Coaches always talk about setting goals, but usually put the onus on the athletes instead of themselves. Coaches have just as much room for improvement as their athletes, and should set goals appropriately. I am currently in my 26th season of coaching, and 14th at Lake Forest High School in Illinois. One of the greatest lessons I have learned in those 26 seasons is to always be setting goals as a coach and reevaluating how to best serve my athletes.
Here are 18 resolutions for high school track & field coaches to get 2018 started on the right foot. If you have any suggestions for resolutions I left out, please write them in the comments. I love learning from other coaches.
1. Be Married to the Vision, Not the Plan
The only constant in track & field is change. I laugh when coaches or parents ask me what a “typical” day in our program looks like. There are so many variables in place, especially early in the season, that there almost is no such thing as a “typical” day. Before spring break, some days we practice at 3:30 p.m. and some days we practice at 5:30 p.m. It depends on what sort of practice space we get.The only constant in track & field is change. Click To Tweet
Some days all we have is the wrestling room. Some days we get one-third of the linoleum-floored fieldhouse, some days two-thirds, and on some wonderful days we get the whole fieldhouse to ourselves. Some days we get no space at all. We are not allowed to run in the hallways. The pool is always taken up by the water polo teams. The weight room is generally cluttered until 5:00 p.m. We have to share all our practice space with the girls team. I have two part-time assistant coaches on staff who can only come a few days a week, so we have to adjust practice plans based on their availability. The point is that there are many variables that dictate how our practice is run before we even account for the weather.
We write out a progression of what we want to do each year. For example, we need to do certain plyometrics before others, need to do two-point starts before getting into blocks, need to work certain drills to introduce certain skills, etc. But imagine if we were married to the plan instead of the vision. A coach who is married to the plan probably sends his athletes out on a windy 30° day to do a split-400 workout instead of either adapting the workout or holding it off for a better day. Being married to the vision means you know where you want to be, but are flexible with the plan. Many roads lead to Rome.
2. Keep a Cache of Resources
One of the best new trends I started for our program last year was creating a Google Doc with what I consider to be essential sprint training articles. I try to add an article a month to this list, and encourage my coaching colleagues to help me find other articles to add. If you know of a great training article that is not on my doc, please add it!
Going to coaching clinics is a great way to build your resources. In the past few years, I have attended four Track-Football Consortiums, the USATF Level 2 Clinic, the ITCCCA Clinic, the WISTCA Clinic, the Bureau Valley Track & Field Clinic, and the Glazier Track & Field Clinic. Keep all the notes you get from these clinics, get the email addresses of the speakers you liked, network with other coaches, and do as much as you can to learn from other coaches.
Twitter is great at keeping you up to date with the latest research and articles. My favorite follows are @SimpliFaster, @pntrack, @JustFlySports, @GiffUsStrength, @trainwithPUSH, @DerekMHansen, @BBAPerformance, @SandCResearch, @KenClarkSpeed, @HFJumps, and @TrckFootball. If you know of other great resources, please let me know!
3. Have a Mentor, and Pay It Forward
In his autobiography, Knight: My Story, Bob Knight tells a great story about former Cal basketball coach, Pete Newell. Knight played for some amazing Ohio State teams from 1959-62, with teammates like John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, and Larry Siegfried. Ohio State’s coach, Fred Taylor, was very impressed with the defense displayed by Cal in their run to the 1959 NCAA Championship. In the summer of 1959, Taylor spent a week with Newell at the Concordia Clinic in Moorhead, MN, learning their defensive properties. Taylor then sent his assistant, Jack Graf, to California over the holiday break to ask Newell more questions.
As fate would have it, Cal and Ohio State played for the 1960 NCAA title. Ohio State won, thanks largely in part to the knowledge Taylor and his assistant gained in the time spent with Newell. Knight writes in his book, “I remember thinking that one reason this was happening for us was that the coach of the other team shared what he knew with our coach… He shared his knowledge and it came back to cost him in the most important game of the season, the national championship… What he represented to me in this case was the responsibility a teacher has to share with others whatever he has come up with that he found to be of some benefit.”1If you know something valuable, share it. Do not keep knowledge to yourself. Click To Tweet
Speak at clinics if you have something valuable to share. Do not keep any knowledge to yourself. One of the reasons track & field is such a great sport is because nobody actively roots against each other. Track coaches do not lie awake at night trying to figure out how to slow the other team down. They lie awake trying to figure out how to speed their own team up. We want our athletes to be faster than the other team’s athletes, of course, but a rising tide lifts all boats.
If I have a question, there are a bunch of fellow coaches I can ask for input. One is Tony Holler, whose program I discovered in 2015 and adopted in 2016. Another is my college coach, Chip Schneider, who led my alma mater UW-Eau Claire to the NCAA Division III Indoor Track & Field Championship titles in 2015 and 2016. Barely a week goes by that I do not discuss track with Brad Fortney, a former athlete of mine who is now the head girls track & field coach at Kenosha Bradford High School in Wisconsin. No doubt, we are all better because of our collaboration.
4. Try a New Program
Changing philosophies or implementing a new program can seem like a big leap. Coaches will use the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” logic to justify keeping the same program they have run since 1994. The worst reason to do something is because that is the way you have always done it. Obviously, there should be some stability in your program, but many coaches are afraid to change anything at all.
In 2016, I switched philosophies completely from a volume-based approach to a speed-based approach. The results were amazing, and I am upset I did not make the switch earlier. Nearly a year of research led me to believe the switch was appropriate for my program. This is also the reason that Resolutions No. 2 and 3 in this article are important. You need resources and mentors to help you with the training, whether new or old.
5. Keep Records
Every team keeps school records. I envy the programs that also have accurate top ten lists or even top 25 lists for all the events in their school history. But outside of competition, we should still be keeping records.
The Freelap timing system we purchased in 2016 helped our record-keeping processes tremendously. If we timed something at practice, we catalogued it and shared it online in a Google Doc. Time those 10 meter flys, 40 yard dashes, split 400 workouts, mile repeats, etc. Rank and publish them. Make lifting sheets for athletes to chart their progress in the weight room. Last year we bought two Beast velocity trackers to get more feedback in the weight room.
Charting practice plans, progressions, and adjustments should be a priority as well. When you have data, you can track what worked well and what did not. If your athletes consistently peak early, go back to your records and figure out why. Data keeps the guesswork out of coaching.
6. Promote Your Team
You know how you can instantly become a better coach? Get better athletes. All of you have at least a few athletes walking your halls who would be tremendous at track & field, but instead go home at 3:00 p.m. every day in the spring. Some have never even considered our sport.
Talk to your current athletes and see if they know of any athletic kids who might want to join. Go to the football, basketball, soccer, and volleyball games, where sprinting and jumping talents are easy to see. Track & field is a wonderful sport where natural talent is all around us. Not every sport has this luxury. I have also coached swimming the past five years, and we have never had somebody just decide to try swimming as a sophomore in high school and end up qualifying for the state meet. But in those same five years, we have had 11 athletes just decide to join the track & field team sophomore or later and qualify for State. Three of those athletes qualified for State in their first year in the sport!
At Lake Forest, my track team competes with baseball, lacrosse, volleyball, tennis, water polo, and dozens of club sports for spring athletes. Yet we still get 120 kids out for the boys track & field team at a school of about 1,650. Where other sports are losing athletes every year, we are gaining them. The class of 2016 had seven athletes out as freshmen and 42 out as seniors. That’s a growth of 600%. Eight of those 42 athletes qualified for the IHSA State Track & Field Championships during their high school careers, but only one of those eight ran track as a freshman!There are many ways to promote your program throughout the school and get more athletes. Click To Tweet
How do we get athletes out? By promoting, recruiting, and attracting. Anybody who has seen my Twitter feed knows one of my hobbies is making posters that show the importance of track & field, especially in relation to football. As soon as the students at Lake Forest get back from winter break, they will see dozens of posters highlighting our program. Image 1 in this article shows a great poster made by Dustin Hausherr of Downers Grove South. He learned how to make those posters in just a few days.
Another way to recruit athletes is to let them know individually that you are interested in having them on your team. A personal message to a kid is powerful. I do not “poach” athletes from other teams, but I do send an email to all the fall athletes who do not sign up for a spring sport. Promote your program and ask those talented kids to come out for track. It’s always a “no” if you don’t ask.
7. Listen to Your Athletes
“My way or the highway” programs are generally unsuccessful in high school track & field. As coaches, we need to take advice from our athletes. Coach Norman Dale of Hoosiers famously said, “My practices aren’t designed for your enjoyment.” Well, not everything we do in practice should be fun, but I live by the notion that it is entirely possible to have a program that is functional and fun.
Your seniors and leaders can cue you into the pulse of the team. Maybe the team needs a break, or they really loved the last workout, or they feel one drill helped more than another. You will never know unless you ask them. Obviously, you should not bend your will completely to the wishes of the team, but do not view your program as a dictatorship. Instead, view it as a collaborative effort. John Wooden once said, “It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”
The next several resolutions will relate to listening to your athletes.
8. Update Your Schedule
Perhaps the most important task of updating your schedule is to ditch the bad meets. If the meet is poorly run or the facilities are terrible, get rid of the meet and look for something else. Why would you keep going back to a meet nobody likes? Tradition? Chances are there are plenty of better meets in your area that would love to have your team.
Developing a philosophy for your meet schedule is important as well. Some coaches look for the hardest schedule possible. Others want an easier schedule to help their athletes succeed. Some coaches value facilities over competition, especially indoors. Other coaches focus on the format of the meet.
I make no secret of the fact that I love relay meets. In the past few years, we have gone to the Mustang Relays, Bulldog Relays, Wildcat Relays, Cougar Relays, Spartan Relays, Prospect Relays, and Madison West Relays. Outdoors, every year we go to four or five dual meets (required by our conference), the Lake County Championships, North Suburban Conference Championships, and Sectional Championships, all which have the same traditional meet format. We also host an invitational with the standard events. So, for our other invitationals, I like to change up the format.
In 2016, we started going to the Cougar Relays at Vernon Hills, and it quickly became everybody’s favorite meet. Instead of a 4x800m relay or 3200m run, they have a distance medley relay (1200-400-800-1600), and instead of a 200m dash, they have a sprint medley relay (200-200-400-800). They allow you to run a JV team in each relay, and they score those relays as varsity events. Athletes are not allowed to run JV in one relay and varsity in another. That adds a bit of strategy, which makes coming up with a lineup more fun (believe it or not, I love making lineups). Add in the fact that it is a coed meet—a rarity in Illinois—and you can see why most of my athletes look forward to it.
Destination meets are another great idea for a day trip or even an overnight trip. This is a great idea especially during the indoor season or early outdoor season. Most areas have a limited number of quality indoor tracks, so a long trip to a great facility makes a lot of sense. Here in the Midwest, traveling south for warmer climates in early April could mean running in 60° weather instead of 40° weather.2 If you have a great relay team, consider making a big trip to the Penn Relays. I highly doubt any of your athletes will forget the experience.
9. Get Cool Apparel
I find this to be so important that I wrote a whole article about it. Bottom line: look good, feel good, play good.3 But beyond all that, apparel can help market your team. Every high school team should have an apparel page at the beginning of the season for the athletes to order team gear. You can even tie it into a fundraiser, which leads me to the next resolution.
10. Fundraise, Fundraise, Fundraise
Track & field is one of the most expensive high school sports. Even if you are fortunate enough to have your athletic department cover the cost of the facilities, hurdles, high jump pads, pole vault pads, starting blocks, transportation, and the other necessities, you still need plenty of other items to run a successful program. We spend our fundraising money on essentials like uniforms, tape measures, batons, shots and discs, and “luxury” items like mini-hurdles, mini-bands, sleds, tents, Freelap timing systems, velocity trackers, rollout runways, food for the athletes at long meets, and a dozen other things.
There are plenty of ways to fundraise. Car washes, golf outings, spaghetti dinners, runathons, potlucks, auctions, raffles, donations, or just straight-up salesmanship. If your inbox is anything like mine, you get offers for fundraising ideas on at least a weekly basis. Many businesses are more than willing to host a fundraising night for your team. Chipotle, Panera, Applebees, and dozens of other companies, as well as local businesses, are very happy to partner with you to achieve your fundraising goals. Those fundraising nights are great because they double as a team activity and do not require any startup cost from your program.
Ask other teams in your school and your area what they do for fundraisers. Odds are you will find out about great fundraising opportunities you had never even considered before.
11. Schedule Alternate Activities
What stands out about your program? What do you do that is unique or memorable? Hopefully there’s something, otherwise you’re going to have a problem retaining athletes and getting new athletes out. If every day is a boring repeat of the day before, what do your athletes look forward to?
In my life, I have coached cross country, swimming, and track & field, and in my 26 seasons I have seen dodgeball tournaments, T-shirt relays, team bike rides, pool aerobics, flexing contests, scavenger hunts, watermelon seed spitting contests, sibling relays, trivia contests, Slip ’N Slide relays, team pentathlons, dancing contests, movie days, skits, rap battles, banana relays, etc. All during regular practice time.
We play basketball the Friday before spring break every year at Lake Forest. I reserve the game gym and everything. Barely anybody is there because they are all on vacation. One program I coached for had the varsity cross country athletes run the Homecoming football back from the opposing team’s school on game day. They timed it out to jog the ball into the pep rally on Friday afternoon. I have always had an idea to finish a cross country meet in a football stadium on Friday night during the varsity football warm-ups. Try telling me your athletes wouldn’t love that!
12. Bring Alternates to State
The first State Championship I attended was the 1996 Wisconsin State Track & Field Championships in La Crosse, WI. I always had the desire to be a great athlete (my ability would take a few years to catch up with that desire), but tasting that State Championship as a spectator left no doubt what my goal was for the rest of my high school career: I wanted to compete at State. I never missed attending another State Championship again in my three sports, going to three more as a spectator and one as an alternate before finally qualifying for two as a competitor.Bring as many alternates to State Championships as your budget and athletic department will allow. Click To Tweet
There is an aura about every State Championship site; something that athletes needs to see and experience. When you do have athletes qualify for State, bring as many alternates as your budget and athletic department will allow. The seniors will see it as a reward for their services, and the underclassmen will see it as a goal for the future. I cannot emphasize this enough. Never have I had an underclassman travel to State as an alternate who was not motivated to get back there the next year. In Illinois, the alternates can even participate in the Friday night open track meet, one of my favorite meets of the year.
The open meet at State is AWESOME. pic.twitter.com/DbKhueUVsr
— LFHS Track & Field (@LFHStrack) May 27, 2017
Video 1: Friday night’s open track meet between days of the IHSA State Championships is basically one big celebration of our sport. There are sprint events, distance events, and even a steeplechase.
13. Understand the Value of 1%
Some coaches have a thick packet of rules they expect their athletes to follow. Other than general rules about showing up on time, respecting the equipment, etc., my team basically has two main rules:
- When the coach talks, you listen.
- No matter what the intensity is at, quality is always 100%.
For every drill, every skill, every repeat, and every step we take, the quality is at 100%. Even if our intensity is at 70%. Imagine if you did everything at 99% quality. That still sounds pretty good, right? Well, what if we lose 1% on our times at the end of the year?
Last year in Illinois, the AAA State Championships qualifying times in the 4x100m Relay and 4x200m Relay were 42.66 and 1:29.30, respectively. My teams ran 42.65 and 1:29.17 at Sectionals to barely make it. What if we had done everything at 99% quality all year? That 1% might not seem like a big difference, but if my relay teams had run 1% slower, they would have clocked 43.08 and 1:30.06, and watched State from home.
A 1% improvement in any aspect of training might not make a 1% difference in time, but those little differences add up. Understanding the value of 1% means finishing through the line on every repeat, focusing on every handoff or run-through, lacing your spikes up tightly even for practice, getting to bed earlier at night, choosing Raisin Bran instead of Fruit Loops for breakfast, and 100 other things the athletes have control over every day. Coaches must set these expectations!
14. Understand Minimum Effective Dose
You may think this resolution clashes with my previous resolution about understanding the value of 1%. However, when talking about minimum effective dose, I mean volume, not quality. If you can get the same physiological response from six reps as you can from eight, why would you do eight? Professional sprint coach Håkan Andersson suggests, “Train as much as necessary, but not as much as possible.”4 I love that quote. It is better to be 10% undertrained than 1% overtrained.
Joel Smith, whose website Just Fly Sports should be required viewing for coaches of all anaerobic sports, writes about understanding the minimum effective dose of lifting as one of the seven essential paradigm shifts in his coaching life. If you leave a few reps in the tank, you will not struggle with poor form and are ready to come back for more the next day. He writes that grinding teaches athletes to implode, rather than explode.5 Far too many coaches believe nothing is accomplished until everyone is exhausted. Those coaches are usually great at getting athletes exhausted, and not as great at getting them faster. For those coaches, I recommend they read Resolution No. 4 and try a new program.
Understanding minimum effective dose is especially important for sprinters and jumpers. Distance runners have to go to the well every once in a while. They are told to “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” which is great advice for aerobic events. You do not need to cajole most state-quality distance runners to work hard, though. Part of their talent is their capacity and love for hard work. Pulling the reins on these thoroughbreds can be just as effective as bringing out the whip. How many of you coaches out there know a distance stud who just has to hammer, even on a recovery run?
For those distance runners who think a constant grind is the only path to success, I recommend they read up on Hicham El Guerrouj. The greatest miler in history tripped with a lap to go in the 1996 Olympic 1500m final, then suffered a shocking loss after being outkicked as the heavy favorite in the 2000 Olympic 1500m final. He admitted to overtraining coming into the 2000 Olympics, running 10,000 meters’ worth of repeats when in years past he had only run 8,000 meters. Instead of making him stronger, the cumulative result of the extra meters was that it made him tired.6 He learned his lesson, scaled back his training, and won both the 1500m and 5000m finals at the 2004 Olympics. Sometimes, less is more, even for distance runners.
15. Do a Quote of the Day
You have probably noticed several quotes already in this article. We end every team meeting with a motivational quote. This can take 10 seconds or 10 minutes. Sometimes the quote is relevant to the day’s workout; sometimes it is just a general quote. We do quotes from athletes (Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis, etc.), coaches (John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Dean Smith, etc.), and non-sports figures (Martin Luther King Jr., Zig Ziglar, Mister Rogers, etc.). Last year we even brought in our wrestling coach, Matt “Sunshine” Fiordirosa, to give a speech on toughness. Sunshine was 14-1 in his professional MMA career, so he had everybody’s attention.
About five years ago, I happened to do two Larry Bird quotes in the same week. The joke then became that every quote was from Larry Bird, so I play it up. Now when I do a Larry Bird quote, I wear my Larry Bird jersey under a zip-off hoodie and reveal the jersey right before I do the quote. Athletes remember that stuff a lot more than they remember what their splits were on a 6 x 200m workout.
16. Connect the Program
How many of your throwers are friends with your distance runners? How many of your seniors can name the best freshmen on the team? How many of your sprinters can tell you the best mile time on the team? Track & field is a wonderfully inclusive sport, accepting athletes of all talents and abilities, but event groups can become like cliques.
Find ways for the groups to intermingle. Some programs I know adopt the “Big-Little” strategy of college Greek life where every upperclassman is assigned an underclassman to mentor. The “big” and the “little” are both responsible for knowing each other’s events, personal bests, goals, etc. Other programs I know have a captain for each event group, and that captain must report on a different event group’s accomplishments at a team meeting.Don’t let track & field event groups become like cliques—find ways for the groups to intermingle. Click To Tweet
Coaches need to get involved as well. Though I am primarily a sprint and hurdle coach, I do a lot of research on all the other events as well. In case we have a prolonged period of time without a certain assistant coach, I need to feel comfortable helping out that event group. Occasionally, we will have “stations” at practice where each event coach will have around 10-20 minutes to coach a group of athletes. This gives the athletes some exposure to all the coaches on staff, and gives the coaches a chance to check out all the athletes in the program to see if some have slipped through the cracks a bit in certain event areas.
17. Invite Alumni Back to Practice
Virtually every successful program I know has a great alumnus following. Bringing the alumni back to practice connects the present with the past. This strengthens the sense of team and makes the current athletes realize they compete for more than just themselves.
I love reconnecting with alumni. Austin McIlvaine, who still holds our school record in the 4x100m Relay from 2014, sent me a video on Snapchat last year when he was back in Lake Forest for summer break. The Snapchat included the text “GLORY DAYS.” What was in the video? Was it his medals? A workout sheet listing the old season plan?
The video was of him stepping out his mark for a 4x100m relay exchange. That was a memory from high school track he cherished. Athletes might not remember the workouts they ran, all the medals they won, or even what their personal records were. But there will be memories they cherish created by moments in your program. Sharing those moments is a great way to connect the past to the present, and maybe help your current athletes realize all the little aspects of the sport they will miss when it is over.
18. Have Fun
Coaching is fun. Track & field is fun. Never forget that.
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- Knight, B & Hammel, B. (2002). Knight: My Story. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
- Why Do Birds Fly South?
- Look Good, Feel Good, Play Good
- Andersson, H. World Speed Summit IV: The Pete Karlsson Sprint Study.
- 7 Essential Paradigm Shifts In My Coaching Life
- Olympic Games 2004