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Monday, 22 July 2013

a conversation with Aries Merritt and Andreas Behm...



For the past month, we have been basing ourselves in Monaco.  The guys at the track have been really helpful - basically giving us full run of the stadium - which houses 24 National Teams, including fencing, netball, swimming, weightlifting, and tennis. Until the recent visits of coaches John Smith and Bobby Kersee, along with their respective groups of athletes, and of course last week's Diamond League Meeting, we have pretty much had the track to ourselves.  

It's been a great month, and I would definitely like to extend my appreciation to Facilities Manager Didier Bognon and track boss (and Monaco Diamond League Meet Director) Jean-Pierre Schoebel from the Fédération Monégasque d'Athlétisme, as well as Monaco Olympic Committee Chef de Mission Sebastien Gattuso.


This past week has seen the arrival of world-record holder and Olympic Champion Aries Merritt, along with his coach, Andreas Behm.  And a couple of days ago - while doing some track-side treatment - we thought it may be fun (and hopefully informative) to film and tape our conversation.  The following is a transcript of that chat...I will also endeavor to put up the video as soon as I can.  I hope you enjoy it...


Andreas Behm: So are you excited about your move to Phoenix, Aries?

Aries Merritt: I actually am excited - starting a new life.  I got a new car. Training in a new environment - it’s going to be nice and warm.  I think my training is going to be better overall - we won’t be struggling to determine where we are going - we will always have access to everything; there’s not going to be any waiting around, you know - sometimes we would have issues with the weight room in Texas, where we would get locked out.  It wasn’t a big deal - someone would always let us in, but we would have to sit there and wait, and recently they changed the access to fingerprint entry, so we sometimes had to wait for 30 minutes for someone to come and open the weight room for us...

AB: ...I was tempted to cut off that person’s finger, so we could use it again and again, but they were not going for it...

AM: There’s going to be none of that in Arizona - it’s going to be way better.  It’s going to be an atmosphere with nothing but professionals, so people are going to be able to relate to me, instead of collegiates who have no idea - but the fun thing about being at A&M was you get to see the collegiates grow - that was a fun thing about training at a University track.

Stuart McMillan: I spoke with Lauryn the other day, and one of the things we discussed was the team around the athletes.  Is that something you have tried to develop?

AM: Yes - starting in 2012 was when I first had a complete team - a nutritionist, and...pretty much Andreas!  

SM: ...so that’s your complete team? 

AM: Ha!  Yes - that’s my complete team...plus obviously, I had my team of therapists - I had Holley Deshaw and Josh Glass - they work for Nike now, but before they were freelancers.

SM: If you’re not someone who is already at your level, what would you suggest to up and coming athletes as far as how to develop that team?

AM: I think everyone needs a team.  I think you should sit down and write a list of what you think you need, and then go after it.  For the first six years of my career, I had no team - well, I had a team, but I didn’t take full advantage of it.  I had Andreas and I had Vince Anderson, but I was lazy in the weight room, I was lazy with therapy, I was lazy with nutrition...I just didn’t do what I needed to do to get it done, so when I got hurt, it was my own fault. I figured - Oh, I have a lot of talent - I’ll be alright.  I don’t really need to work as hard, so my training wasn’t really as good as it could have been - my treatment wasn’t as good as it could have been, and my diet was awful...I was just pretty much going off of talent.

SM: So why was it all so bad?  Was it just out of ignorance, or was it out of laziness?

AM: Laziness...

SM: So you knew all these things were important, you just figured you’d go with what got you there to begin with....do you think any responsibly goes onto your coaches to try to instill some better habits - to change your ways?

AM: Yeh - I think a piece of it does...

SM: Now you’re a pretty smart dude, and you recognized that this was a problem, but what about those athletes that don’t really recognize that this is a potential issue in their development process?

AM: It’s a learning issue.  They have to go through the process themselves - I had to go through it myself, and it took six and half years for me to figure it out.  Everyone will see it how it is, and eventually make the corrections they need to do...

Especially with nutrition, I feel like that is always the last thing to change.  Athletes will learn to change a lot of different things; but nutrition is like the final frontier - the last resort that has to change. They will always change something first - like they will change coaches or training systems, or their weight programs, or get more diligent about getting therapy, but nutrition - particularly for young people - seems to be the last thing they will change, and that’s really a struggle...

SM: Why do you think that is?

AB: I think a lot of the changes that athletes can make with nutrition are internal - so they don’t really have a measurable until they have done it for a sustained period of time and they have noticed that they’re running faster.  But initially, there’s no external benefit to changing their nutrition - particularly for young people that are not necessarily eating for performance - they’re eating for taste, and it’s hard to change that habit

SM: I think one of the biggest things - especially for young people - is that a young athlete who is say 6 or 7% body fat - you talk to them about their nutrition, and they look at you like you’re crazy: ‘well - I’m 6 or 7% body fat!  What do I need to change my nutrition for?  I’m already shredded!’. They don’t understand the the correlation between nutrition, recovery and training.  Again - I think that is our job - our responsibility - as coaches, directors - leaders of the process - to ensure it is understood.  So I don’t blame the athlete for their viewpoint - I absolutely blame us!  That’s just poor guidance! 

AB: Yes - it is.  But you can educate as much as you want, but it’s up to the athlete to make that commitment...

SM: ...right - but the education has to come first...whether it is driven by the athlete - like Aries, or it comes externally, from the coaches talking to them.  I believe if we wait for the athletes to figure it out for themselves, it could be a long wait, and perhaps by the time they do figure it out, their career is over...

AM: What’s really going to get people is when they start losing to people that they murdered in college - that’s what got me: when I started losing to people that I had always beat, I was like ‘what the hell is wrong with me? What’s going on here?’ And then I was like ‘there’s no way they’re better than me’ - and they weren’t - but it wasn’t working, and it was then that I changed all the things that I needed to change.  And I ended up winning everything last year, so...

SM: So you would say that last year was the first year that you had your team set, your strategy in place, etc. and then you drop what - 29/100ths off of your PB!?  Just like that!  That’s a pretty good year!

So - how do you make another 29/100ths difference? How do you continue now this momentum that you created last year?

AM: Well - number one is to stay healthy. I need to stay healthy, and I need steady doses of high-level training - when you’re training at that speed, you have a greater chance of getting hurt.  That’s what we found out this year, because my body - if it trains at 12.80 pace time after time, then I’ll get hurt eventually...so we need to make corrections next time...


SM: There’s a phrase ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ - basically making small improvements on a multitude of different areas, and the small changes - improvements -  in these many things will - hopefully - add up to a large improvement:  a concept that -through David Brailsford - drove the British Cycling team to almost a decade of global domination, and total domination at the London Games.  As a coach - Andreas - do you see more small changes you can make with Aries, where you can squeeze a few more hundredths - or even tenths - out of him?

AB: Well we definitely feel so, and one of the things that I will point out too is that one of the reasons he ran that fast last year is he basically had 2011 as a completely healthy campaign where he could train and use as a springboard into the next year. He had never had two successive fully healthy training years, which I think made a huge difference.  I have always seen that athletes who have successive healthy years can make large improvements over what they did the previous year. We didn’t do everything perfect last year, so we definitely feel that there is a margin of improvement in certain areas that will hopefully lead to an overall improvement in his race as we move along.

Also - just him going through that experience as a whole - he was already very mentally tough, but he’s even more tough now compared to before last season - just going through that type of year and enjoying those experiences. 

SM: Do you develop a set structure for your strategy as far as what you wan to develop out of a year? 

AB: Yes - we did pinpoint a number of things that we try to improve upon, but unfortunately that got a little torpedoed, because we got a little hurt in the Fall. At which point, we thought it probably wouldn't be wise to try and install certain elements that we targeted - so we may wait until next year now to do that. Our initial concern was to get him healthy, and back running fast and at that point we decided that by doing the familiar over again that would help him, as opposed to trying to implement change.

SM: So you mentioned the psychology there.  How important do you think that is for an athlete of Aries’ caliber.

AB: I think it is huge.  I have said it before - at this stage, I think that Aries is the perfect blend of talent and experience, where earlier in his career, he was very talented, but didn’t have the experience.  He’s basically been on the international circuit for seven years, and has raced pretty much everyone at a high level.  No one phases him. That’s the nature of the hurdles - guys line up week in, week out, and so when he goes to the World Championships, he looks to the left and to the right, and he’s going to see people that he races against all the time. There’s no surprises - it’s nothing new to him in that regard.

SM: Well, what about the other seven guys?  These same guys line up against each other for years, and never really get to that same level of confidence, so it’s not just experience that will lead to that.  What about the guys that never really reach that level of security?  It’s not an issue with Aries, as you have been telling me...

AB: Right - he’s also one of the most competitive guys that you will ever meet...

SM: Is that something that is innate within him? Do you think it is teachable?

AB: I’m sure it is teachable to a certain extent. I’m not sure to what extent you can teach competitiveness and drive - obviously it helps a lot if it is just an innate quality, and it comes from the athlete themselves.  If it comes from within, I feel it is a lot stronger as opposed to if it comes from the outside. 

I guess the best story I could tell you about Aries and his confidence level last year - coach Anderson and I have a very similar philosophy: we both try to ensure that the athlete remains very independent - we ensure that they understand the philosophy - understand the program.  At the Olympics after the semi-finals - back in the warm-up area - we had about 50 minutes - I really didn’t know, as this was a somewhat new situation for us - how he was going to respond after his semi - whether he would be nervous, or what the situation would be.  I had a speech prepared - sometimes he likes a little talk before he goes out there - and I had timed out everything that I wanted to do for the warm-up before he went back in, but when he got back out, he was so calm and he was so in control of what he felt like he needed to do, I just jettisoned the plan, because at that point I just thought I needed to trust the athlete.  We had prepared him for this - we wanted him to independent - he just told me ‘I don’t really think I need to do any starts - we’ll just do a couple of drills, and a couple of accelerations, and then I’ll just walk back underneath.  They’re holding us for a long time, and they have an area down there we can do starts, so I’ll do one or two down there by myself, and I’ll be good to go!’  He was so calm, and so focused, I just looked him in the eye, and told him ‘usually I have a speech for you right here, but you seem so ready, I’m not going to give you the speech, because you don’t need it’.  And that is the first thing we talked about when I saw him after he won - ‘yeh - guess you really didn’t need that speech - you were ready!’

I let him take control of the situation...we must put trust in the athlete that they know what to do.  Obviously, had he been panicky and fidgety, I had a plan in place and would have taken control of the situation, but it wasn’t necessary - and I’m really proud of him for that, because that just showed his level of focus and maturity, and state of readiness.

It’s a good thing he wasn’t faking it! 

SM: Aries - how is it being coached by such a young coach?

AM: Aaliyah said it best - ‘age ain’t nothing but a number!’  Even though he is relatively young, he is very smart, very intelligent, and he learned from my old coach and mentor  - and probably his mentor - Vince Anderson.  I trust him wholeheartedly. I really don’t think his age has anything to do with it. 

AB: And it sets up a special type of relationship.  Obviously, we are almost athletic partners in that regard  - we are very similar in age, so I take a very laisez faire approach with Aries - and I’m not a very authoritative person anyway - but us being so close in age, I know if I tried to be strict, and boss him around, it wouldn’t work - because that’s not who I am, and it wouldn’t be authentic on my part.  We talk things out.  We discuss.  We plan together.  So it’s a very inclusive way of coaching, as opposed to it being just my way or the highway.  He has his input, he obviously knows his body really well - he’s been training at a high level for a long time, so he kind of knows what we do, and he can tell me if he feels that something is not right in the training session, and we can modify it.  So I’m not just going to have him run through a brick wall, because that’s just what I have put on paper for that day.  I read a quote recently that said: “leadership is controlled improvisation”, and I think that is very true.  It is important to have a plan, but we can improvise on that plan as you go along.  We have a plan, but we constantly update it, re-evaluate it, reassess it as we go along.  And as long as it is within a certain deviation, then we will be OK.  I used to write training plans for the entire year - and it was a great exercise in planning for me - but then I realized that after about two weeks, I would already have to change the plan, and that would change the entirety of the plan, so...I stay much more on a week to week basis now, with the long-term goals in mind as we go along, instead of being so rigid...

SM: right - that rigid structure guides you, but it doesn’t define you...

AB: Right - I may not be able to do that with a newer athlete, but I can do it with Aries because we have been together for so long that I know - I can see certain things.  With a newer athlete, I may have to have a little more structure so that I can see and understand what I can deviate from before I do it.


SM: Three questions that I always ask of athletes that I talk to for the blog, or even athletes that I coach - I think it is very important that at least they know the answers of - even if they don’t verbalize them, is:
  1. What is your definition of success?
  2. What is the difference between success and winning?
  3. What are your three determinants of success?  

AM: First - I was successful because I became Olympic Champion.  That was on my bucket list.  Olympic Champion?  Yes - I want to be Olympic Champion some day.  Check!  I can now check that off.  Do I want to be world record holder one day? Check. I can check that off.  The other stuff is jut miscellaneous activities. 

SM: So why don’t you just retire?

AM: Because there is still some things left that I want to accomplish.  One of which being that I need to run five more sub-13 second races to be legendary.  Because then I will have the most ever ran - surpassing Allen Johnson. Last year, I ran 10 races under 13 seconds, but almost all of them were windy, so I still have to run five more to break his record. 

I have to set many goals for myself at this point because obviously a lot of people who have achieved what I have achieved at such a young age end up retiring because there’s nothing left for them to do. But there is still something that I want to try to do, so I set new goals, and if I don’t achieve them , then I will try to achieve them the next year.  It’s going to be a little bit more difficult this year with all the injuries I have had, but I still think I can accomplish it.

AB: We want to chip away at some of those sub-13s.  We may not get all five, but we’ll get as many as we can by the end of the year

SM: So within your definition of success - success IS winning. Is that right?

AM: Success - in my opinion - is doing everything you could in the right way, and saying ‘man, I did it the best I could’ - that’s success.  But I did the best I could, and I actually won, so...

AB: We talked about it earlier, we never want to take any medal for granted - regardless of what color.  There are only three in the world - it is so hard to get those day in and day out - the competition is so fierce.  Regardless of the color of the medal, you can never take anything for granted. 

SM: So what are the three most important factors that lead to your success?

AM: Well - my diet is very important.  People can train hard, but if they don’t eat properly, then it’s kaput. Everything is a wash because you’re not recovering properly.  

Secondly, physiotherapy is as important.  

And then obviously - training.  Those are the three recipes for success. 

AB: And hopefully, having all those integrated and working hand in hand.  We see people who have all three, but they’re all doing their own separate entities. And that’s not always a recipe for success. 

SM: How about the measure of success as a coach?

AB: Obviously, the performance of the athlete is really important.  You want them to perform well, but coach Anderson reiterated this a lot - it is very important to be a humanistic coach.  Even before I coached, I viewed myself as a very humanistic person, in terms of understanding different cultures and personalities and what have you.  It is very rewarding for a coach - regardless of the amount of success an athlete has - that you are able to change that person’s life - whether it be that the person understands work ethic - the growth of a person is a huge contribution to make as a coach besides simply performing and winning on the track.  Ultimately, that is the way in which we are measured, but I feel like there is a lot more to it.  

I always valued that if I had an athlete that I used to coach, and has moved on, that they come back and we still have a really good relationship - they’re excited to see me at a meet - I feel like that is really important too, because that shows me that I was not just able to coach them, but I also left them with an impression that they are appreciative of the kind of relationship that we had on and off the track - so that is a huge measure of success for me.  Aries and I, for example - once he is done running -  we will be friends for life.  Whatever he moves onto and whatever he decides to do, we will still be in touch.  I feel like we have a number of athletes that are just like that.  I understand that as coaches, we have athletes that change training groups - that’s just the nature of the sport - but we do want to have some positive impact on that athlete - whether it is from a training perspective, or the growth of them as a person.  You have to remember that we are often dealing with very young people.  

What is your definition?  What do you feel like contributes to that?

SM: Well - first, I thought you verbalized that really, really well.  A coach essentially is a teacher. A guide.  We spend 25 - 40 yours a week with many of these athletes.  I think many coaches underestimate the influence that they will have on the athletes. And they don’t take that role as seriously as I think they should. It’s more than just standing on the track with a stopwatch and a megaphone.  That is not coaching.  Anybody can do that.  Oftentimes these athletes have moved away from family and from friends, and we become their family and friends. For me it is a massive responsibility.  When the athlete’s career is over - or at least that part of their career where they spent a lot of time with that coach - like you, I think he or she needs to be leaving that situation in a much better manner than when he or she came in. That’s our jobs.  And along the way, if we can make them a little bit better at what they do - which is hugely important obviously - then we have done a good job...

AB: ...I feel like peace of mind and happiness at this level is very important.  You can have the greatest athlete ever, but if they’re not happy - and comfortable - and at peace in their environment, then they won’t perform up to their optimal level regardless of how good the training program and everything else surrounding them is. If you are able to create an environment that is stable.  Is positive. Enthusiastic. Then the athlete will benefit from that greatly. Maybe even slightly regardless of what the training program is.  I don’t want to say that the training program isn’t important, because it is, but I feel like those factors are hugely underestimated...

SM: I agree...and I think that from a professional aspect.  This is the athlete’s career.  In many instances, this is their entire lives.  Their entire life revolves around - essentially - what we put in place for them, and I don’t find that enough coaches come to that realization and understanding, and put enough work into their own development to take that responsibility seriously. 

AB: That’s why I am excited about the World Athletics Center.  Because between you, and Dan, and John, and all the other people that we have associated with this project - as a young coach - that is fairly experienced for my age - I still feel like I have a lot of learning and growing to do, and I really look forward to being exposed to new ideas and theories, and working on some of my weaknesses that I realize I still have.  I don’t feel like I am finished learning...

SM: ...you are a life-long student.  And a good coach is just that - a life-long student.  We never stop learning - we never should stop learning. 

AB: I never want to be the smartest person in the room.  If I’m the smartest person in the room, then I’m in the wrong room!


3 comments:

  1. Great entry Stu! Excellent interaction between coach and athlete, working together.... awesome - for me it is right out of the BOOK that hasn't been written yet...

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    Replies
    1. thanks Carson! Much under-appreciated component of the high-performance process...

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