Creating Their Path-4 Steps Towards Athlete Accountability and Commitment
Written By: Dr. Charles J. Infurna
“I couldn’t quite grasp the idea that my throwers didn’t always follow through when they said they would.”
A phrase I often heard from my athletes when I began my coaching career was, “I don’t know why?” It would frustrate me to no end. As a young coach, I couldn’t figure out why my throwers didn’t know why they did certain things. I began my coaching career as a 22-year old graduate assistant at my alma mater. Shortly after graduating in the spring of 2004, our athletic director asked me if I wanted to stay on as a graduate assistant.
At first, I wasn’t really enthusiastic about the idea. I was enrolled in graduate school as a full-time student, and I had just accepted a full-time teaching position. At first, I told him I couldn’t commit to it. After the season started, he called me again. When I was asked a second time, I thought better about it and said yes.
There I was. A full-time teacher. A full-time graduate assistant. A first-year coach, coaching most of the athletes I was teammates with the year before. I thought it would be easier than it ended up being that first year. By year two, I got more familiar with the role and responsibilities. For some reason though, I couldn’t quite grasp the idea that my throwers didn’t always follow through when they said they would. I was coaching at a Division III University in Western, NY at the time, coaching throwers on our track & field team. Most of my athletes were enrolled in the same education program I had recently graduated from. The education department made sure we were held accountable to our commitments in the classroom and in the community. I made the mistake of assuming that my throwers would hold themselves accountable to their commitments in the throwing circle. Some did. Some did not.
Believing that my athletes would do as they were told, I lost sight of how their day-to-day approaches to training would modify and shape their outcomes. I assumed that my athletes would be responsible enough to get their weight lifting sessions completed, see the trainers when necessary, and otherwise take care of their bodies (nutritionally, emotionally, and physically). What I learned early on in my coaching career was that was not the case for most of my athletes.
After a few years under my belt, I began to ask my throwers more questions about their training. Often times I would ask, “How was that training session?” or “What did you think about practice today?” At track & field meets I would ask, “What did you think about your performance and why do you think you threw the way you did?” The blank faces and lack of accountability began to frustrate me. I don’t believe my athletes sensed my frustration. I couldn’t understand why my throwers would spend so much time training and then not know why they performed the way they did. I knew I had to change something about how I approached coaching collegiate athletes at the Division III level.
“My goal was to get to know them on a more personal level and help with college related tasks more than I did in the past. “
My wife and I got married in 2010, and shortly thereafter we moved back to Rochester, NY. It had been a few years since I last coached in college. I had recently suffered a tricep injury that required surgery. I was sitting at home contemplating my future, when I emailed the head track & field coach at Nazareth College. Out of the blue, I sent him an email introducing myself and expressing my interest in joining his staff as a throwing coach (they didn’t have one listed on their website at the time, so I thought why not ask). I wasn’t very familiar with the program, but thought it would be a good place to start and get back into coaching. It has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I brought a different coaching perspective with me. I spent more time talking to my athletes. My goal was to get to know them on a more personal level and help with college related tasks more than I did in the past. I spent more time engaging my throwers in topics like writing resumes, interviewing for jobs, how to apply for jobs, how to apply to graduate school, seeking out graduate assistantships, etc. Also, rather than spending a lot of time talking about goals, I asked my throwers to tell me what they wanted to get out of their four-year throwing experience, and what they were willing to commit to at that time.
I believe my athletes’ successes were made possible not by my coaching, but by their willingness to be more accountable to what they wanted to achieve.
Reading has always been a passion of mine. In 2012, I had read all of Jon Gordon and Lou Holtz’s book. A lot of my coaching philosophy today can be traced back to their work. Jon, much like Coach Holtz, spends a great deal of time discussing big picture visions, daily commitments, accountability, and sacrifices to be made to realize our visions. With this new philosophy in mind, I believe my athletes’ successes were made possible not by my coaching, but by their willingness to be more accountable to what they wanted to achieve.
Instead of sitting down and discussing goals, we now spend time discussing our vision. I used to take a short-term yearly approach to coaching throwers. We now spend time discussing our four-year plans. Within each plan, we review different commitments that need to be made in order to realize those visions. For example, one thrower’s vision was to win a National Championship. He held himself accountable to his commitments. He was a diligent note taker, and tracked everything he did the season he won his National Championship. More recently, another thrower had a similar vision. He also wanted to become a national champion. He did not hold himself accountable to his commitments. He made up excuses why he couldn’t train. He wasn’t as focused. He wasn’t as dedicated. He did not realize his vision because he didn’t accept accountability for his actions.
Others simply wanted to throw farther than the previous season. Together we now map out a plan that puts us on the right path, holding my athletes more accountable to their actions. Really, I want my throwers to be more cognizant about how a decision they make on Monday night will not only affect them on Tuesday, but follow them into Wednesday, Thursday, and sometimes Friday. When we are at a meet, and I ask my throwers why they think they had the performance(s) they did, they are able to tell me why. If they have a performance they are not proud of, they do not make excuses. They own their performances. I admire them for that.
”Create a path that gives them the best opportunity to be successful.”
My coaching philosophy has changed quite a bit from when I first started coaching. I was fueled by athlete performances and accomplishments because I thought my job depended on it. That was the wrong mentality to take into my first coaching position. I was more concerned about the distance than the person. Looking back now, I would change a lot of the ways I handled certain situations in 2004, 2005, and 2006. I wasn’t sure what I was doing all the time when I first started. Reflecting back now, there are a lot of things I would change about those first couple of seasons. My athletes’ performances were great, however the way I went about coaching them wasn’t all the time.
When I started coaching at Nazareth College in 2012, I brought a different perspective and mentality with me. Rather than discuss distances and performances, we talk about where we want to be and how we are going to get there. What follows are four steps I have incorporated at Nazareth College that has helped me develop more positive relationships with my throwers by working together to create a path that gives them the best opportunity to be successful.
Step 1: What’s Your Vision
During individual meetings with each thrower, we discuss where they want to be one, two, and four years down the road. We discuss athletic accomplishments they envision for themselves as well as academic ones. We both take ownership in devising a plan that will best help the both of us in achieving positive athletic and academic results.
Step 2: Your Commitments
The following part of the initial meeting will dictate their thoughts about commitments. For example, one athlete told me he wanted to become a national champion. His commitments were drastically different then the thrower that simply wanted to add 1’ to their personal best in the shot-put. Borrowed from Lou Holtz, I then ask them what talents and skills they need to acquire to reach their goal(s) and what challenges they may have to overcome during the season.
Step 3: Accountability and Learning Style
I like to bring accountability and learning style together because I don’t believe we can hold athletes accountable to things if as coaches we are not aware of their learning styles. I ask my athletes to think about people in their lives that can hold them accountable to their commitments. As coaches we are an obvious choice, but there are other people in their lives that can hold them just as accountable. I ask my athletes how they learn best, how they like to receive feedback, and when they want to receive feedback. Some of my throwers need some type of feedback after every throw. Others like to wait until mid-way through the session. At meets, some throwers need me to say something after every throw. Some don’t like to receive any type of feedback. I feel it is important to know how our athletes like to receive this type of information because it sets us up to have more success if we know how they (our athletes) like to be coached.
Step 4: Repeat Steps 1-3 Often
Our athlete’s commitments to athletics may change year to year based on their academic situations. Unfortunately, I have had to dismiss some throwers because they were not academically eligible (too low of a GPA to be able to practice with the team). In most cases, once the athlete’s grade come back up to the point they are eligible to compete, they were no longer interested and left the team on their own accord.
As we continue working with our athletes, we should re-visit their visions and commitments. At the beginning of each semester, I have the same conversation with each thrower individually. A lot can change from the fall to spring and spring to fall. They may be taking additional courses, begin an internship, start student-teaching, etc. Those factors need to be taken into consideration in order to provide our athletes the best opportunity possible to realize their vision. It is ok if their visions change. In my experiences, most athletes stay the course. However, for some they realize that winning the conference or national championship isn’t as realistic as they once thought.
I do not discourage my athlete’s from setting a course that is going to stretch them. However, I do have honest conversations with them about being realistic with themselves. They may be saying all the right things, but aren’t following up on their commitments. A good indication of commitment is when athletes return back to campus in the fall. The throwers that are able to make it through our initial training program as prescribed are usually the throwers that completed their summer programs. They are right where they should be. The throwers that didn’t, well it becomes pretty obvious when workouts they should have completed in July are now mysteriously too difficult to complete eight weeks later. The same can be said when they return back to campus after the winter break.
For the new and veteran coaches out there, I hope you are able to implement some of the steps I presented in order to better communicate commitments and visions with your athletes. Early on I assumed that all my throwers wanted to be the best throwers they could be. I thought everyone wanted to win a conference championship. I thought everyone wanted to be great. That wasn’t the case. It took me 10 years to realize that it was ok that all my throwers didn’t want to be conference or national champions.
I was having lunch with renown Sociology professor Dan Chambliss in April, and we were discussing athletes and intrinsic motivation. He was the first person to tell me that it was ok if my throwers didn’t want to be great and that it was not a reflection of me as a coach if they simply just wanted to be part of the team. It was never brought to my attention quite like that.
Dr. Charles J. Infurna is entering his 6th season as assistant throwing coach at Nazareth College. While at Nazareth, Dr. Infurna’s throwers have re-written Nazareth’s throwing records. Overall, his throwers have won one Division III Indoor National Championship, earned 4 All-American awards, broken numerous conference records, and won conference championships in the 35# weight throw, discus, and hammer throw. Dr. Infurna is also the owner of Forza Athletics, a USATF sanctioned club focused on developing and coaching young throwers in Western, NY, as well as supporting post-collegiate throwers that continue to chase their dreams. Since beginning his club in 2016, Forza athletes have competed at two US Indoor National Track & Field Championships, broke National Records in the 35# weight throw, won State Championships in the 20# weight throw, earn 4 High-School All-American honors, and most recently win the 17-18 age group Hammer competition at the USATF Junior Olympics. He actively maintains a website where he posts weekly articles focused on throwing, coaching, and leadership at www.forzatheltics.com. If you are interested in joining our Forza family, email firstname.lastname@example.org.