One of the most difficult times for me as a coach is after a race when the race was not clearly great. When someone sets a 20 second personal record in the 5k, it's easy to celebrate and discuss how awesome the race was. When someone is nearly a minute slower than his personal record in an 8k, despite a tough course and lifting the day before, it is not as clear to me what to say afterward.
Looking at the broader picture of my own personal experience I remember several races where the coach congratulated me after a race. First, the first time I broke five minutes in the mile, I remember the look on my coach's face when he congratulated me. He was grinning from ear to ear. Another time, after I broke 33 for the first time in the 10k, an hour or so later I was standing around with the coaches talking and it was an exciting time. Breaking 33 had been my goal for the year, and actually accomplishing it, after so much doubt, was a great feeling. I suppose accomplishing a goal is one of the feelings we chase as runners. Another time, conference my senior year, I went out hard and finished a minute slower than my PR in the 8k. I remember talking to coach after. I was sad because I tried to do something big, have a breakthrough or set a PR, but instead I faded and struggled to the finish the last couple miles.
On the other hand, there were many races that my interaction with the coach after was forgettable. Maybe I set a personal record, maybe I was a little slow, maybe I was very slow. I feel discussing races is an important part of training. After all, we are training to race well. We should learn from our mistakes. In college we would usually go out to eat after the meet back in Worcester, socially, not as an entire team. We talked about the race then. We also talked about the races on Sundays when we did our long runs. Of course that is between teammates not coach and athlete.
I might have just figured it out! I can ask, "tell me one thing you did wrong in the race?" Of course, my first question is usually, "how did it feel?" Ultimately, if the athlete feels satisfied with the performance I should be too. I cannot want more for the athlete than the athlete wants. Living vicariously though another is a dangerous path. Of course, the parallel question is, "tell me one thing you did great in the race?"
Personally I am not a participation award type of person. At least when you are running for a college team. You do not get an award for simply finishing the race. In other words, I cannot always say, "nice job!" Sometimes the result is not nice. That being said, when a runner breaks 38 minutes in the 8k (yes 38 minutes is what I mean) for the first time after a couple months of training, that's great! This sport is incredibly individual. You are really competing against yourself. In other words, last place out of 400 people may be a success.
Getting back to the specifics of last night, it is easy to focus my thoughts on the areas for improvement instead of the areas that we have already done well. For example, an athlete slept only two hours the night before the race studying for an important test. That is something that concerns me. After discussions with the runner, this is probably a one or two time thing, yet I look out for the health of those I work with. Also concerning was that four of our (former) top seven men are out with some kind of injury and two of our top five women. The injuries are varied: stress fracture, concussion (teenage boys... don't ask), IT-Band, Achilles Tendonitis, among others.
Once again writing down my thoughts has exposed a solution, ask about one thing that went right and one thing that went wrong. If we can discretize the elements that go into a race we can make sure that our bases are covered. By that I mean, triple knot your shoes so they do not come untied, sleep eight hours or more for both of the two nights preceding a race, do not eat a meal between three hours to thirty minutes before the race, preferably the entire four hours leading up to a race. Those are just a few, other factors have to do with the training that we do. There are dozens of discrete elements that go into a race.
If you have any suggestions, please share them below.