Thursday, June 26, 2008

coaching (and training) different

there was an article in the NY Times about the coaching relationship between Benard Lagat, a kenyan-turned-US citizen and 2008 Olympic marathon hopeful, and his coach James Li, a former Chinese runner-turned coach and now US citizen. it's apparently part of a continuing series of articles following Lagat as he prepares for Beijing.

the link to the article is:
if it doesn't work, i've put the full text of the article below.

i find this fascinating for a number of different reasons:
  • internationalism. it's always amazing to me see the level of trans-national interaction that occurs in sports. it's one of things about sports that i love. it transcends borders. James Li is a Chinese coach coaching Kenyan runner Bernard Lagat, and both now represent the US as US citizens for the purpose of competing in the Olympics, against competitors from the countries in the rest of the world. what's even more remarkable is that the relationship between Li and Lagat isn't imposed or artificial, but a long-term one (12 years!) of mutual respect, friendship, dedication, and commitment to each other and the sport. it shows people, regardless of background, can work together...and that we're all just human beings, and we can be productive if we're able to get past stereotypes and biases if we just have faith in each other and work together.
  • it gives some insights into the world of China's (as in the PRC's) athletics program. just from the few comments provided by Li, you can sense the machine that is driving the PRC's athletic program, and just how it treats its athletes. it's a veritable machine. almost akin to the notorious East German and Soviet-bloc sports programs in how it operates, with athletes being virtual guinea pigs (or, depending on how you look at it, automatons) stuck on machine-like regimens and experimental treatments. granted, the same thing can be said of a lot of other countries, but with the PRC you get the Orwellian vision of a state-sponsored system, with athletes having little options or protection. this isn't the first article that's hinted at this (reference a previous article i commented on: athletes in other countries).
  • the taint of performance-enhancing drugs. the article references the infamous coach Ma Junren, who surged into the athletic spotlight with a crop of female long-distance runners training under his extreme methods (they regularly ran a marathon every day). he claimed the training was possible because of concoctions made of, among other things, turtle soup and caterpillar fungus. as the article notes, his entire roster of athletes were quietly removed from China's Olympic team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when blood tests yielded positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
  • the spectre of overtraining. it appears the PRC has fallen into the same trap that so many sports science experts say is the bane of endurance sports. apart from Ma Junren, the article also cites the extreme training in China, with endurance athletes frequently going for higher and higher volume workouts. this seems to be a mindset beyond the state sports program, permeating all of athletic hopefuls (reference another article i commented on: 8-year old runs 2200 miles). Li himself seems to note this in his comments about Xing Huina, a female athlete who was sent by the PRC to Li for coaching, and who he found was so overtrained that there was nothing he could do...just goes to show you that it's not about the quantity, but the quality of training.
  • throwing the book away. my favorite line from this article is Li's statement, "If I’ve been able to do one thing, it is to liberate myself from what is written in a book." it's somewhat surprising, coming from someone who came from what seems a regimented state-sponsored sports system like China...but maybe that's why he became so dedicated to a more liberal approach, because he saw just how bad a machine-like training program can become. regimented, robotic training programs can produce results, both in terms of insights about the human body and performance on race day (witness East Germany and the Soviet systems, which despite their drug-infested cultures, generated a lot of new training methods and concepts being used the larger athletics community today), but it can also break athletes down and impede their development--or worse, destroy them altogether. to some degree, not everyone is the same, and training methods that work for one person may not work for another (otherwise, there wouldn't be so many training methods being used). Li recognizes this, and even though long-distance runners regularly run more than 100 miles a week, he adjusted the training and has Lagat run 65-70 miles a week. WOW. this highlights that training principles are not absolute, but are more just guidelines (remember Pirates of the Carribean? "what about the Pirate Code?" "they're more just guidelines..."), and ones that can--and should--be tailored to fit the peculiarities of the athlete. in other words, training programs and concepts are just reference points, and you have to modify them to accommodate the particular conditions you are presented in an individual's body, with the understanding that the point of training is to fulfill very specific purposes enabling the development of specific desired aspects of a person's physical potential--and the key word is enabling: training isn't about allowing the body to grow, not about beating it down. and to do this, sometimes you have to ignore convention and just be different.
the last point is the biggest one for me out of this. don't be afraid to be different. i wish someone had told me this when i had first started in triathlon. it would have saved me a lot of suffering, injuries, overtraining, and resulting down-time. it's something i'm having to figure out now.

granted, with a training regimen, you have the comfort of just following a program, and so avoid the burden of having to concentrate on the reasoning as to why or what to do. and there's a certain security and laziness factor in having someone else telling you what to do.

but as this article observes, this isn't always the best approach. sometimes it's better to put in the effort to tailor the training to your body. it takes more work, since it means becoming more sensitive to your body, and learning to understand what its signals mean, and also discovering just why and what you need to do to get it to change. but it means training in a way that is more suited to the unique characteristics in your body, and so in the long run can mean greater progress--or just simply a longer quality of life...which is what athletics is really supposed to be about.

in the meantime, let's cheer on our U.S. team. yeah, so what if the U.S. imported them? doesn't the U.S. import everybody? we're all Americans. go Bernard Lagat! go James Li!

On Coach’s Turf, Lagat Aims for Olympic Gold
New York Times
June 24, 2008

PORTLAND, Ore. — Sunset last Monday seemed to bring a perfect ending to a perfect day in what so far had been a perfect year. Bernard Lagat had just finished a nine-mile trail run as his coach, James Li, followed along on a bike. They had escaped the desert heat of Arizona for cool shade to train for the Olympic track and field trials. Then the evening calm was shattered, along with two windows of the rental car in which they had ridden.

Smash-and-grabbers made off with Lagat’s cellphone and his wallet, which contained several hundred dollars, his driver’s license, his credit cards and his young son’s Social Security card. By the time Li and Lagat called the police and canceled the credit cards, the thieves — two men and a woman, according to witnesses — had added $2,000 worth of charges.

Lagat’s wife would have to send his passport from Tucson. Otherwise, he would have no identification to get through airport security to fly home for a few days.

The next afternoon, Lagat, 33, and Li, 47, resumed training on a secure track at Nike headquarters in nearby Beaverton, two longtime associates planning for the Beijing Olympics, one leaving his past behind, the other returning to a homeland of unimaginable change.

The Olympic trials open Friday in Eugene, Ore. Having won medals for Kenya at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games, Lagat is now competing as a United States citizen. Undefeated in seven indoor and outdoor races this year, he is the reigning world champion at 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters and a gold-medal favorite in Beijing.

Li is Lagat’s personal coach and the associate head coach at the University of Arizona. He is also the manager of the United States Olympic men’s track team. There may not be a more vital member of the entire delegation.

A handsome, soft-spoken man, Li was born in China and educated at its most prestigious sports institute. Many of China’s top sports officials are his peers. When no one from the United States could get a sneak peek inside Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, Li knew whom to call. One of the stadium managers slept on a bunk above him for four years in college.

“I believe this is my time,” said Li, who became a United States citizen in 1998.

His own road to the Beijing Olympics has been as winding as the running trails here. Li came of age during China’s Cultural Revolution, an attempt by Mao Zedong to purify the Communist Party and purge it of intellectuals, which resulted in violent disorder from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s.

As a schoolboy, Li remembers organizing “struggle parties” in which students attacked teachers, wrenching their arms behind their backs. He remembers his mother being jailed briefly, accused of being a counterrevolutionary. He remembers sports being dismissed as frivolous and the hunger he felt in his stomach at school and the restrictions that kept him from watching all but a handful of movies from the time that he was 6 until he was 16.

“It was crazy, like you were brainwashed,” Li said.

Criticism and Pride

The changes in China since then — the economic rise, the emerging openness — seem almost beyond comprehension to him. He finds much to criticize about China’s record on human rights, Li said, but he also feels proud that Beijing will host the Summer Games.

“You cannot argue that the Olympics are completely independent from politics; it never has been,” Li said. “But you cannot make an argument the other way, by saying that the Olympics should be all about politics, that because your ideology is not right, you cannot have them. How far are you going to go? Are we going to bar athletes from some countries whose ideology we don’t like?

“The ideal of the Olympic Games is we are there, through sports, to promote exchange, understanding and good will among young people in the world, regardless of their ideology.”

The son of a father who is a retired metallurgical engineer and a mother who is a retired sports official, Li became a top collegiate 800-meter runner while attending the Beijing Institute of Physical Education in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Still, his journey toward this moment began serendipitously.

In 1984, after China ignored the Soviet boycott and competed at the Summer Games in Los Angeles, Li was asked to examine a résumé that landed on his desk at the Sichuan Sports Institute in Chengdu, China. The résumé belonged to John Chaplin, a renowned track and field coach from Washington State who had met Chinese officials during the Olympics and a cultural exchange at the university.

“I got picked purely by chance,” said Li, then a young coach. “No one around me spoke any English, and I spoke some.”

When Chaplin went to China later in 1984 on a sports exchange program, his interpreter struggled with the term starting blocks. Li took over and apparently made a great first impression. By 1985, he was a graduate assistant on Chaplin’s staff at Washington State.

Four years later, Li was completing work on a doctorate and was scheduled to return to China. Again, his career took an unplanned detour when the bloody crackdown on students occurred in Tiananmen Square. Li was left dispirited, and decided to remain in the United States.

“In that political atmosphere, I felt I would not have the kind of future I would have liked professionally,” Li said.

In 1990, he became head track coach at Mankato State University in Minnesota, and returned to Washington State in 1994. He was always on the lookout for a great miler. Upon arriving in the United States, Li had become engrossed in the performance of Britain’s Roger Bannister, who had run the first sub-four-minute mile three decades earlier, in 1954.

Li had been so isolated in China that he had never heard of Bannister’s achievement. Even if he had, the mile would have meant little in a country that used the metric system. He first learned of Bannister from a tape of a discontinued television series, “Numero Uno,” produced in 1982 by the documentary filmmaker Bud Greenspan.

“It became my great motivation,” Li said. “Man versus machine. What the human body could accomplish. Not just the physical aspect but the spiritual side of it.”

Finally, his own star miler arrived at Washington State in 1996. A Kenyan runner there named Eric Kamau kept urging Li to recruit one of his friends, Bernard Lagat, known as Kip.

“He is so good, his stride is so beautiful,” Kamau told Li. “I wish I had his stride.”

When Lagat arrived in the summer of 1996, though, a knee injury left him with a limping gait. For more than two months, he trained for no more than 20 minutes at a time, Li said, always at a pace above five minutes a mile. Then, in the Pacific-10 Conference cross-country championships that fall, Lagat finished a surprising seventh, demonstrating what Li came to believe was his most impressive quality — he raced at an even higher level than he trained.

“When the big meets come, he delivers,” Li said.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Lagat won a bronze medal at 1,500 meters for Kenya. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, he took silver. With Hicham el-Guerrouj of Morocco, the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder, now retired, Lagat is favored to complete the medal set with a gold for the United States in Beijing.

“I don’t think Kip would totally agree, but in 2004 I’m not sure he really thought he was going to beat el-Guerrouj,” Li said. “Winning the world championship last year gave him a lot of confidence. Hopefully, that will prove crucial.”

Unconventional Success

Together for 12 years, a rarity for a track star and a coach in the United States, Lagat and Li have built their relationship on candor, respect, professional distance and a willingness to challenge sporting conventions. Many distance runners train twice a day and run 125 or so miles a week. Lagat has maintained his health and sharpness by training once a day and running about 65 to 70 miles a week.

“If I’ve been able to do one thing, it is to liberate myself from what is written in a book,” Li said.

After Lagat won his double victory at the 2007 world track and field championships, Li was named USA Track & Field’s coach of the year. Chinese officials then asked him to train Xing Huina, who won a gold medal in the women’s 10,000 meters at the Athens Olympics, but now had dead legs. Li worked with her futilely for several months, discovering that she was severely overtrained.

“I cannot turn rocks into gold,” he told Chinese authorities.

Extreme training has been a hallmark in China since at least 1993, when female runners coached by Ma Junren gave startling and suspicious performances. They ran a marathon per day in training and supposedly gained endurance from eating turtle soup and caterpillar fungus.

In 2000, Ma was discredited when he and six of his runners were removed from China’s team for the Sydney Olympics, after the runners showed questionable results on blood tests. It was a sign that Chinese officials were willing to adhere to international standards as they sought to host the Olympics. In that light, Li said, it seems extremely unlikely that Chinese runners would again come out of nowhere to win gold medals in Beijing.

“They know they can’t get away with what they did before,” Li said, adding that he believed that whatever doping now occurred in China was not state-sponsored. “I could not have said that 10 or 15 years ago.”

China’s most eagerly anticipated event in Beijing will be the men’s 110-meter hurdles. A countryman, Liu Xiang, is the defending Olympic champion and was the world-record holder until Dayron Robles of Cuba lowered the mark earlier this month. There is so much pressure on Liu that he seems “like a prisoner in his own country,” Li said.

A loss by Liu would leave China devastated, Li said, adding half-jokingly that he may want to go into hiding so he would not have to witness the fallout. “Not because I don’t want anybody to see me, but because I don’t want to see the look on people’s faces,” Li said. “They may set his house on fire or throw rocks at it.”

His most recent trip to China was last month, for Olympics business and to check on his aging parents, who live about 50 miles from the epicenter of the country’s devastating earthquake. For 48 hours after the quake struck, Li said, he panicked until he learned that they were O.K. and that their apartment building had survived intact.

Compared with an earthquake, vandalism of a rental car and stolen credit cards were a relatively minor annoyance. Still, an agitated Lagat had not warmed down properly after his workout that day, and 24 hours later his calves felt sore. Li took notice and eased up slightly on the next workout. Lagat said it was what he appreciated most about his coach.

“He understands where you are coming from and is willing to make adjustments,” Lagat said of Li. “He doesn’t carry that title of Dr. Li around in his head.”

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