Jeff Atkinson was a young middle distance runner from Manhattan Beach, California. The Stanford cross country team is up at Lake Almanor, California for our pre-season altitude training and team bonding experience. Atkinson shows up with some loud cut offs and I immediately jump his case.
” Atkinson, if you want to draw attention to your dumb ass, do it in a way it counts. Do it with what you have IN your legs and not what you have ON your legs. Do it with real substance and not some bulls–t style experiment !”.
He responded with a somewhat mild smart Alec rejoinder and I immediately knew there was potential there. Very few Stanford men would have been so bold to my face. He also cut back drastically on his choice of apparel when I was present.
A year or so later we had a meet at the University of California – Berkeley and Washington State and their Kenya Afrika Corps was there. In the 1500 meter run, with a lap and a half to go, Atkinson took off and passed and gaped the feared the Africans . With a lap to go they swept him up like he was an autumn leaf in a windstorm. All of his buddies on the Stanford team rushed over to him afterwards and began berating him about how stupid he was to make such a move and embarrass himself like that. I made it my business to get to him as fast as I could and yelled at them.
” You guys get the hell out of his face ! If you don’t understand what just happened then you need to shut that hole in your face below your nose.”.
Turning to Atkinson, who was bent over desperately gasping for air , dignity and composure I said,
“Jeff you just shifted all the responsibility for your success from your shoulders to mine. If you have the balls to make that kind of a move, then it is now up to me to coach and train you so that kind of move will hold.. You know longer have to worry because the real challenge is on me. I have to take the weight.”
Later we talked in greater detail about what was necessary for him to make that kind of kick move and have it be sustainable through the tape.
“Jeff, we have to get your prepared so you can run between 53 and 55 seconds with a lap to go in the 1500.”
“Coach, I can not run 55 seconds fresh.”.
“Don’t worry, you will.”.
As we prepared for the Olympic Trials of 1988 I approached Jeff about goals and objectives for the Trials.
“Jeff, the opening 800 is going to be slow and tactical, between 2:03-2:05. If you can run 53 seconds you can win it. If you run 54 seconds you will be no worse that second and if you run 55 seconds you will at least make the team. What do you want to do ?”.
“I want to win the damned thing ! I ain’t taking any chances.”.
“That means that you will have to beat Steve Scott ( American record holder at indoor and outdoor mile, silver medalist at 1983 World Championships and  an American icon in the mile and 1500 meters. ) and Jim Spivey ( One of the most intense competitors in the event in the world ).”
“Brooks, I want to win !”
Since the day of the encounter about style versus substance we had increased his cardio-vascular capacity, which was already pretty good as a result of the volume of mileage he had put on in high school. His high school coach had as one of his claims to fame that he , the coach, had run 100 miles a week for a solid year ! We had worked on his sprint mechanics and sprint and training to the point where his final training session on the Tuesday before the first round
was two X 400. He ran 48.50 and came back with a second one in 48.30. In my head I figured that off a tactical pace he could come back in a time that was 10% off his 400 speed, or in the 53 second range. He ran 52.96, Steve Scott was second, and Jim Spivey was third. So here was an athlete who coming out of high school was under the impression that he could not run 55 seconds fresh, now running 52.96 in debt, in the most important race of his life.
But that is not really the real thrust of this effort. At one point I conducted a class without credit in the athletic department at Stanford called JAZZ SPORTS AND SOCIETY. Jeff, aware of my great and abiding love of the music, thought he would get back at me in response to some criticism I had heaped on him by saying,
” You coach just like a jazz musician !”.
“You stupid ass,…. of course I coach like a jazz musician. And whether or not you realize it or not, that is the reason you can now make a decent living from running. Every G–damned time you win a race, you can thank Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ahmad Jamal.”.
The core point I am making here is in response to some of the feedback I have been getting about this “blog”. There has been some flattering responses, but there have been some that are particularly critical of the style and manner I use to make a point. I heard from a person I used to coach, who is one of the most knowledgeable people in the sport, who actually helped shape the sport much more so than any coach I know. His statement to me was,
” Brooks, you make it too complicated. You show some courage in telling the truth, and laying it all out there, but you don’t have to use all them words. Just stick with the facts. People do not want to hear all that other stuff.” .
” You know what ? First, I ain’t doing this for other people. Second, I am only concerned about maybe one or two per cent of the people who read what I have to say and “get it”. Nothing happens in a vacuum and I try and flesh it out as much as I think practical and profitable for the point I am trying to make. For some people this enriches and embellishes the piece, for a lot more, it is just useless and superfluous verbosity. I am sorry you are in the majority.”.
“Well,…I would rather you keep it up rather than stop. But you will see the light and lighten up one of these days.”.
This brings me to the meat of the subject, Coaching as Jazzercize. First of all, by “jazzercize” I am not referring to the kind of activity that takes place with overweight people at the “Y” or gym fighting against their calories and easing their conscience. What I am talking about is coaching and training people based upon the underlying principles of good jazz. For a basic and simple example, a typical composer of a song will usually work out the melody, and on the piano, play it with the right hand. The right hand melody is then backed up by a left hand chord pattern that is in harmony and augments tonally and rhythmically what is happening with the right hand. Now the jazz musician plays a Hegelian game and turns this idea on it head. The jazz musician learns the chord pattern and improvises a new right hand melody that is based upon the chord pattern and the creative impulses the musician feels. The simplest examples of this are, Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner or piano and Jimmy Smith on Hammond B/3 organ.
For/to me, this is exactly how I feel coaching should be conducted. The coach should know and have a complete command of the basic left hand chord patterns, which consist of the basic science(s) of the sport, especially the applicable and relevant laws of physiology, physics and bio-mechanics. With the right hand there should be played out an improvised melody that is consistent with what is going on mentally at the time immediate before, during
, and right after a workout. The left hand science provides the structure, foundation and basis of the work, with the right hand interpretations of what is needed and possible, expressed and reflected in the quality and/or quantity of what the coach requires and asks the athlete to do in any given workout.
On a good day,… my coaching goes beyond, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner and Jimmy Smith. On a good day, with athletes and me primed and really tuned in, I feel as a joint effort we can get down with John Coltrane. One of many techniques and approaches Coltrane had to playing was called ” sheets of sounds”. In this he would take a slice of time and space and try and play all of the various elements that constituted and defined that time and space. Instead of being linear in emphasis, he would play all of the vertical visual images that represented to him the totality of that instant in time and space, from top to bottom and then from bottom to top, thus “sheets of sounds”.
Whereas in coaching it requires that the athlete also be “tuned in” in order to exploit Coltrane’s approach. In writing these “blogs” I do not feel the need to be constrained or in any way limited by second and/or third parties. I merely put down the images that constitute whatever time and space and subject I am occupied with, and, as honestly and candidly as I can, frame and flesh it out with background and/or history.
So now you have it.
So what ?
Brooks T. Johnson
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