What I learned as a Distance Coach by working with Sprinters

This past weekend, I made my annual pilgrimage down to Charleston for the final meet of the season with my Assistant Coaches and our 10 state qualifiers.  Most of those state qualifiers were distance runners.  One was a high jumper.  None were sprinters.  That should give some context on how successful I was in my first year coaching the fast kids.  That being said, the sprint corps and I made halting progress together this year.  We succeeded in getting many of the better football players to join us, won in the sprint relays a couple of times on the lower levels, and only twice all season dropped a baton (the one measure by which we are better than the US National team).


The Track/FB connection

A far better blogger than I, Tony Holler, has written extensively about how crucial it is for Track teams to partner up with Football, and how often ego, stubbornness, and antiquated thinking prevents this from happening:  see here, here, and here.  Being well-read in the ‘Holler’ canon, as soon as I took the position of head Track Coach, I knew the very first action I needed to take was to go directly to our head football coach, Dan Hartman, to ask what I could do to earn his support.  I had a few things going for me: first, Dan is a former Track guy, a sub-40 300 hurdlers in his high school days in Indiana.  Second, we teach in the same department – in fact, in the same room (believe it or not, Hinsdale Central has inadequate facilities, so sharing of rooms is commonplace, though these unhappy circumstances proved fortuitous in my case).  Third, we have another colleague in our department, Chris Korfist, who is at the forefront of bringing Track and Football together, and who is unquestionably one of the very best sprint coaches in the nation.  Dan and I both lean heavily on Chris for advice on how to improve the speed and strength of our athletes.  And Chris, to his eternal credit, has been incredibly open to sharing ideas with us – within days of my promotion to head coach, he began feeding me journal articles and links to current research and helped me develop a training program, and throughout the season has offered encouragement and support.  That Chris, Dan, and I all teach in the same department is an unusual but happy coincidence which smoothed my path by making it easier for me to earn trust.  I’d established some credibility by helping to build up our Cross Country program and was able to gain more simply by interfacing with Chris and Dan each day, keeping them abreast of our progress and comparing notes on our shared athletes.

I was also lucky to have Christian Bobak as a senior leader.  Christian was Hinsdale Central’s star running back, and was offered a spot on University of Illinois’ roster for next season (he leaves for training camp in two weeks).  He was also a four-year track guy who was not an elite athlete from the beginning, but who became one through focus, determination, hard work, and growth.  Bobak brought instant credibility to the idea that Track and Football are complimentary.  He also proved a great role model for pushing back against the trend, all too common in our school, of seniors in their second semester dropping out of athletics.


Senior Track/Football star Christian Bobak, anchoring our 4*200 at Sectionals

So, of the 10 athletes that competed in the sprint events (100, 200, 4*100, 4*200) at the Outdoor Conference Meet, 7 were Football players.  Our two best frosh/soph horizontal jumpers (Robert Banda and Joey DiJohn) were freshmen football players.  Four of our six throwers at Conference played football (Phil Barrett, Drew Christensen, Matt Bjorson, and Owen Joyce).  On our total roster, we had 40 guys who played football: 4 hurdlers, 5 horizontal jumpers, 5 high jumpers, 10 throwers, 15 ‘pure sprinters’ and 1 guy who joined middle distance.  By comparison, we had only 6 guys on the entire team who played soccer for Hinsdale Central in the fall: Freshman hurdling sensation Ethan Ruth, freshman distance runner Keegan Caveney (whose older brother TJ was a member of our first state champion Cross Country team), sophomore middle distance runner Luca Karginov, Sophomore middle distance runner Matt Alvero, senior sprinter Matt Hillock, and senior middle distance runner Steven Coan (who came out for the first time as a senior and ended up as our top 400 runner, finishing 3rd in conference with a PR of 50.7).


Senior Stephen Coan powers home to a surprising 3rd place at Conference.  Coan was one of only six soccer players to join our team.

From the winter sports, we managed to recruit three basketball players (all of them freshmen: sprinter Charlie Lyne and high jumpers Hayden Waters and Danell Nicholson.  Nicholson finished 4th in conference at the Soph level and had a PR of 5’6”).  We had twelve wrestlers.  We had two swimmers.  Oh, and we had 63 Cross Country runners.

Of those 40 Football guys, only 3 were seniors and 7 are juniors.  The key for our team will be keeping the 30 frosh/soph guys and adding to those numbers each year, while also trying to cultivate the kind of relationship we have with the football team with the basketball and soccer programs.  If we manage that, I like our chances.


Top Speed

Here is one thing distance runners hardly ever do: see just how fast you can run.  I don’t mean see how fast you can cover 200 or 400 or even 50 meters.  I mean see what is the absolute fastest velocity you can reach in a single moment.  What is your top miles per hour you can reach?  I’d previously look at a workout like 4*10 meter flys and just not get it. How could 40 meters of work be sufficient for a workout?  Pretty much every Monday all season consisted of the same workout: a dymanic sprint warm-up with lots of bounding, spiking up, then 4 fly 10s intermixed with prime times or mini hurdles and, by outdoor, 4 block starts of 20-30 meters.  Then, a lacate workout (such as 3*150) on Wednesday and  meet Friday or Saturday.  That’s it.  The goal is to be explosive.

We did use the Freelap system, which I liked a lot.  I love the instantaneous feedback.  I took me some time in the first week to figure out how to use the system, but now I can have it set up and running within a few minutes.  I did find, though, that guys with fast fly 10s or even fast 40s did not always become our best 100 and 200 runners.  A challenge I face is figuring out how to help a kid who is fast over 10 meters carry that through the longer track sprints.  You’ll never hear of a football player rushing for a 200 yard gain.


Sophomore Garrett Oakey and Freshman Luke Skokna are both excellent Football Players who chose to come out for Track.  Skokna was also a state qualifier in wrestling.  Both contributed to successful Sophomore relays: 1st place in the 4*100 at the Bud Mohn’s Invite, 1st place in the 4*200 at the LT Relays, 2nd place in the 4*100 at Outdoor Conference. Skokna was also 3rd in the 100 and 4th in the 200 at Conference; Oakey 7th in the 100 and 5th in the 200.   


And speaking of challenges, probably the biggest adjustment for me this year has been having less time to focus on my own physical well-being, and, relatedly, a loss in the time I have to develop relationships with the athletes I coach.  For the past decade as a distance coach, I’ve run virtually every workout with the team.  Up until my daughter was born (on November 19, 2015) I’d not run less than 50 miles per week in almost four years.  By running with the distance guys on a nearly daily basis most days of the year, I got to know them very well: what makes them tick, their hopes and dreams as well as greatest fears, their personality quirks and outside interests.  You can find out a lot about someone by running alongside them for 90 minutes every Monday all summer and Fall.  Less so when they are running flys.  I tried to make sprint practices short but efficient, and thus simply had less face to face time with the athletes in that group than I do with my distance runners.  There were some opportunities to learn about their lives through informal conversations on meet days or on bus rides, but figuring out ways to develop a genuine bond will take time and creativity.  It is what I felt I had to sacrifice the most this season as I moved to coaching sprinters and also took on the many administrative responsibilities of head coach (organizing home meets, keeping track of attendance and uniforms, managing the budget, establishing and revising lineups, submitting entries, planning the team banquet, etc.)


It was also always an advantage to ask an athlete to do something that they knew you would be doing as well.  I ran 25*400 with the guys, and so when I asked the distance runners to dig deep within themselves to find the reserves to get through a tough workout, they’d respect me for doing the same myself.  I spoke their language.  With our sprinters, though, I have the challenge of bridging cultures: I am 5’7” and 120 pounds and could probably be picked up and thrown by Drew Christensen and Phil Barrett, our top discuss throwers.  I never played organized football growing up.  I don’t know Xs and Os.  My authority this year came largely due to the fact that the football players knew Coach Hartman approved of my leadership.  Trying to earn their respect on my own has not been easy.  It’s the difference between coaching a sport you played yourself versus coaching a sport you haven’t.  I can explain the theory and can administer workouts, but I don’t know the gut level feeling of what a good block start feels like, or a clean exchange. I imagine this is what many coaches struggle with – projecting confidence in an area where you know you are still a relative novice.  It’s a little like travelling in a non-English speaking foreign country.  You do the best you can, try really hard to fit in, smile and nod a lot, but deep down feel pretty self-conscious and insecure.  Feeling adequate will take a lot more time and hard work.

Year one as a head coach has been hard, as I expected it would be.  Indoors, I spent mornings before school working with the sprinters and afternoons running the workout outside in the Midwestern wintry conditions with the distance guys, taught as best I could during the day, and tried to be a supportive husband and father at night.  And Track is a very long season, so this was difficult to sustain.  By outdoors, the weather improved (somewhat) but the intensity did not abate.  Between May 4th and May 15th we competed in 5 meets (three of which we hosted), had the conference seed meeting and held our team banquet.  I owe thanks to my own cross country and track coaches for instilling me with the fortitude to manage such challenges.  Those 11 days were craziest of the season, but offered plenty of excitement which helped sustain me through, from freshmen Matt Kusak, Keegan Caveney, and Alec Hill all running 10:22 at the LT/York tri on May 4th to Jared Neumann earning the 110 Hurdle Conference title at DGN on the 13th.  One great thing about being head coach is it makes every moment of every meet meaningful, as there is always an HC athlete competing.  I not only have a newfound appreciate for sprinting, but for throwing, jumping, and hurdling as well.


Senior team MVP Jared Neumann seals victory in the Conference 110 High Hurdles

In conclusion, the year has forced me far outside my comfort zone, but that, of course, is where the most growth occurs (it’s what we’re constantly preaching to the athletes we coach).  Hinsdale Central boy’s Track has no significant legacy to speak of: one outdoor conference title (in 2004) since World War II, no state trophies, only a handful of all-state athletes over the past decades and no all-state relays yet.  There is tremendous room for growth, and I think I know the path to get there.  But knowing and executing are two very different things and in this sport you are never far away from a clipped hurdle, a step one inch beyond the line, a baton just out of grasp.  Therein lies the challenge, therein the elusive reward.


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