Coaching the Fastest Humans
Track coach Tom Tellez says talent helps, but it's mental ability that makes a winner
HOUSTON — COACH Tom Tellez's office at the University of Houston crackles with anticipation. It's the week before the United States Olympic Track and Field Trials, now under way in New Orleans.
Coach Tellez, who trains some of the world's fastest humans, is meeting with his assistant coaches and fine-tuning final workouts for the Santa Monica Track Club's sprinters, who train here in Houston.
Tellez, a former sprinter and college football player with a slight build and a serious, thoughtful manner, is regarded as one of the best technical track and field coaches in the world and an authority on sprints and hurdles.
He's coached Carl Lewis since 1979, when the six-time Olympic gold medalist enrolled at the university. Other athletes under Tellez's tutelage include Olympic sprinters Leroy Burrell, Mark Witherspoon, and Joe DeLoach. He also coaches the University of Houston collegiate track and field athletes.
Both the Cougar men and women have won multiple championships since the coach came to Houston in 1976.
Tellez served as an assistant coach for the 1980 and '84 US Olympic teams and was named national coach of the year in 1990 by the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Track and Field Coaches Association.
To Tellez, track is academic. "My role is to present the subject matter," he says. "I think of myself first as a teacher. What I want to do with track and field is to make the subject come alive. I want the student-athlete to know what he does, as much as he wants to accept and learn."
There's no mystery involved in his coaching success, Tellez says. "Track and field training is common sense. Once you understand the basics, the fundamentals, the mechanics, then it's not that complicated. There are certain things that the body has to do correctly based on mechanics."
Tellez sees it as his job to help the athletes understand those basic mechanics.
"It's so much easier when you run correctly and you jump correctly. What I've done is create a model of what I think they should be doing," he says of the athletes he trains.
"That's the model that we're striving for. I keep going to that, and I'm not satisfied until it's completely there."
"Coach Tellez doesn't just expect improvement," Lewis has said. "He demands perfection."
Tellez is matter-of-fact about his high standards. "I can't be satisfied [with imperfection]," he says. "If I was satisfied, I wouldn't be telling the athlete the truth. I can't tell him that he did a great job if he didn't do a great job - even though he won, even though he broke a record."
Of all his athletes, Tellez says Lewis has come the closest to achieving the model. He points to Lewis's world record-breaking, 9.86-second 100-meter dash at the world championships in Tokyo last year.
"When Carl ran the race in Tokyo, I really felt that he ran as close to what he should run, the model, as anyone that I've had.... For all intents and purposes, I felt he ran the race that we said we were going to run and that I told him to run. It doesn't do me any good to tell them if they don't do it." (See accompanying story.)
But as the athletes mature and gain experience, the coach's role naturally diminishes, Tellez says.
"The role that I play now is maybe 1 percent or less of Carl's ability," he says. "In the beginning, the percentage of what I contribute to the athlete is maybe 20 percent. Then as he learns it, my role gets less, and less, and less until in the end it's just a matter of keeping him there."
T'S the athlete who makes it all happen, Tellez says. But "no matter how good an athlete is, if you're not on top of it, if you're not watching, he'll go right back into making errors for whatever reasons. They have to be always reminded. You have to always reinforce what we've done. So even though my role with Carl is maybe 1 percent, that 1 percent is the difference, I think, in him running faster."
All the athletes who train under Tellez work together and receive the same treatment, he says. "When you have a group like that, if you have a lot of egos out there or you don't control the egos, then it can be very bad. But ... our egos are left at home. It's a requirement that I make, and it's a requirement that the athletes who have been here make."
Although they often go up against each other in competition, Tellez's sprinters train together harmoniously, he says.
"Practice is practice," Tellez says. "We're not trying to race or beat everybody. We're trying to work together to get ourselves ready to compete."
And once the starting gun sounds, each athlete is expected to give his personal best.
"The day of the competition, it's up to those individuals to put their race together," Tellez says. "And the one that puts it together the best is going to be the winner.... It just depends on how well they're focused the day of the meet and how many mistakes they make."
Success comes to those who work the hardest, Tellez insists. "There's obviously some differences in talent, physical ability. But most of it is not physical ability, it's mental ability. The ability to focus on what you want to accomplish. That is the slight difference."
Tellez is generally pleased with the changes taking place in track and field. "Athletes are staying in the sport longer because they're able to make a living," he says.
But he's concerned about drug use among athletes.
"It still needs to be cleaned up," he says. "I think the athletes should get together and demand that everyone take a blood test, and if you don't take it, you don't compete. There is money in the sport now, and it's going to make it more tempting for some athletes. There might be financial rewards enough to take the chance, but the athletes have to police themselves."