Elements of Cross Country – Part Four: Communication

"The most important part of the environment for aspiring distance runners is the few inches between their ears."  Paul Geis, 1974 NCAA Champion in the 5000-meter run

If runners do not communicate with their coach they will struggle as an athlete.  Coaching is not the same as running and many coaches struggle with relationships with runners and parents.  We went out and talked to some very experienced coaches as well as some top athletes to get their opinions on this important subject.  Here is what they said:

Gary Wilson

Wilson has been a cross country and track & field coach for over 50 years. He started out coaching at the high school level for six years at the tiny Hannibal High School in Hannibal, NY. From there, he went to West Chester State University for one semester and then arrived at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, where he won four NCAA Division III Championships. But most notable was the 28 years he was the women's head coach at the University of Minnesota from 1985 to 2013, where led his team to the NCAA Championships 16 times. Since retiring at Minnesota, he has served as a volunteer assistant coach at White Bear Lake the past three years.

The coach is more weathered than any of his runners. It is important that the coach reaches out to each kid though, especially the quiet kids. I once had an experience where one of my top runners went to a team party and said that I did not like her because I did not talk to her. She was a quiet kid who sulked a bit occasionally. So, I had a talk with her about that situation and we became very good friends afterwards.

There will be many people who will talk to the athlete besides the coach. Sometimes all of that can pull them the wrong way. Sometimes someone may resist my coaching, and so I remind them that I know them. They are just a different kid than some I have had in the past. But it is a collaborative effort between the two of us to find out what works best for them.

I might say to an athlete, "You can do what you want but we should have a dialogue." I also tell them that I am on their side, so whatever I say it's only because I am trying to help them. My ego is not in this.

What I did at the U of M is to have a contract with our runners. If they got injured doing an activity they were not supposed to do, that sometimes would mean loss of scholarship money. But they had signed the contract. I used to say, "I have more lawyers than you do. Do you know what I mean by that?" White Bear Lake also has a contract for kids to sign. You have to write down commonsense rules. You must be strong-willed as a coach these days.

I am supportive of both our head coaches Dan Kovacich and Patti Percival at WBL. If there is a team problem we have a coach meeting first to decide what to do. Sometimes kids will come to me and ask if this is the right workout. They are usually trying to get a harder or easier workout. They sometimes think I am "the guru," and the last authority on everything. I almost always agree with what the coaches do anyway. As an assistant coach there are times when you should keep your mouth shut. If I do find it necessary to talk to the coach, we meet privately. That is what parents should do.

One thing a parent might not understand is that the coach must be organized and tell the kid what to do minute by minute on meet days. The head coach must teach the kids his schedule. Parents need to understand that they should not interfere with this. You must have expectations of kids.

You are always teaching as a coach. That should be your priority. Athletes are here to learn about the real world. Sometimes it is the responsibility of the coach to go to the kid.

I've had some interesting situations as a coach; more than once parents have come to my office with their kid to complain that I yelled or said something to their kid. If you want to talk to a coach do not talk to him in front of your kid! At the university I always told our athletes that their parents got no votes. That is why our relationship is important.

Someone once said about me, "You have the unique ability to tell people to go to hell and enjoy the trip." The superintendent and principal should have the power in a school district, not the board of education. Parents should not tell the teachers how to teach. I had three rules; do not embarrass me, the university, or yourself. The bottom line is parents must know I care about their kid and am preparing them for life. There is not going to always be someone to protect you in the real world. The boss is not going to care about your troubles.

Dan Kovacich

Kovacich is in his 16th year as boys head cross country coach at White Bear Lake. Last year, his team upset Stillwater in their section meet and went on to finish fourth at State. WBL is no stranger to the State meet though, they have been there ten of the last 11 years. Kovacich also knows about winning as an athlete having been on the Minnesota State-Mankato cross country team which took third place in the NCAA Division II meet in 1993.

You must set high standards for the kids and do not lower those standards because you are having a bad year. Then you will have to raise them up again for a good team. This is not a club sport. Give them a purpose and a reason for coming out and learning to enjoy it. You can make practices fun.

I enjoyed running, but I enjoy coaching more because it is not something you solve directly. A lot is up to the athlete and parents must take a supportive role of the coach. It is a hard job and to be successful, the coach must spend a lot of personal time organizing, motivating, and teaching. What I have learned is that if you are organized the kids will eventually buy in to what you are doing. Also, I am not afraid to ask questions of coaches and we bring in a nutritionist, personal trainer, and chiropractor to practice. We pay the dietician out of our team fundraising.

We have rules and I have sat kids out of meets if they miss practice. We have mileage goals to attend Whitewater Camp. Kids keep track of their summer miles on Google Doc, but if they can't keep up at camp I send them home. However, we do have kids' text us or their captains if an injury is coming up. We do a good job of teaching the kids to be their own coach, but it is up to them to tell us when they are injured.

We have a Runner-of-the-week Award and a Hard Work Award. These are usually based on improvement and any runner can win. I have six coaches counting myself (two are volunteers) and we get together and decide on these. Since we have started to win, we have developed a following of people wanting to help. That is why we have so many coaches.

We do a lot of preventative stuff to prevent injuries such as have them take their morning pulse which we start the third week of practice. We constantly talk to them about their sleeping, eating, and other physical signs. These can be signs of over-training. For our sport, the body is a performance level. Many other sports do not have to worry as much about nutrition because it does not affect meet-day results. So, we teach about that all the time. The devil is in the details and everything adds up in the end.

I go over our program on our website and we have a mass email every week, so they know exactly what we are doing in practice and meets. We tell them where we are going and any necessary details. I know all my parents by first and last names. The parents I like the most are the ones who help us out the most and there are many opportunities for them!

Brad Moening

Moening coaches the Nordic Ski and Cross Country teams at Saint Paul Highland Park High School. He has had six teams at State for Nordic and in 2017 they finished 3rd place in State. His girls cross country team has now won their conference 8 years in a row. He also graduated from Notre Dame with qualifications to teach computer science and engineering.

One of the greatest things that happened to me early on here at Highland Park is that some of the kids came to me and told me that we needed - a team attitude!

But just as important might have been having Natalie and Sophia Ristau lead the way for us. Once girls saw how they were able to have success we took off as a team. Sophia is our assistant and JV coach for Nordic.

The most important things are probably to make sure everyone knows expectations, and to have lofty goals and benchmarks for those goals. We have a 1.5 mile run the first day of practice and I have a database with about 600 names and times kids have had in the past. It gives me the opportunity to say, "this is what so-and-so ran as a sophomore, and this is what she did later on here."

One thing that has really changed for many coaches is that they feel they must have a website and email a lot. I get more emails for coaching than I do for my teaching! This has really changed a great deal since 2004 and it's expected from parents and kids. I also still do the yearbooks and videos that the old-time coaches used to do. Plus, we must constantly be sending schedules and rosters to the league or to races. The kids expect race results to be up by the evening after they run.

Minnesota Milesplit does a great job. Our kids can easily see what others are doing and they know it is possible. That is another reason why kids are running faster than ever before. Ultimately though, it is up to each runner to get things done.

A fun story is of Riley Quinlan, who I had when he was in grades 9-12. He did not like to be very serious about running either. After two years of this I told him, "run 500 miles this summer or don't come back!" He did exactly that and made it to the state meet two years in a row! He is now a senior at the University of Minnesota majoring in elementary education and is a very charismatic person. I think he will make a great teacher!

Another thing that has changed in recent years is the number of parents who go out on the course and yell negative things at their child! Parents will say, "you are letting the family down," or they might say "you should be beating that girl." I do approach them directly about this sometimes, but I also will make it a point to say some positive things right in front of parents to give them some better ideas about being supportive.

We have many kids who are out for a sport because they feel it would look good on their resume for college recruiting. Sometimes even their parent picks the sport. There is a lot of pressure on children to gain scholarship money. It's not even always necessary for them to be in so many activities. It also hurts the team to have these individuals.

You asked if I enjoy coaching. Yes, I do because it's like a story where you do not know what the end will be like. It's a lot of work but fun work.

Paul Geis

Geis ran primarily for the University of Oregon and was a teammate and a main opponent of the legendary Steve Prefontaine.  His best time for the 5k is 13:23 and he finished 12th in that event in the 1976 Olympic games.

My background as an athlete was as a tennis player and that sport gave me a base for distance running.  My high school coach used the Mihaly Igloi training system which consists of running many intervals while using different striding styles.  I first attended Rice University in Houston, Texas where I had to be the distance coach because none of the coaches knew anything about it. That is why I moved to Oregon to be coached by Bill Bowerman.

Bowerman would look at you after the warmup and decide what your workout would be for the day.  If you had an argument with your wife or girlfriend, he might drastically reduce the intensity for that day.  He also tried to individualize.  Since I had good endurance he geared my workouts to improve my speed.

The coaches at Oregon tried to get Prefontaine to hold back a bit more early on in races. They never achieved getting him to do so and it hurt him a great deal.  I came very close to taking advantage of this myself in several races with Pre.

The high school coach has a much more multi-faceted approach than a college or elites' coach. This may sometimes involve motivating runners. An elite athlete needs a coach to hold him back. A high school coach is also a father figure and following his program is essential. Elite athletes do not need competition in practice. Sometimes high school students do, and the coach must be the one who decides. In addition, the team approach is more important in high school than it is later.

Most high school coaches know more than the high school athlete regardless of what's available on the internet. Peer pressure is never higher though. Kids will read something and think that is the key to making themselves better.

In rare situations, parents might know more than the coach, however it's more likely that parents live their lives vicariously through their kids. Talking in front of the athlete and telling how he/she ought to be a champion is abuse. Many young athletes are ruined this way. This happens quite often, and it turns my stomach to see it.

It is the runner that must decide this on his own or it will not happen. The parent's role is to be supportive of the program and their child. If he needs to be somewhere for practice, take him.

Do not have the child workout if it is not recommended by the coach. Kids sometimes get over-worked this way.

Garrett Heath

Heath ran for Winona High School where he was a two-time state cross country champion and a four-time state champion in track, graduating in 2004. Since then at Stanford and/or as a professional he has ran times of 1:47 for 800; 3:53.1 mile; and 13:16 for the 5000. He also was an assistant coach at Stanford while in graduate school. Heath is one of the few people who has defeated the great Mo Farah, which he has done twice at the Edenborough Cross Country Race in the UK.

High school coaches should be strict, and yet there should be lots of fun involved. My coaches, Jim Flim and John Ruggeberg knew each other well and constantly teased each other. We worked very hard, yet it did not seem like work because of their attitude.

If I was starting out as a coach I would talk to the team and also to individuals about creating the right environment. The coach must be a teacher. You are always teaching. Tell them this is their team too and let them share in the planning of practices and fundraisers. You cannot force them to do anything but when they know it is their team, they will comply. Give them some jobs because that creates ownership and team-bonding.

Challenge them to get more people out for the team. The more people you get out, the more fun for everyone. They do not have to be fast. We had many twenty-minute 5K runners on our team at Winona and still had success at the state level.  At Winona the girls and boys teams practiced together, and this proved to be very positive on all levels.  When the girls team finished second in state my junior year, the boys team felt challenged and we finished in eighth place the very next season. 

Even at Stanford the women would practice with us on occasion.  It can make things more light-hearted.  My coach at Stanford, Chris Miltenberg, who I also assisted under and is still there, believes that the culture of a team is just as important as having good runners.  At Stanford, we stopped recruiting some terrific athletes when we found out their attitude would be detrimental to the team. One bad apple can ruin everything.

Scott Fiksdal

Fiksdal graduated from Rochester John Marshall High School in 2001 and made All-State in the 1600m. At Minnesota State University-Mankato, Fiksdal was a four-time All-American and ran the mile in 4:08.7 twice. He went on to coach at Mankato East High School as an assistant varsity coach and head middle school coach for three years in cross country and as the distance running coach for the varsity track team.  He also had some experience working out sprinters and distance runners as a coach at MSU-Mankato.  He is now very successful as a business executive making personnel decisions.

When I began coaching I had problems understanding that kids had very different approaches to athletics than I did when I was their age.  They certainly had not developed my current attitude! So that was the biggest thing I had to change in myself.  I had to make things fun and be a teacher of what I wanted.

When you are just out of college like I was at the time I started coaching at Mankato East, you are only five or six years older than many of your athletes.  They tend to approach you as if you are their buddy, and it's hard not to give in to that.  I had to force myself to be an authority figure.  This was new to me, but I quickly realized that it was important.

As a young person I had to learn how to talk to them as a team.  I had to explain the different roles and about teamwork.  Many kids thought differently than I did, and they had a lot to learn about many things in addition to running. Additionally, many kids did not have my talent and so I had to adjust and make the practices a bit easier than I wanted to.  Our middle school cross country teams were still among the best in the conference when I was there.

Ask your top athletes to do the recruiting for you.  They will not be afraid to ask fast people to turn out for the team, and you can easily ask them if the person signing up will be a good fit for your team.  You do want good people on a team, not just good athletes.

I observed many of my high school cross country runners start out races too fast.  Race strategy is individualist and is hard to teach sometimes.  I was able to show them on the track how to run even pace by running a mile in 64-64-64-64.  This is one thing an older coach may not be able to do but it was very effective.

My parents were always happy with how I did as a runner. Perhaps much of that has to do with their background. My dad was cut from 9th grade basketball and my mom never got to participate in sports. They never seemed to feel it was their place to criticize or be unhappy.

When I had a problem with a parent I would tell them to talk to their kid. He should know the reason why I trained him the way I did, and if he did not then he should approach me and settle it. Kids need to learn and parents too, that it is up to the runner as to how well he does. Parents should not try to live through their kids.

As an athlete I was a football player before I was in cross country. Our 9th grade coach, Joe Moore hammered it in to me that there were no excuses and no whining. 20 years later, I still have the same attitude. I want to win everything. I even led both the cross country and track & field teams in fundraising sales because I was so determined to win.

I am very proud of being the top student-athlete in Rochester my senior year and then in college at MSU-Mankato I was the top student athlete there. When you are young, it's not bad to be a little cocky. Face it, when you get older you will not get the same opportunities. I do not regret anything I have done, I just learn from it and move on.