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Saturday, March 14, 2009

More on the John Cook & ex-Runners

Recently we all heard that Olympic bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan split with her coach, John Cook. The break-up was public and not nice from either side.

Also in that training group were Olympians Erin Donohue and Shannon Rowbury, and Donohue left that group as well. The initial report of the break-up said Donohue split because Cook didn't think she could ever break 4:00 in the 1500. Now Joe Battaglia has given us a deeper look at what transpired with her.
Donohue says her problems with Cook stemmed from a perceived lack of confidence in her abilities. She said she first sensed a waning in that belief late last spring in the form of his verbiage during interviews, which continued even after Donohue qualified for the Games with a runner-up finish to Rowbury in the 1,500m at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

“He said I was lucky to make the Olympic Team,” Donohue said. “That was kind of annoying to hear, but I was just so busy focusing and getting ready for the Olympics. Obviously, I wasn’t going to say anything or make any kind of move at that time.”
Cook described her as "waddling around the Nike campus 10 pounds overweight" before she started training with him. He's got a reputation as a bit of a dick, and that line only reinforces it. If you read between the lines, he's also got a bit of a paternalistic attitude towards these adult professionals. But this is the real heart of the matter:
An avid student of running, Donohue spent time combing through coaching manuals and accessing information online that she felt could give her training an edge. Throughout the fall, she said she persistently made recommendations to Cook about training changes she wanted to try but never heard back from him.
Cook would be the first person to tell you that he is a control freak, particularly when it comes to the training program he has devised for his athletes. When Donohue continually chimed in with alterations to what Cook had outlined for her, it did not sit well with the coach.

“When you go to the dentist, you’re not going to tell the guy how to do a root canal. You open your mouth and let the guy dig,” Cook said. “If I’m going to listen to someone tell me how to coach, I don’t need to listen to her. There are a lot of guys out there that I talk to. I don’t see any stripes on her shoulders. I think she’s a good kid. I think she’s an overachiever. I think she’s a great competitor. I think she’s a nice person. I think she’s very intelligent. But the worst thing that happened to her was the internet. Frankly, I don’t want to coach somebody that is constantly uncertain.”
There's a loooong thread on this over at Let's Argue. I haven't tried to read the whole thing; it starts off with somebody obviously posting the same thoughts defending Cook under different names. What I'm taking away from this is totally different from what anyone appears to have posted, which is strange for a place that reveres Arthur Lydiard.

Lydiard repeatedly said that if a coach couldn't explain why the athlete was doing a certain workout, maybe the athlete should get a different coach. He was very much against authoritarianism in coaching athletes and saw it as one of the things that held US runners back on the world stage. To him, questions were a good thing.

On the flip side, it has been said that the athlete needs an unshatterable belief in his/her coach. But she needs the same unshatterable belief in herself as well, and it was clear she wasn't getting support in that area from Cook. And so the relationship unraveled.

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