By Scott Lucking
As we approach the start of the 2019 track and field season, the age-old problem for head coaches of fostering team unity among a diverse group of athletes reappears. It's not like cross country where there is only one event - a 5K. Many of these athletes have been running together for the past year or multiple years. Everyone warms up, trains, and cools down as a team.
Even though the level of ability varies, everyone is more or less together during the entire practice. This situation is conducive to creating team unity and is much easier to accomplish. Not so in track and field where there are 17 events and many of the athletes are coming from other sports such as football, basketball, and wrestling. The warm-up procedures are usually different for the various events. Stretching procedures can be different. Kids split up into several event groups. They train differently. The list goes on and on. So how do you as a head coach bring such a diverse group of athletes together?
The answer is not so easy. Head track coaches themselves come from different sports backgrounds; some are football coaches, some were once sprinters or throwers, some were, or still are distance runners. But none of them competed in all seventeen events. Head coaches need to understand that the sprinters, jumpers, throwers, and their coaches are coming into a situation where the distance runners, and for the most part their coaches, have been working together for the past twelve months or longer. There is already a tight-knit social environment which has already been established over a long period of time. With the sprinters, jumpers, and throwers joining the team for only about four or five months, it's an inherently difficult situation to overcome.
While the intent to achieve total team unity is noble and something every head coach strives for, they must face the reality that creating team unity by requiring all of the athletes to do everything together may not always work.
There are most likely going to be certain groups of athletes who will be better than others. The sprinters could be very strong, or the field events group could be the strongest, or the distance runners could be the best. This difference in ability could cause rifts between athletes and coaches. The better groups might feel that they are carrying the load for the entire team's success. As head coaches it's your job to bridge this gap. However, you must be more than just a head coach. You must be a leader. As the old saying goes, "A leader who cares builds a team that cares."
So how do you accomplish this? Obviously, pole vaulters and 3200m runners can't train together. Sprinters and throwers can't train together. So you must think outside of the box. Develop situations that brings all of the athletes together other than just requiring them to show up for practice every day at 4:00. Here are some ideas to consider.
- Have a buddy system during the warm-up laps. Have them run a two lap warm up with an athlete from a different event group each week.
- Assign stretching partners from different event groups during the warm-up procedure each week.
- Have a buddy system in the weight room on the strength and conditioning days and change them each week.
- Have bus buddies to ride to and from the meets.
- Have monthly potluck team dinners at the school where athletes from different event groups sit together.
- Encourage those athletes who have lunch at the same time to eat with different team members.
- On Friday afternoons as part of a "pre-race" workout, have some activities that will include all team members.
- Before the start of the racing season, have a "shut-in" on a Friday night where the team spends the night at school (obviously keeping the boys and girls separate when it comes time for lights out). You can have games and activities where the athletes all interact with each other.
- Have a community service project that involves the entire team to work together to achieve a common goal.
I'm sure there are many other ideas that coaches implement to overcome this team divide. You can certainly respond with your own suggestions for successful team bonding. The main point to understand is that you can't just wave a magic wand and expect to have a unified team. It's unrealistic to think you are going to have a kumbaya moment and everything is going to hunky dory. Keep in mind that you can't expect to have a unified team by only doing one activity together from the ones I mentioned above on a Tuesday and Thursday for example. You need to do as many of those things as often as possible and more.
As a head coach, you must understand that a team is a diverse group of athletes and coaches. Different social and training groups exist. But being aware of this up front and planning accordingly will help to bring you the result you are looking for. After all, when everything is said and done isn't the ultimate goal of a head coach to create an environment where your athletes care about the team and for each other?
I hope this article helps to formulate your ideas on how to unify your team this season. A strong, unified team can accomplish great things. Here's hoping you achieve all of the goals you set for your team. Best of luck, and we'll see you on the track.
Riverside High School Distance Coach
This guest column was submitted to scrunners.com and is solely the views of the author.