This is an excerpt from Coaching Cross Country Successfully.
Running while fueled by inspiration is great, but it can also be overdone. I never wanted my guys to get too hyper before a meet because they started to lose the necessary calmness and ability to conserve energy in the hours before a meet. Mostly, I just wanted the guys to feel free and loose, confident, and enthusiastic.
My preference was to have a talk three or four days before a big meet such as the state cross country championships so the team didn't get too worked up. That doesn't mean I didn't pull out a letter from a past champion and read it to the guys. I would ask legends of the past to write letters to the future team so that I could keep our past alive in the program. Hearing from a former teammate who had been where they were and succeeded built a sense of being connected to greatness. When I read the letters to the team, they looked up to and felt connected to these legends, such as Chris Lewis, Matt and Micah Davis, and Evan Garber. But I think it's important to remain loose and relaxed rather than intense and fired up.
Sometimes, I would take the team to the auditorium at the school, turn the lights down, and play "We Are the Champions" by Queen. I'd tell the guys to listen to the lyrics, visualize the warm-up, visualize the race, and feel so excited that there's no doubt about giving their best. I'd tell them, "You're going to give that jersey a ride like it's never had before." Or I might use something from the Prefontaine movie soundtrack or a song by U2. But again, I advise doing this a few days before the big meet and not the night before.
A prerace cheer is a fun way to let off some bottled-up emotion prior to taking a position on the starting line.
About two minutes before the race started, I typically gathered the team for a huddle near the start line. And the message was always simple.
- Go out. Take charge. Have fun.
- Feed off each other. Have a blast.
- Nobody passes you in the last mile.
- Go fishing! See how many you can reel in.
- Low score wins. Go get 'em!
These are short phrases that the athletes may be able to remember once the starter's gun goes off and the adrenaline kicks in and all of the bodies fly into motion.
The kids got into the habit of doing a cheer by themselves as I moved away to find my spot on the course. It was an old Welsh rugby chant that I learned from a guy I met in the 1970s. I introduced it at Shorecrest before it became a fixture at Mead.
- "Uggy-uggy-uggy!" shouts one part of the group.
- "Ugg! Ugg! Ugg!" responds the other.
It's light-hearted, meaningless, and serves only one purpose: Firing up and getting ready to pounce off the starting line.
Some coaches run from one end of the course to the other, burning off their anxiety and coaching runners at every possible moment. I felt that sort of thing was unnecessary. Sure, I and the assistant coaches - plus teammates and parents - find spots from which to cheer. But I almost didn't care about the split times the kids were running, I didn't feel compelled to watch the start of the race, and I almost never ran or appeared overly excited during a race.
Typically, I had my camera with me and was steady enough to take photos. That distraction might have been a good thing because it gave me something to do. I trusted that my athletes would take care of themselves, and that's the best feeling a coach can have while a race is in progress. If the kids are too dependent on the coach - and a coach can't be in all places at once - it's a sign that they're not prepared to be on their own. You run the risk that the athletes will have stage fright.
After I delivered a few words, I said good-bye and walked away 600 to 700 meters. I sometimes took a peek at the start and then maneuvered to a place where I maybe had a chance to say something to them. I liked to be 300 to 500 meters from the finish line in case a final instruction was necessary, something like, "We need your help! Dig deeper! Get two more; get two more!"
I was never too invested in the score while the race as going on. I maybe said to our guys, "We're behind by two points," even if I had no idea what the score was. Typically, one of the assistants kept tabs on the score so that we had at least some idea how it would turn out at the end. But I didn't mind the wait for the announcement to be official. I liked the anticipation and build-up of the moment right before the winner was announced.
Sometimes I'd take the kids aside and say, "I don't know, guys. It's awful close." It built suspense. More often than not, though, at Mead, there was very little suspense. When the top three are wearing your jersey, or six of the top seven, everyone knows how it turned out.
The prerace talk is little more than a quick chance to offer a final thought and calm nerves. As a coach, you need to emanate confidence in the moments before a race. Your runners should feed off your demeanor - cool, calm, and excited to go.