Building a High School Distance Running Program From Scratch

Building a competitive high school running program from scratch, begins at the ground level. The initial hurdle in this process is that to an eighth and ninth grade kid, running is not the most appealing.

Many cross-country athletes and coaches aren’t sure why this is, but I am here to tell you the simple reason behind this…

High school cross-country programs have to compete with the perceived “cool” sports, like football, lacrosse, baseball, basketball.

This is no small feat; unfortunately, some of the most talented individuals are caught up in these sports. We will discuss ways later in this post on how to leverage these programs as a means of acquiring hidden talent.

Unless the individual’s parents were adamant about getting them involved in running at a younger age (which poses an entire set of other potential problems), these individuals are not only difficult to find, they are a challenge to recruit into your program.

Certainly, recruiting is a challenge for all programs, however, this is especially true for new or fledgling programs.

That said, even successful programs can incorporate my tactics to attract and retain talent.

So, how do you uncover talent?

There are several ways you can attract and recruit talent to your distance program (we’ll discuss each separately below):

  1. Acquire influencers
  2. Uncover latent talent
  3. Build a network
  4. Cultivate the right team culture
  5. Have success

As a side note, talent isn’t the only goal here. It takes all levels of ability, shapes and sizes, and personality types to build a successful, well functioning team.

Often, the least talented kids are the ones who work the hardest, and through so doing, begin to create a culture of reward through hard work. These individuals will quite often beat even the most talented of runners who are unmotivated and don’t put in the necessary time and energy to fully realize their potential.

1. Acquire Influencers

The Ever Observant Coach

As a coach, the key skill you must develop in order to start building a sustainably successful running program, is observation.

It is more of a challenge to be a coach who is not involved in the school system day-to-day, because you miss out on many of the opportunities to observe student behavior. However, this is not a deal breaker by any means. You still have plenty of opportunity to observe and engage with the student body, gaining a sense of who the influencers are in certain social circles.

What is an influencer?

An influencer is any individual who has sway within a particular interest group. Another way to look at who influencers are is to think of the kids that you would pick as innate leaders. Not necessarily the most boisterous, or attention seeking, but the ones who others seem to respect immensely, and naturally gravitate towards.

Acquiring an influencer is no easy feat. But, if you do end up getting one to join your program, others will follow suit and you’ll see the interest level climb organically.

Now, this is in no way suggesting that “influencers” are going to be your best athletes. He or she may be a future team captain. With each influencer will come a handful of other individuals, and amongst those you may find a quiet champion.

Initiating the Conversation

Approaching a student you might view as an influencer is easier than you think. Really, all that’s required is that you, through observation, first identify an individual, then make the effort to build a rapport with him or her over time.

Hosting an after school sports event, like an ultimate frisbee tournament, is a great excuse to invite influencers to participate, giving yourself facetime and a chance to connect with them.

2. Uncover Latent Talent

Talent is certainly an important piece to any successful program. However, talent comes with it’s own set of challenges. Often times, naturally gifted individuals are the ones who require the most nurturing from their coaches, and can be somewhat high maintenance.

Because of their natural gifts, many of the most talented athletes think they can coast by and still be successful.

As a coach of high school athletes, you have the distinct opportunity to be the primary force of influence in these youths’ competitive careers. This is the age where talent either explodes or implodes.

During the four years of high school, these individuals often give up on the sport, or not achieve enough success to make it to the next level of running at a competitive college. As a result, we lose out on the opportunity to advance and further develop their talent.

I’m not suggesting that it is 100% on you to cultivate this talent and if it does not blossom, it is your fault. There will absolutely be that athlete who has more talent than they know what to do with, but is undisciplined, no matter how hard you push; they will simply not do the necessary work to get to the next level.

These athletes may still be in your top 5, or could even be your number 1 or 2, but their lack of focus and dedication can be extremely detrimental to the rest of the team’s development.

So, it’s important to recognize the futility in developing these specific athletes, and instead spend the majority of your energy on the individuals who put in the work and are fully committed to their and the team’s success.

So how do we go about uncovering talent?

Again, observation is key here.

Recruiting talent to your program is certainly a challenge; fortunately, as a cross country and track coach, you have three seasons in which to convert these individuals.

If you recognize potential in a basketball player, you can attempt to get them to try out for cross country, or outdoor track. If they’re a football player, you have indoor and outdoor. The key is to not be so narrow focused on only your team that you miss these individuals.

Always keep your eyes open for talent hidden in another uniform.

Another method that I’ve seen work well for cross country in particular is to build a reputation for cross country or track as being the ultimate “get-in-shape” activity. If you can bring competitive individuals into the sport under this (low-pressure) guise, their latent talent may shine through.

Then, you have a distinct opportunity to convert them into dedicated runners.

Oftentimes, all it takes for a youth to switch their athletic trajectory is observing their own potential for success in a sport.

This method will obviously bring in not only talent, but also (more commonly) other average athletes or even undedicated athletes, who don’t take the sport seriously. Inviting these athletes into the program may create a counterproductive culture of not being serious or dedicated to the necessary training.

This usually ends in one of two ways: first, the individual gets bored with it and drops off, or second, they make friends on the team and change their attitude. It’s important as coach to facilitate the latter, because even these seemingly unmotivated individuals might have potential and play an important role in future months.

A word of caution about tryouts: Another way to weed out the not-so-serious athlete, who’s only joined the team to stay fit for their primary sport is to hold a tryout. Tryouts are risky, because competitive individuals do not want to participate in an event where the odds are stacked against them.

If you have your tenured runners, with hundreds if not thousands of miles on their legs competing against other individuals who have never logged serious miles, it’s obvious who would excel in a tryout run or race. This scenario may be just enough to dissuade those competitive individuals with uncovered talent, who see the unequal footing and do not want to be embarrassed.

The truth is, unless the student body is immensely interested in your program, more so than the program can support, the true test occurs in the first week or two, when you start seeing those individuals who are handling the mileage well and those who are losing interest quickly. The unspoken trial period approach is far better; let nature run it’s course.

The other way to uncover talent is from within. The transition from freshmen to senior is a pivotal time in this age group’s lives, especially for boys who mature from children to men over the course of the 4 years.

Always be aware of underdeveloped individuals who are hard working, even if they haven’t shown a great deal of potential quite yet. With time, these individuals could come into their own and, out of nowhere, show tremendous ability.

It is important to create an environment where even the weaker athletes, generally freshmen and sophomores, are given attention and are nurtured properly.

Your next standout could be hiding in uniform already.

Always be on the look out. Observation is the key.

3. Build a Network

Your network will grow naturally if you follow steps 1 and 2 above.

There are however, ways that you can accelerate your program’s reach.

One way that I’ve seen work is to host an after school ultimate frisbee day or tournament. Promote within the school in the weeks leading up, have it announced over the intercom, and drum up interest wherever you can. This is an easy and safe way to get individuals to come out, meet the team, see that running can be fun, and a great opportunity for you to observe and quietly recruit.

The key with this type of networking event is timing. If you host it in the fall, many students are already caught up in their fall sports and, most likely, participation will be down. A better time would probably be right before school lets out for summer break.

However, this is tricky too because after you make this connection, you have to wait months before reconnecting with these individuals; or if you are able to recruit some to sign up for cross country, they immediately enter into what can often be the loneliest period of training: summer base work.

I usually recommend hosting two such events, one in the early fall and one in the late spring. For the fall event, host it right when everyone returns from summer break, and don’t necessarily push cross country, but instead the track program in general. This will allow you to connect with potentially interested students and then build a rapport from there in hopes of getting them to come out for indoor or outdoor track.

The other form of networking that I highly suggest is to simply encourage your captains or veteran athletes to always be on the look out for potential interest in the sport within their own extended social circles. I’ve seen several successful generations of runners built around a social group that pre-existed any activity in the sport.

4. Cultivate the RIGHT Team Culture

Some groups of student athletes just naturally form a strong bond, as well as a sense of dedication to the sport and to the team’s success. This, however, is rare, and more often, requires strong input from the coach.

As we all know, running is an extremely competitive sport, both against outside schools and individuals, but also internally. It can be challenging to manage inter team competition, because it’s such a double edged sword.

On the one hand, you want to encourage healthy competition as a motivating factor to push your athletes, but on the other hand, it can quickly spiral out of control and end in conflict.

The key is finding the right balance.

Cultivating the right culture starts first and foremost with attracting and retaining the right athlete. The athlete who is not only motivated, but can also easily fit in with the already established team environment. You want to avoid individuals who tend to cause unnecessary drama (though it’s tough to avoid this entirely).

If one exists within your program, you just need to do your best to help the other members of the team to resist getting caught up in this behavior.

To create the right competitive environment inter team, you need to be proactive, squashing any drama before it catches flame and spreads throughout the program.

What I’ve observed on several occasions, and believe to be the most common form of inter team competition, is when you have two or three individuals who are roughly comparable in terms of ability and consistently finish close in place to each other in a race or workout situation. They are constantly vying to be the one who gets that top position, whatever it may be. This can be both a helpful motivating factor in training and races, and a detriment to their development as runners.

It’s helpful in that it may be enough in a race situation to keep all involved focused and present in the race. It can be limiting when they are so focused on just outdoing one another, that there is no external focus on who they could individually outperform on another team. It gets out-of-hand when this rivalry goes from friendly feud to quarrelling inter team conflict.

There is a fine line; I suggest breaking these pairs or groups apart in training, as well as developing an individual racing strategy. Encourage them to instead of cueing off one another in a race situation, to cue off members of the opposing team, focusing their attention towards external competition, thus reducing the internal tension. This negative type of inter team competition can be contagious and I’ve seen it literally dismantle a team’s ability to function as a cohesive unit.

5. Have Success

The last core element to a sustainably successful distance running program is to have success. This one is fairly obvious as to why this helps. Any success that an individual or the team achieves is prime opportunity to promote within the school and community. Be diligent about getting your athletes featured in local newspapers, announced over the intercom, or whatever means your school uses to share important school related information.

Doing this will not only attract positive attention from the community, but it will also inspire other athletes, who may be on the fence about joining the team, to take that step. Everyone wants to be part of a successful operation. The more success you have, the more leverage you have in attracting influencers, talent, and expanding your network.

I am very excited to hear all of your comments so please leave them below. I am interested to hear your experiences with what I discussed in this post, and any other strategies that you’ve implemented successfully. As always, thanks for reading! – Steve, CoachXC

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