The Anatomy Of Bold Coaching

Parc del Segre, La Seu d’Urgell, Catalunya, April, 2021 (Joe Jacobi photo)

“THWACK!”

This is the sound of his clipboard slamming against the plastic table.

“I imagine you guys must be pretty happy with that run,” said Fritz, speaking through his teeth.

“But let me be clear. If you do not find a way to improve upon that run, you will not walk away from these Olympics with a medal.”

The thing was… my doubles canoe partner, Scott Strausbaugh, and I were happy with what had just happened.

But, in the amount of time it takes for a clipboard forcefully contacting a plastic table to produce its attention-grabbing sound, our smiles had disappeared.

Our young coach, Fritz Haller was taking a risk. He was conducting a unique intervention. Perhaps better said, conducting an intervention at a unique time.

On the previous day of competition at the 1992 Olympic canoe slalom events here in La Seu d’Urgell, Fritz had seen two other Team USA athletes put down outstanding first runs in their respective events. One athlete was in first place and the other in second place at the mid-way mark of the race.

But this is an event where your final result is the better of two competition runs down the 300 meter whitewater channel. And in each of our teammates’ situations from the previous day, neither of them would improve upon their first competition run, subsequently falling two positions in the final results — to third and fourth place, respectively.

Now 24 hours later, after all 17 pairs in the doubles canoe category had completed their first race run, Scott and I were not only in first place, but holding our lead by a span of six seconds — a huge margin in a two-minute event.

After crossing the finishing line on the first run, I felt contentment and relief.

Even with nearly 100 days of training at the Olympic whitewater channel, to get a single solid race-length run was so difficult. To experience this felt great.

To experience this at the Olympic Games felt amazing!

The thing about a bold coaching moment under pressure on the world’s biggest stage — such as treating a sizable lead at the Olympic Games as an intervention — is that such a moment is not produced in an instantaneous vacuum.

A bold coaching moment begins before you realize you needed to work with this coach.

As Scott and I sit in the musty-smelling Team USA tent in this delicate position between our first and final runs, consider this abbreviated timeline that contributes to what has led us here:

Nine years earlier…
When I was 13 years-old and Norm Bellingham brought to me to my first training session on the Potomac River with the national team and head coach, Fritz was in attendance as an athlete paddling the doubles canoe with his brother, Lecky. The pair had just won the World Championships in Italy a few weeks prior.

Eight years earlier…
After an autumn of participating in their training sessions, Fritz, Lecky, and I bond over baseball, specifically memorizing every player on the 1983 Baltimore Orioles team roster.

Three years earlier…
Now working as a development coach for USA Canoe/Kayak, Fritz supports the national team at the World Championships, which were held in western Maryland. For Scott and me, these World Championships become our “break-out” international race with a strong 5th place finish. A week later, Scott and I capture our first World Cup victory.

Two and half years earlier (Part 1)…
After a training session on the Potomac River, I see Fritz tossing a duffel bag into his car. “Where are you going?” I ask.

“Down south for a week — Atlanta and the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Wanna come?”

Within an hour, I am unexpectedly on the road with Fritz. The next several days are marked by invigorated practice sessions, creative coaching perspectives, and a new vision and excitement for what the future of training could look like in the United States heading into the 1992 Olympic Games.

Two and half years earlier (Part 2)…
After visiting the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) with Fritz, I suggest to Scott that we could leave the Potomac River and live and train at NOC. Scott is all in.

Twelve months earlier…
After noticing the growing momentum of our training group at NOC, Fritz chooses to relocate to NOC too. For the next year, Fritz would work with the National and Olympic Team.

Nine months earlier…
Fritz joins us for what would be the first of four training camps in La Seu d’Urgell. These camps are rigorous, and often frustrating. But, Fritz digs into his powers of creativity, storytelling, and nuance to launch a new chapter of this Olympic journey built not only for this river, but for the spirit of La Seu d’Urgell.

Three months earlier…
A position on the Olympic Team is never guaranteed. First, this a spot that must be qualified. The 1992 Olympic Trials would be intense and were set to test the balance of a coaching relationship. On one of the most challenging rivers of uncertainty, Fritz was steady, even when we were not. We emerge from these Trials as first-time Olympians.

Now back to the team tent between first and second runs at the Olympic Games…
“But let me be clear. If you do not find a way to improve upon that run, you will not walk away from these Olympics with a medal,” Fritz said.

Contentment and relief… disappeared.

Enter… nervousness and angst.

Then Fritz shifts gears. He picks up the clipboard off the table and points to his notes.

“I counted five critical mistakes on your first run. If you guys are ready to roll up your sleeves and really get to work, we’ll watch the video and correct these mistakes,” he tells us with a sense of invitation.

“You guys have a better run inside of you. Are you ready?” Fritz asks

We nod. Cue up the video. And we begin again…

Fritz saw our blindspots. He identified the performance-impeding friction that we had created since finishing our first run. And, he learned from a previous series of events a day earlier that he believed could be improved upon.

What led to this bold coaching moment?

Trust.
Built up over years.
Long before coaching was ever needed.

With gratitude, — Joe

The Anatomy Of Bold Coaching is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.

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I coach seasoned professionals, who feel stuck in place, to thrive in transition and bring focus to what matters most without compromising their lives.

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