Coach Mike Mead

May 2009

Hey, Its Only Running!

I have a topic this month that has been eating at me for a few years now. I have been coaching at the college level for 14 years and admit that I did not come up through the coaching ranks the traditional way. Where I may have lacked in the science of the sport of running starting out, I made up through my personal experiences as a former competitive runner.

What I have discovered during my coaching years, as well as 10 years as a sportswriter prior to this gig, have been the number of high school runners who I have had or met who received little or no coaching at the high school level. It surprises me to this day that with all the concerns for our young people -- like the so-called “No Child Left Behind” mantra – that there are not enough running coaches at the high school and youth levels who possess adequate knowledge of running.

I’m surprised that more parents whose children participate in cross country and track & field without adequate coaching are not concerned enough to question their athletic directors and school boards about their policies in hiring knowledgeable running coaches. “Hey, it’s only running! How hard can it be coaching running?”

At this point, I’m not going to “preach to the choir” about the virtues of running, or about issues on safety. But there are coaches who have turned kids off from running because of their lack of knowledge. I’ve had a couple of runners who pretty much coached themselves. If you have read one or two of my previous columns about self-coaching, it’s about like the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Not a knock on these kids who are trying to better themselves without adult supervision.

I’ve had some runners who all their coach had them do is basically run the same distance at the same comfortable effort every day. What legendary coach was this picked up from?

I find it interesting that most high schools make sure they have a knowledgeable football coach with a staff of a gazillion to handle the lads, yet they’ll stick someone with limited running experience to handle 10 to 20 kids by themselves. When it comes to these schools, coaching cross country or track & field requires only having a teaching degree and a pulse. “Hey, it’s only running!”

You’d be a laughing stock if you showed up at your local high school to seek a football coaching job if your only experience was Madden ’08. However, you’d make a serious candidate for the cross country job if you once ran a 5K road race. “Oh, you do need to know CPR and First Aid, but we can teach you that!”

I blow my stack anytime I hear of a young runner who I learn is coached by someone with good intentions, but no actual running or previous coaching experience. This is not just a public school issue, either.

Parents who learn that their child has inadequate running coaches need to voice their concerns. You need to demand a coach with a running background. Would a parent approve if their child was being taught math by a teacher with a degree in art? Perhaps the next time you need surgery, how about going to the butcher at your local grocery store. Makes about as much sense!

Fair is fair. Schools need to make a more consciences effort to hire coaches with running experience. I once ran into a former student-athlete, who played tennis at our college, who was coaching middle school track one spring because the school didn’t have anyone and it paid a little extra in a stipend. Let’s hire illiterates to teach kids to read! What’s the real message being sent? “Hey, it’s only….”

Some high schools, because they have a glut of football coaches sticks one of those coaches as a track coach, but that coach spends more time with the football guys in the weight room and ignores the other kids.

So what is a school to do to find a running coach? For one, hire someone with previous coaching and running experience. Mainly, hire a coach or two who didn’t play with balls. There are plenty of young men and women out there these days with cross country and track & field backgrounds. Look for a coach with a general knowledge in the sport. Require the coach to have a minimum of a USATF Level 1 coaching certificate.

It’s all about caring for the kids who do not play football, baseball or basketball and seeing that they have the same comparable level of coaching as the kids in the major sports receive. Life is more than football, basketball and baseball. Running is an important aspect in all three of these sports and more. Having a knowledgeable running coach on your staff can make a major impact on your entire athletics program, if it is allowed.

It’s more than about running. It’s about giving each kid a fair shot in their sport and part of that is having good coaches. Fair is fair.