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Old Loves, New Beginnings: Tips for Establishing a New Program

Article By: Brad Peters
King High School

It had been one of my most satisfying seasons. Our girls' team had finished in the top-three in the State, and my top boy and girl had both qualified for the Footlocker Nationals. Steve Smith, our lead runner that year, upset the field to win the Western Regional race in Fresno, CA, and then went on to finish 12th in soggy soup of Footlocker's 1997 return to Florida. Our girls' leader, Jennifer Burris, qualified for nationals as well. The individual accomplishments of these two were a grand continuation of success and accomplishment that had accompanied Ayala High School Cross Country teams throughout most of the nineties. Long win streaks, League and CIF Championships, nationally-ranked teams and runners had been our legacy. We rode a crest of achievement that seemed to have no end. Little did I know that in just one short year, I'd be feeling the tug to move on and begin anew.

Why start over when everything had gone so well? Why risk losing something so good? Why abandon an established program that had grown to 100 runners, drank from the well of acclaim, and had legions of supporters throughout the school and community?

These were questions I was asked again and again in the days following my announcement. Considering my move was to a brand-new school of 9th and 10th graders with no tradition, they were potent queries. As I packed my belongings, gave the keys to the new head coach and moved on, they were questions I found I had to have answers to in order to feel at peace with my decision. In the process of gaining answers to those questions, I came upon some crucial elements of any coach's decision to move on and start over.

One benefit of starting a new program will be its ability to capture and illuminate exactly what your motivations are for coaching. There is nothing wrong with winning, and a coach who doesn't want to win should find another profession, but is winning championships all there is to coaching? If we are not careful, we can allow a string of successful seasons and accomplishments to cloud what should be our primary purpose - investing in the lives of kids. What are you coaching for really? I had to ask it myself. Is it to go undefeated again? Or is it to see the spark of enthusiasm ignite in the eyes of a group of kids who have never known running before. To begin a new program is to embrace the reality that a championship may be a few years off. If you are coaching for the right reasons, this change will only invigorate you to work harder, and enjoy your athletes even more.

While the winds of change may be cool, there is no denying the whirlwind of challenges that await you as you embark on your new journey. Without tradition to guide you, the coach is left to himself or herself to do, well, everything. Gone is that trusted assistant, or those seniors you could count on, or the networked parent group. Gone is the school administration's understanding of your commitment to a "minor" sport. You're now flying solo.

Most challenges are made easier by seeking advice, and whether you've been coaching for decades or days, its advisable to find experts who can help you. Before the season, I spent time with Ken Reeves and Randy Rossi, two of California's best coaches, and nationally recognized experts in the field. Much of what I offer here is a blend of my own experience and the advice they offered.

REFINE YOUR PHILOSOPHY. Success is universal, and what worked before will probably work again, but your philosophy will probably need tweaking just a bit with a fresh group of kids. This refinement can be refreshing, like dusting off the cover of a great book long since read, and exploring once again what captured your attention. For me, it's finding the playful innocence of sport again, and seeing that it shines in equal glory to the championships of sport. Your philosophy will be your map to return to athletic competitiveness. Keep your cornerstones, but a fresh coat of paint can add a long lost sparkle to your philosophical structure.

PRESENT YOURSELF PROFESSIONALLY. Show that cross country at your school will not be some back-alley minor sport. Present it as a classy, top-notch program. There are a variety of ways you can do this. Create a newsletter with a catchy title, and mail it to every athlete who showed any interest in coming out. Do this monthly or BI-weekly, even in the weeks prior to the first practice. This sets the stage for your first day. Create a bold T-shirt design that catches the eye and shouts, "we're different!" Make sure your uniforms and sweats are fashionable and attractive. Be organized and proactive. Plan a few activities for the summer time that are beyond running. Barbecues, pool parties, day hikes, beach trips, summer camps they all send positive messages to the kids that things will be different in your program. Set high standards and lofty goals, (they groan, but they love them) and be lavish in the amount of things you do that catch the interest of the kids and keep them coming back for more.

KEEP IT SIMPLE. Remember that most of your new kids will have never run before. Two miles is a marathon to them. Let them start slowly with low mileage and fun, energetic training games. Let them see you smiling and enjoying your own running. Be overly positive to all of the runners, not just the ones who show promise. Hand out small prizes for simple steps of progress you see the kids making. Don't be consumed with complex training systems. Don't drown them with running vocabulary. Don't schedule a racing season that puts them up against the powers of your state. Above all, keep it fun even if it means sacrificing just a bit of the intensity of more established programs. That intensity can come later. In our first season, King High went from not being able to run a mile on August 4th, to 11th at CIF Finals. The longest run was six miles.

RECRUIT. Get on the phone and call. Call a second time. Talk to the soccer players. Write personal notes to those who have expressed interest. Send your newsletter to any athlete uncommitted to a Fall sport. Once classes start, don't hesitate to keep adding to the roster, even though your season is under way. Produce an informational brochure inviting kids to join your team and get it in the hands of every freshman on campus. Kids want to be wanted, and sometimes finding a recruit is as simple as saying "hey, I'd love to have you on our cross country team." Be committed to this tactic however, as I found that it takes multiple efforts to get kids to get beyond the stereotypes of cross country when you have no tradition to speak for you.

BE YOURSELF. At a new school, the temptation will be strong to keep your past silent, for after all, "what do they care?" However, both Reeves and Rossi recommend letting your new team in on your old teams' experiences. It's a good way of extending credibility and inspiration to your new team. YOU are all your new runners know about cross country. YOU are the embodiment of the sport to them. You cannot escape the past and your teams are what have made you what you are. Share that with your new kids. Don't overdo it, obviously, so as to leave the impression that you're living in the past, but when appropriate, share some inspiring stories from your career that when carefully timed can be effective. In my case, a well-timed story of a successful runner at Ayala has inspired my current crop.

Starting a new program has been one of the most tiring, challenging and difficult things I've ever attempted. Hard to tell just yet what it will all turn out like, but the principles outlined above have brought us a good start that we can grow from. The experience has refined my philosophy and brought the simple joys of the sport back into play, long lost under the glare of the spotlight. I'm looking forward to round two.

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