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The stages of developing a high school cross country program, Part 2


Coach Steve Holcombe and the San Leandro HS Team


Part 2 – This is part two of a three part series on the stages of developing a high school cross country program.

Steve Holcombe began his coaching career as a SHCP track & field assistant coach in the spring of 2006. In the fall of 2006 he moved to San Leandro where he started as an assistant coach. By 2007, he had become the head coach.

“When I showed up for practice on the first day of school of my first year there were only ten runners on the team. We ran a mile on the track. Half of them had to walk because no one had run since track season,” remembered Steve.

During Steve’s first two years he had a different area of emphasis each year. The first year he emphasized routine and the second year he emphasized commitment and accountability.

“My main goal during my first year as head coach was to create routines for the whole team for warm-ups, race days, practices, and anything and everything running. Not only does a routine insure everything is done and done correctly, it creates structure to the program. The students took ownership of practice as they could lead warm ups and workouts.” It is interesting that both Steve and Anna mention establishing a good warm-up routine as a key to building up a cross country program. 

“Now that the team had a structure to build from, my main focus for year two was to encourage my runners to set goals and commit to achieving their goals. The program didn’t have morning practice or summer practice before I became head coach. In order to reach the goals the runners set for themselves they had to run throughout the summer, before school, and on the weekends. We still don’t have the entire team at summer practice or optional weekend practices, but changing the mentality of the team to expect these practices as part of their path to their goal was not an easy task.” Hmm…changing the existing mentality and culture…that sounds familiar, too.  

On the first day of the 2010 San Leandro season, five years after having only ten students on the first day of the season, Steve said they had 35 runners, many who ran the entire summer. “Our run on the first day was an eleven miler into Castro Valley via Lake Chabot,” said Steve, “My pre-practice speech was all about how far the team had come in the last few years.”

Now that he had created routines and changed the mentality of the team, Steve had a team that wanted to run fast and was willing to put in the work to do so. Now he was finally able to create a workout plan that allowed his runners to build a strong base, have a successful racing season, and peak for the championship season. “My third year coaching was the first time I could challenge my runners to increase the intensity of their training. We finally had a program, now it was time to ‘get fast,’” said Steve.

San Leandro has reached the midpoint of program development. A key element of this stage is to have a realistic but big goal. The goal should be something that would have seemed impossible at the beginning. For San Leandro that goal was to run an 85:00 team time (17:00 per runner for the top five runners at the championship meet). Muddy conditions at the 2010 NCS Championships prevented San Leandro from achieving their time goal but they did place eleventh out of twenty teams. It was the team’s best showing since a tenth place finish in 2001. In fact, in the eight year period between 2002 and 2009, the best San Leandro had done was to come in third to last at NCS.


One Response to 'The stages of developing a high school cross country program, Part 2'

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  1. Have you read Joe Newton’s Coaching Cross Country Successfully? He runs one of the top programs in the country and I ran in college with one of his former Varsity runners (#4 I think).

    There’s a lot in that book about developing the program. For example, recruiting is huge for them. On the first day of school they hit up every PE class and try to sign people up, asking each of them, “Can you run 90 seconds?”

    The first practice for those new runners is simply to run one lap of the track. Somehow they take kids up from that one lap up to 100+ mile weeks as seniors.

    Another thing to shoot for: they go to state meet in limos and are accompanied by the school marching band.

    It was pretty funny to run with this kid, because he clearly had a stronger allegiance to his high school team than he did to his college team (even though we’d won 24/25 conference championships). I think that says something about how special that high school program was.

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