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Danny Mackey: The next steps after a disappointing Olympic trials

After coming up short at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, where does Brooks Beast coach Danny Mackey go from here with this athletes? Mackey spells out his next steps.

Danny Mackey is the head coach of the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts training group, which includes two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds and other emerging U.S. distance runners. Each month, Mackey will write a first-hand look for Sports Illustrated discussing the training, races, and preparation of his runners as they aim for the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials in July and the 2016 Olympics in August.​

The 2016 Olympic Track and Field Trials are over, and aside from Justine Fedronic (France/Nike) there are no members of the Brooks Beasts heading to the Rio Olympics. The easiest thing for me to write about would be the youth of the Beasts, the positive direction in which we are headed, how this was our first Olympic Trials as a team, that you will see us at the next Olympics and on and on. However, deflection and avoidance are not how I am going to learn, become smarter, and grow as a leader. So here is what I want to talk about.

The experience

As I said in my last article, I am on this path with the athletes, and I will remember the tough times that we faced together after their races for the rest of my career… looking Garrett Heath in the eye followed by a motionless hug after he finished 13th in the 5000 meters, sitting next to Casimir Loxsom in the medical area in silence with both of us staring at the ground after he finished 9th in the 800 and having Katie Mackey cry on my shoulder for 20 minutes after she finished sixth in the 5000.

In the book, Extreme Ownership, Navy Seal Leif Babin says, “Every leader and every team at some point or time will fail and then must confront that failure.” I will need to remember those post race moments, because the athletes are depending on me to guide them as we move forward.

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Objective analysis of the process

Where was the major slip-up in our trials preparation? In short, it was training gaps. To put it plainly, these are really, really bad for elite endurance athletes. Training gaps have been described by world-class track and field coach Dan Pfaff as the biggest barrier to success, and this year, the Beasts had a lot of training gaps.

When I take a step back and reflect, we just never really got going. It is one thing to run well during indoors or in May and underperform when it counts. It is a whole other issue when you are playing catch up and just trying to get to the starting line. Almost every athlete on the team, for one reason or another, missed training time. In our first two years as a team, we had just one athlete injury costing three weeks or more of modified training. This year we had 15 athletes miss three weeks or more (up to 12 weeks).

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The easy explanation for this is bad luck. But, as my friend and coaching legend Stu McMillan recently posted on social media, “stop blaming bad luck for your injuries.” I agree. He listed four major factors that can lead to injuries, and if just one of those four factors is off, you can be in trouble. Even when bad luck is involved, like when one of our athletes slipped and fell in the weight room, how those incidences are managed after trauma (no luck involved) is where the assessment needs to be made.

Honest personal reflection

Why was this year a gut-wrenching but necessary part of the process for our overall success? Everyone fails. Name one successful business, team, athlete or coach that did not take one knockout punch square in the jaw? Honestly, I thought we were going to avoid it and I did everything in my power to avoid it. But that is not the way the world works, and that is not how sport works.

Sports are amazing because nothing is given. An athlete or a team can succeed on the field of play even when the deck is stacked against them. On the other hand, an athlete can be the most prepared, most talented one out there and lose. Sport is a reflection of the world, because it is both wonderful and cruel.

The impact of a fourth-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials

Next year at the U.S. championships, where world championship team spots are on the line, the sport is not going to give the Beasts a free pass because we didn’t have any Olympic team members in 2016. If a team had three Olympians this year, they will now want four world championship team members next year. The 88% of athletes that left the Olympic trials frustrated because they did not make the team this year will all be training with extra motivation and ready for next year. What will separate the ones that succeed moving forward? I think it will be truly learning from this year and then successfully improving based on that experience and knowledge.

We don’t grow when things are easy—we grow when we face the challenges, and when we face the path most would never even think of walking through. I don’t like shortcuts, and by facing my limitations and fears, I overcome limits I didn’t even know I could surpass.

Moving forward

Where do the Beasts go from here? Well, a few of the Beasts athletes immediately raced right after trials. Why? Because they are track and field athletes, and they race. Getting back in the fight is important for this year as well as next year.

Four days after her heartbreaking 5,000-meter race at the Olympic trials, Katie ran a personal best in the 3000 meters at the Monaco Diamond League meet, and six days after Riley Masters finished 16th in the 5000 meters, he ran a season best time in the 1,500m in Padova, Italy. Two weeks after Casimir was eighth in the 800-meter final, he ran a personal best in the 400 meters in Seattle.

My athletes are warriors. We have started long debriefing meetings with the athletes to lay out a plan for next year, and Brooks just signed four amazing rookie Beasts (Shaq Walker, Izaic Yorks, Brannon Kidder and Baylee Myers) further highlighting where this team intends to go down the road. I know I said I wasn’t going to do this but I can’t help myself… We are young, we are learning, we will be better and we will see you in Tokyo.