Assistant coach Johnny Gray stands on the edge of the track, stopwatch in hand. As another runner passes him, he calls out again, “Good swing!”
This simple two-word phrase is an important tool for Gray, one that he uses on a daily basis to critique and encourage his athletes. This phrase, as well as the similar “good speed,” lets Gray’s athletes know when they are doing well and when their technique is correct.
But as Gray explains more and more about his coaching philosophy, it becomes clear that “good swing” means more than that. In some ways, it is his coaching philosophy, and even his life philosophy.
As Gray says, he is a father figure to these athletes, there to provide advice and mentorship.
“A coach is like a parent ““ you have to inspire (the athletes) to do better, inspire them to accomplish their goals,” Gray said. “The only difference is I don’t have to feed them, or pay for their school.”
When Gray speaks, his athletes listen, and not just because he is engaging.
Gray still stands as America’s best ever in the 800 meters, setting the record at 1:42.60 in 1985.He is a four-time Olympian, having captured the bronze medal in the 800m of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and holds the world record in the 600m with a time of 1:12.81.
“He’s speaking from experience, great experience,” coach Mike Maynard said. “When one of the best ever in the world in the 800m tells you what you ought to do, people tend to listen, you know?”
So what does “good swing” mean? What is Gray telling his athletes?
In terms of running technique, it literally means his athletes are moving their legs correctly in order to run the proper race strategy. But that’s not all the phrase accounts for.
“Good swing” means consistency. Instead of telling his runners specific lap times, Gray tells them “good swing.”
“If you run using time, rather than motion, you are just trying to hit a specific time,” Gray said. “Then, you might be using poor technique or be lazy. If I see that they develop a consistency with a swing motion, it helps me judge what they can run.”
“Good swing” means improvement.
“The ultimate goal is to get better,” Gray said.
Just as telling runners to hit a specific time can build bad habits, it can also limit their growth. Instead, “good swing” ensures that they use proper technique every time, while the run time gradually decreases.
“Fifty-three (seconds) is 53 next week as it is today,” Gray continues. “”˜Good swing’ could be 53 today and 49 next week. It just doesn’t slow your growth.”
“Good swing” means working hard. A runner can’t slack off and be using “good swing” at the same time, because his own ability, not somebody else’s, dictates his time. By constantly preaching those two words, Gray hopes that his athletes see the value in working hard.
“Through pain comes glory,” Gray said. “When you accomplish something through hard work, you appreciate it.”
“Good swing” means doing your best.
The 50-year-old coach doesn’t ask his runners to win the race, or to beat this opponent or that one, but simply to do their best.
“That’s what I teach my athletes. … If you line up nine runners, only one can win,” Gray said. “As long as you put your best effort out there, then you’re a winner.”
“Good swing” means doing things the right way. A runner can only be consistent, improve, work hard and do their best by doing things the right way. Anything else is cheating, Gray says.
Having run against steroid users during his own career as a track athlete, Gray used to get frustrated because he was clean and working as hard as he could, but would still lose.
“At one moment, I thought about cheating, until my coach told me, “˜Johnny, you don’t need to cheat. They need to cheat to keep up with you,’” Gray recalls.
And when he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Gray says he was glad he did it the right way.
Coaches at UCLA are held to a higher standard because the legacy was built by one of the all-time greats, John Wooden, so coaching will never just be training. According to Maynard, Gray epitomizes that tradition.
“He’s what a coach really should be; he’s a mentor, and he’s taking care of the mind, body, spirit,” Maynard said. “That’s what makes a great coach.”
Gray only knows that brand of coaching. Through his entire career, Gray trained under one coach, Merle McGee, who was a father figure to him. The ideas that Gray is passing on to his athletes are not pulled from a book, but from his own experience. Well, for the most part, anyway.
“But then I use the book to see if I’m right, and to see if the book is right,” Gray said with a laugh.
As serious as Gray is about coaching and running, he is a joyful man, and an optimist.
It’s impossible not to notice, and Gray’s star athlete, senior distance runner Cory Primm, certainly has.
“Coach Gray is always positive, always about taking advantage of an advantage, about looking at the upside. It doesn’t sound like much, but it really is,” Primm said.
And most importantly, Gray clearly lives by what he preaches to his athletes, something Maynard believes is truly critical in a coach.
“I think he can be a better coach than he was an athlete, and he was a great athlete. I think he strives for excellence, and that’s what I love about him,” Maynard said.
Gray may end up a great coach, or he may not. It is certain, however, that he will try.
“”˜Good swing’ is not something you hit; it’s something you do,” Gray said.
And clearly, coach Gray is doing it.