by Chris Carmichael, Founder/CEO, Carmichael Training SystemsCoaches and athletes are human and they make mistakes, but in the middle of competition a coach has to be even more careful than normal. In the heat of competition, athletes rely on techniques and habits formed over months and years of training. This enables them to stop thinking about some aspects of the sport, thereby allowing them to focus more intently on a smaller number of variables. Sven Kramer has skated the pattern of a 10,000-meter race thousands of times, and while skaters occasionally lose focus and forget what lap they re on or what lane they re supposed to be in, the pattern tends to be one of the more automatic parts of the event. Similarly, in the 4,000-meter pursuit on the velodrome, once the riders have left the start line they expect to follow a well-rehearsed pattern of pulls and recoveries.
As a coach, I watched in horror as Dutch speed skating coach Gerard Kemkers mistakenly directed skater Sven Kramer into the wrong lane during the 10,000-meter event at the Vancouver Olympic Games. Kramer, already the gold medalist in the 5,000-meter event, was well on his way to another gold medal. Indeed, only a fall or a mistake was going to keep him from earning gold, and it was a mistake that did him in. I ve been in positions similar to Kemkers on the infield of a velodrome, in the driver s seat of a team car, in the racers ears over the radio and the pressure is tremendous. I gave my share of good and bad advice in the middle of major competitions, but thankfully I never made a mistake as costly as Kemkers . All over the world, I think everyone in the coaching community said a relieved, There but for the grace of God, go I. when they saw the looks of despair on both Kramer and Kemkers faces.
For his part, Sven Kramer handled the situation with a lot of maturity. Yes, he was visibly upset, but that is to be expected. An almost certain gold medal just had just slipped through his fingers, and not because another competitor was faster. When talking with the media, however, he took the high road, saying that the final responsibility rested with him since he was the athlete. Kemkers accepted full responsibility for the error as he should have. Kramer was headed toward the correct lane until Kemkers vigorously directed him to the wrong lane at the last second. It was probably the worst moment in either one of their careers.
A coach can play an important role in helping athletes adjust their performances, but you have to be careful to stick to the communications athletes expect to get from you. In timed events on the velodrome, athletes expect to see and hear a coach on the apron giving them pre-determined signals that tell them if they are above or below their goal pace. If the coach is out of place or giving unexpected signals, athletes even really intelligent ones get confused. As an athlete, especially in timed events, you learn to rely on patterns and routines so you can focus all your energy on going faster. The last thing you want is information you're not prepared to evaluate and deal with; it instantly destroys your rhythm and causes you to doubt what you re doing. Your brain goes from focusing on speed and power to trying to figure out what s going on.
In the end, I m heartbroken for Sven Kramer because did everything right in terms of preparing for his Olympic races, and then he lost a gold medal when it was only a few laps away. And although there won't be much sympathy for Gerard Kemkers around the world (and certainly not in the Netherlands), I feel bad for him, too. There is no worse feeling for a coach than when you realize you've failed an athlete. If there s one piece of advice I could give to Kemkers, and every other coach (because if you haven't made a mistake yet, you will), it's that your mistakes will make you learn and become a better coach, precisely because they will haunt you.
On a completely different note, it s late February and I ve been encountering athletes all winter who have yet to establish clear goals for 2010. So I forwarded CTS Senior Coach Abby Ruby, who spent a lot of time researching goals and goal setting while writing her doctoral dissertation on Exercise Addiction in Ironman Triathletes , one of the many questions I've been receiving about setting appropriate goals for the season. Check out her response here. And remember, you can send questions to Chris.Carmichael@trainright.com. I can t promise an answer to every question, but I ve been working my way through them as best I can.