One of the little things that sometimes happens at a cross country championship meet is uniform switching. I’ve always enjoyed watching it unfold or reading about it afterward and as a coach, have thought about psychological advantage of such a ploy.
One reason to do the uniform switch is to hide from another team. In 1992, the top two boys teams in California were Hart High School and Thousand Oaks High School (TOHS). They had met head-to-head twice during the season with Thousand Oaks coming out on top both times. The week before the state meet, Thousand Oaks beat Hart, 53-104, running a 79:29 team time to Hart’s 80:49. But Hart was the two-time defending champions and they would not go down without a fight. At the State Meet, they changed from their traditional white, black, and red uniform to a very non-descript grey uniform. I believe they did this to throw TOHS off. TOHS was used to looking for the usual Hart uniforms and probably had a race plan to match-up and beat Hart. But since Hart came out wearing something different, TOHS may have been thrown off just a bit and may have had a hard time identifying their top competitor among the hundreds of runners in the pack. The end result was an upset win for Hart, 53-80. Hart ran 79:29 to TO’s 80:13. It was Hart’s third straight state championship and a terrific send-off for Hart coach Gene Blankenship who would move to Washington after the season.
I’ve never had the opportunity to ask anyone from Hart or TOHS if the uniform change affected the race strategies but in my mind the element of surprise played a roll in Hart’s win. Not seeing the uniform you are expecting can throw you off. In 2008, at the Central Coast Section (CCS) Championships, the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) boys team was hoping to sneak up and beat Monterey High School. It would take a tremendous effort but we were going to go for it – everyone knew to go after the yellow and green uniform. After our team cheer I jogged to the side of the course and right in front of me, I saw Monterey taking off their usual yellow and green uniform and putting on a solid green uniform. AHH! It was too late for me to go warn the boys. Monterey had pulled a fast one on us. They also ran really really well and beat us. I don’t think the uniform switch changed the outcome of the meet.
The team I most associate with the uniform switch is Nordhoff High School. I remember watching them at the start line of the state meet. They took a strider, went back to the start line and took off their uniform and had a different one underneath. But they weren’t done. They took another strider, went back to the start line, and peeled off their uniform again, where they had another uniform underneath. I learned some years later at a coaches’ clinic from their coach Ken Reeves that the whole idea started when he was cleaning out their storage shed and the team saw some of the old uniforms from years gone by. It’s now one of their team traditions to wear a uniform from the past at the state meet. He considers it a way to pay homage to their past teams and their history (Nordhoff has won a state record eleven state championships). Coach Reeves also smiled at the thought that other teams were getting psyched out by this uniform change.
Psychologically, a team may feel they are getting an “advantage” by doing this…and if that’s how they feel, then why tell them there is no advantage? With the Monterey uniform switch fresh in our minds, the SHC team decided to participate in what one of my seniors called “trickery” at the 2009 CCS Championships. My rationale: it would be fun and memorable and it gave us something else to focus on in the moments right before the race, rather than be nervous about the race. We planned it out all week. The team took their final striders in their usual uniform but underneath they had the uniform we had used in previous years. When the team came in for our huddle, all the supporters gathered around the team forming a “wall” so no one could see what we were doing. What were we doing? Stripping down to our old uniform. When the team emerged after our “Irish Pride” cheer to toe the line, we had a different look. Now it’s true that both new and old uniforms brazenly displayed “IRISH” across the front and the “old” uniforms were only one year old so we weren’t exactly hiding or fooling anyone. But it was fun nonetheless.
There certainly is no substitute for training if you want to do well at a championship meet. But if you‘ve done all the preparation and you are looking for one last thing to do to be ready for the meet then maybe consider the ol’ uniform swticheroo!