Get In The Passenger’s Seat


Admittedly, I don’t pay much attention to collegiate cross-country and track all that much these days, but I’ve been following the career of Northern Arizona head coach (and fellow Central Massachusetts native) Mike Smith since the mid-1990s when he was a standout runner for Wachusett Regional High School, and NAU’s recent repeat victory at the NCAA Cross Country Championships caught my attention, sending me down a deep rabbit hole of podcasts and other interviews he’s taken part in of late.

Smith’s own athletic accolades are noteworthy—he went on to be a cross-country All-American at Georgetown and eventually qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon—but his legacy is being cemented as a coach and developer of young talent.

How has he done it? He gives his athletes the keys and let’s them do the driving, a lesson any coach can learn from and apply to their own practice.

“I think good coaching is: the coach is in the passenger’s seat and the athlete is in the driver’s seat,” Smith told Steve Magness and Jon Marcus during Episode 59 of the On Coaching podcast. “The coach is the whisperer of the GPS: turn left, slow down, you have a hazard ahead. That’s good coaching and the athlete is actually driving. And that’s [the approach] I try to model.”

There’s so much more good stuff in this conversation, including a discussion on the interplay between tension and energy, how to get an athlete to reframe his or her thinking, and the importance of not overcomplicating race plans and training schedules, just to give you a little preview. Do yourself a favor and listen in to learn from one of the best young distance coaches coming up through the ranks today.

Smith rejoined Magness and Marcus recently on their podcast and dropped some more knowledge about “staying on the gas,” the importance of recharging your batteries after a long season (which inspired this Tweet from me), why he no longer gives long talks to his team the night before a race, simplifying plans, how coaches and athletes often screw up the taper, and much more. Listen in right here.

+ I often tell my athletes that racing well most often than not comes down to not losing your shit. Smith calls it emotional control. However you want to spin it, developing the six inches between your ears is just as important as getting your legs and lungs ready to run fast when it matters most. “I think that’s what did it for us here,” he said after his team’s most recent national title. “It’s just a lot of discipline of the mind.”

While we’re on the topic of great coaches, Jerry Schumacher of the Bowerman Track Club was named USATF Coach of the Year, which was an overdue and well-deserved honor. I’ve always admired and respected Schumacher, whose brain I’ve gotten to pick on a couple fortuitous occasions. He does things the right way, doesn’t overcomplicate training, keeps a low profile, and lets his athletes’ results do the talking. Schumacher isn’t really one for interviews, so this 12-minute exchange after Shalane Flanagan’s recent New York City Marathon win, and this 2010 Q&A Duncan Larkin did for, are worth digesting for some insight into how the man operates. “We all get caught up in the time element every now and then,” Schumacher told Larkin. “That is just part of it. If times weren’t important, we wouldn’t start a watch before every race, right? So we know times are part of the sport, but the more important part of the sport is to get in there and try to compete.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. Sign up here to get it sent to your inbox first thing every Tuesday morning.

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