Measuring Success Beyond Wins and Losses
In her 35 years coaching cross country, Washington State Cross Country Hall of Famer Gwen Robertson has earned plenty of accolades. However, among her proudest achievements is that 20 of her former athletes have gone on to become coaches themselves. Here she shares her perspective on how measuring success beyond wins and losses can teach young athletes essential life skills like motivation, teamwork, and self-awareness.
I coach a sport you can measure without wins and losses. Stats, times, season records, personal records – they tell the story. We try to teach the kids that the most important thing is that you try to get better. Every week you try to do something a little bit better. Ask, “What did I do wrong last week? What can I change this week?” and just try to improve.
Giving everyone a trophy doesn't really work. Because you know what? You're not fooling kids. The kids are the first ones that know, right? I deserve a trophy or I don't. As long as you make it clear to kids, and they know the expectations, the good kids get the recognition.
If we trust the process, the kids will trust the process and they’ll perform accordingly.
If they are self-motivated and self-driven, they're going to be fine. They know exactly what to do. I don't need to be there, and that's refreshing for me. If you watch us at a state meet, or in track or cross country, our coaches are in the stands. We're not out there running around. We trust the process. If we trust the process, the kids will trust the process and they’ll perform accordingly. Part of it is I believe in what I do. I have to know why I'm doing what I'm doing.
The idea of the team as a family is important to me. I've seen too many coaches that don’t give that message and I think it’s incredibly destructive to a person, not only as an athlete, but as they move forward in life. You always need to know somebody's got your back, right?
If we're going to work together, I've got your back. You've got mine.
I usually say, how do you think you did? And they say, “‘Uh, well I didn’t run very well,” or they say, ”I think that went really well.” So you start with that. Then you ask, “So you didn’t run very well. What do you think? Too slow? Too fast?” There's usually things that distance runners do. They start out too fast, they start out too slow, they fall asleep, they just didn’t have it that day, they didn’t feel good. And sometimes you just don’t have it. And you know what? That's okay.
Distance runners put a lot of pressure on themselves. They’re very driven. My role as a coach is to reduce all of that. It’s all about self-awareness. If you can learn that as a kid, you’re going to be great as an adult. No matter if you're running, working, or raising a family, self-awareness is huge for being successful, and that’s what we try to teach.
We emphasize that not everybody's going to win. You can be great and never win a race. If the state of Washington has really good cross country teams and programs, you can be the second best kid in Washington, and be one of the best kids in country, and never win. So you you don't focus on winning so much as, “What do I need to do to run my best?” When I run my best, I can be happy even if I get second.
I'm happy to say, some days I get out of bed, I just don't have it. So, that can happen in a race. That happens to Olympic champions. It happens to everybody. So don't beat yourself up. Know that tomorrow you’ll probably feel better and it will be okay. I mean, I always want to leave them with, “What did you learn? What can you do better? What do you want to do the same?” Before a race, especially a big race, an important race, say a qualifying race or a state championship, you know what? Whatever you do, the sun is gonna come up tomorrow, and I'm going to love you. I don't care what you do. So take that pressure off your plate. Your mom and dad are still going to love you. I'm going to love you. Your teammates are going to love you. You're good.
Just go run hard.
Gwen Robertson has spent 35 seasons as head coach of Issaquah High School Cross Country. She has been honored as the High School Track & Field Coach of the Year in Washington State by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, and was named the Brooks Inspiring Track Coach of 2017. She was inducted into the Washington State Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame in 2013.
Find out more about her work with Issaquah Cross Country here: https://issaquahxctrack.com/xc-coaches/