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Dublin High School Coach Williams on the Challenge, Thrill and Character Building of Running

June 23, 2016

DUBLIN, CA–I’m relatively new to being the parent of a high school athlete and have watched with awe as my younger daughter trains for hours and competes in sun, rain and everything in-between. Ask a runner about practice and they’ll inevitably reply “it was awful – hill repeats, circuit training… can’t wait until tomorrow!” Why do runners subject themselves to such misery with such passion? I reached out to Dublin High School‘s Track and Cross Country Coach Chris Williams to learn more.

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James Morehead: For non-runners, or those who only ran in high school because of PE class, running can seem like a crazy and painful activity! What makes runners so passionate about the sport?

Coach Chris Williams: “This is often referred to as the ‘runner’s high’. Running is one of the rarest of sports where you only need yourself to participate – you just strap on a pair of (good) running shoes and go for a run. The self discipline and motivation is very rewarding and the improvement one can see day-in-and-day-out, week-in-and-week-out is also very gratifying, especially since you are essentially going against yourself, not against another person or team.”

Morehead: What triggered your passion for running?

Williams: “I loved competition and running was a place where I not only could compete against other people, I could compete against myself. Being able to push myself without a coach or teammate or even a race was always very satisfying because there was no limit in how hard I could push myself.”

Morehead: What role does athletics play in the development of a student?

Williams: “Athletics plays a huge role in the development of student. It helps develop responsibility, accountability, time management skills, leadership, teamwork, dealing with stress, maintaining focus, self discipline, I can go on and on.”

Morehead: What transformation do you see in students that start with your running program in 9th grade and continue all the way through to 12th?

Williams: “Obviously, we see a lot of physical growth. The student athletes get faster and stronger as the seasons progress. We also see a lot of emotional and social growth as well. As freshman we, see a lot of students who are shy, not very talkative, and very insecure. By the time they graduate, they are outgoing, very well spoken (almost too much sometimes), and very confident both in the physical abilities and themselves as people.”

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Morehead: How important is raw talent in running, or is it more about hard work? Said another way, can anyone enter the running program in 9th grade and become competitive if they are committed to the sport?

Williams: “Raw talent is important in running at an elite level, but hard work is much more important for consistently being at a great competitive level. One thing about distance running is that student athletes are rewarded for their hard work – a “B-C” level talent student athlete that trains hard for 6 months will beat an “A” level talent that doesn’t train hard because of the aerobic base necessary to be successful. That is one of the things I love about coaching cross country and track & field. In other sports (baseball, basketball, football, soccer, etc.), you can practice as hard as you want to and still lose to a team that has more talented players.

“We have seen a lot of freshman over the years make an impact at the varsity level immediately because they have some talent and have had a good work ethic coming in. You see this a lot more frequently on the girls side because the physical development between the a freshman girl and a senior girl is not as different as a freshman boys versus a senior ‘man’.”

Morehead: Like any sport, running competitively has many subtle elements not apparent to the casual observer. What are some of the strategies you teach student athletes? And how do these strategies vary from sprinters to long distance track runners to cross country athletes?

Williams: “We really like our student athletes to run their own races and then adapt to the race as it unfolds. When someone races for the first time, I rarely give them any type of strategy, mainly because I want to see what their ‘personality’ is like – do they like to get out hard and run from the front or do they like to start out slow and work their way up methodically. Once we figure out their style, we fine tune it and teach them how to make adjustments according to how the race is going. For example, if the pack they are normally in goes out too slow of a pace, they will know that will have to pick up the pace earlier and try for a longer finishing kick to burn out their opponents rather than just waiting for the end to sprint. There are a lot of tactics involved.

“Believe it or not, there are tactical strategies in all events, from the short sprints to longer distance races in track. I didn’t understand that until I became a head coach and worked with elite level jumpers, hurdlers and sprinters. For example, we have a our short hurdlers really work on attacking hurdle 4 and hurdle 7 because, for some reason, those are the trouble hurdles in most races. It breaks the race down into the start to the first hurdle, hurdles 1-4, hurdles 5-7, hurdles 8 and 9 and then getting off the last hurdle and finishing. Our jumpers similarly will have a mark for their first stride, a check point for the last time they will look down, a penultimate step off of the board, and then a landing. Our distance runners will have a starting position they want to be in, use the straightaways on the track or wide paths or crests of hills to accelerate past their opponents, have a certain distance they want to start their long acceleration then another spot to start their finishing kick. All in all, there are a lot things that go into every event.”

Morehead: There are both individual and team aspects to running. Specifically about Cross Country, how do students work together as a team even though they ultimately run as individuals?

Williams: “Great question! Cross country is scored by the place you take in a race. The top 5 from every team score, with runners 6 and 7 being used as displacers. If a team does not have 5, then their placing is removed from the team scoring. If a team has more than 7, then the placing of runners 8+ are also removed from the team scoring. You add up your top 5 runners places and get a score, with the lowest score winning. If there is a tie, whichever team’s 6th place runner finished higher is determined the winner. We talk a lot about “pack” running where you try to run with a pack of your teammates of similar ability levels and try to move up in races together – it is easier to push yourself with your teammates around encouraging you rather than doing it by yourself. This also helps with comfort and dealing with race anxieties when you have teammates around you – all you think about is sticking with your teammates. You don’t worry about fatigue or even what place you are in – just stick with your teammates.”

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Morehead: What led you to pursue a career in education, and has classroom teaching always been complemented by coaching?

Williams: “I was blessed to have wonderful teachers when I was in school, many of whom who I have modeled my teaching career after. I always wanted to make positive impacts on student’s lives as the teachers before me had on me. More directly, being a mathematics teacher, I wanted to get over the math phobia that many students have that they aren’t good at mathematics and teach them and show them that they are good at math and how they can use it in their everyday lives. My teaching has always been complemented by my coaching.”

Morehead: How has teaching in a classroom informed your approach to coaching, and vice-versa?

Williams: “When I first started coaching, we really only got student athletes who wanted to do sports and be competitive. Now, we get quite a few who are looking to just get involved with extracurricular activities or to boost their college resumes. My teaching has definitely had a role in working with these type of student athletes. Not everyone likes mathematics. But everyone has to be successful at it in order to graduate from high school. Using tools to help those students who don’t like math be able to tolerate it, understand it, and then utilize to be successful is an area that I am constantly using and fine tuning. And I use that with our ‘college resume boosters’ on our teams – I will encourage them, teach them how to work hard and push themselves (even when they don’t want to) to help them get better and be positive contributors to our team.

“In coaching, we have to teach a lot of different skills in order to be successful and we do a lot of drills and different practices to be able to master those skills. We also have to be patient. This has bleed a lot into my teaching – slowing down and mastering the fundamentals of mathematics is much better than plowing through material just to say you got through it. Also giving the students a variety of ways to solve a problem rather than just plug-and-chug also comes from my coaching style of giving our team different types of workouts.”

Morehead: Parents new to the sport can be surprised by the time commitment during and between seasons. Why is such a significant time investment required?

Williams: “There are so many different ways to answer this question. In training for sports, the more effective time you put into honing your craft, the more successful you will be. I heard a coach talk about sports as an AP physical education class, with about an hour of ‘lecture’ and then another hour or so of ‘homework’. Think about it – our AP classes are a little longer than 50 minutes and normally have more than an hour’s worth of homework and or studying necessary to be successful. Participating in sports is no different – it is the highest level of physical participation you can do at the high school level, so it requires the highest level of effort to be successful.

“I can also break this down time wise – to run a successful cross country race, an athlete has to warm-up properly. For our team, that is 45 minutes BEFORE the race begins. Then the race happens. Let’s say on average that someone will run a 5k cross country race in 20 minutes. We are now an hour and five minutes from when we started. Finally, to prevent injury, they need to do a cooldown run within 20 minutes of them completing the race to allow their bodies a chance to recover from the race and not be sore. Oh, and then there will be another 10 minutes of stretching after that. Totaling all of that up, we are now at one hour and 35 minutes. To be able to physically and mentally handle this, one would have to practice longer than this on an average daily basis.”

Morehead: What role should parents play in the development of their student athlete in terms of nutrition, general health and sleep habits? What can parents do to minimize the risk of injury?

Williams: “Nutrition – Some of the easier things to do are just looking at what you are buying at the grocery store. Instead of buying chips, buy some fruit; instead of soda, buy Gatorade. Having healthy snacks around the house instead of junk food is also a plus. Something I have been thinking more about recently as my children get older is by watching what I eat – instead of ordering fries, order a salad; instead of soda, get a water with lemon or juice. We have been blessed to have one of our former athlete’s parent Michele Wieser who is a professional chef provide us with information regarding iron in our diets and some wonderful recipes.

General Health – Speaking of iron, it would be great to have your children regularly tested for their iron levels. This has been a rapidly developing issue with high school students in general, not just athletes.

Sleep Habits – This is a very touchy subject that coaches have to dive into now. Because of the academic loads that the students are getting themselves into, it is important to be realistic with how your child can handle the workload. We found last year that student athletes taking 3 or more AP classes were only averaging about 6.5 hours of sleep per night. This does not allow the body nor brain to fully recover. A parent has to know your child’s limitations – if they cannot handle the AP classes and doing a sport, something has to give, either taking less AP classes, or (unfortunately for us) not doing the sport.

“HOWEVER, and this is a big HOWEVER, please do NOT think that your child CAN’T handle it and not have them try it. We do have plenty of student athletes than do handle their high academic load and are able to balance sports at the same time (our team GPA of 3.96 was the highest among all of the sports teams at Dublin High School). I always recommend that the student athletes try to see what they can handle and then adjust accordingly rather than not try something because they are worried they might not be able to handle it. You’d be surprised at how resilient these student athletes are!

Injuries – The most important injury prevention tool we have is getting a GOOD pair of running shoes every 8-12 weeks of running. This may seem excessive and expensive, but paying $120 for a pair of shoes is cheaper than MRIs and physical therapy appointments down the road. When an injury does happen, please be well informed of the injury. Ask questions – why did the injury occur, how much time is the recovery process and what to do during that process, and what to do to prevent the injury from happening again. And then once the general doctor has given their synopsis, ask a sports specialist in that field. We have a wonderful trainer on staff at Dublin High School that can help with injury prevention and rehab. Our coaching staff has also been around the block a few times with injuries and can also help with the prevention and rehab. Be well informed – don’t just take one person’s word for it.

“One last thing about injuries in combination with sleep habits – there was a very recent article I read about ‘over training’ versus ‘under rested’. The article talked about how injuries are being blamed more and more on ‘over training’ when we have been doing this type of training since the late 1970s. Why was this happening? Are kids today just generally weaker? The study found that in athletics that the problem didn’t lie in the training as much as it did with the lack of rest – high school athletes today were getting on average 0.75-1.25 hours less sleep than athletes did a little more than a decade ago. This forced me to look back at our training and sleep logs and I was not surprised that the majority of our ‘over training’ injuries had very similar ties to a lack of sleep.”

Morehead: Finally, what piece of advice do you have for students considering trying out for Cross Country or Track? What advice do you have for their parents?

Williams: “For a student who is trying cross country or track & field for the first time, I recommend giving it an honest effort for two weeks. It will be difficult at first, but after two weeks they should see athletic improvement, a self-esteem boost, and a new stable of friends to help strengthen and give more happiness to their lives.

“My advice for the their parents is to trust that your children will be ok. Allow your child to deal with adversity, being able to balance life with academics and athletics. Give your child a chance to succeed and challenge themselves, rather than thinking they can’t do it. Also, understand that your child will fail at some point during their cross country and or track and field career – THIS IS OK! They are not going to perform to perfection every single time. It’s how they learn from these performances that makes them better athletes and, most importantly, better people.”

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