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How 2 Decades of Teaching Middle School Helps Me Coach Runners and Cyclists Improve Performance

coach helps cyclists improve performance

Thinking like a teacher can help coaches help cyclists and runners improve their performance

  1. Consistency 
  2. Variety
  3. Humor and positivity
  4. Language matters
  5. Find a mentor
  6. Relationships

Here’s how a former teacher can help runners and cyclists  improve performance

When I taught middle school kids, there were several tools I used to reach kids to do their best. 

And the same tools I used for adolescents work for runners and cyclists improve performance through training.

Keep in mind that I taught English, which means while I had some kids who naturally loved reading and writing, I had many others, particularly boys, who wanted nothing to do with books and thought the writing was way too boring. 

Even though I didn’t reach every kid every year, I had an excellent track record of getting adolescents to find books they really liked and to write stuff that they thought was really good all while improving their communication and thinking skills. 

These tools – or the way I worked with kids – can both inform coaches and help people find coaches who are right for them.

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Middle school kids are sort of like puppies

While it’s not popular to say, there are many similarities between training puppies and teaching adolescents!

The first tool, then, is consistency. 

Every day was built on a similar structure: We’d start with short writing practice, have a lesson, have some writing or reading time, then come back together to talk about what we accomplished that day. 

Sure, some days were different when we had presentations, school events, or assessments. 

But the kids could always rely on knowing pretty much what was going to happen.

Helping runners and cyclists improve performance requires consistency in training and planning. 

Variety is the spice of life to help runners and cyclists improve performance

Even though the class was structured the same, I tried to add a ton of variety, uniqueness, and newness into every day. 

For example, the daily writing practice was sometimes serious, but mostly “what if” or “what do you think” questions.

For example, we spent a week talking about the zombie apocalypse: which friends would be helpful, what weapons would you need, and where would you live. 

These ostensibly had NOTHING to do with curriculum but had everything to do with learning. 

When the kids had something important to write, they would write for a long time. 

Changing up topics, changing up books, and changing up the writing lessons all contributed to keeping lessons fresh.

Humor helps at all times

I have a habit of finding humor even in the worst of situations.

So humor was always part of my routine in class. 

Part of my reason was to entertain the kids and keep them interested, but another part of it was to convince them to do hard things while they were laughing about something else. 

If we can make something fun while learning, the learning goes a lot easier. If your mind is in a positive place, you’re more likely to do the work.

I always thought I could be a stand-up comedian if I could consistently make 7th graders laugh! Even now, I tell a really bad ‘Dad Joke” or pun at the start of every yoga class. 

Like variety, humor keeps everything fresh and positive.

That reminds me, I went to a wedding of two antennae. 

The service was nice, but the reception was amazing…

Expectations with a choice

I always had the expectation that the writing piece or the book would be completed. 

There was always the expectation of excellence. 

Some kids needed a lot more support to be excellent; other kids could manage more on their own.

But what books and what writing pieces they did was entirely up to them. I wanted them to have a choice in the outcome. 

A choice, even if it’s between just two things, gave the kid a chance to be more invested in the process. 

Obviously, some kids didn’t finish their work. That always hurt my soul, but it was reality. 

Unrelenting positivity 

Even on days when I felt I was absolutely useless in the classroom and a failure in the lesson, I tried to maintain relentless positivity with my expectations. 

Obviously, I wasn’t always successful in maintaining a positive attitude when the kids were being knuckleheads. 

But I wanted every kid to understand at a deep level that they were able to read and enjoy books and write stories that expressed their truths.

And it didn’t matter what books they read or what they wrote or in what form any of this happened. 

For example, graphic novels were the best thing that ever happened to reading for middle school boys: pictures, a compelling story, and short. 

Language of growth mindset

The idea of a growth mindset didn’t come around until the end of my career as a teacher.

But when I learned about it, I jumped in wholeheartedly. 

The idea is pretty simple: By middle school, many kids believe they simply can’t do school – they’re “dumb” or “slow.” 

Part of the relentless positivity with students was teaching them the language of growth mindset, that regardless of their ability, you can always learn and improve your skills. 

Change and improvement take time and effort – and a lot of practice. 

The language of this is what is key: teaching kids how to talk with themselves not only during practice and work but when things get tough. 

A kid who has always struggled with reading is not suddenly going to read at grade level simply because I taught him language to use to convince himself that he can improve. 

The kid has to practice reading and know how to overcome challenges when things get tough. 

They need to think I know what I’m talking about

I must confess that sometimes the goofiness and humor made some kids think that I was just dumb.

But gradually, they might come around to thinking I’m weird but at least I know a lot about writing and books and life. 

I could never say that, of course. 

I had to simply reassure them when I recommended books they might like, and they actually liked the book. 

I had to keep at them with possibilities about how to create writing that mattered to them. 

I had to create the sense that the teacher knew what he was doing and had a plan. 

Given my generally goofy, ADHD self, that was sometimes a challenge!

And always, there was a plan. I looked backward from assessment dates, considering what the kids needed to be able to do well on the test. 

Some kids needed more, some less. 

It’s the same with cyclists and runners! 

Relationships are the basis of everything

One thing that usually helped me was that I genuinely like adolescents, particularly the knucklehead boys. 

There’s something about the young person who is still a child, yet has the wisdom of an elder. 

And the energy they can bring to a meaningful project is awe-inspiring. 

If you can develop an authentic, caring relationship with a person, they are far more likely to accept your challenges. 

Using a growth mindset, genuine and relentless positivity, and a full acceptance of the person’s current experience and abilities, you can help them break through to new personal bests. 

Here’s how this applies to helping runners and cyclists improve performance

  1. You need consistency in your training. In order to make gains, you need to build volume consistently. That means getting into a schedule where you’re working out at least three days a week. 
  2. Variety is important. Even if you are doing a month’s worth of 4×8 intervals, you can create variety by location, the music you listen to, cadence, or even changing up the length of the intervals.
  3. Humor and positivity are the sweeteners of life. Everything depends on your view of the work. If you view intervals or strength training as drudgery, the work will be tough to finish. If you treat the work as “fun” or a “challenge” instead of “hard” or “tough,” you will be more likely to finish the work.
  4. Language matters. Likewise, what you tell yourself about your abilities and your capacity to complete the work will directly affect how you perform. The words you use to frame your abilities and the work affect the outcome. If you tell yourself you are able to dig deep for the intervals and that you do your best in learning from challenges, you’re going to make progress! 
  5. Find someone who knows a little more than you. I’ve learned so much about training from other cyclists and runners, particularly John Rodin in New York and Gordon Paulsen in Wisconsin. I read lots of books and articles, listen to podcasts, and sent emails with questions to professors and scientists. Plus I’ve been riding and running competitively for 40 years. The experience and knowledge of a coach or mentor are invaluable. 
  6. Build authentic relationships. Get to know the person you work with on a personal level. I am constantly tweaking a questionnaire I use with new athletes with questions that become discussion topics. 

Coaching and teaching both work to bring out the best in people

There’s so much more about the connection between teaching and coaching to talk about. 

The bottom line skill is learning how to bring out the best in the people you work with. 

Coaching (and teaching yoga and doing personal training) is easier in some respects because typically people choose to be there instead of the classroom where the kids have to be there. 

I often tell the story of the first time I taught a yoga class and told everyone to raise their arms in a mountain pose. 

I was floored and had to take a minute when every single person did as I asked the very first time. That had never happened in 23 years of teaching middle school kids! 

But the goal of coaching and teaching is the same: help people discover what’s truly inside them. 

We lead people to discover they can do hard things, challenging things, and complete adventures that change them forever. 

Want to know more about what you can achieve? 

I help a limited number of cyclists and runners achieve their goals with more strength, endurance, and mobility. 

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Paul Warloski is a: 

  • USA Cycling Level 3 Coach
  • RRCA Running Coach
  • Training Peaks Level 2 Coach
  • RYT-200 Yoga Instructor
  • Certified Personal Trainer