Former Olympic decathlete shares wisdom with coaches

Gold medalist advises on technique and mind-set
Sunday, December 10, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:10 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wearing his black and red Nike sweats, former Olympic gold medalist Dan O’Brien asked for a little audience assistance.

Inside the Windsor IV room at the Holiday Inn Executive Center, a congregation of about 70 track and field and cross country coaches had gathered to soak up some wisdom from one of the best decathletes ever to wear the USA’s colors.

At O’Brien’s request, some of the maroon chairs were pushed aside in order to widen the aisle down the center of the room. O’Brien put out two hurdles and began to demonstrate.

Five-step drills. Walk-overs. Warm-up exercises. O’Brien demonstrated and instructed, as attentive coaches scribbled down key words and phrases.

That black and red Nike pullover came off about 15 minutes into the presentation, which was his second one of the morning, and revealed a red and white US track and field T-shirt. O’Brien looked and spoke like a coach with a room of eager pupils taking in every word.

O’Brien was one of the keynote presenters at the 2006 Missouri Track and Cross Country Coaches Association clinic, which took place in Columbia on Friday and Saturday. About 450 track coaches from all levels and from all parts of the state took part in the informational sessions, which were organized by Hickman cross country coach Steve Kissane.

O’Brien’s session on hurdling techniques followed another presentation he gave that highlighted keys to developing young track and field athletes. O’Brien used his current role as an assistant coach at Arizona State University and his experience as an athlete to draw examples of successful techniques in coaching.

Labeled as the world’s greatest athlete following his dominating, gold-medal-winning performance at the Atlanta Games, O’Brien advised coaches on how to help their athletes deal with both failure and success.

He had been the face of Reebok leading up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. With O’Brien alongside rival Dave Johnson, Reebok developed a marketing campaign designed to build interest in the decathlon and Reebok. But O’Brien failed to qualify for the Games. The marketing campaign suffered, and O’Brien had to deal with failure.

“I failed in 1992,” he said. “The toughest part of failure was dealing with the people around me because I wasn’t as hurt as they were. We’re all going to struggle at some point. Failure is a part of the process.”

He offered tips on weight training. He emphasized frequency of training rather than length of workouts. He challenged coaches to take a step back and let their athletes learn and experience things for themselves.

Then he shared a personal anecdote in an effort to illustrate the power of motivation.

As a high school athlete, O’Brien was one of 15 decathletes invited to take part in a national decathlon clinic. During one of the opening sessions, Milt Campbell, a former US decathlete, pointed to O’Brien and asked him to stand up.

“What do you want to be more than anything?” Campbell asked the teenager.

“I want to be a great athlete,” O’Brien responded.

“Then you should quit,” Campbell said. “Because you are already a great athlete.”

That’s all the motivation O’Brien needed.

“The clouds parted. The rays of light came in. The choir started singing behind me,” O’Brien said, with a grin. “It was an epiphany. After that, I went to bed with a purpose, and I woke up with a purpose.”

As he concluded, O’Brien joked about the importance that quotes and music played in his career. They served as motivation, provided energy and sustained him during his roughest times, which included years of academic ineligibility and substance abuse.

Then, he fittingly followed with an inspirational closing message of his own.

“My message to those kids is that (losing) is part of track and field,” O’Brien said. “Winning isn’t the only thing.”

He paused for a second. He smiled.

“Though it’s a lot of fun.”

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