Editor's note: This interview was conducted in 2022.
scrunners.com talks with Christ Church coach John Mark Elliott after the 2022 South Carolina cross country season.
Name: John Mark Elliott
Years coached: Six
How and why did you get involved with coaching?
My older brother, Matthew Elliott, initially got me involved with cross country. But my parents opened me up to the idea of coaching cross country. My mom was my XC coach from seventh-12th grade and my dad was the athletic director at our high school during that same period of time. My brother (Charlotte Country Day), my parents (Green Sea Floyds High) and I coach XC. In fact, my team competed against my parents' team at the 1A state championship this year. They are competitive so they didn't like losing to us, but they are also incredibly gracious. My mother cried tears of joy when CCES was announced the state champions.
Did you run or compete in hs or college? If so, how did this experience help now as a coach.
I ran at Presbyterian College for a few years. That experience opened my eyes to the beauty of a cohesive team culture, the intensity of a higher training volume and a deep gratitude for a sport that helps you explore your limits. If you boil it down, though, this experience cemented in me a love for running in community.
How did it feel for you at the day of the state championships to have your team win a state title?
I was brimming over with gratitude and pride for our runners. I was also incredibly excited because CCES had not won a girls state championship since 2008 (the same year one of the assistant coaches on our team competed for CCES). But I was also a little surprised. The top girls teams in the 1A league are incredibly competitive, so the trophy could have gone home with any one of us. I knew we had a chance, but was uncertain about the outcome because we were unexpectedly down one of our top three runners and had to make a last minute substitution on meet day.
What steps did you take to prepare for the state meet yourself and your runners?
To prepare for the state meet, our team revisited our core values: we are a family, we are capable, we are hongry, and we are all in. (Hongry is a made-up word meaning the desire to win.) We also kept our #1 goal this season at the forefront: we wanted to be a team who loves big. Everything else flows from there, including winning. So the last two weeks were filled with a couple of primer speed workouts and a lot of frivolous, fun things like our annual XC Olympics, dinner & movie night (our team is obsessed with McFarland), and our final overnight trip to Columbia preceding the race.
What was your main focus throughout the season?
Our main focus has been consistent for the past five years or so: team unity. The team has grown from 15 runners when I first started coaching at CCES to now anywhere between 45-50 runners in a given year. We have a few core mantras: everyone person matters, team first, and fully commit. We are big on talking about how your actions create your identity - what you do becomes who you are. We wanted to be an XC family, and we wanted to be champions, so that means we had a daily choice to make: would we act like it?
How many hours a week would you spend training your team?
We meet everyday after school Monday-Friday from 3:45 - 5:15 or 5:30. And we occasionally meet up on the weekends when we didn't have a race to complete a long run together. Hours each week varied based on what training phase we were completing.
What is your favorite memory from practices?
My favorite memory from practice this year was something new we tried. We don't have access to a pool on campus so we went to a family-friend's backyard pool to do an aquatic workout. There's always a risk inherit in mixing things up, but watching the girls tread water with their hands hands above their heads, spontaneously erupting into laughter, all the while trying not to intake water was a small but hilarious memory for me.
How was the team chemistry throughout the season?
Team chemistry this year was special. Our captains and other leaders on the team stepped up to make sure we walked with walk regarding our team's first core value: we are a family. We go big on encouraging one another at practice and at meets; we intentionally seek out opportunities to create and fortify relationships between girls in different grades and social circles, and we emphasize how everyone has a role to play in our team's success.
What do you say to your runners before a race?
This year was the first season I chose to not be a part of the team huddle prior to a race. It was an exercise in trust for me as a type-A manager, but I'm glad I did. I prep the team during practice and have ample time to drive home my message, but on race day it's all up to them to remember the plan, execute the plan, and get each other focused and hype!
If you could give a statement to others striving for a state title, what would it be?
This is my first time coaching a championship team, so I don't have much insight. But if I had to say one thing, it'd be this: create a team that people want to be a part of. Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams said it best - If you build it they will come.
What's it like on the course for you during the state championship races?
I do a lot of running. I try to be as present as possible on the course. I don't say much, but I like them to know that I am present and that I'm there if they need a voice of encouragement or clarity. I believe there is power in presence - being seen and known - even during a race! Internally, I'm a mixture of nerves, excitement, and energy. Externally, though, I'm hoping to model a sense of calm and confidence (even if it is totally an act sometimes).
What is the most challenging part of being a coach? How do you work around it?
The most challenging part of being a coach is my own finitude. How do I build a real relationship with every runner on a team of this size? How do I individualize workouts or tailor race strategy for individuals when there are 45+ of them? How do I create and execute consistently meaningful training plans and practices that accomplish our fitness goals, mindset goals, and team unity goals? There's never enough time to do all these things the way you'd like.
What do you find most satisfying about being a coach?
Relationships. Relationships. Relationships. I love coaching because of the people I get to coach. Building community with a team will outlast any kind of championship or accolade. I also love coaching because of the people I get to coach alongside. My assistant coaches happen to be some of my dearest friends, and it's a joy to do something you love with people you love.
Overall, where do you see the sports going in S.C. in the future? What will it take to achieve this?
XC is certainly getting more popular. In terms of numbers, I think XC can become as popular as soccer or football (particularly in the upstate) because we've got coaches littered throughout the area that are dynamic and skilled beyond belief. Quality coaches create quality programs, and I think our state has a surplus of coaching talent. That's the way the sport will continue to grow - putting leaders into positions who inspire a love for the sport.
What does it mean to be named coach of the year?
I'm humbled. I want to recognize that this is a shared accomplishment with my coaching team - Caroline Bethel, Katie Thomason, and Elizabeth Jarrett. No man is an island. And outside of my team, there are too many coaches that come to mind as people I consider more worthy of the recognition. I'm just grateful to get to coach alongside them.
The next step is strengthening the XC program at CCES and gunning for a repeat win at next year's SC State Championship. We want to draw in more runners, create avenues for younger generations to break into the running world, and build on our current program by going all-in on pre-season weight training, building our knowledge around the psychology of competition, and strengthening student understanding on the why behind training and fueling. Most of all, we want to build on our tradition of being a team who loves big!