Middle School Matters
I am currently the JV distance coach for the Yorkville High School track team as well as the head coach for the Yorkville Middle School cross country team. I feel there are a lot of coaches out there with more experience than me giving advice at the high school level, but there is little information for coaches of feeder programs at the middle school/junior high level. I hope this blog will become a good resource for high school coaches with feeder programs, but I especially hope it helps coaches of the feeder programs themselves.
In 2008, after a few years of the high school cross country coaches at Yorkville trying to create a feeder program for the high school cross country team, the district finally agreed to create a cross country team at Yorkville Middle School. I hoped my experience as a track and cross country runner at Lake Park High School would help me get the job, and I finally got word that I would be the head coach of the new YMS cross country program the day before school let out in 2008. That didn’t leave any time for recruiting, which is the main reason we only had 18 runners that first season.
One of the things I made sure to do was talk as much as possible with the high school coaches. I’m in a good situation since I teach computers at Yorkville High School. This makes it much easier for me to communicate with Chris Muth, the head coach of the high school’s cross country team who also teaches at YHS. Not everyone has the benefit of this situation, but I always encourage feeder program coaches to communicate as much as possible with the high school coaches. As a feeder program coach you don’t have to do everything exactly the same as the high school, but it’s good to have consistency between the programs as much as possible, and it always helps to have someone else to talk to about workouts and strategies.
In Yorkville, the high school coaches have final say over much of what happens at the middle school level. While Coach Muth could use this to dictate what I do with my team, he is content to leave decisions to me because he trusts what I am doing for the program. This level of trust comes from our conversations at the high school, and the system wouldn’t work if either one of us didn’t trust the other. If he tried to dictate everything to me, I would quickly become frustrated and probably wouldn’t stick with it for very long. On the other side, if Coach Muth didn’t trust my coaching ability, he probably would feel the necessity to dictate what I do or request the middle school hire a new coach. Neither situation would be good for the program, so communication is key between high school coaches and their feeder programs. This might not be as easy for other programs that don’t have coaches at both levels teaching at the same school, but the effort to communicate needs to be made for the feeder program to benefit the high school program.
When I started coaching, Yorkville’s high school cross country team was just beginning to see success at the state level. The season before the middle school program started saw the high school boy’s team finish in the top 10 at State for the first time since a 3rd place finish in 1987. Scott Tanis, who currently runs at Lewis University, was the first All-State runner under Coach Muth during that 2007 season. My goal for the middle school wasn’t necessarily to win a lot, although I wouldn’t mind if that were a side effect. My main goal was to make the program fun, which would lead to more kids joining the high school team.
Make Your Program Fun
Since my main goal was to make our cross country program fun, I had to find resources for games that would supplement our running. Ultimately, I wanted to make the running fun, but games are a good way to get kids engaged and increase their endurance, and more endurance makes the running easier and more enjoyable. My assistant coach, Chad Martin, is a PE teacher at the middle school and has been an essential resource for games the kids will enjoy. Since he plays a lot of games in PE with the kids, he has a good idea of which games are more popular. Last year Ships and Sailors was probably our most popular game, but in past years it has been Ultmate Frisbee or Sharks and Minnows. If you don’t have an experienced PE teacher to help you out, a book I’d recommend is Training Games: Coaching and Racing Creatively by Eric Anderson and Andrew Hibbert. It has a lot of great ideas for games that will increase endurance. It may take some time for you to figure out which games work for your team, though, so don’t be afraid to try different games until you find some that stick. While the book appears to be out of print now, you can still find it used online. If anyone has other resources for endurance games I would love to hear them.
It’s also a good idea to plan at least one outing with the team before the competition phase of your season to help build team chemistry. In the past, we’ve gone to the Raging Waves waterpark in Yorkville, participated in a photo scavenger hunt, played mini-golf, or held a movie night to watch the Prefontaine movie, Without Limits, or the York documentary, The Long Green Line. These events go a long way to building a sense of family within our team and making it fun.
The concept of Gamification is something else I use extensively with my team. If you aren’t familiar with Gamification, it is using some of the traits of videogames in a non-gaming context, which plays off everyone’s natural desire to earn achievements. Football has been doing this for years with helmet stickers, but it can be done in cross country and track just as easily. At the middle school we have PR stickers that we give out to any kid who sets a personal record in a race. We also have stickers we give out for other achievements such as finishing in the top 7 on the team, earning a medal, or winning a race, but the PR stickers are the most popular because anyone can earn them. Our parents design paper shoes to put above our athlete’s lockers, where they can display their stickers. We always take a day each week to pass out the stickers in front of the whole team so everyone’s success is publicly celebrated. Finally, we have a website at ymsrunning.com where we have an entire history of the team. This was easy to do since our team has such a short history, but even with our short history the kids love looking at their results on the site, and our top kids are even more excited when they break a record or get on one of the leaderboards. I could probably write an entire post about having a web presence for your team, but suffice it to say it’s important to have a place for your kids to communicate about the team somewhere online.
Fun Can Still Mean Success
Just because your program is fun doesn’t mean you have to do away with any interval workouts or LT runs. In fact, not having those harder workouts may do the kids a disservice when they reach the high school level. I used to limit how much mileage my middle school athletes would run. We rarely ran more than 4 miles in practice partly because I didn’t want to push them too hard too early. When the kids would get to high school, though, they would struggle early on with the jump in mileage, and a few even fought injuries. Since then, I have had my top kids run 30 miles a week at their peak, which hopefully will help them transition much easier when they run in high school.
While winning isn’t and shouldn’t be the main goal of a feeder program, I mentioned early on that it can be a nice side effect of creating a fun program. We had 18 kids on our first team in 2008. This past year we had 81 7th and 8th graders. I do a lot of recruiting, and Coach Martin works on kids in PE, but the best recruiting is done by our runners when they talk to their friends. We give a survey at the end of the season, and one of the questions we ask is if anyone convinced them to join the team. The majority of our team was convinced by a runner to join as opposed to any other recruiting efforts. We joined the IESA in our second year, and that was the only year we did not make State. This past year we had top 10 finishes by both the boys and girls teams. The success makes the program even more fun for the kids, so we’re hoping to see even more kids on the high school team in the future.