Part 3 – This is part three of a three part series on the stages of developing a high school cross country program.
In hindsight, I now believe that the SHCP team reached the midpoint of building a cross country program in the summer of 2004. We had a lot of frosh-soph runners in the 2004 track season and a big core group of them were from a talented freshmen class of boys. We lined up twenty boys in the mile in our dual meet against St. Ignatius just to show off our strong and large group. After that race I sat the boys down on the grass and told them my timeline of goals: 2004-make it to CCS (the section championship meet), 2005-contend at CCS, 2006-make it to State Meet. Making it to the State Meet was my realistic but big goal that would have seemed impossible to fathom back in my first years. It had been four years since SHC had qualified a boys team to CCS. Qualifying for CCS could have been seen as a big goal. I was talking about the State Meet. This talented freshmen group would be seniors in 2006 and I wanted to put the goal out there early.
We ended the track season with many of our frosh-soph runners breaking five minutes in the mile. In fact, I wrote a story about the significance of this for the SHCP website in August 2004. The 2004 season went better than expected and not only did we qualify for CCS, we were contenders, coming in sixth. We had achieved the 2005 goal a year early. The question became, could we achieve the 2006 State Meet goal in 2005? I was unrelenting in my desire for the boys to strive for this seemingly impossible goal. When we qualified for the State Meet in 2005 I was beside myself with pride. The SHCP team had moved past the midpoint stage of development into the final phase – we were not just a cross country team, but a cross country program.
The same things that are important in the beginning and middle stages are still important at the end. The kids still need to have fun and there needs to be sound training principles in place. But now that SHCP is in this final phase I don’t have to go out of my way to make it fun or make sure we are following sound training principles. It’s pretty natural and normal for us to have all that; I just need to not forget to schedule non-running social events for the team, to make practice both challenging and interesting, and to find ways to recognize all the kids for their hard efforts!
A hallmark of the final phase is consistency. Both our boys and girls teams of the past few years have been very consistent. The varsity, the junior varsity, and the frosh-soph are competitive in league competition and the varsity usually places in the top six at CCS. All of this seems to happen regardless of the talent pool. Sure, some years will be better than others, but a hallmark of a program in this final stage is the ability to be consistently competitive year in and year out.
This past fall I realized that I was in a really good place with the program. We were training at a high level and as we prepared for the final championship meets I had very few things that I wanted to tweak from our usual training. We started having the boys and girls warm-up separately and without the coaches being present because that’s what they did on race day. We also had the kids practice running the last 1000 meters of the race. We tried to simulate everything – making them tired like they would feel in the race, matching the terrain and elevation change, and even having the kids run alone because often they may not have a teammate nearby to help push through the pain during a race. After we qualified for the State Meet we started as many practices as we could at 8:30 A.M. because that’s what time the first race at the State Meet would be, and I wanted them to get their bodies used to working hard in the morning.
I absolutely love coaching cross country. I think Anna, Steve, Jimi, Paul, Tomas, and Mark would tell you the same thing. Steve may have described it best when he said, “My guys give me their trust and 100% effort day in and day out. This in turn, gives me my drive to provide a program that is fun and challenging. There is nothing like watching your athletes toe the line, nervously waiting for the gun to go off. All the training, speeches and preparation come down to the next 16 minutes. And it is those 16 minutes of sprinting around a cross country course yelling encouragement and instructions to my team, when I know I love coaching.”
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.
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.