How to Build a Cross Country Team!
Melissa Hill and Charlotte Lettis Richardson
This week's article is about building a cross country team and the many details you need to think about as you plan your season. Part 2 will be next week, and will focus on planning your XC season. We will talk about workouts that are specific for pre-season, pre-competition, main competition, and championship competition.
"What do you want to accomplish with your XC team? This is the first question you should ask yourself. If you are the head coach, you should write down your goals for your team, and share and ask for input from your coaching staff. This will be a key as you begin to plan your season. Think of these goals as a road map. As you plan your season, these goals will be the map you follow as coaches and team."
Kids today! We worry that they spend too much time on their phones or gaming systems. We’ve read the alarming statistics on inactivity; so how do we encourage participation in something other than a screen? Cross Country is the perfect activity for runners of all abilities. If we build a Cross Country team and get them to join, how do we encourage a team atmosphere for these young runners? How do we get them to like the sport we love? How do we keep them coming to practice and races? And how do we encourage parents to help their kids learn and love the discipline our sport demands? We hope to provide a few answers to these questions.
Below is a simple "how to" build and maintain a cross country program. You could be building upon an already existing school program, or beginning from scratch at the middle school or youth and/or adult club levels. With planning, thoughtful preparation, and your love of running, a wonderful team opportunity for runners can be created. Making it fun, keeping it simple but appropriately challenging should be your goal. Running is a simple and pure form of sport, and anyone can be a runner. Remember that every athlete is important and worth your time as a coach. You will find that you will be the one inspired by what your cross country team can accomplish. Good luck and have fun!
Getting Started -
If you are lucky enough to get hired as a head coach at a high school, middle school, or youth or adult program that already exists, you are ahead of the game. You now have the opportunity to make the program yours, but still maintain the goals of the school or club. If you are starting from the beginning, there are several tasks you will need to accomplish.
Decide what age group you want to work with. At the high school level you will need to be hired by the A.D. or principal. Check the local high schools and see if they need an assistant coach, or even a head coach! If you are starting a program for club and youth levels, you will need to decide how to structure your program. Will you be a parks and recreation program, a school club, or a community club?
If you are working with school programs, contact the main office to find out the date of registration for the students. This is a great opportunity to set up a table with flyer's and registration information for students and parents to find out about the program and to sign up. Make sure you have several volunteers there to help meet the students and the parents, and to give them information about the cross country team.
Recruit knowledgeable coaches and helpers. They are the heart of your program. You will not succeed without a good staff. Find good people who are as passionate about running and coaching as you are. Your choice of staff will make or break the program. Find people who have similar goals. Make sure they are organized and on time. Coaching doesn’t make you rich, but it can make you happy!
Some suggestions for where to find assistant coaches -
Former high school and collegiate athletes. They are great because they are still close to the sport, and the skills that are needed. And they have team experience!
Athletes from local running clubs. Teachers and school staff.
Parent volunteers - Parents are always wonderful in terms of support and help with tasks other than coaching. There are some parents who will do a great job as coaches. There are others who are coaching because they want to coach their own child. It is important to make sure all coaches are there for all kids. Unless you know that the parent coach can be detached and objective, it is wise to keep parents in volunteer non coaching positions.
Make sure to search your community and local schools for existing running teams. Can you build upon what already exists? Can these established groups help you to set up your program? Always best to build upon rather than recreate!
Parent Meeting -
For all youth and young adult teams, a date should be set for a meeting with parents and student-athletes. Contact your area high school or middle school to reserve a space to hold the meeting. Reservations are usually taken either in the main office or with the AD. Check with the high school secretary to ask how to go about making this reservation.
Posters should be put up in all schools and Park and Recreational offices. An announcement should be put in the school bulletin or rec newsletter with the date of the first meeting and the first practice. Flyer's and registration forms should be left in the front office of each school or on their website. Same with rec. PE teachers should be notified and asked to make an announcement about the XC program in their classes. (Offer to do a "XC day" in their PE class to get more kids interested!)
At the XC parent and athlete meeting you will need to:
1 - Introduce yourself coaching staff ("Jill is a long distance runner who loves cross country and ran in college, Mike is a PT who would has a runner on the team and would love to help as a trainer during the season...").
2 - Present an overview of the program that includes goals and core values (This will be in Part 2 next week!).
3 - Go over the location, dates, and times of practice.
4 - Go over your calendar of races and their locations.
5 - Review with the parents and athletes your policies, rules, and expectations of behavior.
6 - Tell them to go to your website to see your Team Handbook. This will include the schedule of practices and meets, as well as the location and times. Team goals and Core Values can also be included. Include contact information for the coaches. Sign up for volunteer positions. We use Signup Genius. It's free! www.signupgenius.com
7 - Go over clothing and shoe suggestions. Fun to have a shoe store rep come in and talk about shoes.
8 - Go over basic nutrition and hydration. Nutritionist would be great! Handouts are helpful to parents so they know what kinds of foods and liquids are runner friendly and necessary.
9 - Talk about injury prevention and injury policy. A P.T. or Doctor could do this part.
10 - Ask for parent volunteers. www.signupgenius.com is a great site!
11 - Make sure all forms are filled out including medical forms, athlete information cards with contact information, Permission to carpool to meets. (All can be put online on the team website) Talk about any fees that will be collected. BUT make sure parents and athletes know that NO runner will be turned away for inability to pay. Think about setting up a scholarship fund for these athletes.
12 - Snacks and drinks for a social time so you can get to know parents, answer individual questions, and have the runners meet their teammates.
Adult Cross Country Team -
If you are working as a coach of adult athletes, it is always great to have a informational meeting to explain your goals and philosophy of coaching. this is also an opportunity to establish a good working rapport with your runners. A local restaurant or pub is a relaxed and fun way to get to know each other.
Setting goals for yourself, your coaching staff, and your team
What do you want to accomplish with your XC team? This is the first question you should ask yourself. If you are the head coach, you should write down your goals for your team, and share and ask for input from your coaching staff. This will be a key as you begin to plan your season. Think of these goals as a road map. As you plan your season, these goals will be the map you follow as coaches and team.
Important questions to ask -
What do I want to accomplish as a coach this season?
What do we want to accomplish as a team?
How will we accomplish these goals?
How will I know if I have accomplished these goals?
Once you have answered the above questions you can begin to map out how you want to approach your season. If your goals are to create a XC team for middle schoolers that is a positive, healthy,and fun experience you will know how you want to structure your practices. If your goal is to have a competitive high school team with both varsity and jv athletes, this will dictate how you train and race.
Ask each of your assistant coaches to set goals. Knowing that all of your goals are compatible is important. This is your job as a team leader/coach. Have a meeting with your staff to discuss their goals. Work together to make a plan to get there.
Each athlete should also have goals. Next week in Part 2 we will talk more about this and have a sample goal setting sheet for individual athletes. Kids like having direction and structure, and a goal sheet will help them focus on what they want to accomplish during their season.
The beginner athletes will need help with the goal sheet, but will enjoy setting realistic goals that they would like to accomplish.
More experienced runners will have more sophisticated and specific goals, but they should be encouraged to be realistic. It is best to make the goals less time oriented and more effort based. Example - rather than setting a goal of running 11:30 for 2 miles they should be encouraged to race competitively and focus on the effort. The times will come! For the beginner runner it may be as simple as finishing the race! There are goals for the whole season, goals for a specific race, and daily goals.
The First Day of Practice
The first day will be the hardest and most challenging, BUT if you organize and plan ahead, it will go smoothly!
Set the time and place for the first practice. Make sure you have collected emails for all the students and parents, and remind them several times about the location and time of the practice.
On the first day, have parent volunteers and coaches help to sign kids in, and to help register new kids. Have a table set up, pens and forms ready to go. As soon as the kids have signed in, send them to the "warm up " area to stretch and chat with friends. Keep a volunteer with this group and area. The kids who have not handed in their forms should not practice with the team. They can come to the team meeting and watch the practice, but not participate. This is important! You want to have all the paperwork completed and signed. This protects the child, the staff, and the program!
The first 5 minutes of practice should be a team meeting. Make it short and fun!! Introduce each of the coaches and have them say a FEW words. Call them "Coach Kathy or Coach Wilson" so the kids know how to address them. It is important to state a few simple goals for the season and for the practice. ("We are going to have fun, learn about running cross country, get in shape, and be a strong team." "Today's practice we will teach you how to warm up and we will look at your running form.") Every practice should start with a brief meeting to make announcements, talk about upcoming meets, and to state the goal and plan for the days workout. Just keep it brief!
Workouts should be organized and planned well before the season begins. You can always change if the circumstances change! The first few practices should be team oriented and focused on skills you want them to learn...dynamic warm up, stretching, drills, etc. It is important to let them know that each practice has a routine and structure so they know what to expect. Routines help kids know what your expectations are also!
Gather together right before the end of practice. Say a few encouraging words, and have the athletes create a team cheer for everyone to be a part of!
At the end of each practice the runners need to know they must check out before they go home. Make sure there is a sign out sheet. Give one of the coaches that responsibility. (If a child is missing, it is important that you know whether or not she or he signed out!) This is a good precedence to set especially when you start going to cross country meets.
A success story - West Sylvan Middle School Cross Country Team
Interview with former Coach Melissa Hill - West Sylvan Middle School in Portland, Oregon
West Sylvan Middle School was first in the city of Portland, Oregon to have a Cross Country Team. Melissa Hill has been a leader and innovator in youth running, building the successful West Sylvan program and keeping it fun, age appropriate and cool. Below are some tips and ideas from Coach Melissa to help you as you build your Cross Country program.
How did the XC team at West Sylvan Middle School get started?
I moved to Portland in 1997 and realized that sports weren't offered through school. My son enjoyed running and as I was a runner with collegiate experience, I wanted to promote a healthy lifestyle and early experience and passion for these youngsters.
Describe how the team is structured and functions...numbers, races,etc.
We started with the help of PE teachers and announcements at school. We had a large team the first year, around 55 runners. We participated in Portland Parks and Recreation XC meets, and USATF meets on Saturdays for our more serious runners.
How did you recruit volunteers and coaches to the program?
I had a few parents help, some were runners, some helped with apparel and planning, photography, etc. Portland is a great running community and there were lots of helping hands.
What was the toughest part about starting the XC program?
All the little details-paperwork for meets, messages to the parents, staying organized.
How involved was the school administration? How did you approach them in the beginning?
It helped having our middle school PE teacher enthusiastically supporting our program. Later on, the middle school principal also became a staunch advocate for our program.
What is your proudest accomplishment with the XC team?
That a majority of the runners still run years later and enjoy it! Many went on to run in high school and college, and are still running!
What has really worked with the XC program in terms of training?
We make the program FUN and progressive, everyone has a chance to work themselves into shape and work to achieve the success they desire.
What advice would you give a new team getting started?
Keep it simple!
How do you get kids involved and how do you keep them involved?
We talk a lot about what it means to be on a team, have team leaders for dynamic warm ups, elect team captains. For many athletes the social aspect of being on a team is the main reason they come out for XC. The team means so much to them, and the friendships they develop.
How has the program changed over the years?
The coach has become a bit more organized!
What is the most challenging part of working with middle schoolers?
I love it and don't perceive any problems, but some would say their attention spans. They are also growing rapidly and dealing with growth issues, and puberty is challenging for them.
What is the most fun part about working with middle schoolers?
How do you approach the competitive part of running cross country?
We work progressively in our training, and talk and work on competitive situations prior to our meets.
Do you have a favorite story or two to tell us about coaching West Sylvan?
Favorite-the scary stories come to mind-I had a runner who forgot his asthma inhaler and continued to run through an asthma attack and when he finished he was barely breathing-that was an unforgettable and terrifying moment.
Some favorite memories are of the wonderful young runners I have had the pleasure to know-to see them grow into such fine young adults. I remember three runners going on a 6 mile run and not coming back for hours-they had been eating blackberries!
Fast forward to 2018, now some of the very runners who started out in my program are now coaching for Runner2Runner! I love the full circle!
How do you get parents involved and what roles do they play?
We have a parent meeting each season and I ask for help at that time. I specify jobs that are needed with a job description. The website www.mailchimp.com is a good way to stay in touch with the parents, and www.signupgenius.com has a great sign up app for volunteers. Both are free!
How do you plan the workouts for the season and for each day?
I have a template that I use from year to year, but even more important is to assess your team-what kind of shape are they in, what is their running "age"? We are aware of weather and environmental factors at our practices.
Do you have any organizational secrets to running a large cross country team?
Try to anticipate questions from parents and runners, stay up on communication emails or notes at home, publish your schedule, and give reminders to your team about that schedule... constantly. And have a plan for each day. Be organized and well-staffed to make sure all athletes have a coach or two they can call their own!
Next Week - How to plan your season's workouts and races! A "how to" on Periodization of your season, and what to focus on during different phases - pre-season, pre-competition, main competition, and championship competition. We will also look at goal setting for your athletes, and how to help them set realistic but challenging goals!
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