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Motivate runners using rules and rewards

By Joseph Newton and Joe Henderson

Motivation starts at the top. Of course it literally starts there—in the mind—first as a dream, then a plan, then a commitment to carry it through. But it also begins with the head coach, who shares the dream, makes the plan, and builds the competitive fire in athletes to reach the goals they’ve set.

Motivating can be a tricky job in cross country, a difficult sport offering little apparent glory, at least not at first when a program is building. Runners do most of their competing apart from cheering crowds. They compete for media attention, usually unsuccessfully, against King Football, which shares the autumn season. Coaches also compete for talent and school attention with the increasingly popular soccer and volleyball.

The motivation to run well in cross country comes from the athlete as an individual, from the team as a group, and from the coach as a leader. Whole books have been written on this subject (including one of my own). Here I’ll summarize the motivational techniques that have proven effective with my team.

Just as athletes must set goals for themselves, so must the coach. Aristotle said that life is only meaningful if you’re striving for a goal. Fortunately I’ve always been a very goal-oriented person. As noted earlier, one of my goals is still to be coaching in the year 2000. Another is to coach York to 20 state cross country titles; we’re one away from that as I write this page.

These goals—always striving for something, always doing the best I can—keep up my enthusiasm. This is what gets me up at four o’clock every morning. This is what keeps me working out. Though I can’t run anymore, it’s still possible to ride a bike and lift weights.

It keeps me young and excited to touch the lives of these young people. It’s tremendously rewarding to see them grow from young, awkward, vacillating freshmen into fit, confident, disciplined members of a winning team. The kids raise my spirits more than I raise theirs.

My basic message in talks to coaches is, if you aren’t motivated, how can you expect your runners to be? Enthusiasm plus care will motivate any young athlete, while lack of excitement and concern on your part will kill any kid’s interest.

Coaches ask me, “Why can’t we win? We do the workouts in the books.” Well, there’s a lot more to winning than workouts. You can’t win just by reading the training books. You have to pay just as much attention, if not more, to the mental and emotional aspects of the sport. Your team has to be mentally prepared for workouts and, especially, for meets.

You coaches know you’ve succeeded as a motivator when every runner on your team does not want to lose for fear of hurting your feelings. And you don’t want to lose for fear of hurting their feelings. That’s how much you care about each other and what you’re all doing.

A coach must be both a butt-kicker and a back-patter, or what I like to call a “benevolent dictator.” You’re the boss. You must take charge of the team. Kids want direction and discipline. But they also want to be told that they’ve done a good job. They want someone to pick them up when they’re down. I chew people out and also hug them. They always know exactly how I feel.

You must also establish an extensive reward system. Awards of all types are great motivators for young runners. They scrape and scratch to win them.

We give all types of awards within our team. These start with T-shirts for the 1,000-mile club, given to anyone who runs that much mileage during the summer months. Runners can also win 2,000- and 3,000-mile shirts for consecutive thousand-mile summers.

In our first intrasquad meet of the fall we award T-shirts saying “York Top 12.” The runners who wear these will change as the season goes along. Runners can literally take the shirt off others’ backs by pushing them out of the top 12.

High school athletes strive to be letter-winners. I purposely set the standards low for winning a letter so everyone can get one. These runners work hard all season and deserve this honor that everyone in school recognizes.

Within our team we give dozens of awards at a special ceremony the Thursday before the state meet. These include the Gold Brick Award, given to the team’s biggest screw-off. These awards, handed out by the team captains, give many of the lesser runners who don’t normally get prizes the chance to win something.

Rules should be few but ironclad. The athletes shouldn’t have the slightest doubt what the rules are or what will happen if they don’t abide by them. No one, athlete or parent, should have any doubt about these rules. We give them by the eyes and the ears, in writing and at the early meetings, so ignorance of the rules is no excuse.

Come to all practices on time, no smoking, no drinking, no drugs. Break any of these and a runner is off the team, simple as that. Academically, if they’re flunking a class two weeks in a row they’re off the team. My rule here is stiffer than the school’s policy for other athletes. “You’re a student-athlete,” I tell my kids. “The word ‘student’ comes first. Your number one function here is to get grades.”

Our team rules are simple. All runners understand that this is expected of them of as a minimum:

  1. Runners on the early shift are expected to be suited up and on the field by 2:35 P.M. Runners on the second shift are expected to be suited up and on the field by 3:30 P.M.
  2. Roll will be taken by me each day. Runners must check in with me before practice and out with me before they leave.
  3. If they report late, they must submit a note from the teacher who detained them showing the time they were dismissed. They must report suited up 20 minutes after the time indicated on the note. There are no exceptions. The second time runners are late without a note, they will be dismissed from the squad.
  4. The only legitimate excuse from practice is absence from school. When runners return, they bring their admit to prove their absence. An unsatisfactory readmit will result in dismissal from the squad. If runners are in school and out of practice twice (two unexcused absences), they will be dismissed from the squad. If they are kept for detention or a meeting, they are not excused from practice. They are expected to bring a note from the detention supervisor or teacher and be suited up 20 minutes after the detention or meeting is completed.
  5. Runners must be academically eligible. Eligibility is checked every week and is based on their record in class from the beginning of the semester. Anyone ineligible for more than one week will be dismissed from the squad. The reason for this is that, if they are ineligible, they cannot compete and we cannot depend on them. If they can’t clear up their work with a teacher in a week, they are indicating poor interest in the team. We can’t use them with that attitude. Runners are expected to work out during their ineligible period.
  6. Anyone using alcohol or tobacco is not interested in athletics and will be dismissed from the squad. No training rule is violated more than the no-smoking edict, but if runners aren’t strong enough to resist, or smart enough to stay away from this and other drugs, they’ll never be the athletes we want.
  7. Keeping late hours results in dismissal. Hours are as follows: Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 P.M.; Friday or Saturday, 12:30 A.M. (If they take a 12:30 A.M. one night, we expect runners in early by 10:00 P.M. the other night.) Rest is essential!
  8. Runners cannot play intramurals if they are on the cross country team.

This is an excerpt from Coaching Cross Country Successfully.

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