Employee #1 - A Night With Joe Newton

By LetsRun.com Employee #1 Emory Mort
February 26, 2010
Los Angeles, California

Coach Joe Newton, called Mr. Newton by the thousands of boys he has coached at York for over 50 years, has won 26 state cross country titles. His boys teams at the suburban Chicago school have grown to now include over 200 members. An author of training and coaching books, in 1988 Newton was the first high school coach asked to help coach the US Olympic team.

It's not often you feel like you're in the presence of a living, fire-breathing legend.

Tuesday night I attended a coaching clinic put on by Nike in their Los Angeles office and heard a speech from York cross country coach Joe Newton. At 81 years of age the man had complete command of the room filled - standing room only - with about 400 SoCal high school coaches and Nike employees. When he wanted us to laugh, we laughed. When he wanted us silent, we were silent. Essentially, he did whatever the hell he wanted to do - mostly telling stories aimed at getting his audience fired up about coaching, teaching or whatever else we're doing with our lives.

The man is a dynamo, a force. There's no other way to describe it. He could have had the whole room stand on their heads in about 5 seconds if that's what he wanted. His speech was more like a magical performance than anything else.

But his performance is more than smoke and mirrors, it's damn near a treatise on how to live your life. His message is simple, and that's what I want to spread to you, because I believe if more coaches and teachers followed this man's lead, we'd be a hell of a lot more happy. We needn't really idolize the man, we just need to listen to what he's saying:

Early in the speech Newton said: "There are a lot of people who know a lot about running, but they don't know doodelly squat about coaching."

I completely agree with that. Team building, character building, people building is much different than telling a kid how many miles to run and at what pace. For many athletes, their relationship with their coach can be as close or closer than their relationship with their parents. So the relationship is extremely important, the team dynamic is extremely important. I agree with what he's saying, but putting it to practice is another story. So what does Newton have to say about team and relationship building?


   Dyestat CA video of Joe Newton's speech at Nike. To see part II or part III, click the links. At this link is an interview with Joe Newton.

Lessons from Newton about the team dynamic
He didn't mention these two things in his speech, but Newton shakes the hand of every kid at every practice (he currently has over 200 boys on his xc team). He gives every kid a nickname and tries to mention every kid by name while they run during every practice. Those two things make a lot of sense, if we really want every kid on the team to feel like a valued member of the team.

Newton talked about how he asks the kids on his team three questions before every season:
1. Can I trust you? Because you can trust me.
2. Are you committed to excellence? Because I'm committed to excellence.
3. Do you care about me? Because I LOVE you.

How many of us are afraid or hesitant to be that honest, that genuine, that direct? I know I have been. There is no better feeling than having a coach who tells you flat out that he trusts you, he wants you to achieve excellent things, and he loves you. There are lots of coaches who know what Jack Daniels' chart says the VO2 max pace for their 5:00 miler is, but how many coaches let each kid on the team know that they love them? In this way, I think Newton's message is brilliant, because it's simple and effective!

Trailer for Joe Newton Documentary
"The Long Green Line"
which came out in 2009.

Healthy, Happy and Terrific!
Newton doesn't talk solely about running. He rips off old stories that he's told a million times, but hey they're pretty damn good and often pretty damn funny. Newton is one of few people who will get up in front of a crowd and not be afraid to shout 'em out.

"Love your job!"

"Say it out loud: 'I am healthy, happy and terrific!' "

"Whatever the human mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve."

"You can change your life if you can change your attitude."

Just writing these things makes me practically fly out of my seat and out the window! They're simple, they're right on, and they make you see that the sky is the limit.

Obviously I'm not Joe Newton. I'm just sitting here writing down words he said the other night. But I'm sitting here writing them for a reason - they're right on. They're the kind of things most people read and remember for 5 minutes. Most people, we read them and say, "well that doesn't apply to me." Wrong. It does apply to us, and that's the whole point of an 81-year-old flapping his gums and wings around while the crowd can't get enough of it. It's great that we all love Newton but it would be better if more of us would light a fire in ourselves and really lived with fire.

We should not just get the message, but live the message, spread the message.

Newton told a story of his friend's daughter Sarah, whom he met back in 1988. Sarah was then 10 and had no legs and one arm. Newton asked her why and how she was so happy, considering her situation that most people would consider horribly tragic. Sarah's answer is below, but before I get to it, I'll go on with the story.

Sarah told Newton she was trying to swim across the local pool. He suggested she go in the shallow end... a big mistake. Sarah told him angrily that she would go across the deep end where the big guys swim. To make a long story short (which I hate to do because it was a great story), Newton checked back in after 11 months. Sarah had 3 feet to go. 10 months later he called again, and she had made it. A journey that would require 5 seconds for a person like me took Sarah 2 years.

Sarah's quote? "Every day I do the best I can, with what I got."

In a way, Sarah's journey and Newton's journey are similar. Newton is only a revered coach because of dogged persistence for half a century. Not because of anything but showing up to school - every day - for years on end and caring, really caring, about what he was doing and the people he was working with. He could have looked at his lot as average, as middling, as depressing, but instead he tried to make something great out of it.

Naysayers, we can all dig in to Newton. He works them too hard, they only win for this or that reason. But I'm just glad whenever I see someone passionate about helping others, about loving others, about building something excellent. So I told myself on Tuesday night that I would try to share Newton's message with the LetsRun readership, the hundreds of thousands of people who come to the site to learn about the sport and get inspired.

I read almost everything that goes up on this site, and Newton's message is probably the message most people need to pay more attention to. Less attention should go to results and great performers, and more attention should be paid to effort, and the process, and the attitude required to make a difference, which are exactly the things Newton talks about.

When Will It Be Over?
You may wonder when Newton will stop coaching cross country at York. In his words, "People ask me when I'm going to stop coaching. I figure a cross country course is a great place to die." It's no wonder his opponents can't stand competing against him. The man loves his job and his team so much that he figures on dying while coaching with them.

You can't beat that.

More Joe Newton:
*To Learn More About Newton In A Great DyeStat Interview, Click Here

*In 2009, a DVD Documentary on Joe Newton's magic at York, "The Long Green Line" came out. You can buy it here. (The Trailer is above). We have not watched it, but after reading about this talk may be inspired to do so.

*Newton has also written a book Coaching Cross Country Successfully which is available at Amazon.

(Full Disclosure: If you buy a book or DVD we do get a small commission from our partners)


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