10 Lessons I Learned From Coaching High School Track and Field

“The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.” - Ray Kroc.

In the beginning of the year, I set three standards for our team:

  1. Strive for excellence
  2. Honor the struggle
  3. Be a leader.

Standards are much better than rules.

They’re guidelines to live by and something to hold each other accountable for.

They’re a foundation that are far superior to rules because they define morally correct and acceptable behavior.

Rules on the other hand, by definition regulate what is and what isn’t allowed in a set of circumstances (which are usually broken).

For example, in the game of basketball you must dribble when you move with the ball, it’s a rule. Yet that rule is broken every game.

Another more relevant example was wearing a mask when we were outside during spring practice.

The state lifted the mask mandate, but as a school we still had to wear it. Which was ridiculous, and as a result, everyone on our team broke the rule because we all knew it wasn’t necessary. Plus, other schools weren't wearing a mask during track meets with hundreds of kids so it wasn’t a big deal.

Personally, I have a standard of challenging the status quo so naturally I wasn’t going to follow that silly rule (only when it was applicable or appropriate - for example, going inside the school or locker room.)

But that’s my point. Rules are often broken, but standards are guidelines that help us demonstrate our best behavior in certain circumstances, which can be subjective.

Anyway, here are the 10 Lessons I Learned From Coaching High School Track and Field...in 2021.

1st Team Standard: Strive for Excellence

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle.

My goal going into the season was to create a culture of excellence. Here are three lessons I learned from that goal.

Lesson 1: Make decisions based on what’s best for your program (or classroom, school, business, etc.) not on what you THINK will be the most popular.

Going into the season, I knew I was going to have to make big decisions and not all of them were going to be popular.

For me, talking about mindfulness, visualization, and living your dreams to a bunch of high school boys was uncharted territory. I had no idea how they would react or respond (thankfully it was mostly positive!)

But you can’t worry about what other people will think - you have to be yourself.

It was necessary for me to stick to my philosophy by doing my best to create a positive, caring, and open minded environment. Every day I would try and instill a little bit of motivation or positivity into my athletes. Always talking about mindset.

Why?

Because I knew it was important - even if they didn’t.

Don’t be afraid to do your own thing and take a different path from others.

Whether it’s your classroom, business, sports program, etc. make it your own.

You have a responsibility and duty to create the best possible experience you can for others. So do it!

We had a legendary coach at our school who coached for more than 40 years.

His classroom is filled with trophies and state championships.

If I tried to be just like him I would fail. I had to be my own unique person.

That doesn’t mean I can’t learn from him or ask him for advice (I asked him for help all the time - he’s a brilliant coach), rather take that wisdom and apply it in my own unique way that meets the needs of my athletes the best.

Our job as teachers, coaches and leaders is to inspire the next generation to be better than us.

We want them to do better! That’s why we do what we do!

So follow your intuition and do things the way you think they should be done. Learn and innovate.

This doesn’t mean you ignore everybody else - quite the opposite actually - you SHOULD listen to everybody and constantly seek feedback, but if you’re running the show, run the show. Step up and be a leader.

Lesson 2: How you do one thing is how you do everything.

I noticed this with my student athletes a lot (as well as myself).

Those who took the sport seriously, took everything serious. They would even stretch with 110% effort.

Those who only put in 75% effort, usually demonstrated that same level of effort in other areas of life, such as school.

This is what striving for excellence is all about in my opinion. You are exactly where you are in life because of your lowest standards.

Meaning, if you don’t take your health seriously, you’re probably not in the greatest shape. No judgement, but that’s on you and the standards you hold for yourself. Same principle applies for your relationships, money, happiness, and anything else you can think of.

For example, I constantly tell myself, “I’m a high performer and I’m the type of person who works out at least 5 days a week.”

I know there’s another level to my own standards for health and fitness, but that’s exactly my point. I’m constantly working hard to raise those standards because that’s the only way you can truly grow and sustain that growth.

Otherwise, you might follow a workout program for 3 months, but then if you never “raised your standards for excellence” you’ll probably fall back into bad habits or routines and be back to normal in no time.

This is one reason why change is so hard for people.

It requires a new way of thinking and most people don’t want to “change” how they see themselves.

You can love yourself, but also push yourself to be better.

Lesson 3: Change is very difficult for most people, but there is no progress without change, so embrace it.

That’s why striving for excellence isn’t just a team standard I set for everyone, but a standard I hold for myself too. I have to walk the walk and lead by example.

Throughout the year I said this one line consistently, over and over again:

“In order for something to grow, something needs to change.” - Mikey Bee.

How does your bank account grow?

The amount of money you make changes. More money comes in.

How do you grow your business?

You make changes within the business. Your business doesn't just magically blow up out of nowhere. There’s a strategy involved, months of planning, hard work, and so much more.

Change is hard because it means our mindset (a set of beliefs) has to grow.

You might think you’re only capable of running a mile in 5:15, but I’m sure if you change your belief system, you could improve that time.

When you’re striving for excellence, you’re constantly looking for ways to get better.

Meaning, you’re open and willing to try new ideas and different strategies.

One of the most important life lessons I have ever learned is to always have an open mind. It’s my biggest value in life. It’s part of my purpose. And it’s something I teach my athletes often.

“I’m not teaching you what to think, rather I’m trying to open up your mind to think differently so you can have more information about what decision would be best for you. Because at the end of the day, life comes down to the decisions you make. So the more open minded you are, the more confident you will feel in the decisions you make.”

Embrace change. It’s hard, but worth it.

2nd Team Standard: Honor the struggle

“Honor the struggle. Do not hate it, for hate only grows a thing into cartoonish anguish. Struggle will either destroy us or develop us, and the hardest of human truths is that ultimately it is our choice.” - Brendon Burchard.

My second goal going into the season was to help my student-athletes become more mindful and adopt a mindset of courage, perseverance and mental toughness. Here are three lessons I learned from that goal.

Lesson 4: The true test of character is how you cope when life doesn’t go according to plan.

Some things are out of your control. Accept it.

You can’t stop the rain. As much as you want to, it’s going to rain no matter what. So embrace it.

These moments and life events that are out of our control define our character. But they’re also an opportunity to develop our character!

I remember when we had practice in the rain, I made it optional.

About half the team showed up and we had a blast.

It was cold, windy, pouring rain, yet we continued to run on the track and work our butts off.

The amount of dedication, mental toughness, grit, determination, and discipline it took for those boys to commit to practice even though it was raining was a great example of them “honoring the struggle”.

You’re going to have days where the weather isn’t perfect, circumstances don’t go your way, and unforeseen obstacles or challenges arrive - but those are the moments where you need to step up to the plate and show them what you’re made of.

Whining and complaining about things won’t get you anywhere.

Our biggest failures and disappointments are opportunities for our greatest growth.

Seek discomfort. Seek out your comfort zone. Look for opportunities to challenge yourself.

When you honor the struggle, you understand it’s going to be there. Every story has its ups and downs. It’s part of the process. It’s already written in your story. So when you expect it, you respect it.

Be persistent towards your goals, and patient with yourself. That’s how you honor the struggle.

Lesson 5: When things are tough, take a step back and reflect on the journey.

Life is a journey - and the destination is death…

A little aggressive, perhaps, but it’s the truth.

We all know at some point we’re going to die and when you look at life through the lens of it being a journey, it helps you cope with the current situation you’re in.

For example, if you’re dealing with an injury, that can be tough for an athlete.

They work so hard and then out of no where they’re out for 3 weeks because of a stupid injury that happened during practice.

They were stretching properly, taking their diet seriously, stretching, doing everything right, but still got injured.

That’s hard to deal with, especially when you’re so competitive and passionate about running (or anything for that matter - like being a teacher and missing school for two weeks because you’re sick).

When you take a step back and look at your life as a journey, you can see that being out for 3 weeks isn’t too bad. Yeah it sucks and it’s tough, but it gives you perspective.

You won’t be injured for the rest of your life.

This isn’t the last time you will EVER run again…

You’ll be back in action before you know it - so keeping these things in mind helps you stay committed to the process.

It helps you stay disciplined with your standard of excellence by doing physical therapy properly so you heal better, honoring the struggle knowing athletes deal with injuries ALL the time and this is just your moment, and being a leader for your team (spoiler alert) where you can show others how you’re manage the situation with grace and confidence.

Reflecting on your past, where you are now, and where you’re going, gives you an overview perspective of how far you’ve come, and actually excites you for the journey ahead (at least I hope it does).

So take some time to think deeply about where you’re at right now and what’s one thing you can do to start making a little more progress with those dreams, goals, and desires.

Lesson 6: Bring joy and patience to every situation.

It’s easy to lose your patience with people.

Old people driving slow as snails and we want to scream, “GET OFF THE ROAD!!”

Little kids not knowing how to focus for more than 30 seconds when you’re trying to teach them math.

Or athletes when they’re frustrated with not performing at their best.

If you can’t remain calm during the storm, as a leader, how can you expect the ones you’re leading to do the same?

Bring joy wherever you go and be patient with others.

This doesn’t mean you’re running around skipping with joy like every day is filled with rainbows and butterflies, but this does mean you have a positive attitude and you consciously decide to be mindful about the energy you bring into every situation.

Just do it. Make it happen. You have the power and the ability to be a positive force of energy.

It’s not about being extroverted, confidence or anything like that, it’s about discipline.

It’s a standard of excellence saying “I will bring joy and patience to every situation I encounter.”

When you make it a standard, it’s just a way of life.

3rd Team Standard: Be a leader

“Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” - John Maxwell.

My third goal going into the season was to help my student-athletes develop their leadership skills. Here are three lessons I learned from that goal.

Lesson 7: One of the best ways to earn respect is to care about your student-athletes.

Leadership is about bringing out the best in others.

This applies for both life and sports.

Show them that you are totally committed to their best wellbeing and the sports program, and you will soon have a committed athlete.

Athletes see through the phonies and the fakes very, very quickly. So be real, authentic, vulnerable, relatable, kind, empathetic, confident, charismatic, and many other things we’ve talked about in the past that make a leader great.

You know you’ve earned their respect when you get them to buy into your message.

While that’s not the end all be all in terms of respect, it is a strong indicator.

While it’s hard to influence people, it’s also your responsibility to challenge the way people think. That’s how we learn, grow, and get better.

Open up their mind to different ways of thinking. You’re not telling them WHAT to think, you’re teaching them HOW to think. There’s a huge difference between the two.

The culture that you want to build is typically structured through your core values and a core group of athletes who believe in your vision, your philosophy and your program’s values. So find the people that truly resonate with your message, and empower them to be leaders on the team.

As a result, you get more people to buy in.

One of the best methods to build a culture is the principle of conformity, because people conform to a group and have an inherent need to fit in. Most people follow the crowd and they will fall in line.

I learned that we have to assure that the athletes “fall in line” with the correct core group that believes in the culture you are trying to build.

Once again, this can be applied to any context outside of sports. Your classroom, relationships, or business.

Lesson 8: You are a role model whether you want to be or not. Accept that and be a leader.

You need to walk the walk.

If you’re preaching mindfulness, you need to practice it.

This doesn’t mean you’re perfect, it just means you’re consistent.

Working towards your goals, striving for excellence, honoring the struggle, working on your leadership skills, whatever those standards are that you set for others should be the exact same standards you set for yourself.

And if you fall short, honor the struggle! It’s okay to vulnerable and admit when you fail or make a mistake (spoiler alert - again…)

Leadership is about bringing out the best in others, including yourself.

You also need great leaders to assist in building your culture. You can’t do it by yourself.

This is why I consistently emphasized to the entire team that you don’t have to be a captain in order to be a great leader.

Great teams have great leaders!

And leaders create leaders. Thus, leaders aren’t born, they're developed.

Find opportunities to put your students and athletes in leadership positions so they can discover their greatness.

One of the greatest satisfactions and rewards in coaching is seeing your athletes reach new levels of excellence in athletics, and more importantly, in life.

In order to do this, the best way you can inspire others to be great themselves is to be great yourself. So go out there every day, be a positive influence, be a role model, and inspire others to strive for excellence too!

Lesson 9: Be humble (and vulnerable) and admit when you're wrong.

I believe my athletes would admit that I was always willing to admit when I was wrong or didn’t know something.

There were a few times where I said something, or used an athlete in a negative light to prove a point, and then felt bad about it moments later.

I would go up to them and apologize for using their failure as a way to prove a point I was trying to make.

I would usually ask them beforehand if I could do that, but once in a while it just slipped and I would apologize for it.

Even though those moments taught the team a very valuable lesson which I think was worth it, I knew I also had to apologize so I didn't ruin the relationship.

That went a long way.

Even throughout my years of teaching - there have been many moments where I would get mad at a kid because they’re being annoying, distracting the class, and after weeks of trying to manage the situation I just blew up and kicked them out of my class lol.

I would later have a heart to heart with them about why I did that and they would forgive me. We would make up and things were all good.

I remember with one student, he even went out of his way to make a handshake with me and I became his favorite teacher.

Funny how a bad relationship and a negative moment could blow up, but all of it could be forgotten if properly handled. Sometimes you just have to be vulnerable, apologize, and admit when you’re wrong. The amount of respect you will receive from others is worth it.

So don’t let your ego get in the way of being a great leader.

While these moments don’t happen often, when they do, handle it with grace and empathy. Be humble and vulnerable.

Final Thoughts

“The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.” - Unknown.

Like I mentioned above, the best way to be a leader is to walk the walk. Which leads me to my last and final lesson I learned throughout my time as Head Coach of the High School Track and Field Team...

Lesson 10: You are one of the most important elements in your athlete’s journey to greatness.

As a coach/mentor, you are the most important element in an athlete’s life.

You are their vehicle to greatness! Be a guide and help them discover their greatness.

I still remember all of my coaches from Middle School, High School, and College (and majority of my teachers too).

You will be remembered (for better or worse). The only question is, how? How will you be remembered?

In the beginning of the season, I shared a story with my team for a Mindset Monday Lesson (read the full story here in written form - although it’s much better in person) and I said there are only two things that matter in life (spoiler alert):

  • Who we become in life
  • And what we give back to life

How will people remember you?

I tried my best to be the best coach I could be, and whatever my legacy is with those athletes, I know I tried my best.

Work every day towards building your legacy.

We are what we repeatedly do, so choose wisely on how you spend your time on earth, because your character creates your destiny.

How you show up in the world matters.

People are watching and they need you to be great.

If you want to work with me 1-on-1 for some High Performance Coaching, click here to learn more on how I can serve you on your own path to greatness!

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