How to Coach Youth Cross-Country

By Rogue Parrish

Youth cross-country flourishes in parts of the United States -- particularly the hotbed of Spokane, Washington; as well as suburban Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and Houston; and in Ohio -- and hundreds of other locales with wide trails through woods; or open, rolling land. You may be taking over an established program, or creating a cross-country tradition at your school or track club from the ground up, for participants from less than 5 years old to age 18.

Planning and Scheduling Workouts

Your team members will be running daily year-round to achieve the blend of speed and endurance demanded by cross-country. Veteran Spokane-area high school coach Pat Tyson, who has moved on to the University of Oregon, advises posting a weekly workout plan -- ideally on Monday -- in your classroom or the locker room to give team members an idea of what to expect. You’ll want a balanced mix of tempo runs, fartleks -- a blend of sprints with moderate running and jogs -- intervals on the track, light jogging after competition days and running on hills. Maintain variety and increase the intensity level as the season approaches.

Individualized Training

Tweak the training program for players who need extra rest and for squads of players at different levels. Your top seven runners will anchor the “A” varsity squad, with a “B” squad for the next seven. The bulk of runners may be in a third group, trying to improve to make the top squads; followed by a fourth group of younger or slower runners. Adjust time expectations and intensity for the training runs appropriate to each tier of runners, so that all team members can feel they conquered their daily goals, Tyson advises in “Coaching Cross Country Successfully.”

Nitty-Gritty Tasks

As with other team sports, you’ll need to recruit runners; review academic eligibility; hand out summer training work sheets; finalize your competitive schedule; and order uniforms and equipment; including cones, stopwatches, GPS watches, flags and a first-aid kit. Visit other schools to preview their cross-country courses so you can anticipate how to train, in particular for elevation and heat. You’ll need assistants and volunteers for when your school hosts a meet, to help with laying out flags on the course, with parking, giving directions, timing runs and with scoring.

Race Day

Your positive attitude and confidence leading up to race day can work wonders, Tyson notes. In his coaching of youth teams, he stresses that practice was work, and the race itself, fun. Gather the team for a huddle before the start of the race, and exhort each runner to feed off her teammates and to try to win in the last mile. After the race, be prepared with little speeches whether your team has won or has finished last, to point out positives and things the team did well.

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