What makes a great coach

What Makes a Great Coach



Our sport has had several truly great coaches over the last few decades. Each has his or her own style — some militaristic, others more Zen, all caring deeply about their athletes. Their training programs, while all sound, are as varied as their personalities.

I’ve been fortunate to spend time with several of these coaches, most notably Arthur Lydiard, David Martin and Joe Vigil. Here’s what they, along with a few others, taught me:


Every sport has fundamentals. Great coaches hold to a few principles that have been proven throughout history. First, all believe in gradual progression in the stress (mileage and workouts) on the athlete. The best know that it takes time, a lot of time, to build the athlete. No instant gratification with these coaches. Second, they know that basic fitness is the base on which fast racing sits. Each uses the bulk of the year to do preparatory training so that the athlete is ready for the race-specific training that leads to a peak performance. Third, great coaches hold to Lydiard’s “train, don’t strain” mantra. They spend more time holding their athletes back in training than they do pushing them to exhaustion.


Talented coaches recognize that each athlete is one grand experiment. They are masters at modifying training programs to better fit the individual. As I joined Lydiard on his last U.S. tour, I commonly heard him provide different (and sometimes opposite) answers to what, on paper, would appear to be two similar athletes. He was a genius at figuring out the subtle differences between athletes, and this informed his answer to each. Great coaches seem to have this ability to see past the training plan and into the athlete. They seem to care more about “How did you feel?” than “What was your time?”


“Hold, hold, hold.” We all remember this scene from “Brave-heart” where William Wallace makes his band of brothers hold their position until the very last, precise moment when their attack would be the most effective. Great coaches don’t get the athlete as fit as possible as quickly as possible. They plan fitness development across the training cycle, often holding back so as not to peak too soon. This is why their athletes seem to consistently perform their best in championship races. The best coaches control the fitness buildup until the last, precise moment — the peak race.


Performance is a collection of many variables, but all great coaches are able to maximize this one: the mental state of the athlete. Each uses different approaches, but the end result is the same — the athlete is ready for anything and everything and willingly goes outside his or her comfort zone. One example: When Deena Kastor won the U.S. cross country championships early in her work with Vigil, everyone around her was celebrating. Her coach, however, wasn’t joining in. “Deena, I’m not going to pat you on the back till you can beat not just the best in the U.S. but the best in the world,” he said. Vigil knew Kastor would respond to this approach — and she did. Working together, they turned women’s distance running around in the U.S. This hard-nosed approach works with some athletes, but it would crush others. Great coaches know how to tell the difference.


Here are two approaches that mark a not-so-great coach.

1. Including heavy race-specific training throughout the training plan.

The idea of specificity lures some coaches into including too much of it across the training plan. Instead of building basic fitness, they focus too much attention on race-specific training. Runners love this type of instant gratification, as they get fit quickly, but the long-term result is often peaking early and reaching a quick plateau in performances. Watch out for coaches whose athletes have a history of plateaus..

2. Trying to force fitness instead of letting it come.

Great coaches know that fitness builds at its own rate. Poor coaches try to force fitness gains. These are the coaches who are pushing their athletes to exhaustion on a frequent basis. It doesn’t work and is not in the best interest of the runner. Beware of coaches who are pushing their athletes more often than holding them back. Leave the throwing up after each workout to the football players.

Read McMillan’s Guide to High School Cross Country.

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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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