Coach Eric Hisaw is in his 24th year of coaching at Walla Walla High School in Washington State. Before coming to Walla Walla, he was the Washington State 110h and 300m Hurdle Champion (and then 3A state meet record holder in 300h). During his 24 years as a Walla Walla Blue Devil, the track and field program has won 17 regular season conference titles and 10 district and regional titles and placed in the top six at the 4A State Meet six times, and the boys’ team was the 2019 4A State Track & Field Champions. He has been voted Conference Coach of the Year 12 times, and in 2019 was fortunate to be voted the Washington State Boys Track & Field Coach of the year, the Washington Coach’s Association Boys Track & Field Coach of the Year, and the NFHS Washington State Boys Track and Field Coach of the Year.
Freelap USA: You presented recently on the importance of “Creating and Sustaining a Dynamic Program & Culture.” This is a two-part question. Why is culture building so important? What sort of culture do you aim to create in your program, and what are the signs of such a culture?
Eric Hisaw: I think establishing a positive culture, a place that kids want to be and can be proud of, is everything. We all like being involved in something we are passionate about and proud to be a part of. But it’s not just a buzzword. Culture has to be intentional in everything we do. Every moment matters when you are trying to create and sustain a dynamic culture.
When you build it, kids want to be a part of it, because they know they’ll be taken care of, they’ll be loved, they’ll have fun, and they’ll succeed. When kids believe in each other, their coaches, and the process of the season, we can build confidence. That confidence radiates from one kid to another, and the program not only acts confidently but competes internally and becomes a better team. Teams win championships, teams uphold standards, teams create memories and moments. Positive cultures create consistency, sustained competitiveness, and lifelong memories.
We are always trying to create, sustain, and strengthen a culture of excellence. Every moment matters. As a staff, it’s our mantra and what we focus on every day. Every kid will be coached and feel valued. We believe we have to make every kid feel appreciated, welcomed, and loved. We have to be the best two hours of their lives each day. We have to be the place they look forward to coming to, whether it’s for community, safety, camaraderie, or athletic excellence. We have to be their extended family, and we love being here for them.
It’s a big deal to me to let kids know I love their effort, coachability, attitude, and them. I say the word “love” a lot. Kids know I mean it in an appropriate way, but that I love them as the person they are, every day. They may not get that at home, and I firmly believe they need to feel loved by an adult, so they can pass this on through their life.
We also talk about trust a lot in our program. Trust is becoming more difficult to establish in today’s world. But when you do what you say, and you say what you mean, respectfully, you can earn it. Sometimes it takes a while, but over time when a kid believes in you as a coach, they learn how to trust. And, as coaches, we must earn trust from our kids, so we can help them be the best they can be. If they trust us and fall in love with our sport, they’ll have better buy-in, and they will be not only better teammates, but better athletes. They will do whatever you ask of them, and then they take off and soar.
There are a lot of signs that demonstrate you have the culture you’re trying to build and sustain, and the cool thing is that it’s different every year at the high school level. I think a couple of great indicators are consistency in program numbers and success (win/losses), observing kids practice what you preach, and listening to and watching your kids interact and repeat what you say and preach.Happy, competitive kids drive a positive and contagious culture, says @EHisaw. Click To Tweet
Our kids believe we are really good, and they truly want to continue our great tradition and history. When our kids leave their events, we see them thank the event judges, clean up trash, volunteer to grab equipment to take to the bus, and help set up practice. They don’t complain, they aren’t negative, they know it’s about being selfless, and they go out of their way to do things right. When you watch and hear them coach each other, support and lift one another up, and celebrate, it’s awesome. Those are the victories we need to celebrate as coaches. Happy, competitive kids drive a positive and contagious culture.
Freelap USA: What are some steps that you would recommend to a coach aiming to transform the culture of their program?
Eric Hisaw: Whether you are trying to start a program or transform one, I believe you have to do a few very important things:
- Create your personal coaching mission statement. Ask yourself: Why are you coaching? What are you trying to teach kids in life and athletics? What does it feel like to be coached by you? What does your practice feel like? Would you want to be coached by you? How will your thoughts and actions lead your team and staff?
- Mine is: “To selflessly develop and improve young people’s character, loyalty, honesty, competitive desire, and work ethic in track and field, to better prepare them for the rigors of life.”
- This keeps me in check! Yes, I want to win. I hate losing with every ounce of my being, but my job is to: 1) Develop people through the sport I coach, and 2) Win, without compromising these principles. A kid may not win an event, but if they check off all those attributes above, I’ve developed a winner in life, and that’s what really matters. That’s successful leadership and coaching and creating life-long relationships.
- Create a program mission and vision statement. What do you want your program to be and where do you want it to go? Again, you must know and understand what you want to create and what you want to see as the end result of a season or career for kids. Help establish a successful road map for your kids and program to travel on. Here are ours:
- Mission Statement: To create a productive and successful son/daughter, student, and
citizen in life through track and field.
- Vision Statement: For track and field to be the single-most positive influence on our
student-athlete’s journey at Walla Walla High School.
They are simple but deep. They aren’t about winning championships. They are about developing people, memories, successful moments, and a positive future. These are things we can control, that we can improve. The athletic results will follow because the kids will do anything for you, because you are invested in and love them. We tell our kids this every year. These statements are posted in our track shed, so kids see them every day. It’s important they understand you are here for them, not an event.Our program mission and vision statements are about developing people, memories, successful moments, and a positive future. These are things we can control & improve. The athletic results will follow. Click To Tweet
- Establish the “big rocks” you are going to build upon. These have to be non-negotiable. And I don’t mean like grades, missing practice, etc. Obviously, those are huge, but you must decide what you want your program to truly be about and hang its hat on. When you find those 3-6 concepts or ideals, you have to move your program via these rocks! For example, three of ours at Walla Walla are:
- No one leaves the meet until it is over. You are out of the tent cheering for the 4×4. This is our game. Stay, support, cheer, and be part of what you signed up to be a part of. No one leaves a football or basketball game in the third quarter because they’re not playing. If your events are done, be the best teammate you can. Your teammates need you!
- Be the kind of person/teammate that someone else would like to emulate. Lift others up. Be selfless. When you invest more in others, you get more back in return.
- We don’t say the word “can’t,” and negativity is not allowed. Negativity is contagious. “Can’t” is a terrible four-letter word. We don’t let kids dwell in negativity. We talk about the “next” opportunity.
- Don’t let the previous event or attempt poorly affect your next. It’s done, over, in the past. Learn and move on with confidence. And it’s okay to struggle, but you’re learning and trying. You will be able to do it, but sometimes it takes longer. Saying you can’t means you’ve quit. And we don’t allow quitters or that word in our program.
- It’s amazing how much more positive and productive your practice can be when you make kids say things in an understandable and positive manner. They try harder to accomplish things, because you are literally making them work toward success and believe they can succeed. Then you must celebrate the success you see them achieve. You must celebrate when they do what you ask; they’ve bought in and trusted you.
Freelap USA: I know you’re a hurdles guy. What are your tried-and-true methods for identifying potential hurdle talent and turning kids into hurdlers?
Eric Hisaw: I look for kids who are competitive, coachable, courageous, relentless, rhythmic. And they must have speed. Now, we don’t always get all those attributes in a kid as a high school hurdler, but they can’t just have one out of the six, either.
To be an elite hurdler, you have to have real speed—it’s no secret. But you can have “good” speed and be a great hurdler. So, if you find kids who run tall, with high hips, who bounce well off the ground, if you can see they’ve got some rhythm, you’re on your way.
Hurdles aren’t for everyone. They challenge you every day. That’s why a kid has to be coachable. Hurdlers get coached more than a sprinter because there are so many more parts to analyze. They have to be competitive and relentless. Hurdles cause problems, and kids have to get over them (pun intended). If they can’t learn and move on, if they can’t get out of their own head, they’ve got no chance. They must be coachable and courageous and have an unwavering belief in you and in themselves.
Freelap USA: In your opinion, what are the most important training considerations for short hurdlers, and how do you address them throughout the season?
Eric Hisaw: I don’t think it’s a real surprise that the short hurdler’s #1 training consideration has to be speed development. And next, there has to be rhythm for the event. Rhythm is almost #1, because the short hurdles aren’t a true sprint. The hurdles create a constant barrier that disrupts the athlete’s ability to improve max velocity, like in the 100-meter dash. The event is a continuous repetition of acceleration, balance, strength, reacceleration…. We do the exact same workouts our sprinters do, side by side; we just do them with hurdles. So, if the workout is 6x50m block starts for the sprinters, our hurdlers do at least three of the starts with 4-5 hurdles and three starts open (no hurdles) as a sprinter.
We also practice competing. If you don’t put kids in situations with stress and pressure, you are doing them a disservice. So, we line up and do starts as a race. Hurdler versus hurdler and hurdler versus sprinter and boy versus girl, too! When we race hurdler versus sprinter, we give the hurdler a 10-meter lead, or we surround the hurdler with a sprinter on each side of them. It makes it more engaging and competitive and puts all athletes under a competitive situation.
I’m a big believer in hurdling throughout the week. It’s a learned skill, and you can’t hurdle 1-2 times a week and become proficient. We don’t hurdle hard every day, but we hurdle 3-4 times a week. Non-workout days are great days for technique work, to slow things down and be perfect. If we are really good when we slow things down, we will be more proficient when we run fast.
We also discount hurdle height and distance 95% of the time, almost always 3 inches below 110/100h height and 2 feet closer. Early in the season, we really discount so kids can sprint the three-step rhythm, and we push the hurdles further away as the season goes on, when we need to. We chase touch-down times in practice to develop movement patterns and rhythms for race day.
As we progress throughout the season, our volume decreases in practice, but that’s because we end up having 3-4 weeks of Thursday league meets and Saturday invites. So, we are able to use the meets as a way to develop and impact our actual hurdle rhythm and conditioning. I’ll add in one or two sessions of 12-13 hurdles and do 2-3 reps. It’s a really taxing workout, but it’s great for their rhythm patterning and late race strength. But we never stop training max velocity. Thirty- to 50-meter flys and all-out 120-150s are a staple of what we do for our hurdlers. They develop pure speed as well as the strength needed to handle a fast hurdle race and the last three hurdles.
Freelap USA: The long hurdles require a unique blend of speed, technique, lactate tolerance, and speed endurance. How do you progress those athletes through the season, and what are a couple of your favorite workouts to prescribe to long hurdlers that help them be at their best for the championship portion of the season?
Eric Hisaw: The 300-meter hurdles is an awesome race to watch. There are so many things that make this race so special. You can’t just be a sprinter: You have to have technique, you have to be able to “feel” the step count/rhythm, you have to endure the hurt, and you have to be ultra competitive. I love everything about it.
We work extremely hard and with great intentionality on the first three hurdles. You don’t necessarily win the race here, but you can lose it. Number one—you have to get out! It’s a flat-out sprint to the first hurdle. My goal is to get guys there in 22 steps or less and gals in less than 25 (six to seven seconds). We have to get as much speed built up as possible to carry us through the first three hurdles. This allows us to be in or near the front of the race off hurdle #3. No one wins coming from behind in meets at the varsity level. And we treat it like the 400. We’ve got 6-7 free seconds of free speed, so we train to run the race that way.
I’m also a huge believer in being able to alternate lead legs. As a high school coach, I don’t believe in trusting one leg. We get wind, we hit a hurdle, there’s cold weather, etc., and we have to be able to adjust in the race.
If you go back and look at last year’s 400m hurdle final in the Olympics, both Sydney and Dalilah alternated in the race. Sydney went 14 steps for the first six hurdles, then went 15-15-16-15-steps for her last four hurdles, and that won her the race! If she can’t alternate, she’s second.We also count steps in practice. They will only start to run faster once they are truly confident in their step pattern, when there’s no more ‘guessing’ that the correct foot comes up, says @EHisaw. Click To Tweet
So, we also count steps in practice. Yes, I literally count out loud as the kids go by me to hear their step count. We count in practice, so we can run confidently by feel in the race, so we aren’t mechanical. I want them to run free when racing, but we must practice and feel the rhythm to be successful first. They will only start to run faster once they are truly confident in their step pattern, when there’s no more “guessing” that the correct foot comes up.
Once we have established the rhythm and step pattern from start through the first three hurdles, we progress to hurdles 3-5, then 4-6. We do these in segments, prior to our workout as a technique/intentional practice session, or we exchange 3×150 with eight minutes’ rest all out…for 3x hurdles, 3-6 all out with eight minutes’ rest. We work on our step count and rhythm to learn how to run the corner, run in the middle of the lane, not hang the trail leg over the inside of the hurdle, etc. We get the exact same work the sprinters get but with the specificity needed for the race demands and to create confidence in our race strategy.
A couple of my favorite workouts are:
- Without hurdles: :45/:45/200m. It’s a 45-second sprint. Start at the starting line and run as far as you can in 45 seconds. The goal is to get as close to the finish line as possible. Then they get 45 seconds to rest; then it’s an all-out 200-meter sprint. If done correctly, they will be absolutely done, especially the first time they do this.
- With hurdles: 2x hurdles (120). One to three with 5-8 minutes between, then 2x 120 with hurdles 6-8 and finish. I love this because we get to run fast over the last three hurdles while a little fatigued, but it’s short enough that kids know they can do it. It helps their ability to run to the last 2-3 hurdles with confidence and aggression.
- With hurdles: 2x 300. Out of blocks through hurdle 3 or 4, then sprint to the finish while clearing hurdles 7 and 8. We get great work on the front half race patterning coupled with finishing work in the same rep.
Last, I try really hard to throw in hurdles 6, 7, 8 or 7 and 8 when we are doing almost any tempo/interval workout. You do not lose any speed from the sprinter workout, but you gain the ability to adjust early, not stutter coming into the hurdle, running hard off the hurdle for your first three steps, and gaining confidence that we will finish the race strong!
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