The stages of developing a high school cross country program, Part 1
Part 1 – This is part one of a three part series on the stages of developing a high school cross country program.
There are a number of Pamakid Runners who are coaches. Anna Kurtz is the head coach at Bay School in San Francisco. Anna is assisted by Pamakids, Jimi Smith and Paul Zager. Steve Holcombe is the head coach at San Leandro High School. I am the head coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP), assisted by Pamakids, Tomas Palermo and Mark Hermano.
As I reflected back on the recently completed fall 2010 high school cross country season, I noticed that all three teams are in different stages of development. As a first year coach, Anna was just starting to put her team in place. Steve, in his fifth year, after a few years of building, has his team in the middle stage of development. Me, in my thirteenth year, realized that for the last few years, I have had my team in the final stage. That doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement. It just means that my program is in place, something I was striving for since my first year and a place I hope to keep us for many many years.
When I got the job as head coach at SHCP in the summer of 1998, I inherited a fairly decent girls’ team and a pretty mediocre boys’ team. I had 28 returning runners from the previous year. This group was not used to running everyday. They weren’t even used to the idea of coming to practice everyday. I had work to do. I was lucky to get an incoming freshmen group of seventeen that included two future star varsity girls and a pack of pretty talented and hard working boys. There were definitely runners to start building the team around. I remember Neil McDonagh, the top runner from our rival school St. Ignatius, talking to me at a meet. He prophetically told me that I had some good young runners who had potential, and that I also had some lazy veterans who didn’t work hard. He advised me to keep doing what I was doing. Eventually the lazy ones would “buy in” or quit and I would be left with a solid team.
I was helped that first year by my assistant coach, Nydia Rivera, who ran at Lowell High School when I was an assistant coach there. Nydia and I were able to bring many of the things that made us successful at Lowell to SHCP. It didn’t take much to make the team faster; any form of structured training would be an improvement. My main goals for that first team were to make the kids like the competition, challenges, and social nature of cross country. I wanted them to make coming to practice and doing challenging workouts part of their normal routine. Let’s face it, on a high school campus the cross country team isn’t typically seen as very cool. I needed to create intrinsic rewards so that the kids would want to be part of the cross country team family. I made sure to make it fun, hoping that many would come back the next year. One thing that is always fun for kids is doing well and feeling that they belong. I strategically scheduled some low-key meets that gave us opportunities to have team success. I worked hard to welcome everyone and to instill pride in being part of the Irish cross country team.
Anna interviewed for an assistant coach position at the Bay School in July 2010. When the head coach quit, all of a sudden Anna was a head coach!
The Bay School had seventeen runners, five girls and twelve boys. Only six runners were returning members of the cross country team. Four had never run competitively before. One sophomore boy started as a complete novice. “He was the only kid to show up for the first week of the pre-season, and he never missed a single practice after that,” said Anna, “On that first day, I asked him whether he had done any running before, and he asked ‘does running for the bus count?’”
A big part of laying the foundation for a new cross country program is often changing the existing culture and expectations. At Bay School, before Anna, things were pretty casual: practice was four days a week and the team raced at league meets only (no weekend invitationals). The team mentality was that the team was not good enough to run in varsity races. Anna needed to come in with a vision of what makes a successful program. “I also really encouraged and relied on parental involvement to get a culture going. With a small team and a non-spectator sport, having parents come to the meets and bring food for afterwards helped make the meets more of an event.”
“Since our team was so new, both to running and to each other, a big part of the season was helping them figure out how to be a team – how to stretch together, train together, race together, and cheer together,” said Anna, “All of it was new to them. Just how new it was came home to me at our first track workout at Kezar Stadium. To me, lining up to do intervals is automatic – you go to the line; if there isn’t a clear line to toe, you judge where to be based on the guy next to you; everyone bunches together in a few lanes, and if you’re going to be running in the back, you start in the back. Each of my small group of runners took their own lane. Convincing them that they could bunch up in lanes two and three actually took some work. Teaching things like this, that I take for granted, took more time than I anticipated.”
“Their daily stretching routine served as a good window both for how they were developing as athletes and socially as a team,” said Anna, “For the first week or so, I led the stretches. Then, I asked for volunteers to lead stretches. After a few weeks, and once we had captains, they took over.”
From humble beginnings, Anna began the process of building up Bay School’s team. Her successes include having a runner place in three invitationals (frosh or frosh-soph races) and taking a boys team of five (three freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior) to the North Coast Section (NCS) Championship meet where they placed fifteenth out of twenty teams.