Your High School Cross Country Team is Middle of the Pack & I Know Why

We all face the same challenges building a successful cross country team. Some schools have better resources, better facilities, a bigger talent pool.

These things clearly have a role in why some schools are consistently more dominant, or able to produce a highly competitive cross country team year-after-year.

Cross Country Race Pack

Yet, we’ve all seen those small schools, with only a few hundred kids to draw from, with no track facilities that have a break-out season and compete with the larger schools for the state title. Fewer, but still in existence, those small school teams that are consistently competitive year after year.

What is it that allows these schools to overcome their limitations and rise to that level? Is it coaching? Is it the school and or the team’s culture? Is it something in the water?

In this post I’m going to try to distill the 5 characteristics of the consistently successful cross country team. It is certainly a challenge to obtain each of these traits. However, they are areas to be constantly striving to improve, and refine. If you are able to develop and sustain all 5 of these attributes, you will undoubtedly have repeat success one year after another.

Failure to realize any one of the below, and you will be in the company of the vast majority of high school cross country programs, middle or back of the pack.

The 5 Attributes of the Consistently Successful Cross Country Team

  1. Continuous Recruitment
  2. Talent Cultivation
  3. Cultural Development
  4. Optimal Training
  5. Decisive Leadership

These core traits are the critical elements to developing a team which can reap the maximum benefits from a training program, and is mature enough to work cooperatively on race day, to achieve success as a unit.

We’ve all heard the saying, there’s no “I” in “TEAM”. This is never truer than with regards to a cross country team, where there’s a tendency to place a lot of focus on a select runner or two who are standouts. For as individual a sport as running can be, working as a team, developing strategies around in-race teamwork are essential to maintaining race day focus, and maximizing team output.

1. Continual Recruitment

If you don’t successfully tap into your pool of talent, you have little chance of growing a competitive program. With that said, some schools have a much larger student body than others, and therefore have quite a bit more opportunity to attract talent to their teams. However, this is an easy excuse for why you can’t build a program that competes on a state or regional level.

There are tactics that I outlined in previous posts, like Building a High School Distance Running Program from Scratch, where, even if you don’t have the largest pool to draw from, you can still maximize your pull and retention, no matter your situation. “Talent” is only a small part of the battle, and there are so many different types of talent (as we’ll discuss) that you should be looking for, not just performance based talent.

Employ a series of tactics to constantly feed student-athletes to your program:

  • Annual (or bi-annual) cross country sponsored events – Ultimate Frisbee Tournament, Badminton Tournament or other low barrier activity to garner attention for the sport within the school
  • Middle school development program – Older runners, team leaders 11th and 12th grade can spend a day with younger runners 7th and 8th grades and act as mentors as these students consider and transition into the sport in high school
    • Cooperation with the coaches of these programs for the younger ages is imperative to the success of the high school program
  •  Maximize your network by having your current members recruit within their particular social circles

2. Talent Cultivation

I believe that almost every runner has talent in one way or another. Some might have talent in the sport’s conventional sense, high tolerance for discomfort, good mechanics, race smarts.

However, there are many other types of talent that a runner can possess:

  • Amazing sense of pace, for workouts, races, rabbiting etc
  • Natural aptitude for providing a sense of calm to a pre-race environment
  • Phenomenal leadership qualities

These are just a few examples, for ways individual athletes can possess talent in one form or another, all valuable in their own right. The key as coach, is to cultivate full realization of these gifts and talents from each of your runners.

Figure out what is special/unique about each of your athletes and then help them to refine this skill into a key role within the framework of the team. Every athlete has their place on the team, and it’s these natural gifts that help to define them.

Without full talent realization, athletes can get discouraged by not offering anything of value, or substance to the program at large. Help your athletes to find their value and place within the team.

Sustainably successful teams have all personalities, running abilities, etc. The more diverse a team is, the more opportunity for new roles within the program, and the stronger sense of purpose and belonging your athletes will have.

3. Cultural Development

Cultural development goes hand in hand with role development and talent realization. If you have a diverse group of individuals competing on your team, the more interests these athletes will be bringing to the the table, and the more opportunity you have to grow an interesting and self-sustaining program.

The key to cultural development is observation, and recognizing potential areas of conflict within the team environment. If there is a particular student-athlete who has differing outlook than another, and they tend to clash, then you have to employ strategies to mitigate the fallout from these events, and reduce the potential that this will happen.

Much of this rests on your leadership’s shoulders, and maintaining good inter-team relations. You can only be involved so much.

Helping runners fill a niche within the program will help to alleviate this type of team drama, since each athlete will have the opportunity to carve out their own place within the structure of the team and this will be their role to own.

Generally speaking, establishing a culture of openness and respect is paramount. There will be very few behavioral issues if you select and develop the right type of leaders for your program. Cross country is an interesting sport because it really does span all social circles and interest groups. The key is to creating an environment where everyone feels free to express themselves, yet that is disciplined enough to maintain focus and a high degree of rigor on a week to week basis.

4. Optimal Training

This one is fairly obvious as to why it’s part of the list. However, it is possibly the most crucial to individual success, and maximizing race-day potential from your runners.

Confidence comes from two places:

  1. Confidence in the training already completed
  2. Confidence as a result of race success

The first obviously leads to the next, so in order to build any sort of momentum in this area, you must first establish a training program that is suitable for each of your runners. Each runner should go into race day with the utmost confidence in the training performed leading to this event.

In order to accomplish this, you must first identify what type of runner each of your team members are. What are their strengths in running and racing? What are their weaknesses? What do they enjoy doing and excel at? What do they not take so well to?

If you can identify these key questions for each of your athletes, you should be able to divide your team into training groups based on performance and training/workout preferences, and then from there, standardize training for these groups.

Most programs I see typically have 3-4 training groups of anywhere from 2 or 3 to 5 athetes. Any larger than this and it’s difficult to give each athlete the attention they deserve. Plus the chances of any 10 runners have the same training requirements is very slim. Avoid the temptation of creating larger groups to cut down on the amount work preparing training schedules. Without effective training, your program will never have success, and you will remain middle or back of the pack.

5. Decisive Leadership

I’ve mentioned numerous times throughout this post, but grooming the right leadership for your program is of utmost importance to the success of your team inside and outside of a race situation. The right leaders are the glue that keeps your team together.

Select only the individual(s) that you feel are mature enough to handle this responsibility and who can afford the energy to this crucial position on the team. This may mean that your best runner is not the necessarily the team captain, because they need to be focusing on their performance and not worrying about keeping the younger athletes in line.

A successful tactic to employ is to select several leaders, maybe 2 at the top level, your juniors or seniors who will be the overall team captains. But then also selecting someone in the sophomore or junior age group, who is not a top performer, to act as secondary leadership to assist in management of the younger, and slower training groups.

It is obvious that this depends largely on the size and performance disparity of your team, but you need to spread the responsibility out, and not put the full weight on the shoulders of one individual, especially if they are a top performer, since much of their energy should be focused on that.

In Conclusion

To wrap up, I’d like to further reinforce that in order to create a sustainably successful program, you must have each of the 5 core elements mentioned above. Lacking in any one of these areas can result in an imbalance that could topple your program, and certainly result in suboptimal performance come race day.

Be ever observant, and constantly on the lookout for ways to improve each of these systems, and build momentum as a program.

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