A Former Olympian makes his transition into coaching

An excerpt of this profile was originally published in the February issue of The Polygon.

It’s a warm, summer day in Athens, Greece and Richard James has just bolted across the finish line to win the 2004 World Championship. Thirteen years later, he’s become the head strength and conditioning coach at Poly Prep as he attempts to pave the way for the next generation of athletes.

Richard James, born in the late seventies, grew up in Port Antonio, a small town in Jamaica with less than fifteen thousand residents. He went to Titchfield High School where he says that he “became the young man that ultimately turned into Richard James.”  Education was incredibly valuable to James; however, education in Jamaica is not subsidized by the government past middle school. This led James to start track and field, which he found he had a natural talent in. As a track and field athlete, he says that there were certain “accommodations” that the school would give him to allow him to continue his education. During James’s childhood, his “finances were always an issue,” he said. “The majority of my problems came from a lack of funds.” James says he needed track and field to stay in school, as he “had to find ways to create funding for my education.”

However, being an Olympian wasn’t always James’s childhood dream. Growing up, he was incredibly fascinated with biology and said he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. “When I was a kid I was always fascinated with the medical field. I really loved the fact that as a person, you can affect another person’s life.” However, due to James’s financial status, he had to pour all his time, energy, and effort into track and field while giving “a very general effort to academics, because I knew that’s what I needed to do to get out of my current situation.” He was forced to give up his dream of being an orthopedic surgeon because he knew that “at the time, being a track and field athlete was a low hanging fruit.”

James says that his upbringing played a major role in molding him into the man he became. He told me that he doesn’t “ think I would’ve pushed myself as hard had I not had the background that I had.” He talked about the old adage ‘Necessity is the mother of all invention’ and that if he “had been given all the luxuries of the world, I wouldn’t have learned how to adapt.”

James credits his success in his track and field career to his “ability to endure ridiculous amounts of punishment.” However, to become an Olympian and world champion, he said he needed to do a number of other things to attain the level of success he needed to get out of his current situation. First, he says that he had to recognize that “I, Richard James, am worth better than the things that I was currently experiencing.” He says that this empowered him to truly see and understand the goals and the success that he wanted and allowed him to work towards them. Second, he says that he had to understand that the pain he experienced through his training was temporary. In fact, James actually says that the pain is necessary as “pain is a part of the process of growth.” He compared it to the growth of a seed, saying that “If you plant a corn seed in some soil, the first thing that happens is the small tree breaks through the skin of the corn seed.” Throughout his training, James says that he himself “had to break through his fears, identifying them and then finding out the most effective way to deal with them.” He was not afraid of getting hurt during his training, in fact accepting the possibility that it could happen, as the end result would be a significant improvement in his skill.

Jordan James, James’s son, offered his thoughts and insights on his dad from his own perspective. Jordan describes his father as “a cool person to be around, while he’s strict at certain times of the day he’s really fun when he gets home.” We talk at the end of the day, and a tired Jordan exhales and also jokes that “he’s very exhausted and exhausting sometimes.” Jordan categorizes his dad as a workaholic, saying that “he’s always working late, creating plans for students, and going on business trips.” Above all else, Jordan says, is his dad’s ability “to always be willing to have fun.” He talks about how it’s the quality he admires the most about his dad. “My dad will probably have some other situation going on that doesn’t make him happy, but he will always still find a way to have fun.”

Now, James is trying to teach and inspire a new generation of athletes to attain the greatness he once did. “The thing that led me into coaching and training was intense love for progress.” James said, recognizing that “as kids, we don’t know the path to greatness, and not everyone has been given that path.” He says he was inspired by his own mentor, Oril Dunston, when he was still a student in Jamaica. “I was fortunate to have Mr. Oril Dunston as my mentor, who basically gave me an outlook on how to build on the skills that I possess.” James says that his experiences with Dunston motivated him to become a coach, saying that “a coach is just someone who hopes to guide individuals towards success, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

James does not just coach at Poly, but has athletes all throughout the world that he trains during the summer. He trains in every continent excluding Antarctica, and says he loves being able to reach out and provide help and support to an extremely vast number of athletes from across the globe.

James says that he loves coaching, and it doesn’t feel like work to him. He calls coaching his Ikigai, a Japanese term for “life’s purpose,” which operates under four pillars or ideas. The first pillar is doing what you love, and James says that unlike anything else, he “loves physical activity, and I love training.” The second pillar is making a positive impact on the world, or helping others. “When I’m coaching, I’m helping individuals push past their self imposed limitations.” The third pillar, he says, is that it’s something you can get better at. James says this helps him stay motivated to coach and always keep pushing to improve. “As a coach, I see myself growing everyday. I see new kids, showing up with new issues, needing new guidance.” James says. “I love the fact that I can grow from it everyday.” The fourth and final pillar is that you can make a living out of your profession, and James says he can make “a pretty good living” out of coaching. By living through this Japanese philosophy, James is able to keep getting better at coaching, and says that Ikigai is his “mantra for coaching.”

James says that he wants to help his athletes become better people, and that “recognizing how fears can become crippling, I wanted to be a coach. Had Mr. Dunston not said to me, ‘Hey, you’re actually pretty good,’ I would still be in Jamaica right now.” He tells me that “coaching is not a job, it’s a lifestyle, and to me, it’s the most honorable lifestyle you can have.”