Coaching a collegiate track and field team in the United States had been a dream of mine for 20 years. Being from the south of England, this did present some obstacles—not the least of which was that I was at best a mediocre athlete. So, I would be unable to fast-track the process by getting a scholarship to compete for an American university and get my foot in the door via that route. (Not to diminish anyone who has entered the profession that way, but it is clearly advantageous to be around the coaching staff as an athlete for four years if you then want to work at that institution.) I also didn’t have the reputation built by being an international athlete that, again, opens doors.
Having wrapped up my first year of college coaching at University St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, I wanted to write about my experiences—and a little background about where I had come from before that is important to frame my insights. Heading into this job, I had a pretty sound theoretical understanding of sprint training and programming and came from a career that developed strong communication skills. But while these are extremely important aspects of college coaching, there is much more to the job, and I am sure that as I continue to gain experience, I will learn there is far more that I still do not know.
Looking back on the past two decades, my desire to coach in college influenced quite a few decisions I made along the way. For example, I decided to qualify as a teacher, which:
- Offered me the potential to travel (helpful when hoping to work in another country).
- Enhanced my understanding and experience with regard to the pedagogical process.
As it turned out, this career move helped more than I could have realized once I entered the coaching profession.
As discussed in my article “9 Lessons I Learned from Speed Experts,” I was extremely fortunate to be able to interact with some of the best coaches and athletes in the sport and ask questions (at what I assume was—and still is—quite an annoying rate). Consequently, the different things I tried were not just stabs in the dark, but I was guided through some of the thought processes by excellent practitioners.
Taking advantage of the potential for travel that teaching offered, in early 2013, I applied for several jobs in the United States. Not only was I not offered any, but I did not even get an interview. At the same time, around 100 teaching jobs were advertised in Dubai, and I was lucky enough to be offered one. That’s where I got my first opportunity to do some paid coaching work, although it was typically on a session-by-session basis. I did not have a “squad” of athletes, but I was essentially consulting with athletes, typically teenagers, who wanted to get faster for athletics or another sport.
Throughout the early part of the pandemic, I became far more involved in the social media scene regarding sprint training and was invited to write for SimpliFaster—both of which helped get my name circulating a bit more (though I am under no illusion that I’m well known). In January 2021, my wife was offered a new job in Houston, and a friend of mine, Kieran Showler-Davis (who coaches at Carson-Newman), forwarded me a job posting for an assistant track and field coach at University St. Thomas. I reached out to a few people I had met through my track and field journey to see if they had any contacts at UST, and a couple did—Matt Kane at Florida State, and Richie Mercado at St. John’s High School in Houston. I passed on my resume via those channels while also applying through the official means, and after the interview process, I was delighted to discover I had been offered the job.
What follows are some of the aspects of my job that I didn’t understand much before I started. I think it would have been helpful to read something like this before I took the position.
Lead image of Coach Maris with Josiah on the left and Makale on the right, both 100m and 200m sprinters.
1. Know the Rules Involving the Calendar and Compliance
One of the first things required of me when I started the position was to take the NCAA Division 3 rules test. The test was in an open book format, so it was not hugely challenging. However, looking through the rule book, what struck me was simply the size of the document, a 259-page PDF! The rules are designed to protect the athlete and minimize the risk of their involvement in athletics impacting their studies and capacity to earn their degree.
A lot of the rules are common sense, so I approached every scenario as such. If there was anything I was unsure about, I would speak with our assistant athletic director, Nik Barjaktarevic, who looks after NCAA rule compliance for UST. For example, I was invited to be on a Twitter Space call discussing the recruiting process and my experiences, but I was not sure if I was allowed to do this since I might be interacting with some potential recruits. So, I had Nik check the details for me, and it turned out I was fine to be on the call, but I could not discuss the specifics of our program or promote it.
Additionally, the Director of Cross Country and Track and Field, Coach Ryan Dohner, took care of a lot of the planning, which helped navigate many of the obstacles that the rules had put in place. For example, as a Division 3 institution that participates in both indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, we are allowed to coach the athletes in person for 24 weeks per year, but Coach Dohner largely took care of arranging the training calendar. This did present some challenges, however, as we set our calendar to train from mid-September until the week of Thanksgiving and then had no in-person contact with the athletes until mid-January. Then, after one week of in-person training, we had our first competition of the season.
We provided voluntary workouts for the athletes during this period of non-contact, and they were able to ask questions and provide feedback. But as a coach, I could not stay on top of them regarding the sessions by following up and asking how they had done, so the ball was very much in their court in terms of communication. As with many teenagers, they were not too forthcoming.
Would the season have started better if we had more in-person contact with the athletes directly before the first meet? I’m not sure. I can say that the athletes all improved noticeably on their performances from the first meet, but that could just as easily have been down to them getting used to competing again and the specific stimulus from the competitions themselves.
2. It Starts with Recruiting
As I mentioned, I never got the opportunity to attend college in the United States and never went through the recruiting process as an athlete (nor did I see other athletes or coaches go through it). I knew that this was perhaps the most critical part of the job in terms of building a successful team. While, of course, speed can be developed through effective training, genetics will always be the trump card. There were also considerations regarding the athletes’ personalities:
- Would they be receptive to coaching?
- Would they be a team player and help support the positive environment we wanted to build at practice?
Additionally, they needed to meet the academic requirements, and we needed to be confident they would be able to take care of their academics once admitted. Otherwise, the time they could need from us to ensure they maintain good academic standing is time we can no longer invest in other team members. Coach Dohner and the other assistant track and field coach, Jarrick Wright, were great at answering any questions I had, and they gave me some pointers to get going. Still, to learn, I just needed to get some time in the trenches and figure out the methods that were the most comfortable for me.
I essentially saw it as a numbers game: the more athletes I approached, the more who would be interested. Using MileSplit, I got a rankings list and worked out roughly what performance level would be appropriate for me to recruit…and then went to work. The MileSplit lists include the name of the high school that the athlete attends, so I hunted out the coaches’ contact information from the various high schools and reached out to as many as I could.
When doing this, I noticed that the responses that came back were typically short, regardless of whether they were positive or negative. I took this to mean that these coaches were busy (who knew?), so they probably did not want to read a lengthy email. Consequently, while I made an effort to personalize every email (I think generic emails can put people off in general), I kept them as concise as possible.
Once connected with an athlete, I did the same: personal and concise. Where possible, I communicated via text message, believing it was more in tune with how my demographic preferred to correspond. In addition, I always did my best to respond promptly to any contact from a recruit; while this is a natural trait of mine, it was reinforced in my teaching career. An easy way to help get a parent on my side was to respond to emails outside of work hours and to do so promptly. I believe it demonstrates that you genuinely want to help, and it’s not just a job.
I typically had one phone call with each recruit to learn a bit about them, tell them about the school and our track and field program, and provide them with the opportunity to ask questions. I got into a pretty good routine regarding the information I would give them, and the more I did it, the more I got a sense of what was important to potential student-athletes and what the benefits of attending UST may be.
With local recruits, in particular, I always invited them for a visit, and it soon became apparent that it made sense to have multiple recruits visit at the same time. Not only was it more efficient, but the group visits created more energy throughout the tour and gave them someone in their situation to speak with if, for example, they were watching the team practice.It made sense to have a few recruits visit at the same time. Not only was it more efficient, but the group visits created more energy throughout the tour, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
However, it also became apparent that there was an upper limit to the number of recruits on a visit that was manageable. If I had four recruits visiting, and together we met the admissions team to discuss the academic and financial aspects of attending UST, then dealing with individual queries left other recruits listening to a lot of information that perhaps was not relevant to them. And I don’t want a recruit leaving UST feeling like they’d been left waiting or bored.
Of course, the rules dictated a lot of what I was able to do and not able to do while recruiting. This became a steep learning curve once recruits accepted offers and wanted to sign a celebratory form and put it on social media.
I think part of this is down to the cultural difference of being a Brit living in America. In Britain, we typically do not celebrate anything as much as is common in America. So, it was a foreign concept to me when recruits who had committed to UST wanted to know if they could now come for an official visit—which was essentially for ceremonial purposes—and when the best time to sign was. It took a few conversations with Nik before I was comfortable handling these requests.
3. Prepare to Offer Mentorship and Guidance
While I entered the job somewhat naïve regarding recruiting, it was something I knew would be a rather significant part of the role. I had not really anticipated the amount of time needed to mentor my athletes through aspects of their lives that had nothing to do with track and the importance of doing so.I hadn’t anticipated the amount of time needed to mentor my athletes through aspects of their lives that had nothing to do with track and the importance of doing so, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
We have a couple of systems in place to support the athletes academically. They are expected to sign into the library for three hours per week to study, and we meet with them twice per semester on a one-to-one basis to check through their grades and offer advice should there be any issues in any of their classes (or we do this weekly if the athlete is ineligible or close to it). The main benefit of these policies is that they provide an extra layer of accountability.
Once a student goes to college, especially if they are living away from home for the first time, there is a level of newfound freedom that is highly seductive…but what perhaps is not quite so alluring is the responsibility required to manage this. As a department, we try to put a little structure in place to help ease the transition from being a high school athlete living with parents to being a college athlete living independently.
If any logistical issues arose, I was often the first person the athletes came to—and this has definitely been the case with athletes I have been recruiting this year, ready to start at UST this fall ahead of the 2022 track and field season. Issues regarding housing, information about signing up for classes, and getting schedules in place are all examples of things that athletes have asked me about. While I may not have all the answers, I can refer them to the relevant person, and I am becoming more familiar with how more of these processes operate.
In addition to academic and logistical issues, as coaches, we become the first port of call for some personal issues as well. Terence Burke, a friend of mine and former coach at San Francisco State, once told me that as their coach, we are probably the adult athletes see more than any other, so a bond develops. As with anything, though, it took experiencing this firsthand to really get a good understanding of what he meant.
It was humbling when athletes reached out and asked if I would write a letter of recommendation for them or be a reference on an application for a summer job. In many cases, the connection with the athletes goes far deeper than what happens for a couple of hours each day on the track or in the weight room.It could be argued that effective mentorship is the most important part of the job as we help young athletes navigate the path toward adulthood, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
This is an area where my previous career in teaching was highly beneficial; a fundamental principle of being an effective teacher is building positive relationships with young people and guiding them through challenges, something that is directly applicable to a collegiate coaching position. While I mentioned that recruiting may be the most critical part of the job in terms of building a successful team, from a more holistic perspective, it could be argued that effective mentorship is the most important part of the job as we help young athletes navigate the path toward adulthood.
4. Time Management Is Critical
A factor that I had not considered when I began this role was time management and my schedule. Coming from teaching, time management was largely dictated for me. I knew exactly where I needed to be and what I needed to do at each point in the working day (except for lunch and free periods).
I am lucky enough to have a great head coach, Ryan Dohner, and a great athletic director, Todd Smith, who do not demand that I need to be in the office while working. I have about a 40-minute commute each way to work when there is no traffic, and those of you who know what Houston traffic can be like know that the journey time would most likely double if I were expected to remain at the office until 5 p.m.
When I first began in the position in late July 2021, we had no athletes on campus—there were no workouts to lead, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Other than compiling a list of athletes I was going to approach and try to recruit, I wasn’t too sure what else I was supposed to be doing…and this made me feel a little uneasy. I was sure some things needed to be done, but I wasn’t sure what they were. And if I had an idea, I also likely wasn’t sure of the best way to tackle that task.
Within a couple of months, I learned that this feeling would be counterbalanced by busy periods when I would be at the track at 6:30 a.m. to set up for a 7:00 a.m. workout. After training, I would head to the office and take care of administrative tasks and emails, or if I had a recruit visiting, I would show them around the campus. At around midday, we may have a weight room workout, so I would then leave campus and head home at around 1:30 p.m.
In the evening, I may have two or three recruiting calls. These typically take 30 minutes or so each by the time I’ve followed up after the call and sent the recruit information on majors they may be interested in, connected them with admissions to outline the application procedure, and sent them a link that can give them a guide as to how much of an academic scholarship they may be entitled to. Meanwhile, other recruits may be texting me questions or information, which takes time to manage.
Once the competition season starts, I could be away for a night or two for meets at the weekend, a time during which some of the other required tasks cannot be tended to. The point here isn’t to necessarily justify how busy I am but more to indicate that time management strategies are helpful in a job like this. These strategies can help create a more consistent work pattern and help me avoid times when I feel like I’m twiddling my thumbs and not doing a lot, while also avoiding times when I’m in bed at 10:30 p.m. managing texts and emails, knowing my alarm will wake me at 5:30 a.m. the following day for practice.The point here is to indicate how time management strategies are valuable in a job like this, helping to create a more consistent work pattern, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
Toward the end of the year, I felt like I had a better handle on managing my time, but this is an area I think I particularly need to continue to work on to strike a better life/work balance.
Other Odds and Ends
There have been several other things that I had not really considered would be a part of my responsibility when going into collegiate coaching.
Taking equipment, such as batons, to the meet: This sounds ridiculous, but when competing in the U.K., I never thought about where the equipment came from. When it was time for a relay, an official simply appeared with a baton and gave it to us, and at the end of the race, we returned it. I had no idea I would be the one responsible for ensuring we had our own baton for any relays we entered.
Planning the team’s schedule: I think the slight cultural difference in the U.K. is at least partly responsible for my lack of consideration of this. In the U.K., track and field—or “athletics” for any international readers—operates inside a club system. The club is entered into a league within that system, and the club and league officials determine the fixtures. The coaches are then given a calendar for those meets, and the athletes are given the opportunity to race at those meets.
As college coaches, we are responsible for finding appropriate competitions, contacting their organizers, and entering them. This does bring with it some challenges as a small school in Houston surrounded by several schools with rich track and field heritages—we are not always automatically able to enter.
Arranging travel and driving vans: Again, in my experience as an athlete in the sport, the coach wasn’t responsible for travel arrangements. This was taken care of by the club officials higher up in the organization. While Coach Dohner takes care of most of these arrangements, I have been involved in ensuring hotels are paid and booking transport.
I wasn’t too surprised to discover I would be required to drive vans to local meets, but I have become VERY familiar with the stretch of the I-10 between Houston and San Antonio!It sounds ridiculous, but one of the most challenging parts of the job is trying to provide meals on a budget that 30–40 athletes in their late teens/early 20s will all like, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
Arranging lunch for the team at meets: This is potentially one of the most challenging parts of the job! It sounds ridiculous, but it is a logistical nightmare to try to provide meals on a budget that 30–40 athletes in their late teens/early twenties will all like. I still have no idea what the best way to approach this is, as democracy doesn’t always keep everyone happy. Everyone wants to share their opinion, and getting food from multiple places becomes time-consuming and has its own logistical challenges.
I have had a great time in this job throughout my first year (except when arranging lunches), and I have really grown to enjoy the recruiting aspect of the role as well. The athletes I have worked with have all been great, and while there was a period of us getting to know each other and the expectations, I do not think it could have gone any more smoothly than it did. We had some great results from our athletes at the conference meet, including sixth place in the men’s 100 meters, three out of the top six places in the women’s 100 meters, and first place in the women’s 4×100 meter relay.
We have more great young people joining our team next season, and I think we will only get more competitive in our conference, which I’m excited about! This article has highlighted my lack of experience heading into this role. While I was transparent about that throughout the application process, I hope UST isn’t questioning why they decided to hire me!
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF