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Building A Successful Cross Country Program

Article By: Tim Butler
Dana Hills, Dana Point, CA.

Before we discuss how to develop a successful cross country program, we need to determine what success is. Some might define success as winning or beating your opponents. However, the talent you receive will usually determine that. We are not always blessed with talent every year. So how can you, as a coach, be "successful" year-in and year-out? The key is focusing on the individual athlete's potential. This is not an easy task, but it does accomplish two important objectives:

1. It allows for more attainable goals (instead of expecting an athlete to reach levels that more talented athletes have reached).

2. It provides strategy that nurtures the critical factors that results in winning (believing the process is more important).

Win/loss records do not always measure success. It is your ability to create an environment so that your athletes can be all that God created them to be. This should be your foundation.

Now that we understand what success is, let's move on to the "how" or the practical part of creating that environment for success.

When you look around at the programs that are consistently "competitive", you will find "common threads" that run through all of those programs. A few of those practices are:

1. Have a plan or "system" for recruiting. Contacts with junior high and high school physical education departments, freshman orientation meetings, local youth programs and track clubs can be very helpful. However, the best way is the cross country members themselves encourage their friends to come out. Supply incentives for each person they recruit like camp discounts, points towards their varsity letter or special privileges. Note: I tell a kid that I am recruiting that you always play. You never have to sit on the bench, and it's also a good way to meet new friends.

2. Have a strategy for organizing your team by recruiting good coaching and parent assistants; plan fundraising; develop a periodization and competition schedule for team and individual goals; develop regular team trips (come to Hawaii with us); plan socials (team dinners, BBQ, awards banquet); communicate regularly with each athlete (a personal touch) not just handouts or flyers; develop a positive rewards system. Note: A couple things I specifically do:

  • A newsletter explaining important dates coming up, as well as a list of the top 20 finishers from every meet.
  • Supply free T-shirts for different events. Runners of the week shirts for outstanding effort in meets; 500 Club shirts for running 500 miles in a season; Ralph Club shirts for running so hard you "throw up"; Jalama shirts for attending summer training camp; or team practice shirts for completing physical/insurance forms.
  • Put on an invitational in track/cross country or road run. Hopefully something not just to raise money, but to promote your program too.

    3. Develop a program for promotion by:

  • Maintaining a visible bulletin board in the hall or locker room.

  • Creating a newsletter for students, but also parents, teachers, administrators, newspapers and the community.

  • Posting photos or show videos of meets and activities.

  • Using your classroom to exhibit pictures, trophies, banners, etc.

    Note: I buy extra practice shirts and give them to teachers, clerical staff, proctors, custodians, grounds crew, etc. and have everyone wear them on our meet day.

    The key to how to build your program is the same principle as how you build a house. You don't frame the house the same way you put on the roof; you build it in steps. If you are just beginning to build your cross country program, don't try too many new things at once. Just try one or two each session. Maybe you can try one thing from each of the three areas mentioned. If you try to do too much, it will become overwhelming and very frustrating. Remember the "building" implies a progression, which takes time. As you integrate new ideas with your established plans and continue to focus on your athlete's potential, you will experience cross country coaching the way it was meant to be.

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