This is Part 15 of the weekly “Friday Five” series where I ask 5 tough questions to world class elite coaches. To recap:
- Jumps coach Boo Schexnayder
- Dr. Mike Stone of the USOC and NBA
- Performance specialist Henk Kraaijenhof
- USA’s Dan Pfaff, now with UKA
- Pierre-Jean Vazel of the French National Team
- USATF Chair for Men’s & Women’s High Jump Dave Kerin
- Michigan State University’s Randy Gillon
- Harvard/UTEP/Portland State/Syracuse’s Kebba Tolbert
- Performance consultant and EU Basketball S&C coach Jose Fernandez
- KIHU Biomechanist Tapani Keränen (The Research Institute for Olympic Sports in Finland)
- Stockholm’s Hammarby soccer club physical preparation coach Mladen Jovanovic
- Syracuse University Assistant Coach Dave Hegland
- Mike Young from EliteTrack.com and Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC
- Former Triple Jump Olympian turned coach Kenta’ Bell
For over 17 years, Dennis W. Mitchell is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the NCAA at The University of Akron. He is formerly a pole vaulter.
Most recently, Mitchell has orchestrated a historic rise on the men’s side that saw the program sweep both the MAC Indoor and Outdoor titles for the first time in 2011 after winning back-to-back outdoor crowns in 2008 and 2009.
Last winter, the men finished the outdoor campaign ranked fifth in the region and advanced 14 individuals to the NCAA East Regionals and four to the NCAA Championships. There, Willie Brown, who set school records in the indoor and outdoor 800-meters in 2011, earned All-America First Team honors while also qualifying for next year’s Olympic trials.
Prior to Akron, the 1985 to 1995, Mitchell gained invaluable experience as an assistant coach at Texas (six years) and North Carolina (four years).
And prior to serving with the Tar Heels, Mitchell served as assistant field events coach under legendary coach Stan Huntsman at Texas from 1985-91. He tutored four All-American pole vaulters, aiding hurdlers and decathletes as well. During Mitchell’s time in Austin, Huntsman was named as head coach for the 1988 U.S. Track & Field Olympic Team.
Among Mitchell’s other track & field-related responsibilities is his national-level involvement with USA Track & Field and the U.S. Track and Field Coaches Association. He is an active member of the USATF pole vault development committee and is currently a National Junior Elite Coach. He also serves on the USTFCCCA/USATF Joint Task Force for the Improvement and Retention of College Track and Field.
Friday Five is sponsored by Freelap Track and Field, a leader in electronic timing.
Interview with Dennis W. Mitchell
Q1 – SpeedEndurance.com: Let’s start from the bottom. How does one apply to become an assistant coach?
Dennis W. Mitchell: To the most part moving up through the assistant ranks means paying your dues. Now days you have to start out as volunteer coach or student coach then to GA, etc…
The way to land a job is to work as a volunteer as if you are being paid the most on the staff and have some real successes. Then someone will recognize your talent and find a place for you.
Q2 – SpeedEndurance.com: As an assistant coach, do you essentially only observe the Head Coach and what they do, and if so, are they generally open to feedback i.e. if you see something that you believe they might have missed (coaches at that level). What are the right questions to ask? How would one expand from being an assistant coach into being an independent coach at the collegiate level?
Dennis W. Mitchell: Each assistant coach in track and field is like a head coach of their own event area. A good head coach manages assistant coaches but does not look over their shoulders. They say to the assistant these are the goals of my program and here are the keys to the kingdom to get them done. The head coach makes sure the assistant is working towards the goals and provides needed input as they go. The most important thing is to realize as an assistant coach is that the head coach does not want to do your job. When assigned to do something by your boss get it done. If you are one that can not get the things that are assigned for you to be done how do you expect the boss to give you more important independent opportunities?
To be a great assistant coach you have to also seek advise often from the head coach. Get ideas and allow yourself to be taught. Also talk with fellow assistant coaches. Communication is key. You need that interaction because to the most part as an assistant track coach you have your own athletes, your own event area, and you are alone in making sure you have success.
Q3 – SpeedEndurance.com: How would one demonstrate the skills which have been passed down to them from the mentorship of the coach they are assisting as in? Conversely, how could you use that in an application to a college (or another college!), or could you request a covering letter or reference letter from the coach you assisted?
Dennis W. Mitchell: Most important thing is your reputation. What is your reputation when it comes to the right people who can help you advance. Your good reputation must be expressed by someone with influence before what you have written down becomes important to the one doing the hiring.
Also, to have your resume or letter of application recognized the first thing you must do is make sure it fits the goals of the position. It is amazing how many resumes I get from distance coaches when I am trying to hire a field event or sprint coach. One time I was looking for a distance/recruiting coordinator coach and most the letters of applications and resumes had nothing in them about recruiting. I only considered the applications that had what I was asking for in the job announcement. The rest I threw to the side. It was amazing how few I had left after eliminated all those that had nothing in them about what I was truly looking for.
Q4 – SpeedEndurance.com: I am very interested to know how you personally relay information/positive criticism to your athletes. [a video response might be better?]
Dennis W. Mitchell: I would be glad to do a video response. In writing:
Know your athletes and what motivates them. Some you have to be tough and mean, some you need to nurture, others only want to hear the positive, and some need a combination of all that is above. Most important you have to relay hope to them. They have to feel that what you are giving them increases their HOPE for success. Find a way to relay each criticism with a statement of hope.
Q5 – SpeedEndurance.com: Also, the motivation factor. What do you find works best to keep athlete’s giving 100% through a tough work piece? Is it based mainly on their willpower or does the coaches attitude (i.e. aggressive, re-enforcing and positive during the more intense work sessions) play a bigger part? This one is important for me personally, my belief is that both are equal and either one can influence the other for better or worse depending on the strategies used.
Dennis W. Mitchell: I always believe in the turtle principle of training “slow but sure you will get there”. One bad training session is not going to hurt you. In fact you are going to have bad training sessions along the way and bad performances. Best thing for Bolt this year was getting beat early on the season. Good training programs have built in them certain levels of adversity. In our business is that not what we do is tear something down to build it up? The key again is hope. You have to continue to provide hope to the athlete in the process that what you are doing will work in the long run. However, a big mistake I see is that some coaches are so busy putting together these elaborate training programs getting the person ready in the end that they destroy hope in the middle and beginning of these programs by not providing any feeling of early success. There must be success markers on the way. The most important positive reinforcement is accomplishment. Success breed success. Let the athlete do well in some early competitions. Don’t always use the term “we are training through”. Even when they are “training through” there must be success markers.
Always remind them of their main goals. Talk every day about it over and over. Get them ready in their head to handle every little bit of adversity that will come there way. Don’t let adversity come as a surprise to them. Have strategies in place to handle it. Remind them that they are the best and the toughest because they are the best prepared.