horse track no less). George, his brother Don, and I were suite mates at the University of Michigan and ran together for four years. Since we ran the same event, we worked out together every day and ran on the 4X440 relay team at most meets. George and his brother showed up at Michigan with $200 and little, if any, other financial support. The brothers worked at any job you could find in Ann Arbor – including cleaning the football stadium, washing dishes, and so on. His diet consisted largely of Blimpie Burgers and anything he could scavenge at his ‘meal’ jobs. Despite this, and keeping up on his track work, George graduated on time – as did his brother, in engineering.

    In 2009 George drove up to Kamloops to see me run in a Masters 200 metre dash. It was the first time I was aware of his arthritis. I really appreciated it since I knew that it was an uncomfortable trip for him.

    George had many legendary exploits at Michigan – not all related to track or school. We had many great times together and I’ll miss George a lot. It’s not many friends you have for 60 years.

    • nancytinarirunswrites says:

      Thank you for your wonderful comments and stories about George, Laird. I really appreciate your sharing this on this post.

  6. Diane Palmason says:

    Nancy, I just learned that George had died when I read the announcement on the CMA newsletter today. What sad news. As you may know, George and I have been friends for a very long time. Not quite as closely connected as Laird, who writes about his former room-mate above. Laird and I go back to Montreal in the ’50s too. In fact, my first non-school track meet ever was at the very same Maxville Games where Laird and George met. I can confirm – we did, indeed, run on a horse track – and then watched the caber toss and other events of the Highland Games.
    I am very interested to read of YOUR commitment to writing. I hope you will understand when I say that I’d like to write to you again later after gathering further thoughts on George, perhaps while on a run.
    Diane Palmason

    • nancytinarirunswrites says:

      Thank you for writing, Diane. If you would like to write a guest post on my blog about George, it would be most welcome.

  7. danmoriarity says:

    Hi Nancy.

    Nice article about George. He coached me for one year at York University, 1990-1991 if I remember correctly. Dave Reed and Joseph Kibor trained with our group occasionally that year as well. Of the half dozen or so running coaches I’ve had in my life I would say George was the one who cared most about his athletes. He did a good job of putting things in perspective when I narrowly missed an opportunity to run in the CIAU indoors that year. I’m sad to hear of his passing, he was a great guy.

    Also, nice work on this blog. I look forward to reading more of it when I get the time.

    Dan Moriarity.

  8. Ruth Carrier says:

    Hi Nancy…thank you for these great words about George. He really was a fabulous, down to earth neat guy. I’ve had a crush on him for years, but he didn’t know I was alive, after all am older than him, and built like a stick. Yet after moving from TO to BC, having knee replacement, race walking now (and doing the odd 100 or 200 – most of my competitors are dead now of old age – I say, it’s good booze and good sex keeping me going), I’ve won a few race walking 5 and 10k’s. Darn if George was at one of these masters things and came up to me after the awards and congratulated me…I recognized him immediately – now why the hell didn’t I hug him, like I’d wanted to all these years? So darn good of him (typical I guess) to come over to shake my hand. He was probably amazed that I was still alive, and moved my butt so quickly. Heck, so was I!

    I do remember you and your name from when I first started running…thinking, ‘cripes, she’s so tiny, how can she run that fast?’ – then you married and commented on your new name, ‘Tinari’ – and you kiddingly commented – turn it around: ‘I Ran It’. When I ran (or tried to run) my first maraton – with no training at about age 55, did it in 4hrs.40 min…walking the last half…your husband was still around and was so friendly and commented, that in future – don’t just take one sip of water in these races…DRINK THE WHOLE CUP. I stupidly didn’t realize the importance of proper hydration.

    Have never forgotten you, George and so many others. I’m still alive and kicking (tho the arthritis is in all my joints) at age 82. I’ve printed the entire write-up and taking it with me – dog sitting later this evening, so read it all then. All the very best…so good reading of your obsession! keep it up girl, I know George was and still is proud of you!

    Ruth Carrier

    • nancytinarirunswrites says:

      Hi Ruth,

      It’s so good to read this long message–I love your spirit! I remember seeing you racewalk quite a few years ago, it must have been at one of the rare track meets I raced at in Richmond. I have more vague memories of your running in Toronto, too, a long time ago.
      It’s great that you can still compete in spite of the arthritis. I have a badly arthritic knee now, after tearing my ACL and all my cartilage three years ago. I’ve had two surgeries but I’m not supposed to run. I can jog a bit but mostly I do other things. Eventually I may turn to racewalking too–I know it is possible to do it with a knee replacement. Maybe if I live long enough artificial knees will be better and I’ll be able to run!
      It is wonderful to hear your comments about George. Please come to his memorial on May 28th if you are able to.

  9. Carrie says:

    Hi Nancy, I’m a writer too, and I’m researching toward a magazine article on the history of women’s distance running in Canada. Do you have contact info for Diane Palmason, who commented on this post above? I’m hoping to interview her for the story. Your post is excellent, and fascinating. Would you consider talking to me too?

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