Assistant Coaches – Tomas Palermo, one of the best
I’ve had plenty of great moments as the head coach of the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) cross country and track & field teams. I’m now in my fourteenth year of being the head coach and my list of successes on the track, in the field, on the race course, and most importantly in the development of young men and women is endless. I am smart enough to know that I owe much of the program’s success to the athletes out there training and competing, and to the assistant coaches.
Assistant coaches work behind the scenes teaching techniques, offering encouraging words, providing motivation, and being a good listener; they make or break a program. I would love to be able to teach every athlete on the team techniques, offer them all encouraging words, provide them all with personalized motivation, and have time to talk to and listen to each athlete one-on-one every day. But there is just one of me and forty-five athletes in cross country and ninety-five athletes in track & field. I can’t be everywhere and I can’t be everything for every athlete everyday. This is where strong assistant coaches are vital.
I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with good assistants. My main criteria when looking at potential assistant coaches is passion for the sport, patience, and a sense of how the high school athletic experience fits into the life of a high school student. I’m not looking for tons of technical training experience. It’s nice if they know the sport, but if not I can teach it to them. First they have to be passionate about the sport. Their enthusiasm will rub off on the kids. Also, with passion comes a willingness to learn coaching and training techniques. Patience is a virtue, and it certainly is necessary when working with high school kids. You have to be willing to sacrifice your time for the kids. You have to be able to cajole them into doing things. You have to not judge the book by its cover, but instead take the time to find the hidden gem inside each of the kids. High school athletics is a co-curricular experience. There are rules that need to be enforced, and the goal is to train hard and to be as successful as possible. But this needs to fit into the framework of the activity being only a high school sport, not life and death. Coaches are educators and the top priority is to teach life lessons. Kids won’t remember in ten years what place they came in at the league finals but they’ll remember the bus ride to the meet with their friends. That’s how it works and there’s nothing wrong with that. I want assistant coaches who can make sure the athlete is challenged and having fun at the same time. If the kids get both, then being on the SHC cross country or track & field team will be one of the highlights of their high school days.
On Monday, January 30, the 2012 track & field season will officially begin. It will be the first season since 2004 that Tomas Palermo isn’t on my SHC coaching staff. I first recruited Tomas to coach with me in 2004. He ran with the adult track workout group that I coach and he clearly possessed the traits described above that I look for in an assistant coach. He didn’t have previous coaching experience but that didn’t matter to me. The fact that he ran at St. Francis High School, one of our league rivals, counted neither for him or against him. For the last fifteen seasons, eight in cross country and seven in track & field, Tomas has been there. We’ve celebrated school records, Central Coast Section (CCS) and State Meet qualifiers, as well as kids just developing into fine young men and women. We’ve mulled over meet line-ups, training plans, and disciplinary issues. What’s best for the program? What’s best for the kid in the big picture?
Over the years Tomas has developed great coaching skills. His familiarity with my style allows him to echo my thoughts to kids and tweak workouts as necessary. He’s been a mentor for numerous SHC kids. Ironically, seven girls from Tomas’ first cross country season in 2004 have been or are going to come back and be an assistant coach at SHC. At meets he meticulously records splits with the exacting detail that I like (first leg of the 4X4 splits at the 800 start line and the rest of the legs are split at the finish line). At practice he helps come up with the assistant coach assignments so that all the assistants get to interact with different kids and still perform the necessary assigned training duties. He has an uncanny sense of when something memorable is about to take place and he grabs the camera to photograph the moment.
His relationships with the kids are, however, what make him special. He can talk Giants baseball during a long run with Nate W., sit in the stands with Izzy A. before practice, start a pull-up competition with Geoffrey Y. and Dominic R., discuss music with James M. and Bryan F., video games with Daniel K., and writing and movies with Sophie C-B. “DJ Tomas,” “Tommy,” and “Coach T” are just some of his nicknames, and we coaches all know that getting a nickname from the kids is basically their stamp of approval. In our end of season evaluations kids always reference the good advice and inspiration that he provides. One student thanked him for staying with him for a long run, both to help him not get lost and also for motivating him to run the whole way. Another evaluation red, “Coach Tomas is the bomb diggity” (Urban Dictionary translation: totally the awesomest, no lie).
I will always remember Tomas’s first season in 2004. It had been an emotional season. In September the top returning girl, Melanie S. broke her leg on a freak fall at the end of practice. The girls were devastated and it took a lot of energy to keep them from falling apart emotionally. Our chances of the girls team qualifying for State Meet went down significantly without Melanie S. At the same time we had a good young boys team but no one that was expected to make it to State. That was the team dynamic as we headed to Toro Park in Salinas for the CCS Championships. Melanie S. came with us and gave a great speech the night before the race. As a first year coach, Tomas came to me the morning of the race and commented that the kids were all going to really “leave it all out there” and we coaches should be ready at the finish line to help carry some of them through the finish chute. Tomas couldn’t have been more right. He read the mood of the team and the look in their eyes and thus we were ready with extra water and staff at the finish line. “Leaving it all out there” is now pretty much a hallmark of the SHC teams. I often associate the beginning of this tradition to that day back in 2004 and Tomas’ first CCS meet as a coach.
It’s been a great run of eight years with Tomas as a SHC assistant coach. I’m sure he’ll still come around and cheer on the team because not only is he passionate about the sport, he’s passionate about seeing the SHC teams compete. Life takes many turns and I suspect someday he may wear the SHC coach hat again because his heart is definitely in education. But for now, I must face the 2012 season without my trusted friend and fellow coach. Tomas, that evaluation had it right, you are the bomb diggity!