Guest Post: Finding a Mentor

When you read who mentored Lachlan Penfold you can understand why his athletes have achieved so much success.

Hopefully the last few articles (Grasp your OpportunityPay it ForwardTips from the Top) have provided you with some insights into ways that I was able to develop as a young coach, and shown some actual examples of how this happened.  This article I want to talk about the role of “mentors” and how you need to actively pursue them and learn from them. The people you seek out will be able to give you real life examples of their experiences, take the discussions to places you want to learn, tell you all about their mistakes.  Trust me, it is a much better way than reading an article.

The word mentor gets tossed around a lot these days.  Many meanings, but probably similar concept for most people.  Look up the dictionary and you’ll get something like this:

  • a wise and trusted counsellor or teacher
  • (historical) a loyal advisor of Odeysseus entrusted with the care and education of Telemachus

People are sometimes advised to get a mentor - I believe that I have had some in my time.  But for me the most important thing is learning off wise and experienced coaches.  Some, you will develop a great friendship and affinity with and they will become mentors; others will be of a more professional nature.

But care needs to be taken that the role of being mentored doesn’t become one of a disciple.  You may have seen the situation - someone becomes so engrossed with their mentor that it’s like they can’t act without prior approval.  These people become wrapped up in a world where it’s 'them versus the world', and they refuse to believe that others in the world could contribute to their knowledge.

I love history as a subject, and I place great emphasis on looking into the past to go forward.  Learning from history, understanding how things have developed over time and why they happened, understanding what today’s thoughts and processes have been based upon - ignore it at your peril.

There are people that have been there, done that, got the scars to prove it - and most of the time they are happy to share their knowledge and experiences.  Doesn’t always mean they’re right or that you have to agree with them - that’s where you need to develop your critical thinking skills to determine what you take from them, and what fits with your philosophies.

In the early 1990’s (I’m showing my age) I was coaching a middle distance runner by the name of Sandy Dawson.  This was new territory for me, and while I was learning everything I could, I stumbled across a man by the name of Kelvin Giles.  Kelvin at the time was the Performance Co-ordinator at the Brisbane Broncos at a time when they were dominating Rugby League, but he was also coaching a lady by the name of Michelle Locke, a 400m runner.

Kelvin had previously been one of the British Athletics Head Coaches, and also the A.I.S. Head Athletics coach.  He was a fantastically knowledgeable coach both in Track & Field and also in Strength & Conditioning.  But more than that, Kelvin was a wonderfully giving man, who would spend hour and hours with me, discussing training philosophies, lessons he had learnt along the way, general life; anything I wanted to discuss.

I took advantage of Kelvin’s offer every chance I could.  I would rearrange my schedules so that I could turn up to the Broncos once he had finished his morning training and we’d sit in the change rooms and he’d write all over the blackboard (again showing my age). I’d go around to his house on the weekends (don’t worry about quality time with the girlfriend, this was far more important and interesting) and we’d sit on the couch all day and talk.

Great memories; and I owe him more than words can ever express.  We developed a great friendship that continues to this day, and we both know that we can call each other at any time and discuss anything we need - training or personal.

Finding a mentor like Kelvin was all part of my learning and developing process.  But you have to be prepared to spend the time learning - and if you can find the right mentor it’s an easy ask.

In 1992 I read a book called “Speed Trap” by Charlie Francis.  Charlie was the coach of Ben Johnson, who won the Olympic 100m final in 1988, then had it taken from him after testing positive.  One of the biggest scandals in Olympic history, but as a lot of people knew back then, and as recent documentaries and books such as “The Dirtiest Race in History” have shown, Ben was the norm rather than the exception.

However I digress; as once I started reading Speed Trap I couldn’t put it down - I read it straight through, stopping only to sleep once.  It was a great book with so many training ideas in it, and I decided that I was going to try and meet Charlie and spend some time with him.

But how to go about it?  This was in the days of pre Google and I didn’t own a computer or know about the Internet.  So I rang the Canadian exchange and asked for the phone number of a C. Francis who lived in Rosedale, Toronto (Charlie had mentioned in the book that he grew up there so I took a chance that he still lived there).  I had a bunch of numbers and tried them until I got hold of Charlie.

I explained my situation, that I was going to the USA and would be in Toronto to visit a friend and would like to visit with him while there if possible: Would he be willing to meet me?  I lied of course!  I wasn’t going to Toronto to visit a friend - I had a friend in Toronto I could stay with and the only reason I was going there was to visit Charlie.  He said that he had work in the USA at different times but would happily meet me if he were in town the same time I was.

No need telling you that my trip was timed around when Charlie was going to be in Toronto.

I arrived, met him at the track one day, and said that I was in town for a week and wanted to hang out as much as possible with him.  He agreed and I turned into his shadow, following him everywhere, watching everything he did and said with the athletes he was working with (which wasn’t many as he was ‘officially’ banned from coaching, although everyone turned a blind eye).

Every spare moment we had I peppered him with questions and wrote everything down.  I still have the notebook and go through it at times.  A great and giving man, unbelievably knowledgeable, and an incredible athletics coach.

There is a reason that Ben Johnson became the best sprinter in the world, and it wasn’t because he took more drugs than everyone else.

I spent another week in Toronto the following year with Charlie - this time I didn’t have to lie as we had become friends and he knew the reason for my visit.  Great learning experiences, great education, great man.  I saw him again many years later when he came to Australia on a speaking tour.  After 15 years I didn’t think he’d remember me, but he walked straight up and said “how are you going Lachlan, it’s good to see you again.”  Humbled!

Charlie wasn’t a mentor in the sense that I talked with him often, but he educated and taught me, and he was certainly a wise and trusted teacher.

But here’s my point - these things didn’t happen by chance.  I worked out that I wanted to learn off these people, and I found a way.  And once there, I didn’t sit back and wait for them to tell me everything - I had an endless stream of questions.  I have had at times students come in to my places of work and sit there not saying anything.

Maybe they are shy and introverted - but I’m no extrovert.

If you want to learn then you need to be prepared to ask questions.  People understand that’s why you’re there, and normally they are happy to answer anything you put to them.  But if you expect them to conduct tutorials for you then I think you’ll be very disappointed.  While some of your questions may sound basic at times, the only bad question is the one you were too afraid to ask.

Lachlan Penfold has trained over 80 Olympic athletes over 4 different Olympic Games, with many of these athletes achieving medal success. For more info on Lachlan click here

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