Creating High Performance People: Instilling Self Autonomy is Crucial


The following is a response to the latest episode of The Science of Running podcast, “What is High Performance Coaching?” and a personal reflection about my college career and a big thanks to George Pincock, a former CU Buff, former coach of mine, and current head coach at Texas A&M at Commerce who instilled principals within my athletic development and view on coaching that has benefited me in more ways than I can put into words. He embodies traits of the coach that I aspire to resemble: the one that let’s their athletes take responsibility and have enough invested their own journey that they may lead themselves to success.

The ideology of athletes trying to regulate each other or be regulated by the authority can be a common theme among college coaches: putting certain athletes on a pedal stool in hopes that the other athletes will follow suit; or even just putting forth set expectations of how the athlete approach their training, racing, and way of living. I view praising or deeming certain athletes as captains or examples, especially at the collegiate level, as a faulty method of establishing a strong foundation in each athlete that they may derive motivation from because it doesn’t honor who they are. This trite means of regulating the athlete’s habits only does a disservice to the whole team dynamic and young person’s personal development.

For most of my collegiate career, I was the number one runner on my team. There was a time period in which I was praised for my hard work and it was implied that myself and others who had admirable attributes on the team should be the example for others on the team. A coach that thinks any given athlete is the example or attempts to manipulate all athlete’s on the team’s opinion about what is or is not the right way to simply participate in the sport, or even live in the 22 hours outside practice, is doing nothing more than creating an atmosphere full of fallacy.

Yes, encouraging the athlete to makes good choices so that their whole self is benefited, I believe, should be always be welcomed, however, controlling every aspect, regardless of financial investment in the athlete, is only going to make them resent the whole team and/or sport in the long run. This over awareness of what others’ are doing on the team only creates an atmosphere where athletes will feel judged by one another and subtracts from their personal focus of investing in their own progress. In pursuing this method of coaching, research shows it sets up the exact opposite of the creating of a champion. A study, “Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road,” published in Frontiers of Psychology examined the differences between athletes who overcame adversity and went on to become world-class (the super champions) and those who struggled in the face of hardship (the almost champions). This study is very relevant to the collegiate setting because college is full of adversity, in many facets, for nearly every student and either the athlete will excel and pursue post-collegiate training as they try to continue on as a professional or they will be done with their sport on a competitive level.

This study found that the super champions never worried about other’s athletic endeavors and did not put their team or competition as their motivation to excel. They were driven from within and their primary concern was self-improvement. They held themselves to high standards, but judged themselves only against prior versions of themselves. Almost champions, however, were focused on external benchmarks such as national rankings or comparison to competition or teammates. What’s also interesting about this study is that the researchers also found athletes who excelled the most were prior multisport athletes without any specialization until the later part of their careers (I suspect this helped them develop more/all principals of athleticism). This study also found that the super champions enjoyed their training as much, if not more, than competing while the almost champions found competing more enjoyable than training. Finally, the study found that the super champions had coaches and parents that strayed from putting any goal or expectation on the table. They merely supported the athlete’s own goals that they set for themselves and helped them re-build after setbacks. The super champions had coaches that also abstained from detailed dissection of performances and encouraged the athlete to do that for themselves. The almost champions had coaches and parents that set goals, expectations, and encouraged attention to competitive outcomes rather than the process.

So going back to this method of placing expectations on athlete alongside with emphasis of teammates trying to regulate each other fosters no personal ownership, intrinsic motivation, or personal investment that may create the super champion. If a hyper awareness of what others’ are doing on the team, how other competition is doing, or how what they themselves are doing is always being judged by their counterparts, then are they focusing on themselves?

A coach who truly believes in the micro-managing means of creating their idea of a team dynamic by placing certain athletes on pedal stools whilst looking down on or simply neglecting the ones deemed quote on quote, “worthless,” as that coach’s perception of their efforts didn’t align with their expectations is one that may find frustration within their team. This coaching style resulted in the example athletes not always doing what they were told. Honesty about inability to follow commands and was labeled “difficult.” Some example teammates, were not as openly rebellious and were unable to be honest about their inability to meet expectations, so they felt compelled to lie about details of their training or living. What does this create?

A team full of lying and disrespect as all other athletes know that then athletes aren’t always actually doing what they are told during practice or living those 22 hours outside of practice as they are told, honesty with inability to meet demands or have adjustments made is deemed as problematic, and a coach that actually has no clue what the hell is going on and why practices don’t align with performances.  In college, those other 22 hours are can be so chaotic and stressful. Inability for a coach to recognize this and, when truly needed, work around it is only ignorance at its finest. Expectation for all college athletes to go to bed by 10pm, never have a stressful situation, never get sick, never want to join another campus organization, never be bombarded by homework, never have to pull an all-nighter is delusional. Countless times without supervision under said coach, these example athletes would skip workouts and either cut the workout to run easy or simply run away from campus and sit down on a bench in a nearby park letting time pass before running back to campus because they were that exhausted and could not communicate that to the coach because historically, that was deemed as laziness or inability to magically make the other 22 hours outside of practice ideal to recover. The real problem isn’t that the athlete wasn’t doing what they were told, the real problem is that they felt unable to communicate this to their coach and if it were, it was labeled as inability to follow orders followed by a lecture or punishment. The even bigger problem is that when the coach asks every day at practice, “How do you feel today?” and when given a response that may suggest a needed adjustment that day, that response is disregarded and the athlete is expected to simply complete the anticipated workout as called for if they had ideal recovery since their prior workout or race.

Another problem is that the other athletes are aware the example athletes aren’t even doing what they are praised for doing, so when the coach praises these leaders, it results in resentment from the other athletes. Additionally, the example athletes feels compelled to keep up their appearance of always following orders from this authority. Do you really think the example athletes just partakes in non-stressful activities that end by 10pm on the weekends? Definitely not.  What do you think happened on a visit day when the coach ate lunch with current athletes and high school recruits–did the athletes feel comfortable eating their typical lunch? No, of course not, several of them felt they had to fill their example athlete appearance plate with acceptable food then wait for the coach to leave to eat their food of choice that had been previously declared “unacceptable.” While this issue may only present in a DIII setting, what do you think happens when the athletes have other options including Greek life, student council, rigorous academic majors creating time conflicts, or being a multi-sport athlete? The example athlete then feels compelled to not join or engage in their other interests out of fear of being labeled as not committed to the team, while the athletes exploring other interests are scolded for having other priorities. Attempting to dangle what could be accomplished if the athletes follow set expectations, by the coach, and control how athletes may and may not live in addition to not compromising needed adjustments that may come from demands of academia or mentally/emotionally draining events in those 22 hours outside of practice only sets those 2 hours of practice up for the inability to establish an effective athlete to coach relationship and true progress in regards to athleticism. Instead, the coach should give opportunity and encourage for the athletes to decide on their own what their expectations for their own selves should be that align with what goals they have themselves. A wise coach knows they are only there to guide the execution of the goal that stems from the athlete’s own honest desire and execution.

Creating a champion with a sport as the teacher means creating someone that knows how to make the best decision on that day and in that situation (just like running their best on that day and in that race). It also means fostering a mindset in the athlete to balance work with play, prioritize their individual needs to lead a fulfilling life, and how to self reflect, evaluate, and progress. The reality is, most athletes won’t go on to keep running at a highly competitive level after college, so creating the person that is a successful in the workplace and the home should be the real goal. In the real world, do you think their co-workers are going to watch their every move and care about how they execute their job? Do you really think their boss is going to hold their hand and tell them exactly how to do their job? Do you really think they will always have only a couple commitments with timely spaced expectations and goals? Do you really think there will always be a set list of rules telling them exactly how to raise kids, move up in the work place, or carry out meaningful relationships? Hell no. Life is one giant unplanned, messy, ever changing, and re-evaluated mystery. Hammering inner-group interception from athlete to athlete in addition to mandatory expectations, not guidance and support, only creates dependency on external influences, thus subtracting from internal reflection and self autonomy, which is only doing them a disservice for their future. Instilling self autonomy to simply make the best choice that is true to that person’s needs and long term goals is so critical. Teaching the athlete to self-regulate, make the smart choice, and focus on what they are doing and how that the affects the audience they are serving or goal being strived for is the opportunity a sport can teach the athlete about work ethic.

The coach that gives the athlete the option to be accountable for their actions, encourages the athlete to stay true to themselves, and hold themselves to their own set of high standards is the coach that is creating the champion. It’s no shocker to me that the 2016 Outdoor track and field DIII champions, Illinois Wesleyan University, doesn’t have an attendance policy. I am not surprised that a runner friend of mine studied engineering at a prestigious school and achieved numerous All-Americans due to her coach working around her academic and sleep schedule because the coach saw that in the little time and energy she had to give each day, he could maximize it and she could enjoy it, as long as she chose to find time and make it work. I am not surprised my friend, DI All-American, follows what he labels “the happiness diet” and drinks regularly while attending late night concerts while knowing that he needs to be race ready certain days, but lets loose the others. It’s not surprise to me that Emma Bates after winning her outdoor DI 10K title was quoted in an interview saying that she did not look up fellow competitors’ times for the entirety of track season, going in blind with nothing but the knowledge of what she knew she could do.

The times I achieved the most in my sport or in school was when I was able to be honest with myself and with my coach about how I was really doing, enjoying what I was doing, and simply being true to myself and how I found running a stress release and not a stressor. This resulted in me breaking 4 school records, being a conference champion, achieving an All-American, receiving 2 university wide academic awards at honors convocation, and receiving a paid internship at the state capitol for after graduation all in the midst of having had an eating disorder for part of college, losing my father, being assaulted while running, losing a year of eligibility due to a transfer rule, and getting a new coach every year. As someone who dealt with a tremendous amount of adversity having not taken even taken up running until college, I really believe overcoming adversity, re-building from setbacks, and lofty goals will never be impossible as long the athlete can channel an inner drive that honors who they really are and how they are willing to work for their goal(s) with a coach who never paves this route, but instead walks it side-by-side the athlete as they pave their own route.

“World-class performers, then, don’t rely on either nature or nurture, but on a combination of the two — and they are really good at nurturing their nature. All of which suggests the recipe that gives rise to super champions is worth emulating: Individuals who demonstrate persistent effort follow their interests; practice foremost to get better, not to outdo others; derive satisfaction from within; and feel constantly supported, but not pressured, in their journey toward achievement. If these criteria are in place, experiencing failure doesn’t weaken motivation — it bolsters it,” says the author summarizing the study I mentioned above.



Sarah Bradley
Expanding on her passion for distance running, Sarah Bradley, is a young lady who finds great enjoyment in interviewing people on their journey pertaining to the sport of track and field and writing about various topics within the sport. She wishes the insights, experiences, and self reflections shared may serve someone, somewhere. Beginning running recreationally at age 18, she has since found substantial improvement. She is mostly silly, but on occasion--when she drinks enough coffee--she is fully enticed in the pursuit of her very best.