September 21, 2016

Inclusion Coaching: How to Run a Cross Country Team Without Making Cuts

The fall sports season has quickly arrived and with it come the hopes and dreams of kids across the country who want to become part of a team. In sport, cuts are necessary for all kinds of reasons that range from transportation limits, to manageable team sizes, and play time practicalities. Some sports are fortunate that they have the ability to accept more students than others and one of those activities is cross country.

I am taking over my middle schools cross country team for the first time. The won the regular season and post-season titles last year and the expectations for runners in my area are high. Although I run independently in various distances outside of school for fun, I have no experience coaching running. I’ve always been a soccer player (and coach). You’re also probably wondering why I run for fun and if I’m honest, I’m just as baffled by it as you are. Yet somehow here we are with a fresh cross country season and I have 101 athletes on my roster with two coaches and an assistant. Is your mind as blown as mine is? If so, don’t fret because we have a plan and I’d like to share it in case there are any other overwhelmed cross country coaches out there.

Before I dive too deep into the world of no cuts and increased participation I feel the need to clarify a few things. First, I’m coaching middle school {AKA} the formative years. I certainly won’t deny that I’m far from the varsity level and fully admit that because of that, I choose to coach a little differently. I also don’t necessarily carry this no cuts philosophy into other sports. I coached girls middle school soccer last season and kept 20 players out of a potential 75 that attended tryouts. Enough with the background, let’s get to it!

In case you forgot or thought I made a typo, I currently have 101 athletes on my cross country roster. ONE HUNDERED AND ONE! I knew we had a lot of interest in cross country, but I truly had no idea we were going to have over 100 athletes. My mind immediately raced to think of how to properly supervise all of these runners, let alone condition them!  Here is what I’ve found:

  1. Divide the team into three smaller teams based on a time trial. We have worked it out into an A, B, and C team. The A team consists of the top seven runners for boys and girls for a total of 14 athletes. The B team consists of the runners who finish in slots eight through 25 for boys and for girls, which brings the A and B teams to a total of 50 runners (25 boys and 25 girls). Runners who finish in the 26th slot or higher make the C team.

    How does the time trial work?
    I’m so glad you asked! We walked our athletes through the home meet course the day before we planned to time them so they knew exactly where to go. This took the majority of practice, but trust me, if you want an accurate placement from your time trial, you will take the time to do it. The following day students are divided into male and female heats. They run the course while a running timer is kept. As athletes finish, they’re given a card or popsicle stick with their finishing place on it. We then keep a spreadsheet with their times that are printed through our machine. We use a basic handheld timer from Seiko to manage this. They aren’t cheap, but are worth the investment! You can see the timer we use for sale on Amazon here.

  2. Set Away Meet Rules & Guidelines. Obviously some issues prevent a team of 101 athletes from traveling to away meets. We notify athletes and parents at the beginning of each season that only A and B team members will travel to away meets. Our buses have a capacity of 52, therefore 50 athletes and two coaches fit perfectly on said bus.
  3. All home meets act as a new time trial. It’s important to give athletes a goal, as well as the opportunity to improve! You’ll already be tracking who finishes where anyway, so count these scores as a new time trial so athletes can move up or down. This helps keep your A team honest and gives top B and C team members a chance to improve and move up!
  4. Make accountability a priority in practice. We specifically design our practices so that students can measure how far they’ve been. We can accomplish this in a few ways through circuits and guided runs.

    Circuits: These allow us to keep all of our athletes moving at once while keeping track of how many circuits they complete. One of my favorite workouts involves cones spaced 5 yards apart down the length of a football field. Athletes run to the first cone (5 yards away), complete a set of the exercise posted, and run back to the start line. They repeat this, adding 5 yards between each station until they’ve reached the end. Afterwards they complete two laps around the track, get 3-5 minutes for water, and complete the circuit again, keeping track of how many total circuits they complete.

    Guided Runs: These runs allow us to map a course of a specific distance and document each time an athlete passes by. We can then record their total distance and hold athletes accountable, especially once you’ve completed the workout a few times (i.e. last time you completed 10 laps as opposed to five, what’s going on today?)
  5. Enforce team rules and policies. My personal philosophy about sports teams is that they are a privilege to be a part of and we want as many kids active as possible. Due to this, my athletes are held to higher standards for academics and behavior.

    Academics: Students on my teams must maintain B averages or higher in all coursework. If a grade falls below the B level at any point during the season, they have two weeks to pull the grade up (or show improvement) by attending tutoring or receiving help from the respective teacher. If the grade does not improve, they are removed from the team.

    Behavior: Poor classroom behavior is not tolerated on my teams. Detentions will be issues and receiving two causes for dismissal from the team. There are no exceptions

    Parent Pick-Up: Our parents are expected to be prompt when picking up their children from practice. If we end at 4:30pm, all athletes should be picked up no later than 4:45pm. Parents are allowed two late pick-ups before their child is removed from the team.

    Some believe these policies are harsh, but we have the opportunity to show so many athletes would good discipline can do for them in sports and in the classroom. We hold them to a higher standard because we know they can achieve it!
I hope this information is helpful to anyone who may currently be coaching cross country or who may be thinking about coaching cross country. It's important for all coaches to develop their own philosophies and styles! What works for my program may not work for yours and vice versa. Regardless of how you decide to form your teams, GOOD LUCK.

I'll end with one of my favorite quotes from a man who inspires me daily:
"Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must;  just never give up" - Dean Karnazes

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