Freelap Friday Five with Jim Vahrenkamp
Jim Vahrenkamp has been at the helm of the Queens University Royals track and field and cross country programs since the 2012-13 season, during which time he has successfully rebuilt both. The women’s cross country team has won the past three South Atlantic Conference Championships and the past two NCAA DII Southeast Regional Championships. Additionally, they grabbed 10th place, their highest team finish, at the NCAA DII Championships this past season.
The men’s cross country team has back-to-back league titles, winning in 2017 and 2018. They also collected a NCAA DII Regional Championship title in 2018 before heading to the national meet and finishing ninth overall. Their highest finish at nationals was during the 2017 season when they were sixth overall.
Vahrenkamp has earned Southeast Region Coach of the Year honors six times and South Atlantic Coach of the Year honors five times. Additionally, through his leadership, the Royals have earned 20 All-American honors.
Freelap USA: What are some key components needed to build a successful track and field program from a director standpoint?
Jim Vahrenkamp: Ultimately, that question is answered by first asking another question: How do you define success? There are programs in the NCAA realm that define it differently each year: some focus on individual success, others distance, some sprints, some jumps. Unlike basketball, it is possible to be awful in many areas and still succeed in one small area and define that as success. Imagine a basketball team made up of athletes that specialize in dribbling!Unlike basketball, it is possible to be awful in many areas of track and field and still succeed in one small area and define that as success. Click To Tweet
Having moved past that initial question, it is important to be true to the assets that the institution has. What type of students are attracted, what are the facilities like, who are the members of the coaching staff, and what are their strengths? Really, it comes down to what you can do and what you enjoy doing.
When I initially got into coaching, I had a very narrow view of the world. Now, several years on, I’ve broadened how I view the world. When I came to Queens, I was aware that they were a program known specifically for their distance prowess, which was driven by the experience and specialty of the previous coach.
It was my intent from the outset to allocate much of our resources to that area. That was also partly because I looked at the strength of the region and the athletes remaining from the previous coach and felt that we could not only be successful at the conference level, but also at the regional and national levels. This past year, both our men and women were top 10 in cross country, and we had the national champion and runner-up in the indoor mile and All-Americans in the 3K and the 800. Really, we only missed out on having All-Americans in the 5K and the DMR.
That being said, we had national qualifiers in the hurdles, the heptathlon, and the shot put this year. So, you can see that we have worked very hard to have a well-rounded program. What needs to be remembered, though, is that I am currently working to retool our program so that we have three areas of emphasis: throwers, multis, and distance athletes. That’s purely because we have a full-time throws position and a full-time distance position, and I love coaching the multis. There is nothing to say that this is the correct way to build a program, it’s just what is best for us.
I always encourage any aspiring coach to be good at what they are good at. I have worked hard to understand the whole sport so that, as a director, I can be a sounding board when it comes to training and logistics for all of our assistants. Additionally, it helps me when it comes to the allocation of resources.
Freelap USA: What are your recommendations for developing yourself as a coach, or leading the development of those coaches under you?
Jim Vahrenkamp: Being a coach is much more than understanding a specific event group. The most glaring deficiency that I see in head coaches is the lack of understanding of all of the events, as well as poor administrative skills. On our staff, I encourage our assistants to explore much more than their own event group. We require them to handle day-to-day administrative duties, logistical planning, etc.The most glaring deficiency I see in head coaches is the lack of understanding of all the events, as well as poor administrative skills. Click To Tweet
The other thing that we discuss on a regular basis is the conceptual foundation for what we do. We discuss why we do what we do and then we back that up with facts and figures. Each program is a puzzle, much like each athlete. It requires careful consideration and planning to develop a program to a point of success.
In an effort to continue development in the actual coaching realm, I encourage our assistants to develop professionally through reading and exploring what other people have done. I am not sure what other programs do. We, however, provide opportunities for our assistants to travel to our yearly coaches’ association convention and provide funds for our assistants to participate in clinics put on by our coaches’ association as well.
Our goal for assistants is for them to be prepared to take over seamlessly for me or another program. That means that our preparation extends to NCAA compliance, budgeting, and more. I am very open about where the dollars go and, further, how I decide where we allocate those dollars.
When I originally attempted to get into the coaching profession, I asked my head coach at the time how I should go about getting a job. He replied: Network. He did not take the time to explain what that meant, and I spent the next two years struggling to figure it out. Suffice to say that your personal network will determine your mobility in our profession. That means that any interaction that you have, whether positive or negative, will ultimately determine your upward mobility.Your personal network will determine your mobility in our profession. Any interaction you have, whether positive or negative, will affect that upward mobility. Click To Tweet
In an optimal situation, that also requires a head coach who is willing to introduce you to the people they know as well. I spend a lot of time offering the opportunity to my assistants to attend administrative meets and other networking opportunities where they have the chance to familiarize themselves with the people that I know in the industry. A good network also requires careful maintenance. People are perceptive and are less likely to help you out if the only time that they hear from you is when you need something. Also, go out of your way to help people—they tend to remember acts of kindness.
Freelap USA: How do you view the optimal interplay between track coaches and strength and conditioning staff?
Jim Vahrenkamp: Honestly, we have been very lucky here. In the field of athletics, there is often a tribal mentality that guards territory rather than integrating and sharing knowledge. An optimal situation is one where there is a strong relationship and strong communication between the sports medicine, athletics, and strength and conditioning staff. Each of these groups plays a vital role in getting the athlete to race day in optimal condition.The optimal situation is a strong relationship with strong communication between the sports medicine, athletics, and S&C staff. Click To Tweet
I do not personally see any difference in what S&C coaches do and what we do. They certainly support the much more specific motor tasks that we coach on the track by establishing quality motor patterns in the weight room while developing neural recruitment and work capacity and setting up recovery patterns.
I think it is important for track coaches to communicate with the S&C staff on a regular basis. Personally, I visit the weight room each day. I also work closely with the S&C staff to write the training. It is important that the training on the track is compatible with what is happening in the weight room.
I have friends that have the opposite experience, where the S&C staff puts what happens in the weight room above what happens on the track. Personally, I would avoid going into the weight room if it compromised our experience on the track. The whole purpose of each staff should be to complement what athletes can do on meet day.
Freelap USA: What are some of the primary means you utilize to prevent hamstring injuries in track athletes?
Jim Vahrenkamp: The first thing that I have as a goal is constantly evaluating the quality of the movement patterns of my athletes. When I first started coaching, I couldn’t tell you anything about how people moved. Now I look for proper motor function in hurdle mobility, ground contacts in running and plyometrics, and so on.
Hamstring pulls are generally a product of either poor range of motion or motor dysfunction. There is an error out there that the hamstring becomes injured because of a lack of strength. There isn’t any amount of strength that can bulletproof a hamstring if you put it in the wrong position and ask it to do a job that it is not designed to do.There isn’t any amount of strength that can bulletproof a hamstring if you put it in the wrong position and ask it to do a job that it’s not designed to do. Click To Tweet
The foundation of our program is correct motor patterns and excellent posture. When those things are compromised, we run into problems. Our first day of practice begins with teaching posture and correct sprint patterning. I realize that for many of the people joining our program it must seem mundane. However, we have had very few injuries, and the specific injuries typically emanate from structural problems that are genetic in the individual.
I spend a lot of time educating our athletes about what good posture is. In addition, I work with the training room and our athletic trainers to ensure that the things being communicated to the student athletes are similar in message and delivery. Most of the issues that we run into are directly related to tissue quality. My student athletes do not spend time taking care of themselves. We encourage foam rolling, flossing with Voodoo bands, smashing with various balls, and much more.
These are all really variations of cheap self-massage. When we get to the level of real injury, we utilize massage as well. I recommend that every good coach takes the time to read and understand Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett. Beyond that, I encourage other coaches to consider Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers. I realize that not everyone loves to read, but that being said, I believe that it is important to educate yourself on the anatomy of the body in an effort to facilitate proper training and care.
Freelap USA: What are some key aspects of organizing the training-year calendar (with emphasis on particular meets) that help athletes be their best when it counts?
Jim Vahrenkamp: I personally play pretty loose and fast with training. I have coached long enough that I know generally what needs to happen during each period of the year and that means that we have large general themes that govern what we do and when we do it. The exact execution of any workout during any given time of year is often customized to meet either the physical or psychological needs of the individual athlete.
Generally, we always work acceleration, then max velocity, and then finally speed endurance. One of the things that I struggled to understand early on in my career was that most of these qualities need to be present in every part of the year. I like to think of a glass: Early on, I fill it with mostly acceleration, and I top it off with a little max velocity and some intensive tempo. At the end of the year, I have a glass that has a little acceleration mixed with some max velocity and equal parts speed endurance, and that blend just changes slightly all year long.
The key to being ready to run fast on the day really comes from never being too far from the task that the athlete is trying to execute. When I started, I wasn’t specific enough and always felt that running fast was a product of energy system fitness and capacity and not motor patterns and neural coordination.
At the beginning of each year, I chart out my training in reverse from our conference championship to the beginning of the year. That allows me to look at how I structure my training. We work on either 2:1 or 3:1 work-to-rest ratios, which means 2-3 weeks of work to one week of rest. Any time that I have tried to extend to four weeks of work, athlete injury rates have skyrocketed. It just is not worth the risk. Setting up my schedule this way also allows me to plan for time off so I can take advantage of breaks in the collegiate schedule.Athletes expect a straight line of progression, but based on our loading pattern, we see an undulating wave pattern of progression. Click To Tweet
From a psychological standpoint, I spend time managing expectations with my athletes. Their expectation is a straight line progression. Instead, based on our loading pattern, we see an undulating wave pattern of progression during the year. It is important for the coach to work with the athlete to manage expectations and to explain how training loads set up the race performances. Additionally, it is important to explain how races serve as the most specific training during the week or microcycle. Races serve as very important special endurance efforts that cannot be replaced by work in practice.