I’ll start by making a confession. I’m a head track coach and I have almost zero track and field experience.
Feels good to get that out there!
My goal in writing this is to rid any coach of excuses. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve learned. Most importantly, I’ve asked questions. I’ve become a student of the sport and I feel that I’ve given my student athletes what they need to succeed. Since so my great people have given me help, I’ve decided it is time to “pay it forward” and give credit where credit is due. Hopefully, another young or new coach will find some inspiration. The following is a list of advice that has served me well so far.
Becoming a Coach
In August 2010, I found myself in a back-to-school faculty meeting where I was asked if I was interested in the job of head coach of the boys track team. I was teaching at Madison High School (in Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis, MO), with a total student population of about 180 students (down from a peak of 700+) and around 15 faculty members, many of whom taught multiple grade levels. Madison had no football program (it was cut in the early ’90s) and just the remains of a 440-yard cinder track that looked like a lazy river after spring showers.
Basically, there was no one else interested.
I played football and participated in my high school’s powerlifting team. I loved training. I saw the connection between track and field, and football, weightlifting, power, and sprints.
My favorite high school teacher, a football and powerlifting coach, once gave me advice on coaching.
“Do you love (insert sport here)?” Yes.
“Do you love kids?” Yes.
“Then that’s all you need. Programs change all the time. Fundamentals are always the same. You’ll get more out of fundamentals, passion for the sport and a love of seeing kids making themselves better. You can learn everything else later.”
Rest in peace, Coach Welker.
So when I was offered the coaching position, I thought, Why not?
Learn From Your Mistakes
I frequently buy books and, back then, one of them was the (then) newly published book, “The 4 Hour Body” by Tim Ferriss. It was (and is) a fantastic resource, with the author exploring strange and unusual health and fitness protocols that follow a basic premise: Use the minimal effective dose.
It’s funny sharing this story. I should feel embarrassed saying I designed a track program around a mainstream gimmicky health book, but check this out: It features some basic protocols that any reader of SimpliFaster, ITCCCA (Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association), and their great writers would recognize. While it’s in a different form, it shares a lot of the same concepts.
Barry Ross, deadlifts, and ASR sprinting? Check.
Forty-yard dashes? Check.
Muscle activation for the psoas and glutes? Check.
Focusing on acceleration to improve a short sprint time? Check.
Getting rid of needless static stretching and “speed drills,” and instead focusing on hip mobility? Check.
I’ve always viewed myself as someone who goes against the grain. I’m a person who has a degree in art and is also a former meathead, after all. I found the ideas in the book interesting, and I designed a program around it. I was ready to start training my athletes.
“You aren’t doing enough running.”
“You are in the weight room too much.”
“Cahokia runs hills until they puke.”
“You need to get them in shape.”
The criticism came quickly, but not from the athletes themselves. It came from the principal, from the athletic director, from other coaches and adults. (I will add that, in the future, my athletic director would support all my crazy ideas. These included speedsuits, making my own schedule, adding a full indoor schedule that included traveling 2 and 1/2 hours to Mahomet Seymour in the middle of the week, and making sure we had plenty of money for the state championship.)
I would love to tell you that I stuck to my guns, but I didn’t. I folded under the pressure. I Googled “how to train sprinters,” and immediately began Clyde Hart-style programming. The 2010/2011 season was different. There were not as many resources online as there are now, at least for free.
The team was OK. A sophomore sprinter ran 11 minutes, 14 seconds and went to State. He set the school record in the shotput, as well, with 46 feet, 5 inches.
But we ended the year injured. My 4×100 relay’s third leg pulled his hamstring the week of Sectionals. We did lots and lots of stretching, jogging (to shake it out, of course) ice, and ibuprofen to get him fixed (I’m laughing to myself as I type this). He ran 44.8 and missed qualifying by a few tenths.
Allow Your Athletes to Guide the Program
So, what changed in 2012?
I will give credit where it is due and it falls on that injured third leg… Andre Berry.
When the 2012 school year began, Andre was in my homeroom class. He lamented how the previous season had ended. You see, Andre Berry was hurt at the end of every single one of his high school seasons… two hamstrings and an ankle. He was a stud in junior high track, and he wanted that mojo back.
Andre flat-out told me, “I want to go to State my senior year in all three sprint relays with my friends.” He also told me he didn’t want to go to all those “weak” meets (our schedule had been terrible, dominated by triangles and quads). He wanted to go where the big schools ran; he wanted an off-season program.
In our area, we were surrounded by a hotbed of track talent. East St. Louis and Cahokia were immediate neighbors. So were Edwardsville, Belleville West, and Triad—perennial state contenders and champions. Teams across the Mississippi River weren’t too bad, either. Current Dallas Cowboys running back, Ezekiel Elliot, was dominating the sprints in Missouri at this time.
I looked at Andre and said what came naturally to me: “OK. Let’s do it.”
Other than one 4×100 barely making it the year before I took over and few individuals here and there, Madison hadn’t sent a decent group to State since 1992 and hadn’t qualified all three sprint relays since 1988. This wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.
As coach, I felt an immediate responsibility.
Learn From Those Who Are Already Successful
I began by looking at those “big school” schedules. What are the best meets? Just by chance, and just because I live in the Edwardsville School District, I went there first.
Coach Chad Lakatos keeps an excellent webpage, and I used it to write down their schedule. By strange coincidence, I met Chad a month later at a neighborhood pig roast and talked to him briefly. He told me to contact him if Madison ever needed a race. He had no idea how much I would wind up bugging him. Like, a lot. I STILL contact Chad for meets and advice.
I’m sure Edwardsville knows this, but some schools can’t stand them. A coach in Madison County, who shall remain nameless, told me, “I don’t need to see Edwardsville and their eight assistant coaches jumping up and down and shouting every time they win a race.”
Well, why not? What would you want to see if you were a high school kid: Your coach jumping up and down when you bust your butt or standing with their arms crossed, lamenting all the reasons they can’t possibly compete? Because that’s one thing I noticed. Edwardsville coaches always say encouraging things and give feedback to their athletes after a race… no matter what place they come in. Heck, Edwardsville congratulates other team’s athletes and offers them feedback!You can choose to be jealous of other coaches, or you can try and learn from them. Click To Tweet
Edwardsville jump coach, Carry Bailey, passed along one of my athlete’s names to a college coach. Throws coach, Matt Martin, offered advice to Alton’s throws coach, Eric Dickerson. East St. Louis has a reputation for being distant and cocky. Yet, their former assistant coach and new head coach, Ramon Johnson, found a college for Madison’s Andre McGill to run at after high school. Previous head coach, Barry Malloyd, gave encouragement and offered Madison meets. I guess as a coach you can choose to be jealous or you can try and learn.
I should also add that Coach Willie Byrd of Cahokia Wirth-Parks Junior High gave me some fantastic advice in that terrible 2011 season. Coach Byrd’s athletes hold several all-time records in junior high track. These include Marlon Brady (50.89 in the 400m), Marquis Murray (15.15 in the 110 hurdles), 1:34.61 in the 4×200, and perhaps most mind-blowing, 3:32.59 in the 4×400. (The same group has the all-time seventh grade record and, for a brief time, held the No. 1 4×400 time in the 2013 Illinois outdoor season, running 3:23 in an early freshman-sophomore meet.)
Coach Byrd said to focus on the athletes who show up and want to be there. He asked how many athletes I had that were truly dedicated, and I responded, “Maybe six.” His reply stuck with me: “That’s all you need. Six athletes. That’s two relays and a couple of individual champions.” Ha! Just that easy, right? He acted as if six might be too many athletes. He added, “These in-season meets don’t really mean much. It’s state that matters.”
Focus on the end of the year and your championship meets. May matters; not April or March.
While I was looking for their schedule, it was another tab on Edwardsville’s website that caught my eye: “Speed Training.” There I saw that Edwardsville timed and ranked 40-yard dash times. They ran A LOT of 40s. It seemed like they did this the most. That, and something called “The 23-Second Drill.”
I was curious about this drill, so I began Googling. I couldn’t really find anything until I stumbled on a Let’s Run message board where somebody mentioned Tony Holler and Chris Korfist. Never heard of ‘em; back to Google. Then I found them—clinic notes from both coaches on the ITCCCA website. (On a funny note: I didn’t know for quite some time about Coach Holler’s connection to Metro East head coaches.)I decided to train ALL my athletes like they had hamstring and ankle problems, even if they didn’t. Click To Tweet
I had one more thing that concerned me: Andre Berry and his injury-prone ankle and hamstring. After looking at rehab procedures online, it seemed that both problems are usually caused by weak, inactive glutes and a lack of mobility in the hips. Interesting.
Since I was the only coach, I decided that I would train ALL my athletes like they had hamstring and ankle problems.
So, we made use of Madison’s ancient Universal Gym. We did single-leg kickbacks on the leg press and one-leg deadlifts on the bench press station. We did kettlebell swings and one-leg squats. And we did tons of hip mobility drills.
Armed with my printouts of “Sprint Training 101” and “Speed Development 2011,” we headed to the long downstairs hallway and began running 40s all winter. When the temperature was above 48 degrees, we went outside and did 23s. It was like a random “wild card” workout. I also added drills from NFL Combine guru Joe DeFranco’s “Top 9 Drills to Improve Acceleration Technique.” I ranked times and jumps and posted them on my classroom door. Kids made bets and talked trash. They recruited each other.
Promote Your Team
I set up a Twitter account. We finalized a better schedule and ordered fresh new uniforms. Our schedule looked like we were in Class 3A and part of the dominant Southwestern Conference.
At the Southwestern Illinois Relays held in March, Madison was ready for our coming out. We were the only Class A school competing, and we finished sixth in the 4×100 (44.36) and fourth in the 4×200 (1:32.47). Not bad at all. Our sprinters were fourth and eighth in the 100m. Our high jumper hit 6’4” and finished third. The newspaper headline in the local journal read, “Madison emerges as Class 1A threat.” The kids were stoked.
A few weeks later, we were at Edwardsville’s invitational and I met Tony Holler for the first time. He walked up and told me Madison had some great times and that he was looking forward to seeing us run. What power Twitter can have! Here was a coach from a large Chicago team telling me that he was looking forward to seeing our team—athletes from a small school no one has ever heard of—compete! He told me I could contact him anytime. I’m sure he was just being nice and pleasant, but I took him up on that. I’ve bugged the hell out of the poor guy. Like, a lot.
A few days later, Madison won the Madison County Small Schools Championship. Not only did we beat the other small schools, but we beat many large school teams as well. Times were dropping. I posted one of my favorite pictures on Twitter that night, of the team gathered around the revolving team plaque for county champions.
So how did the year end? We ran 43.67 and 1:31.95 to qualify for State. The 4×400? Our anchor quickly coughed up a lead and then came roaring back in the final 30 meters. It was the first time since 1988 that Madison sent all three sprint relays to State. Andre Berry ran on all three relays, and we were county champions. A healthy and happy Andre Berry got his senior wish… a trip out of town to State to compete with his friends.
Keep Moving Forward
This advice might sound simple. However, after that great 2012 season, the core of the team graduated. With 180 students, it can be challenging to “reload.” I heard it all year long. I still had my 11.1 sprinter, but few people around the school had hope for the team.
Except for me and my athletes.
How did we respond? Well, I kept learning and asking questions. I went to clinics. I networked with other coaches. My athletes worked both hard and smart. I’d recruit anyone in the halls: “I will find an event for you that you are good at.” While I didn’t make promises, I would claim, “I can’t guarantee you’ll be ‘fast’, but I will make you faster.”
The 2013 team repeated as county champions and we were actually faster than 2012, going 43.60, 1:30.82, and 3:30.67. In 2014, the team was the fastest I had ever coached and they made the most noise at State. The following year, Andre McGill become a state champion and drew interest from Illinois.
I truly believe that when you have a fun program that the kids enjoy, the recruiting takes care of itself. We had no booster club, so I bought a Freelap Timing System with my own money. Timing and ranking your athletes allows you to place them in events where they’ll be successful. They’ll see small but measurable progress. And when your athletes are happy, feel good, and feel fast, magic happens.
I don’t write this to brag about myself. I still consider myself a novice coach. If anything, I write this to brag about my athletes and their accomplishments. Even with my inexperience, a lack of facilities, no assistant coaches, no booster club, and a small school size… they were able to succeed. If I can do it, anyone can! If you want to have a great track program, I am proof that it is obtainable.You always have a choice over the kind of coach you want to be. Click To Tweet
I had a choice after that first disastrous season. I could collect a stipend and coast by on raw talent or I could do right by my athletes and students. I’m still amazed that many track coaches seem to not know what “Google” or “Twitter” are. You can be that grumpy coach that complains about Edwardsville and Cahokia. Or you can ask questions and learn from the best you can find. Remember, you always have a choice over the kind of coach you want to be.
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