When you watch the Olympics, or most other sporting events, you spend most of your time on the athletes. Behind almost every great athlete, however, there is a great coach, and the coach is nearly always invisible. The coach is a mentor, motivator, disciplinarian, cheerleader, psychologist, dietitian and biomechanical engineer all rolled in to one, and the coach's goal is to help the athlete give his or her best performance in competition.

In this edition of How Stuff Works we talk with Trevor Graham, who is the coach for several of the athletes on the U.S. track and field team at the 2000 Summer Olympic games in Sydney. It is fascinating to look at what he does behind the scenes to turn athletes into champions!

Questions
When I met with Trevor Graham, I had a huge set of questions about high-performance athletes. For example:

  • What is the difference between an Olympic athlete and a non-Olympic athlete?
  • What does the coach contribute to that difference?
  • What is the coach doing with the athlete on a daily basis?
  • What specifically does the coach do to improve "running down the track"? For example, in a 100-meter sprint, what can you improve about a process that takes only 10 or 11 seconds?
The answers are both amazing and, in many cases, surprising.

Understanding the Man
Here are several facts that help you to understand Trevor Graham as a person:

  • He is 37 years old.
  • He won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics running the 4x400 relay for the Jamaican team.
  • He is one of the few full-time professional track and field coaches in the United States. Most others are affiliated with universities.
  • He has been coaching since 1991.
  • He coaches 23 athletes, 12 of whom went to the 2000 Olympics.
His best-known athlete is Marion Jones. Athletes of his at the 2000 Olympics for the United States include:
  • Tim Montgomery (100 meter relay)
  • Antonio Pettigrew (400 meter, 4 X 400 meter relay)
  • Jerome Young (4 X 400 meter relay)
  • Ken Brokenburr (100 meter relay)
  • LaTasha Colander-Richardson (400 meter, 4 X 400 meter relay)
  • Michele Collins (400 meter, 4 X 400 meter relay)
  • Marion Jones (100 meter, 200 meter, Long Jump, 4 X 100 meter relay, 4 X 400 meter relay)
He also coaches five runners from the Haiti, Jamaica and Bahamas teams.

When you talk to him, Trevor strikes you as one of the nicest, most patient people you have ever met. He has a very calm and relaxing style. As you talk with him, it also becomes obvious that he knows a tremendous amount about running. It is hard to miss.

Understanding talent
For the most part, athletes come to Trevor and ask him to work with them. He then looks at the athlete and decides whether or not it is a good match. One thing he looks at when sizing up an athlete is raw athletic talent -- does the person have the ability to make it at a professional level? He looks at the athlete's background to understand how much he or she has accomplished in the sport. He looks at the athlete's potential, how the athlete moves, and at the personality. Personality and temperament are important: "We have a special image we keep. We don't act crazy or stupid. We have a professional look. We get attention from the numbers we do and our performance." The athlete has to fit into that mindset.

I asked him if I could become an Olympic sprinter. The answer I got was straightforward. I have not accomplished anything in the sport. If I were running 100 meters in 10.5 seconds, that would demonstrate a level of talent. He could apply his coaching skills to hone that talent and, potentially, create a champion. Since coaching is his profession, and since he gets paid by the athlete's performance, I would not be a good use of his time.

Improving Performance
What an athlete looks for in a coach is improvement. For example, when Marion Jones first started working with Trevor Graham, she was not ranked at the world level. The coach creates improvement through things like:

  • Teaching
  • Motivation
  • Specific techniques that make the athlete better
  • Finding the right event for the athlete
  • Off-track exercise -- for example, in the weight room
  • Diet
  • Mental preparation and focus
As Trevor would put it, "What motivates them is success. If you are just running around a track and don't get any better, there's no motivation." Among other things, the coach brings new knowledge to the track each day. The athlete is thinking, "What can I learn today?" with anticipation, and that builds excitement. He talks about it in this short video.

Three specific things that Trevor emphasized as particularly important are biomechanics, mental preparation and race strategy.

By improving biomechanics, Trevor makes athletes technically sound. The coach and athlete change and adjust things to help the athlete move down the track faster. He is looking at everything, including:

  • Stride length
  • Stride frequency
  • Body position
  • Breathing
  • Hand position
Even the facial expression. "If the face is relaxed, the rest is." Each part of the biomechanical picture is adjusted to fit the athlete and the event.

Race strategy involves doing the proper things at each point in the race, and it is different for each event. For example, even the 100-meter sprint, which lasts only seconds, has five phases:

  • Block clearance
  • Drive
  • Transition
  • Acceleration
  • Deceleration
Part of the strategy is relaxation, and knowing when to relax. "You don't need to muscle the whole thing," he says. In talking to him, you begin to understand how he and his athletes think. For example, in a 100-meter sprint there is a phase where the athlete accelerates to maximum speed. Once maximum speed is reached, the strategy shifts. Even though it all happens in 10 seconds, the athlete is processing a huge amount of information.

Mental preparation and focus are two things that Trevor constantly emphasizes. Saying the right thing to the athlete at the right time, getting the athlete to play the right script in his or her head and avoiding panic are all important pieces of the puzzle. "You are trying to make them stay focused on themselves -- no one else," he says.

In talking with him about all of these different aspects of racing at the professional level, the overwhelming impressions are "depth of experience," "extreme commitment to the best interests of the athlete" and "confidence." It is a remarkable combination, and helps to explain the success that Trevor Graham's team has achieved.

If you want to learn more about how everyone from weekend joggers to world-class athletes use and develop their muscles, go to this interesting How Stuff Works article, How Exercise Works.