Coaches seek to find the edge of human performance and inspire exceptional athletes to step out into track and field’s unknown. In the field of competitive running, Renato Canova is considered one of the world’s greatest coaches and mentors. His passion for the sport has led to dozens of Olympic medals, world records, marathon championships, and has changed the lives of many athletes in Kenya and around the world.
In this article, National Geographic Young Explorer Andrew Arnold, speaks with Coach Canova about the mentality of a coach and his role in steering athletes to victory.
The Road less travelled
A coach must be an explorer. A coach must always be striving to find something new.
As a boy living in Northern Italy in the aftermath of World War II, Renato Canova would dream of being a track and field coach. Eyes glued to a black-and-white television set, he would imagine leading athletes to new heights and new speeds. Today, he counts world-champion athletes including Gelindo Bordin, Moses Mosop and Stephen Cherono, in the lists of runners he has coached. Multiple International Athletic Federations have also called on his wisdom to help guide their programs
In 1988, he experienced every coach’s dream, serving to guide Gelindo Bordin to an Olympic Gold medal in the marathon. He already been promoted to the highest levels of the sport, serving as technical director for the Italian Athletic Federation. During this time, had spent 30 years refining his craft, coaching every track and field discipline from decathlon to marathon. But still, Canova believed that there was more to learn.
“Europe had changed,” declared the ageing Italian man, his broken english made eloquent by his thick Turin accent. “The lifestyle had changed, the interests and mentality had changed. I could not find athletes that had the mental toughness required for being the best, like Gelindo Bordin or Carlos Lopez before him. By the late 90’s, the East Africans had become the best distance runners in the world, and so I decided to go and learn what they were doing”. In October, 1998, Coach Canova left what he knew behind and flew to Kenya.
When you remain inside what you already know, you don’t leave room for improvement.
A Coach & Mentor
The more experience you have, the better suited you are to learning what can motivate and improve each individual runner.
Through his years of experience, Canova asserts that there is no specific formula to a champion, and every athlete is different. The best coach is someone who synthesizes everything he knows to help solve individual situations.
The importance of mental endurance in training, forms a key aspect to sports psychology and Canova’s approach to coaching. The Italian coach states “ I love athletics and I love to discover humanity’s limits. I am motivated to see where these men and women can arrive.” However, in order to coach effectively, especially in Kenya, one must be a good teacher. For Canova, an effective coach must have charisma, and use it to form a community of athletes, and lead them. More than anything else, a good coach must learn not only how to speak to the athletes, but how to listen to them.
This development of trust has allowed Canova to peer into the minds of some of the fastest human beings in the world.
THE MIND OF AN ATHLETE
The elderly Italian points out how mentality is key to understanding Kenya’s endurance running success, “What’s interesting is that the Kenyan’s rarely know their physical shape. Instead, they simply believe that they are always in their best shape. So, when there is a top competition, they always are in the top mental shape. Leading up to the races start, they constantly repeat to themselves, ‘I’m in shape, top shape…top shape’ even when it is not true.
It is when they have the combination between the real, physical shape and the mental shape, that they become almost unbeatable.
The wisdom of Experience
Canova’s training plans and coaching philosophies are as abundant in western Kenya as its undulating maize fields and grass thatched houses. Renato credits his popularity and success to his appreciation of the subtler points in coaching.
As one who has experience coaching various disciplines in track and field, Canova takes a generalist approach to coaching. He currently organizes multiple distance groups in Kenya, including 800 meter, steeplechase, and marathon groups. But before coming to the Rift Valley, he had also coached the sprints, throws, hurdles, and even basketball while in Italy.
It is like learning languages. The more you languages you are fluent in, the easier it becomes to learn the next one. The same applies to coaching athletes. The more experience you have, the better suited you are to learning what can motivate and improve each individual runner.
Canova’s extensive experience and resume is why he has been called on by various federations to help improve their athletes. USA, Qatar, Ethiopia, and Bahrain have all sought to acquire both his athletes and philosophies. More recently, in 2013, the Chinese federation flew him to Beijing to help orchestrate a major overhaul to their distance running program. But despite these lucrative offers and positions, the wizened Coach remains in his humble Kenyan home.
When asked how he stays motivated after all these years, Canova smiled, “We must find those dark places, the unknowns, and find a way to move forward. Over time, we discover places no one knew existed before”.
Andrew J. Arnold III is the recipient of the National Geographic Young Explorers grant in support of his proposed project “The Enculturated Champion – A Holistic Analysis of the Kenyan Distance Running Phenomenon.” This project with National Geographic has allowed him to travel to Iten, Kenya, where he trains and lives with the world’s greatest endurance athletes.