“My expectation is to continue being the same person I have been since arriving here five years ago,” Gene said. He believes in prayer, constant learning, courage in spite of the potential for failure, and the importance of giving back. Although his title has changed, his goals remain the same: “to continue helping others achieve their goals through track & field.”
From the Director’s Chair: A 5-minute Interview with Coach Earl Graves
Coach Earl Graves, who was an early participant in the School of Track mentor program, has recently been promoted to the Director of Cross Country/Track & Field at NCAA DII University of Mount Olive. “Moving forward, we intend on being one of the best programs in Division II every year,” he quoted in the UMO’s press release.
School of Track (SOT): Describe your personal athletic history.
Earl Graves (EG): I am from Richmond, Virginia. I got involved with the sport in 6th grade. I started out racing other kids in gym class and it took off from there. Originally I was a 400/800 guy and in college transitioned to a long sprinter/jumper.
I think the thing that I am most proud of is being on Lynchburg College’s All-time Top-10 List ten different times. It is pretty cool knowing that I will be a part of the school’s history for a long time to come. One thing I constantly thought about while I was on the team was, “how am I going to leave my mark on this program?”
SOT: How did you know that you wanted to get into coaching? How did you get connected to your first coaching gig?
EG: I didn’t! My original plan was to go to graduate school to pursue a Master’s in Counseling. I had about a month until graduation and I decided that I didn’t want to do that. Right around that time, my coach mentioned to me that he thought I would be a good coach. He helped me to get a head coach position at a local high school. I had to learn a lot by trial and error, but it was definitely a fun experience. That is where I developed my passion for helping people to achieve their goals.
SOT: Have you had a coach who has impacted your life?
EG: I am fortunate enough to have had several: Craig “Mug” Hedley, Joe Pardue, Kelly Guempel, and Jack Toms. These men always believed in my abilities, kept me humble, and have been great mentors to me. I definitely owe a lot to them for helping to shape my coaching style.
SOT: What is it like to be a Director of Track & Field/Cross Country?
EG: There are a lot of meetings! It’s important to take care of administrative duties (travel, budget, meet selection, etc.) and to make sure that your staff is on the same page and has what they need to succeed. Also, it’s important to recognize your weaknesses and delegate those responsibilities to your staff when possible. And of course, we need to model whatever values and attitude that you want the team to reflect.
SOT: What type of person is suited for that role?
EG: I think the best leaders have a good feel for what the team needs are currently. They must also be very dedicated, organized and truly enjoy all the preparation that goes into a successful XC/Track program. You also have to be a great communicator.
SOT: What is one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring coaches?
EG: Keep adding dimensions to your skills and learning from your peers. I believe you can learn something from every person you meet in this profession.
I met the Caldwell coaches in person for the first time at an indoor track meet at Clemson University. Mike had on his ASICS GTC-Elite cap, and I decided to introduce myself as we waited for our athletes to line up for the 5k.
A few weeks before that, I had joined a phone call with the Women’s Running Coaches Collective to discuss hosting their rich archive of newsletters on School of Track’s website. Laura Caldwell was on the call as a founding member of the WRCC. That morning at Clemson, I hoped that Mike would be able to make the introduction. He obliged with incredible warmth.
Later, they generously agreed to talk with me further about their journey into professional coaching. Although the pair is officially retired, they show no signs of slowing down: together, they founded Asics GTC-elite in 2012, a professional group located in Greenville, South Carolina that Laura and Mike coach full-time.
Laura Caldwell’s competitive running career didn’t start until she was at Florida State University, but she certainly made up for lost time, earning her spot as the school record holder over 800m for a year. Not only a successful runner, Laura found herself to be an inspiring coach as well; after graduating, she took on the GA position at FSU, where she studied social work and counseling. “I enjoyed working with people through that position,” she remembered. “Coaching was a culmination of that counseling education melded with my athletic background.”
Michael Caldwell, in contrast, was a serious runner in high school. He won a state championship and earned a scholarship at Furman University. As a graduate student at the University of Florida, he also competed with the prolific Florida Track Club. He placed as high as 3rd at Atlanta Track Club’s Peachtree Road Race.
“At first, I was more interested in coaching myself,” Mike shared. He studied exercise physiology and the science background allowed him to practice new theories with himself.
The pair met when Mike was a doctoral candidate at Florida State University. He felt ready to move into coaching, and decided to create his own post-collegiate group that was sponsored by “Racing South” running magazine. He had over twenty elite athletes who were competitive at the national scene, including a World Championship Qualifier and several 1988 Olympic Marathon Trails Qualifiers. Throughout this time, he kept up a 30 year daily running streak!
Mike embarked on an incredibly successful career at ASICS, where he held many impactful positions, including as the lead designer and product-line manager for the ASICS Gel-Lyte shoe.
Eventually, he transitioned into work with Nike, where he had the opportunity to observe both Alberto Salazar and Jerry Schumacher in action. “I was fortunate to watch Salazar coach at Nike, and to have discussions with him. He shared information with me. I thought that this is what I would do when I retired.”
Laura continued to compete well into her mid-40’s, qualifying twice to the Olympic Trials in the marathon. At age 44, she ran 1:15 in the half marathon; an incredibly impressive performance that Mike proudly reminded her to share with me. While Mike worked at Nike in Oregon, Laura began coaching at a local high school, as well as doing personal coaching for her friends on the side. “We just like that lifestyle – reading and studying every day and passing on the information that we learned,” Mike shared.
After retiring from the shoe & apparel industry in 2009, the pair moved to Greenville. Mike coached at Furman University for a few years before deciding to start an Olympic Development group. “When I was working in corporate, I didn’t have enough time to coach. My philosophy is that you really need to be around the athlete, not just see their training online.”
“When I was working in corporate, I didn’t have enough time to coach. My philosophy is that you really need to be around the athlete, not just see their training online.”
Vision for GTC-Elite
“What we found when we coached college was that there were a good number of students graduating with nowhere to go run,” Mike explains on their decision to start GTC-Elite. “They weren’t good enough to get a shoe contract, so their career was basically done. We wanted to provide an opportunity.”
At that time, Mike estimates that there were about 10-11 post-collegiate clubs for serious distance runners. Plus, there were very few opportunities for women to run competitively. Now, he guesses that there are closer to 30 groups.
“We went to the board of directors at Greenville Track Club with a goal: we want to have people qualify for the Olympic Trials.” Now, Mike serves on the Board, although he steps out if a vote is taken on anything regarding his elite team. Already, that goal has begun to be fulfilled; in 2016, the group had four athletes at the Olympic Trials marathon.
The president of the board has been very good at going into the community and soliciting contributions to support the club’s athletes. Revenue can be a significant challenge for clubs like GTC-Elite.
“We are retired and we’re at a place where we don’t need the money,” Laura explained on their coaching. “It’s more of a volunteer opportunity for us. We are a nonprofit so we go out and talk to people and get the community involved. We have sponsors who have worked with us since we started. ASICS has been very helpful to us, and we couldn’t have done it without them because equipment is so important.”
Mike credited Atlanta Track Club as “the best of the best at what they do.” Like Atlanta Track Club, Greenville Track Club recently started a youth program. “Our elite athletes are running that program, so they’re giving back to the community.” This helps the elite team gain support.
Unique challenges to professional coaching
“In college, we pretty much knew what was going on – if something happened the night before – whether we wanted to or not,” Mike joked after I asked him how coaching a post-collegiate group differs from his experience at Furman.
“The hardest thing is to keep them engaged and communicating,” Laura agreed. “You really need to know what’s going on in their lives so you can adapt to that. A lot of times they look at it as ‘Well I’m an adult, why do I have to tell you all that?’ But I just need to know all the pieces that go into the puzzle.”
Their group uses FinalSurge, which allows them to see their athletes workout data as soon as their watches sync to the computer. Then, both athletes and coaches are able to add comments. “One young lady, one hour after that workout, she would be done logging,” Laura said. “That’s one way to tell that they are really engaged and ready to do the workout. If it takes a few days to finish logging, maybe it’s not that important in your life. Running – being an athlete – it takes a lot of your time.”
GTC is very open with their training philosophy – even going so far as to share their training plans. Mike explains that there isn’t really a secret to running. “These people are always looking for the magic workout. We just look for consistency. You can get from A to B in myriad different ways, but if you apply it in the wrong way, it won’t work.”
“Anyone can get a workout book and follow the schedule, but it’s really about the timing,” Mike said. With Mike’s science background and Laura’s athletic background, the two have learned about moving beyond what’s on the page. “The artist has to come out of every coach.”
Advice for the journey
“If you’ve got a coaching position, grow where you’re planted,” offered Mike. “Don’t always be looking to go somewhere else. Opportunities will come up. Most people are looking for opportunities before they’ve had success.”
Laura laughed, “We’ve been married for 30-something years, so we pretty much think alike! I love that advice. Grow where you’re planted. I understand wanting to get ahead, but take some time to learn before you move on to the next big thing.”
Both coaches cited athlete development as an incredibly compelling reason to be a coach. Mike shared a story about one of his all-favorite athletes: a walk-on at Furman University. “His father dropped him off at my office and said ‘make something of him!’ By the end of the year – he must have been in the 3rd or 4th heat of the 5000 – but he had taken a minute off of his PR. He came afterwards and gave me a huge hug. He didn’t go on to run after college, but his desire has stayed with us. We still talk.”
“It’s really rewarding in itself to be able to work with someone and see them improve,” Laura adds. “To come up with goals that they want to go for, accomplish them, and move to the next. That’s very rewarding for me.”
How does your alma mater stack up against others in your conference when it comes to hiring and retaining women coaches?
Each year, the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center assigns grades to college athletic departments based on the percentage of women head coaches of women’s teams. In 2017-18, Cincinnati and UCF rose to the top of schools in seven select NCAA DI conferences. Nine schools, however, received an “F” for having a truly dismal number of female head women’s coaches.
This summer, the Tucker Center went one (big) step further, and released a report funded by the NCAA to explore the best practices for recruiting, hiring, and retaining women collegiate coaches. Extensive interviews were conducted with 21 Athletic Directors (AD’s) from NCAA DI, DII, and DIII schools that received a grade of “A” or “B”.
Why was this needed?
Women coaches matter. First, girls and young women deserve to see themselves in their coaches; being able to do so elevates their self-perceptions and helps them see coaching as a viable career option.
Second, “diversity in the workforce is a business imperative, and athletic departments should not be the exception” (1). Our priority is serving our student-athletes, and having a diverse staff will help us to do this better.
The percentage of women’s teams that are coached by women has dropped precipitously since the 1970’s… Why?
“It is simply not possible that as each new generation of females comes increasingly involved in and shaped by their sport experiences, they simultaneously become less qualified to enter the coaching profession” (1).
What’s in the report?
AD’s spoke candidly and anonymously on the (very real) barriers to hiring and retaining female coaches. Many of the AD’s felt a strong personal conviction that “women should be coached by women”, but felt unable to express this desire during the hiring process.
One AD points out “the paradox of wanting to hire women to coach women, but not being able to explicitly state it… as AD’s do not want to make themselves or their institutions vulnerable to litigation” (7). This AD goes on to explain that this barrier is unique to women, because the ingrained expectation that men’s teams will be coached by men is so strong that gender won’t even be a part of the conversation.
The challenge, then, is to “create a consistent and strong culture of valuing women without crossing the legal line” (7). The report sets out to help your athletic department do just that.
While this report is designed as a resource for AD’s and Senior Women Administrators (SWA’s), there are nuggets of wisdom that can guide any coach in their pursuit of an equitable work environment. Plus, this is an amazing resource to have in your pocket if you will one day be interested in pursuing a career athletic administration.
What can young, female coaches take away from this research?
ONE: Barriers do exist
In order to begin to combat the barriers that exist, we must understand them. There is a helpful figure on page 3 of the report of an Intersectional-Ecological Systems Model of potential barriers (Don’t worry: you don’t have to understand those words to understand the graph!)
TWO: You deserve the “three-C’s”
“If athletic administrators create a workplace climate where essential needs of care, competence, and choice of women coaches are met, the department will likely attract women” (5). A good workplace will demonstrate that they care about you, trust you, and give you autonomy. Learn more on page 5!
THREE: Be unapologetic
Do not be embarrassed to tout the benefits of women coaching women. Be confident that you have unique gifts that a man in the same role would not. See Appendix A for strategies to approach athletes who are not yet convinced.
FOUR: Find the veterans
Look within your program for highly successful, strong women. Reach out to her. Support her. Learn from her. Page 12 expands.
FIVE: Take on an unexpected role
Find a space where you are untested, and have the courage to ask for a chance. One day, when you are a head coach, these skills will be invaluable. This is especially true for women of color (see pages 12-14).
SIX: Bomb an interview? Don’t sweat… learn!
One AD promises that “the experience of explaining and knowing what questions are going to come is helpful for future interviews” (19). Keep moving forward.
SEVEN: “Draw a map, find a path, take a breath and run.”
“He is We” might as well have been singing about creating a career-development plan. Know where you’re headed. Share it with your AD or SWA.
Be aware of whether your AD’s performance expectations for your program are possible considering the resources you are given. If they are not, do not immediately blame your own coaching. Work with your mentors to change your strategy or expectations. If this does not work, do not be afraid to move on to a program that can offer better support (like is described on page 15).
TEN: You have more leverage than you perceive
Don’t forget — If you demonstrate excellence at your craft, you WILL be highly sought after. See Appendix C for the Women Coaches’ Playbook for Being Hired and Retained (attached below).
Coaching for the Inner Edge is a comprehensive text resource for coaches to better prepare athletes for success in competitive environments.
I became interested in sport psychology after several seasons of inconsistent performance from my teams. We were doing good training and seeing improvement, but the athletes would often have difficulty in the biggest meets. I wanted to improve my ability to prepare them mentally for competitions.
I was first recommended this text by Dr. Gloria Balague. She is a former professor at the University of Illinois and has worked as a sport psychologist with the Chicago Bears, USA Gymnastics and USA Track and Field. Dr. Balague was teaching the USTFCCCA 405 course on sport psychology and mentioned this text as a great resource. When such a prominent figure recommends a book, I always try to pick up a copy.
Coaching for the Inner Edge is written by Dr. Vealey a professor at Miami University of Ohio, and a former collegiate basketball player and coach. She has dedicated her professional career to understanding the mental side of athletic competition.
The book explains how sport psychology functions to improve performance. There is a focus on practical implementation techniques like goal mapping, imagery, and relaxation.
The book is separated into four parts. The first part talks about foundational elements of sport psychology. The second part takes the reader through the different types of mental training tools. The third part addresses the primary mental skills the tools seek to improve, and the fourth part is about putting it all together.
I love that Dr. Vealey includes templates and exemplars in the text to help coaches and athletes actually apply the information in meaningful ways.
One example that I use with my athletes is the goal mapping template. Dr. Vealey differentiates object from process goals, and then provides a form to use with athletes to record and track goals. This format for providing concrete useful tools is repeated throughout the book. There are many additional forms and tools provided in the Appendix, as well as numerous quotes and example scenarios to provide insight and guidance.
I have found her suggested reading at the end of the book under coaches resources, as well as her complete references list, to be a fantastic springboard into a larger wealth of knowledge within topics of sport psychology. I highly recommend the book as a valuable addition to any coaching library.
You can purchase “Coaching for the Inner Edge” by Robin S. Vealy at Fit Publishing or Amazon. This book is out of print, but copies are available online. There is also a 2nd edition in the works!
Reviewer: Kevin O’Grattan
Coach O’Grattan is the Assistant Head Cross Country and Distance Track Coach at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas. He is currently working on his Masters Certification in Cross Country from USTFCCCA.
You can read more about Coach O’Grattan here in his coaching profile.