This post is about my lifetime running coach, George Gluppe.
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.
- 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.
- 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 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:
- Passion. George loved running; he was fanatical about it, and he shared his enthusiasm with his athletes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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?