Building a program is like tending to a garden. You need good soil, constant attention, and time.Al Carius, North Central CollegeJohn Prieboy
Plainfield Central High School Girls Cross Country
The 2017 season has been a learning experience for me.
Over the past four years, our program has gone through immense change. When I first started my tenure at Plainfield Central High School with the girls four years ago, we had 14 girls on our team, and I was without an assistant coach. We had a few talented runners who were underclassmen, and decent leadership from within. Certainly, the philosophy that I had brought to the table was different than what was in place prior, so there were some growing pains. I remember being very frustrated at times with the way things were going, as I had everything built up in my mind, being naïve and as a first year head coach, that it was going to be a smooth transition and everything would fall into place in an instant. Some of our best runners did not return to our squad in my second year, and I was greatly hurt by that. I reached out to my collegiate coach, Al Carius, for help and insight, and what he told me changed my approach drastically.
“Building a program is like tending to a garden. You need good soil, constant attention, and time.”
It seemed that I had forgotten everything I learned while I ran for North Central College, a team that prides itself on building for the future. As I revisited my roots, I began to pay a little more attention to our freshman runners at the time. I remember telling them at the end of the year: “If you stick with this and put in the work, you will be great runners when you are seniors. It’s just going to take time.”
Fast forward to 2017, and our seniors are running lifetime bests, and our team is finally seeing some signs of success. I know for a fact it is a direct result of our senior leadership, and that they chose to buy into the long-term approach. It was difficult. It tested their will. But they stuck out and held their heads high when the results weren’t quite there, and trusted in the training. This year is finally the year for Plainfield Central Cross Country. We have great soil (our senior leaders), attention has been paid (our greatest turn out to summer running), and time is on our side (3 out of our current scoring 5 are seniors, and one thing you can’t coach is experience).
As a coach of girls (and this is what I have absorbed over the past 4 years as a silent observer at meets and clinics), it seems that delayed gratification is not a common mindset bought into. There is a belief that girls peak when they are freshman. I even heard a coach once say: “you have to get everything out of them when they are young before their bodies change!” I thought that was foolish. Yes, science may say that female athletes may be near their best when they are younger in physical development, but that is a notion that I refuse to let my girls buy into. I don’t want them to use that as an excuse. There will be plateaus in performance, but if you work through it and stay positive with them, great things can, and will, still happen. Our girls are evidence of that.
Last season, two of our juniors, one of whom was a sectional qualifier as a sophomore, had sub-par years. They trained well over the summer, but they just did not produce the results. These ‘growing pains’ brought a great deal of emotion to our squad, as they were upset with themselves for not running well and personally felt like they let the team down. Sometimes as a coach, you just have to be that shoulder to cry on, and in those times, that’s all you can be. I don’t know how many times tears were shed in practice or after meets, but I can remember telling them to trust in their training and to keep their mind on the positives. This year, both have started off the season running as fast or faster than they ever have. Why? Delayed gratification.
The focus on long-term development cannot solely be in the hands of physical performance. Running requires a great deal of mental preparation, and a huge part of that mental preparation involves self-confidence. I feel that it is nearly impossible to coach an athlete to be 100% self-confident in a single season. It’s something you have to build up over the years. It’s a difficult thing to teach, as well as a difficult philosophy to grasp, but I tell my girls all the time that I would rather coach a team of girls who are incredibly confident in themselves and in the girl next to them whom they toe the line with, rather than a team of selfish kids who have a great deal of talent.
In teaching self-confidence to my girls, I have found that you must first buy into the team concept, which again takes time. If I can get the girls to work selflessly for each other, it creates confidence within the team. Once the girls are confident in each other, then they can look in the mirror and not feel pressure on themselves to perform well, but strength to achieve things they’ve never done before because there’s a circle of people who believe in them and trust them. It certainly takes an army to build, as well as time, and our increased numbers the past two seasons have definitely helped our girls become more self-confident. Our culture has become very strong because our girls buy into the notion that they are all links in a chain, each of them equally important vital to maintaining the strength of the team. They all depend on each other.
Another thing that has helped in our long-term development is the fact that I have made results irrelevant. I do not care what place we come in at meets, or if any of our runners get medals. All I care is that they enjoy the sport of running and that they strive to be the best they can be on a daily basis. Two quotes that I use from my time as a North Central Runner are ‘Small Daily Wins’ and ‘Run for Fun and Personal Bests.’ We never go into meets with performance based objectives, but rather three simple targets: Gain experience for championship season, execute the 4 parts of the race, and to ‘Run for Fun and Personal Bests!’ (Side note, a coach in our building told me in my first year of coaching that ‘Run for Fun and Personal Bests’ was the most uncompetitive thing he has ever heard. I laughed it off ☺). How are we going to use the meets throughout the year as stepping-stones to Conference, Regionals, Sectionals, and ultimately one day, State? How are we going to find purpose in what we do to get better each and every day? The answers of those questions take some time to figure out. But once they grasp the concept, you can see the difference in practice and in races.
As I mentioned at the start of this blog, this season has been a huge learning experience for me. In my three previous years as the head coach of PCXC, we have had little success on paper. This year, we have started off hot with a Fr/So City Championship, a Varsity City Championship Runner-up, 5 All-City Runners, Two top 15 finishers in our home invite, and over 15 lifetime personal bests out of 22 total runners. It is kind of odd to shift from the mindset of ‘we are going to be good in a few years’ to ‘this is the year.’ It is something that I have felt a great deal of anxiety with, and I am open to hear some opinions of how to handle it from the many great Illinois XC coaches out there. The last thing I want to do is put too much pressure on our kids.
I will say this, it has been a joy to see the seniors on our squad running well, and leading our underclassmen by example, and sharing their experience with them. They know the ingredients for success, but it has taken them 4 years to figure out the recipe for it. It is going to be a special year for our program, and it all stems from that day four years ago when they made the choice to buy in to the concept of delayed gratification. Teach it and preach it to your young runners, whether they are boys or girls, no matter what reason they are out for the team. It might be a little bit of a paradigm shift from the norm, especially with girls, but it is an imperative life skill that will take them places far beyond the finish line.