Taking the Pied Piper Approach
The model of what a college program should look and feel like was all around me when I was at the University of Oregon. Motivation was simple. You either produced results or you got left behind. Bowerman presided over the team as an authoritarian godlike figure, there to encourage but also end your dream and suggest you become the manager if he thought it might increase your focus and dedication.
When I became a coach, first in a junior high and later high school, I had no intention of emulating Bill Bowerman. First of all, that’s not my personality. Second, with younger athletes, I don’t think it would be terribly successful. Bowerman applied pressure to his athletes and pushed them beyond their imagined limits, and his methods produced legendary success. But as a recipient of that pressure, I didn’t enjoy the stress. I decided to approach coaching in a vastly different way.
While I was at Mead, a Spokane newspaper writer referred to me as a Pied Piper, meaning that I had a knack for speaking to kids in a way that they understood, holding their attention, and leading them in the direction I wanted them to go. When I think of the Pied Piper approach to coaching, I’m referring to a style of coaching that attracts kids who want to be connected to something fun, positive, and life changing. It’s evangelizing for the sport of running, and pulling in kids who believe in the program.
Not everyone has the personality to pull this off. Some of the very best cross country coaches have quiet personalities. They may have all of the knowledge and strategies to build successful programs, but they don’t have the charisma of a Pied Piper. A coach who doesn’t have that personality has to find a Pied Piper who is willing to join and be an assistant coach, someone who is able and willing to be out there, loud and boisterous, as a recruiter. It’s important to find that person if you want to build your program. You need a magnet.
I don’t think I always was a Piper, but I figured out that if I brought lots of energy to the table, I could make a difference in the lives of the young people around me. Kids love being around positively charged people. I drew on my personal motivations, from people like Bill Bowerman, Bill Dellinger, and Steve Prefontaine, and I went to clinics and heard motivational speakers. To this day, I still do that.
If you don’t summon high energy naturally, go hear someone speak who inspires you, perhaps at a local college campus or a summer running camp, or read about someone fascinating. If there is something that you can do to get energized, you can begin to feed it to your athletes. One thing you can’t do is fake it. Kids know when someone is phony. You can work on being more charismatic around others, but it will ring hollow if your enthusiasm isn’t genuine.
Motivation should happen every day in cross country. Every member of the team should be motivated to achieve his or her personal goals. The team should be motivated to win the next invitational, to move up in the rankings, to ultimately win the state championship.
But motivation doesn’t come out of thin air. Some kids want to compete more than others. Some are driven either by an internal motor or external pressures to stay hungry for success. I tried to use unrelenting positivity as a motivating force. I preached that being a runner who has adopted the running lifestyle was something worth striving for. I tried to make it a cool activity. Everybody was on time today for practice? That’s a win! Two-thirds of the freshmen just ran personal bests? Another win! The varsity guys just completed a workout they did two weeks ago, only this time a couple seconds faster per interval? Guys, we’re winning!
Kids feed off enthusiasm, and so once they get into a pattern of doing things right and seeing improvement in their results, they like the feel of it. Usually, they pick up the motivation to continue to seek progress on their own in an environment like that.
Leading the Charge
As the coach, you are the maestro of motivation. You have a chance to make each kid on the team feel special about his or her effort and feel valued as a member of the team and stay focused on the next goal.
How do you give every kid your attention? Here’s how:
- Strike up a banter with the kids. Tease them a little bit, find the common ground, bring them into your tribe or your energy, and you’ll be amazed how quickly they will buy in. When you give kids your undivided attention, they will respond in a positive way.
- Pipers have a high-powered ability to energize. Be fired up about the moment, fired up about the kids, fired up about the school. That gets a kid fired up, and that kid goes, "Wow, I want to be part of that!"
- Take kids to watch something that sparks their imagination. Show them an inspirational movie or videos of great races. Take them to see a college meet or a championship of some kind. Exposing kids to something special, something eye opening, can have a profound impact on their growing interest and commitment.
- At Mead, kids needed the Monday-night pizza gatherings. At other schools, there is something else. A bowling night. A movie night. Whatever it is, find a way to bring your athletes together for something fun and social. It is a good thing for the rookies and helps plant the seed. You have to show them something awesome that they want to be part of. As a coach, you create these moments based on the culture that is in place in your program.
- Find the success in everything that you do. Talk about how each small accomplishment is another log on the fire. This is how you begin to create momentum from one day to the next all season long. By the time late October comes around, your team is riding a cresting wave of emotion, motivation, and desire that leads to success.
Making an Extra Effort
How do you reach kids who seem distant or unmotivated? It can be a challenge, and sometimes being a high-energy person draws them near but not all the way in. You have to work at gaining their trust. You can do that by taking the time to learn more about them and where they come from. That is one of the best ways to build a positive relationship.
If a hard case was someone I felt needed to be involved and on the team, I might have gone on a run with him at an easy pace, one on one. That was an investment in time and energy. Also, handwritten notes thanking runners for their commitment or commending their effort was effective. Over the course of a year, I wrote hundreds of notes, and I found them to be a valuable tool for touching base with someone. It was effective because it was personal and it was something they could file away and hold onto.
Motivation That Works
My old coach Bill Dellinger used to ask me, "What is the most important ingredient of a very good runner?" My answer was "A huge amount of desire!" Yes, talent is a significant part of the mix. Yet there are many examples of talented runners who lacked desire or were distracted and did not reach their potential.
Some high school runners across the country push themselves by sheer willpower. Some of them come from schools so small they don’t have cross country teams to run on. Others don’t have tracks to run on. Still they persist, finding ways to do workouts by themselves if necessary. They set goals and go after them. A motivated runner finds a way.
In cross country, a runner doesn’t rely solely on his or her own motivation. A team of runners can share the emotional, spiritual, and inspirational load. Teammates run not only for themselves but also for each other.
Matt Davis had a rare combination of talent and desire, and his example motivated the runners who followed him in the Mead tradition.
If you can create a culture at your school in which running is cool, that is a powerful motivator as well. But let’s be perfectly honest. The cross country kids in a typical high school are quite often not regarded by their peers with the same respect or awe as the football and basketball players. That’s why it takes work to build something that has the cachet of cool and respect throughout the school.
I wore T-shirts from the Olympic Trials. It showed my kids right away that I was connected to something bigger and deeper in the sport. Find ways to teach kids about the history of running. Tell them about Roger Bannister and the elusive sub-4:00 mile. Show them video of Billy Mills winning the gold medal in the 10,000 meters in 1964. Show them recent video of Galen Rupp and Mo Farah displaying teamwork in the 2012 London Games. Help them understand who Haile Gebrselassie and Hicham El Guerrouj are. Encourage them to tune in to watch the New York or Boston Marathons and tell them the backstories of women like Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher. Once a high school runner begins to understand the concept of pace and how fast they run and can compare that to the fastest runners in the country and around the world, they begin to grasp the fuller context of the sport.
Sometimes you can fire up your team’s internal motivation by showing them what they are part of and what different levels of success look like. I used to feed my top-seven runners kernels of information about what it would take for them to qualify for Nike Cross Nationals, which helped plant the seed and began to motivate them.
Not everything works. Some kids just simply don’t have the same desire that you have. All you can do as a coach is give it your best shot. You don’t have to overdo it. You will find that some kids need a little bit more space and time. They will come aboard if you play it more low key in the beginning. Different kids respond to coaching in different ways. Some love a high-energy pep talk. Others need something more subtle. Do what you can to learn your athletes’ styles.