Coaching the Elites

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Two weeks ago, Josh Priester stood on the track of Stoffer Family Stadium, the same track he competed on as an undergraduate student athlete at George Fox. This time, he wasn’t the athlete.

Priester is now the founder and executive director of the Santa Barbara Track Club, and he brought his elite athletes to train at the George Fox facility before they headed to Eugene, OR for the USA Track and Field Championships hosted at Hayward Field. One of his athletes, Barbara Nwaba, would go on to win the national championship in the heptathlon with a personal best 6,500 points. He was watchful and engaged as his athletes trained — ensuring they didn’t push so hard that their bodies couldn’t give a peak performance at the championships that weekend.

His journey to the national stage as a coach of elite athletes began more than a decade ago. After competing very successfully in the decathlon at George Fox, he transitioned from student-athlete to coach at George Fox. He soon after made the jump to UC-Santa Barbara, an NCAA Division 1 school. He saw the need for a track and field program for elite athletes with the desire and talent to compete professionally after graduation, and created the Santa Barbara Track Club to fit that purpose. The athletes who train with him also work with the community by serving as coaches and mentors to youth.

Priester now spends his days training some of the most talented heptathletes and decathletes in the country. At the USA Track and Field Championships, all four of the athletes he brought from his club placed in the top 10. Three will advance to the Thorpe Cup in Germany, and Barbara Nwaba, the newly crowned champion in the heptathlon, will represent the United States at the IAAF World Championships held this August in Beijing, China. And with the 2016 Olympic games set to be hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, momentum is building and excitement is mounting for what could be in store for this 26-year-old budding star.

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While Priester was back on the George Fox campus, it was easy to see how formative his experience as a student-athlete and coach has been in his life. He credited George Fox’s current head coach, John Smith, for shaping much of his philosophy around coaching. “That’s one of the great things about a small college,” Priester stated. “You can have that connection with your professors and coaches. The slogan of the university is “Be Known” and that’s case in point.”

In 2004 Priester was preparing to transfer from Lane Community College to a four-year university. He met Smith and the two did some informal training together. “Right away I got the sense that John was a guy who cared about his student-athletes a lot more than just as an athlete. A lot of coaches just aren’t that way, and that stuck in my mind. I looked at some other schools, and finally it came down to the fact that this is where I felt like I should go.”

Priester remembered that Smith never twisted his arm, but instead was transparent about what the George Fox track program was built on and what he stood for as a coach. “Looking back on that now from the standpoint a track as a coach, I can see how much more I learned from John than I would have at any other place I could have gone to.”

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He credited Smith with showing him how to be a good teacher. “A good coach doesn’t just stand on the track watching his athletes, he’s teaching them. “I wouldn’t be prepared to do what I’m doing now if not for my education at George Fox.”

He also pointed out Byron Shenk as a professor who shaped his life. “He regularly reminded us in our kinesiology classes that ‘education is not about having all the answers. It’s about knowing where to go to find them.'”

Priester says that the process of preparing to be the athlete who has the gold medal or wins the championship is the part of competition that he loves the most. He said there’s far more to it than that, though. “From a big picture perspective, I try to get these athletes to understand that as big as track and field is, it’s just a sport. There are so many things that an athlete can learn from being involved in athletics. The principles that you apply by being a heptathlete are the same principles you’ll apply when you’re in your career and with your family giving your best effort.”

“We don’t talk about setting PRs and we don’t talk about where athletes will finish, because that’s out of our control.” Priester grinned, “With that said, it sure is fun to be competitive.”


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