Thoughts On Mentors

University of Portland Men’s Cross Country / Track & Field Head Coach (right) and me sharing a fun moment years ago.

University of Portland Men’s Cross Country / Track & Field Head Coach (right) and me sharing a fun moment years ago.

Seek out the very best mentors you can. Don’t settle for second rate. Mentors have a lasting impact on who you will end up becoming.

Do whatever you need to get inside access and firsthand knowledge of how they think, coach, and interact with athletes and colleagues. 

Direct learning yields a more powerful and lasting influence than abstract learning via books, articles, podcasts, or presentations. However, there is higher friction associated with this method — you must heavily invest your time, energy, and money to receive this education. It’s not easy, but you won’t regret it for a moment, especially as you age. I don’t.

Graduating college in 2006, I knew I wanted to coach, specifically middle and longer distance runners. Oregon was home then to some of the top active distance running coaches in North America: Vin Lananna (University of Oregon), Rob Conner (University of Portland) Jerry Schumacher (Nike) and, recently banned for doping, Alberto Salazar .

I wanted to become a good coach. It made sense to move to Oregon and try to take up a self crafted apprenticeship with as many of those coaches as I could. Each became a valuable mentor to me and all left a lasting impact on how I coach today.

Jerry and Alberto let me watch the workouts of their elites runners for several years — I saw firsthand the type of focus of mind and intensity, density, and volume of work it takes to be world class. 

Rob got me a job as a part-time assistant coach at UP for $4,000 a year. He could have paid me zero. For 2 years I got to see him coach, recruit, and inspire college aged men, molding them into national caliber collegiate runners. He taught me how to help people achieve far more than they think is possible.

Vin would “coach” me over semi-frequent meals for a half decade. He let me pick his brain endlessly about his training, coaching, and leadership philosophy. He showed me what it takes to build champions and championship teams from scratch.

My roster of mentors has become more diverse recently. 

Vern Gambetta, Stu McMillan, and Dan Pfaff each have expanded how I think about coaching and training athletes.

I call them my Sage Mentors. They’ve modeled the importance (and success) of an interdisciplinary approach. They are concept connectors who deeply understand why each element fits where it does. Their clarity of the bigger picture is unrivaled. Without their influence, athletes I coach would not be as fast and strong, both physically and mentally, as they’ve become.

The best mentors don’t need to be famous names. But they do need to competent at their craft, with decades of experience, be progressive and forward thinking, have a track record of changing successfully with the times, and — most important — allow you to call, text, email, or show up as frequently as you like in order to learn from them.

This is how the legacy of the coaching craft sustains and grows — from one mentor to one mentee, one conversation at a time.

If you haven’t talked with a mentor recently, give them a call — it’s a conversation you’ll be glad you had today, rather than putting off until tomorrow.

Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. | @jmarpdx

Jonathan Marcus