Elements of Cross Country - Part Three: Program Building

The goal of this series is to help young coaches and athletes meet their potential. In part three, we visit with the coaches of the four 2017 state cross country championship teams: Dave Emmans of the Wayzata girls team, Jeff Morris of the girls and boys teams from Perham, and Mark Popp of the Wayzata boys team. All three coaches are in charge of programs which have experience long periods of success, whether building their program from the ground-up, or taking over already-established ones. This short section should stimulate thoughts and questions on how to help other people in our sport.

Dave Emmans coached the Wayzata girls cross country team to four state championships in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2017. His 2013 team won the NXN National Championship, to this date the only team from outside New York to win the girls title, and he has been voted into the Minnesota Cross Country Hall of Fame this year.

I began coaching in 1986 in Bloomington Kennedy and we had several teams go to State. However, it became tough for me to recruit because I was not a teacher in that school district. I did appreciate the people there though and learned a lot from my time there.

I admit that I was not a very good coach in my early years, not only at Kennedy but also at Wayzata. But what helped me was to stay with it a long time, and to try many different things until I found a system that worked. I was lucky enough to get Rick Klamen, the former Robbinsdale Armstrong coach, to come in and help me out with advice. In addition, I give lots of credit to my top assistant Addy Hallen. Without those people many girls would not have had the great experiences they had.

When I was a young coach, one of my problems was that I would yell at them in practice if I felt they were not running hard enough. But I found out that kids will generally work out hard enough on their own. The girls that frustrate coaches because they appear to not be working hard are not going to change if I get on them like that. What I had to learn to do is relax. 

One thing I can take credit for is I sat down after some of those early seasons and asked myself how I could get better. Klammen and Hallen were the answer for me in many ways. I also had the opportunity to watch legendary Bill Miles coach since 1992. I have never seen a more enthusiastic coach. Bill was the master leader of young men because of his sense of humor, organization, and firm boundaries. He sent letters out to nearly every kid in the district and probably out-recruited everyone in the state. I never saw anyone with more energy. It is a good idea to be a teacher and coach both cross country and track & field. This is a way to accidentally get some pretty good kids out for our sport. If you are a jerk, you will not get kids out.

Bill would spend many hours in the evening putting together statistics and other things. I tried to emulate him, but that was a mistake because that wasn't my strength. As a coach, you must be yourself. I needed to go home after practice. But I took many things from him.

As far as workouts we tend to do only one hard workout per week if we have a race. We also do only one long run and we make sure we get good recovery following both of those. What I have found to be really important is to email the practice week out to my entire team every Sunday. Some kids do not read it, but the ones that do, profit. We get in the weight room more now than when I started. I am very old school, but we have found that this helps.

We have about 80 girls on our high school (9-12) team. About 35-40 more are on the middle school squad. They work out as a total 7-12 team for the first two weeks of the season. After that we have the middle school practice by themselves.

Our long run tends to be around 10 miles, but we do it in minutes. Our top girls might be assigned to run for 80 minutes on an out-and-back course. So, they turn around at 40 minutes. Our JV team might go 90 minutes, but I do not like them out longer than that. We use GPS watches but are careful how we do that because they can tempt girls to start racing in practice.

We do everything most teams do like mile repeats, 800s, strides, hurdles, drills, hills etc. When we do mile repeats we do 4-5 per session. They do not jog between them, but we do not give them much rest. I am not a big fartlek guy because it's not controlled enough.

Many coaches think that if they can just get a little bit more out of kids on a certain day, then that will turn the team, or an individual, around. I have even found that trying to "peak," athletes does not work. We've had great races in September and still performed just as well in December, and all I did is try to get them fit and then keep them there. I don't look at peaking at all anymore.

We use the Daniels formula and we run no more than we must. For our JV runners we like to have a goal that they come in being able to run for 30 minutes at close to race pace. We will also hold girls back if they do not appear to be ready to race. We have had some girls improve a lot by just running two races on the year. We have found that fewer JV girls get hurt since we have instituted this policy. It is not harshly enforced.

Teaching is a big part of what we do. You race how you train. In general, we do more teaching about race strategy early in the season. Then on big race days it's more about reassuring them on what they can do. I tell my team that I am the king of "try me." When introducing something new in the past I would force things on my teams. Now I have the attitude that we should try this it might help us be better runners. If a runner has a bad attitude or says something negative I often ignore it until I can talk to them privately. I view those as teaching moments. In the past I would get angry but that does not do anyone any good. A coach should be a good teacher. I look forward to trying to change a kid if I can.

We have between eight and twelve captains on the team and they must be seniors. We look for people that have been out for a few years and have shown signs of leadership. Then we vote on those people. We have what we call "Color Team Challenges" (these have little or nothing to do with running). This has proven to be exciting to some girls and it even motivates them to want to be a captain even if they are not a top runner. In meetings we let girls give us ideas and they have given us some very unique ideas over the years!

We have had an excellent set of athletic directors in Jamie Sherwood and Barb Basse the entire time I have been at Wayzata. They are always supportive. But over the years, parents have changed. There are many more parents who are knowledgeable about running, and a lot more have been runners themselves. When I started out, I would get defensive when a parent challenged me. Now I just remind myself that they want what is best for their kid. The worst thing that can happen is if they think you do not care about their child.

The most difficult thing I have encountered in coaching is communication. We are studying the five personalities. I find that I am somewhat introverted which means it's difficult for me to text the kids on my team. But I know it's necessary so sometimes I do it.