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Train Like the Best (Originally Published April 25, 2008)

Many people want to emulate the best in their sport of choice. That's why Michael Jordan sold sneakers and Tiger Woods sells golf equipment. People buy clothes and equipment to look like the best, they pay for coaching and lessons in an attempt to imitate the best, and sometimes they even hire personal trainers and nutritionists. But what is it like to be on teams with truly great athletes? How do they train? How do they interact with other athletes? This is particularly germane in a team sport like dragonboat, where the performance of the crew is determined solely by the combined contribution of the crew members.

I have competed in various sports for 40 years, and coached for close to 30. In that time I was lucky enough to train with two truly gifted individuals, track athlete Robert Englehutt and canoer Steve Giles. I have been associated with many, many other excellent athletes, who shared many attributes with Robert and Steve, but no one else that I observed first hand compared to these two. I believe that Robert and Steve possessed the qualities you would see in the most successful of athletes and achievers in any discipline.

Robert Englehutt is currently a highly successful coach of track athletes in Nova Scotia. In 1976, following a comeback from a serious car accident, he ran 3:52 in the 1500 and 8:23 in the 3000 as a high school senior. His hand timed provincial high school 1500m record has stood for 32 years. He went on to highly successful career in distance running, notably in cross country and marathon competitions. He placed fourth in the 1984 Olympic Marathon trials, in 2 hours, 16 minutes and fifty seconds, which was an Olympic qualifying time and still stands as the Nova Scotia provincial record. He competed internationally for Canada in the early to mid-80's.

Steve Giles is a four time Olympian in sprint canoe singles. He won the 1998 1000m world championship. He won a bronze medal in the 1000m canoe singles event in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Robert and Steve both shared these qualities in their training, as teammates and as competitors;

They were as focused on the success of their training groups as they were on themselves. They both understood that they could not do it alone. They both used training partners to measure themselves, daily, in workouts, and they were ruthless, but in return they were extremely supportive of teammate’s efforts. I cannot remember Robert being behind in an interval (over 200 meters, sorry Robert but you got no speed), ever, in any workout. He had an unbelievable focus in training. In our canoe group, Steve told me, a very strong runner for a canoer, that if he ever beat me in a running interval - any running interval, ever - I was out of the training group. This led to some very high intensity running between us, and I'm glad to say I never got kicked out, but I'll also say that I knew that Steve was dead serious, the same guy who was so supportive and would do anything to help me in training would absolutely have kicked me out of the group if he beat me in an interval. Robert and Steve would do anything to help anyone in their training group, and then expect their training partners to train as they did.

They both never acted like they were any better than anyone else in the group. They were confident but humble. You hear this time and again, about very successful people. Their will to succeed burns deep inside.

They were slaves to the training program. 10 sets means 10 sets. The pace time is the pace time. In fact, I've seen both of them get annoyed over the exact same thing (14 years apart). They would get annoyed when people in the group were going FASTER than the set pace. I distinctly remember doing a workout with our track team; it was 20 times 200m in 30 seconds, jog back to the start rest. We were easily doing 30's and started going 29 and 28. Robert got quite annoyed and explained that 20 times 30 meant just that and if we could go faster than we should finish the workout, talk to coach and do 29's next time. Of course come the 18th, 19th, and 20th 200, when Robert was still gliding through 30's and we were fighting to do 34's and 35's we understood. Steve was exactly the same way. Do the workout, do it well, and don't adjust in the middle.

They both took time to rest, and to let injuries heal. They trained hard but they would not over train. If they showed up to practice it was game on. If they couldn't go 100% - they took care of the problem and showed up when they were ready to go.

They both did not let the performance of competitors affect their training, racing or attitude.

They both were very quiet at training sessions and socially, but when they talked they said a lot in a few words.

When justified, they both would let certain teammates know exactly what they thought, particularly if that teammate committed the crime of being late, not working hard enough, or especially being arrogant - anything that affected the quality of the training, or upset a teammate. They would not tolerate bullying or vindictive behavior against a member of their training group. They did not leave behavioral issues to the coaches; they led by example, and then spoke up when necessary. They understood that an athlete's training group is a reflection of the leaders of the group and they took that role very seriously.

Sometimes the focus was too much for average athlete like me. I laugh when I hear people say that Steve didn't do that much volume or train that hard. (In later years he did lower volume but very high intensity). I can remember one cold, windy, rainy day in November 1991 (the fall before his first of Steve's four Olympics), when we did a 16 Km session of hard intervals in the morning, at the end of a particularly hard week. It was a Saturday morning and that afternoon and all day Sunday were scheduled for much needed recovery. It was raining, it was cold and it was windy - the workout was a waste of time, everyone was just surviving and going through the motions. At the end of the workout Steve just quietly informed our coach that he thought we should do the workout, again, that afternoon (in even worse weather). I could not believe it, I couldn't understand what possible thought process was behind this.

I think I do now.

Be humble, worry about your own improvement, compete hard in practice, always support your teammates and training partners, strive for excellence for the amount of time you have allocated to training, and be a really, really good friend to the average lumberjacks like me on your team or in your training group.

Strive to be better. Train like the best.

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