Updated: May 19, 2020
If you are new to Middle School Cross Country or, like many, are coaching multiple sports some of which you are more familiar with than others, you probably already know that cross country is different in every respect. Coming into Middle School Cross-Country, athlete and parent expectations are often not high and many athletes think they have joined an "easy" sport. No doubt, you will have athletes that are already developing as runners and some are very engaged via their parents. However, often kids who have never participated in a sport before try Cross-Country. You will need to appreciate that. It is a gift.
If you are able, having an athlete/parent meeting prior to the first day of practice is ideal, if you cannot, an email will have to do. At your meeting your positive and welcoming demeanor goes a long way. More than any other sport, I think, the parents sitting in your meeting have probably participated in running at some point in their life, and many are still participating in the sport. Let them know from the start, YOU'VE GOT THIS. Middle School Cross Country is not rocket science, but I would bet more rocket scientists ran Middle School Cross Country than any other sport.
First Meeting Details:
Who You Are- tell them a little about your experience with running and also about your life. Not too much! but enough to let them know they can trust you with their kid. Also, remember this is not about you and you need to convince parents of that fact. I am not an aggressive coach, I never yell at kids out of anger- although I have had a very stern talk when it was warranted. But I have high expectations and that is because I truly believe each of my athletes can achieve more than they believe they can. You can be kind and approachable and still have high expectations. Setting that stage from the start is vital.
School Policy- detail what the school expects in terms of participation and what you expect. This is mostly about attendance at practice and meets. It is also about who runs which races- the top seven thing. Running makes it easy on a coach to choose "varsity", except when you have two or three kids that are really close each race. Be fair. Make sure you are fair. If questions arise, be prepared to answer them honestly. If you are fair, the answers will be accepted. Maybe not liked, but accepted. Conveying that honesty from the beginning is very important.
If you have a schedule of meets provide this. Ask for a parent to organize snack, or however your school does this. If you have a parent or parents available to help, let them do it all. Providing snack and support is perfect for parents who want to be involved and have the time to do so. They are a benefit to the team and to those parents who are unable to lend a hand for whatever reason. If you are a brand new coach, please take my advice- do not try to do it all yourself, you will be overwhelmed at meets. The one particularly difficult thing about cross country is the kids all run away from you and tracking them and giving them feed back is very hard, especially if you are trying to manage other things. Also the start and finish is very often not in the same place. Keep this in mind when you are thinking about how to handle the first few meets. If you do not have parent support, keep the snack on the bus and distribute there before or after the meet- it is not a travesty if a kid eats snack prior to a race- advise them not too, but they may. It's ok. You can also throw something small in your back pack (like fruit roll ups) and hand these to the kids when you can. I am not a fan of snack for kids all the time, but they love it, and I have been convinced after several years that if it can be organized it should be, just not by the coach. I am also known to have a backpack full of candy.
Get permissions, emails, phone numbers. Get all the information you can at this meeting or at least prior to the first day of practice. Your school should be set up for this and provide you support, but sometimes a school is stretched thin and cross country is often no the top priority. So getting this together yourself may be a real possibility, again, use parents where you can, and create a file to store each season's contacts and special information. Talk to parents of kids who have meds. Write everything down for these kids and create a plan if you are the one in charge of taking meds to meets. Have these parents' phone numbers in your cell phone. Often inhalers come into play, you need to have those on your person. A snazy back pack will help keep things organized, never set it down.
Give the athletes a running plan that lasts until the first day of practice. If you are lucky enough to have this meeting or email at least two weeks before the season, ask runners to run 1.5-2 miles three of the first seven days, then 4 of the next seven days. Let them know they need to create a 2 mile route and run as much of it as they can each time. Arriving at practice being able to run a full 2 miles is a huge advantage for everyone. If you have runners who are well above this average mileage, ask them to bring it down to 2 miles 4-5 times a week for those two weeks. Their race is two miles, that is what you are training toward. You are also trying to avoid injury. During your training season your athletes should not be running more than a total of 4 miles at any given practice, and that should NOT be the typical amount. Utilizing interval training makes less mileage more valuable. More on training later. But prep mileage makes everyone happier and avoids injury.
Do talk shoes and acknowledge they can be expensive. Running shoes are important. There are very few people who can get away with running in a $10 trainer. I do recommend my favorite brands, but also acknowledge the presence of other brands and that each athlete needs to find what fits. If your athletes can go to a running store to get fit that is ideal. Our local running stores give kids discounts if they mention they are running for a school. However, this still can be the most expensive way to buy shoes.
Tips I point out- look at the MSRP of the shoe, if it is around $75 or higher the shoes is probably ok. You may be getting it for a really steep discount, and kudos for that, but the MSRP is a good indication of quality. (MSRP is the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price) Previous season models are all over the internet at steep discounts. Most kids can choose from more than one brand or style. A number of shoes will work, but they need a running shoe. Not a fashion shoe. Also, this is one case where hand-me-downs will not work.
Ask kids to break in their new shoes by wearing them around a few days before running in them. After that they should not wear their trainers to school until after the season is over, it keeps the shoes in shape and, again, prevents injury. I always remind parents, running shoes are like a football helmet, they protect the key elements of the kid during this sport. Obviously, we are not dealing with head injuries in cross country, but foot and ankle problems run rampant and I want these kids to start being smart about taking care of their bodies.
OK- that covers the pre-practice period. Next blog will address the first weeks of practice.