Rebuilding a Track Program

ITCCCA Coaching Blogs, Illinois HS Track & Field 5 Comments

by Jeff White, Alton High School

I’ll start by making a confession. I’m a head track coach and I have almost zero track and field experience.

Feels good to get that out there!

My goal in writing this is to rid any coach of excuses. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve learned. Most importantly I’ve asked questions. I’ve become a student of the sport and I feel that I’ve given my student athletes what they need to be successful. Since so my great people have given me help, I’ve decided it is time to “pay it forward” and give credit where it is due. Maybe another young or new coach will find some inspiration. The following is a list of advice that has served me well so far.

In August of 2010 I found myself in a back-to-school faculty meeting when I was asked if I was interested in the boys track head coach job. I was teaching at Madison High School (in Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis, MO) with a total student population of about 180 students (down from a peak of 700+) and around 15 faculty members, many of whom taught multiple grade levels. Madison had no football program (cut in the early ‘90’s) and the remains of a 440 yard cinder track that looks like a lazy river after spring showers.

Basically there was no one else interested.

I played football and participated in my high school’s powerlifting team. I loved training. I saw the connection between football, weightlifting, power and sprints to track and field.

My favorite high school teacher, football and powerlifting coach once gave me advice on coaching.

“Do you love (insert sport here)?”  Yes.

“Do you love kids?” Yes.

“Then that’s all you need. Programs change all the time. Fundamentals are always the same. You’ll get more out of fundamentals, passion for the sport and a love of seeing kids making themselves better. You can learn everything else later”.

Rest in peace, Coach Welker.

So I thought, why not?

  1. Learn From Your Mistakes

I frequently buy books and one of which was the (then) newly published book “The Four Hour Body” by Tim Ferris. It was (and is) a fantastic resource of the author exploring strange and unusual health and fitness protocols that follow a basic premise:  the minimal effective dose.

It’s funny sharing this story. I would feel embarrassed saying I was designing a track program around a mainstream gimmicky health book. But check this out: inside this book features some basic protocols that any reader of Simplifaster, ITCCCA and its great writers would recognize. It was in a different form, but shares a lot of the same concepts.

Barry Ross, deadlifts and ASR sprinting? Check.

40 yard dashes? Check.

Muscle activation for the psoas and glutes? Check.

Focusing on acceleration to improve a short sprint time? Check.

Getting rid of needless static stretching and “speed drills” and instead focusing on hip mobility? Check.

I’ve always viewed myself as someone who goes against the grain. I am a person with both a degree in art and a former meathead, after all. I found the ideas interesting and designed a program. I was ready to start training my athletes.

“You aren’t doing enough running”

“You are in the weight room too much”

“Cahokia runs hills until they puke”

“You need to get them in shape”

The criticisms came quick, but not really from the athletes themselves. It came from the principal, from the athletic director, other coaches and adults. (I will add that in the future my athletic director would support all my crazy ideas like speedsuits, making my own schedule, adding a full indoor schedule which included traveling 2 and ½ hours to Mahomet Seymour in the middle of the week and made sure we had plenty of money for state)

I would love to tell you I stuck to my guns. But I didn’t. I folded under the pressure. I Googled “how to train sprinters” and immediately began Clyde Hart-style programming. 2010/2011 was different. There were not as many resources online as there are now. Or at least for free.

The team was ok. A sophomore sprinter ran 11.14 and went to state. He also set the school record in the shotput as well (46’5″).

But we ended the year injured. My 4×100 third leg pulled his hamstring the week of sectional. We did lots and lots of stretching, jogging (to shake it out of course!) ice and ibuprofen to get him fixed (I’m laughing to myself as I type this). We ran 44.8 and missed qualifying by a few tenths.

  1. Allow Your Athletes to Guide the Program

So what changed in 2012?

I will give credit where it is due and it falls on that injured third leg…Andre Berry.

As the 2012 school year began Andre was in my homeroom class. He lamented how the previous season had ended. You see, Andre Berry was hurt at the end of every single one of his high school seasons…two hamstrings and an ankle. Andre Berry was a stud in junior high track. He wanted that mojo back.

He flat out told me, “I want to go to state my senior year in all three sprint relays with my friends.” He also told me he didn’t want to go all those “weak” meets (our schedule had been terrible and was dominated with triangles and quads). He wanted to go where the big schools ran. He wanted an off season program.

In our area we are surrounded by a hotbed of track talent. East St. Louis and Cahokia are immediate neighbors. So are Edwardsville, Belleville West and Triad…perennial state contenders and champions. Across the Mississippi River wasn’t too bad either. Current Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot was dominating the sprints in Missouri at this time.

I looked at Andre and said what came natural to me, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Other than one 4×100 barely making the year before I took over and few individuals here and there, Madison hadn’t sent a decent group to state since 1992 and hadn’t qualified all three sprint relays since 1988. This wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.

As a coach I felt an immediate responsibility.

 

  1. Learn From Who is Already Successful

I began by looking at those “big school” schedules. What are the best meets? Just by chance and just because I live in the Edwardsville School District, I went there first.

Wow.

Coach Chad Lakatos keeps an excellent webpage. I wrote down their schedule. By strange coincidence I met Chad a month later at a neighborhood pig roast. I talked to him briefly. He told me if Madison ever needed a race to contact him. He had no idea how much I would wind up bugging him.  Like, a lot. I STILL contact Chad for meets and advice.

I’m sure Edwardsville knows this, but some schools can’t stand them. A coach, who shall remain nameless, in Madison County told me “I don’t need to see Edwardsville and their eight assistant coaches jumping up and down and shouting every time they win a race”. Well, why not? What would you want to see if you were a high school kid: Your coach jumping up and down when you bust your butt or standing with their arms cross lamenting on all the reason why they can’t possibly compete? Because that’s one thing I noticed. Edwardsville coaches always say encouraging things and give feedback to their athletes after a race…no matter what place they come in. Heck, Edwardsville will offer feedback and congratulate other team’s athletes. Edwardsville jump coach Carry Bailey passed along one of my athlete’s names to a college coach. Throws coach Matt Martin offered advice to Alton’s throws coach Eric Dickerson. East St. Louis has a reputation for being distant and cocky. Their former assistant coach and new head coach Ramon Johnson found a college for Madison’s Andre Mcgill to run at after high school. Previous head coach Barry Malloyd offered encouragement and offered Madison meets. I guess as a coach you can choose to be jealous or you can try and learn. Haters gonna hate, I guess.

I should also add that Coach Willie Byrd of Cahokia Wirth Junior High gave me some fantastic advice in that terrible 2011 season. Coach Byrd’s athletes hold several all-time records in junior high track. Marlon Brady (50.89 in the 400m), Marquis Murray (15.15 in the 110 hurdles), 1:34.61 in the 4×200 and perhaps most mind blowing…3:32.59 in the 4×400 (the same group has the all-time 7th grade record and for a brief time held the number #1 4×400 time in the 2013 Illinois outdoor season running 3:23 in an early fresh-soph meet).

Coach Byrd said focus on the athletes who show up and want to be there. He asked how many athletes I had that were truly dedicated. I responded with “maybe six”. His reply stuck with me. “That’s all you need. Six athletes. That’s two relays and a couple of individual champions.” Ha! Just that easy, right? He acted if six might be too many athletes! He added, “These in-season meets don’t really mean much. It’s state that matters”. Focus on the end of the year and your championship meets. May matters, not April or March.

 

  1. Train Smart

But it was another tab on Edwardsville’s website that caught my eye…”Speed Training”. There I saw that Edwardsville timed and ranked 40 yard dash times. They ran A LOT of 40’s. It seemed like that was what they did the most. That and something called “The 23 Second Drill”.

I was curious about this drill so I began Googling. I couldn’t really find anything until I stumbled on a Let’s Run message board where somebody mentioned Tony Holler and Chris Korfist. Never heard of ‘em. Back to Google. Then I found it. Clinic notes from both from ITCCCA website. (On a funny note: I didn’t know for quite some time of Coach Holler’s connection to Metro East head coaches)

Here they are, the exact documents: Sprint Training 101 and Speed Development 2011. These became my bibles.

I had one more thing to be concerned about: Andre Berry and his injury prone ankle and hamstring. After looking at rehab procedures online it seemed that both problems are usually caused by weak inactive glutes and a lack of mobility in the hips. Interesting.

Since I was the only coach, I decided that I would then train all my athletes like they had hamstring and ankle problems.

So we made use of Madison’s ancient Universal Gym. We did single leg kickbacks on the leg press, one leg deadlifts on the bench press station. We did kettlebell swings and one leg squats. Plus tons of hip mobility drills.

Madison’s Caleb Jones doing single leg kickbacks on an old school Universal Gym. ” Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”-Teddy Roosevelt.

Madison’s Caleb Jones doing single leg kickbacks on an old school Universal Gym. ” Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”-Teddy Roosevelt.

Armed with my printouts of “Sprint Training 101” and “Speed Development 2011” we headed to the long downstairs hallway and began running 40’s all winter. When the weather was above 48, we went outside and did 23’s. It was like a random “wild card” workout.  I also added drills from NFL Combine guru Joe Defranco’s “Top 9 Drills to Improve Acceleration Technique”. Times and jumps were ranked and posted on my classroom door. Bets were made and trash was talked. Kids recruited each other.

 

  1. Promote Your Team

I set up a Twitter account. We finalized a better schedule and ordered fresh new uniforms. Our schedule looked like we were in Class 3A and part of the dominate Southwestern Conference. At the Southwestern Illinois Relays held in March, Madison was ready for our coming out. The only Class A school competing, we finished 6th in the 4×100 (44.36) and 4th in the 4×200 (1:32.47). Not bad at all. Our sprinters were 4th and 8th in the 100m. Our high jumper hit 6’4” and finished 3rd. The newspaper headline in the local journal read “Madison Emerges as Class A Threat”. The kids were stoked.

2012 sprinters. Andre Berry is second from the right. All-State 100/200m sprinter and shotput school record holder, Carvel Dixon is on the far right.

2012 sprinters. Andre Berry is second from the right. All-State 100/200m sprinter and shotput school record holder, Carvel Dixon is on the far right.

 

A few weeks later we were at Edwardsville’s invitational and I met Tony Holler for the first time. He walked up and told me Madison had some great times and that he was looking forward to seeing us run. What power Twitter can have. Here was a coach from a large Chicago team telling me that he was looking forward to seeing our team compete, athletes from a small school no one has ever heard of! He told me I could contact him anytime. I’m sure he was just being nice and pleasant, but I took him up on that. I’ve bugged the hell out of the poor guy. Like, a lot.

A few days later Madison won the Madison County Small Schools Championship. Not only did we beat the other small schools, but we beat many large school teams as well. Times were dropping. I posted one of my favorite pictures on Twitter that night, the team gathered around the revolving team plaque for county champions.

2012 Madison County Champions, Small School Division. A small, but proud team. Everyone on the team received at least one medal in this championship meet. How often does that happen? (It happened again in 2013!)

2012 Madison County Champions, Small School Division. A small, but proud team. Everyone on the team received at least one medal in this championship meet. How often does that happen? (It happened again in 2013!)

So how did the year end? We ran 43.67 and 1:31.95 to qualify for state. The 4×400? Our anchor quickly coughed up a lead and then came roaring back in the final 30m to take us to state. The first time since 1988 that Madison sent all three sprint relays to state.  Andre Berry ran on all three relays. We were county champions. A healthy and happy Andre Berry got his senior wish…a trip out of town to state to compete with his friends.

 

  1. Keep Moving Forward

That might sound simple. However after that great 2012 season, the core of the team graduated. With 180 students, it can be challenging to “reload”. I heard it all year long. I still had my 11.1 sprinter, but few people around the school had hope for the team.

Well, except for me and my athletes.

How did we respond? Well I kept learning and asking questions. I went to clinics. I networked with other coaches. My athletes worked both hard and smart. I’d recruit anyone in the halls. “I will find an event for you that you are good at”.  I didn’t make promises. But I would claim, “I can’t guarantee you’ll be ‘fast’, but I will make you faster”.

The 2013 team repeated as county champions and we actually were faster, going 43.60, 1:30.82 and 3:30.67. 2014 was the fastest team I had coached and made the most noise at state. 2015 saw Andre Mcgill become a state champion and draw interest from Illinois.

I truly believe that when you have a fun program that the kids enjoy, the recruiting takes care of itself. No booster club, so I bought Freelap with my own money. By timing and ranking your athletes you find were to place them in events to be successful. They see small but measurable progress. When your athletes are happy, feel good and feel fast, magic happens.

I write this as no brag on myself. I still consider myself a novice coach. If anything, I write this to brag on my athletes and their accomplishments. With my inexperience, lack of facilities, no assistant coaches, no booster club and small school size…if I can do it, anyone can! If you want to have a great track program, it is in fact obtainable.

I had a choice after that first disastrous season. I could collect a stipend and coast by on raw talent or I could do right by my athletes and students. I’m still amazed that many track coaches seem to not know what “Google” or “Twitter” is. You can be that grumpy coach that complains about Edwardsville and Cahokia. Or you can ask questions and learn from the best you can find. Remember, you have a choice on what kind of coach you want to be.

 

Jeff White is the current head coach for Alton High School (IL) and previously head coach at Madison High School (IL) where he is a high school art teacher. He has coached several indoor and outdoor all state athletes and school record holders. He resides in Glen Carbon, IL. You can follow him on Twitter @AltonTrack

 

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