Dual Perspectives Guest Column: Athlete turned Head Coach

Guest Column written by Jacob Wichelns, Daniel girls track and field head coach

Cover photo: 
Jacob Wichelns (left) and Jacob Slann in 2013.

In the spring of 2013, under the intense heat of Spring Valley High School in Columbia, a special moment was etched into my memory. Standing atop the podium, my team and I basked in the glory of clinching the team state championship in track and field. As a high school athlete, the exhilaration of this victory was immense. However, at that time, my understanding of the intricate dynamics of team scoring was limited. I knew we had excelled in our individual events, but the math that translated individual triumphs into a collective victory was still a mystery to me.

The following year, in 2014, our journey took a slightly different turn. We faced fierce competition at the regional level, securing second place, and narrowly losing to a formidable Seneca team. However, at the state meet, we managed to outperform Seneca and secured the state runner-up title. We had beat the region champion at the state meet. It was a moment of redemption and pride, yet it left me pondering a crucial aspect of our sport - the scoring system.

Watch 2023 SCHSL Class AAA State Track and Field Championships races

Reflecting back, I realized that in both years, 2013 and 2014, we scored approximately the same number of points at the state level. Yet, we didn't clinch the state title both times. This observation sparked a curiosity in me. It made me question the underlying factors that contributed to such outcomes. As an athlete, I was primarily focused on my individual performance, often overlooking the broader strategic elements at play in team sports.

Little did I know, this curiosity and the desire to understand the nuances of team dynamics in track and field would eventually lead me down the path of becoming a coach. This journey from athlete to head coach has been transformative, providing me with a dual perspective that I now aim to share, shedding light on the evolution of high school track and field and the intricate balance of individual and team strategy in our sport.

The evolution of the State qualification process: A personal story

2023 Pickens County Championships

The pathway to the state meet in 2013 and 2014 was markedly different from what it is today. Back then, we had a single state qualifier, a high-stakes, one-shot opportunity to secure a spot at the state championships. The competition convened at Lower Richland High School in Hopkins, bustling with the energy and aspirations of athletes from every region across the state. Securing a place in the state meet was a challenge - there were only eight spots per event, and to clinch one, winning your heat was crucial. Additionally, simply making it to state meant you had already guaranteed at least one point for your team.

I vividly remember the 2014 state qualifier meet. The 4x400-meter relay - an event close to my heart - was our final chance to make an impression at Lower Richland at the AAA State Qualifier. Our team ran passionately, breaking our school record. Yet, despite our best efforts, we didn't win our heat. The uncertainty of our qualification hung in the air, with intense anticipation.

In those days, the confirmation of qualifying came in a much different way than it does now. There were no digital displays or instant online results. Instead, we waited for the paper results to be printed and taped to the wall of the Lower Richland field house. It was an agonizing wait, but a throwback to a simpler, yet nerve-wracking time in track and field.

The moment we saw our team's name on that paper, confirming our qualification, was nothing short of exhilarating. We sprinted back to our head coach, eager to share the news. His reaction was a mix of immense pride and excitement. At that moment, I didn't fully grasp the depth of his emotion. It was not just pride in our achievement but also the realization that our qualification meant valuable points for the team at the state meet.

Today, the qualification process has evolved significantly. The single state qualifier has been replaced by Upper and Lower State competitions, streamlining the path to the state championship. And next year, there are likely more changes on the way with the addition of even more state qualifiers in each classification.

Also, the advent of digital technology has transformed how results are delivered. Now, outcomes are almost instantaneous and accessible online, allowing athletes, coaches and spectators to track progress in real time. The suspenseful wait by the results wall, a hallmark of my high school track experience, is a thing of the past.

Reflecting on these changes, I realize how much the sport has evolved and how these advancements have altered the experience for athletes and coaches alike. As a coach now, I appreciate the nuances of these systems - both old and new - and understand their impact on the strategy and emotions surrounding high school track and field.

Read more about the sport and its history

The coach's perspective

Transitioning from an athlete to the Head Coach of the same track and field program at Daniel High School has been an enlightening experience, offering me a unique vantage point. This dual role has enabled me to appreciate the constants and changes within our sport, as well as deepened my understanding of its intricacies and strategies. What I once viewed purely from an individual athlete's perspective, I now see through the multifaceted lens of a coach, recognizing the myriad factors that contribute to a team's success.

2022 Pickens County Championship

Understanding the nuances and strategy

As an athlete, my focus was primarily on individual performance and the members of my training group. However, stepping into the shoes of a coach has broadened my horizon, making me acutely aware of the complexities of track and field that I previously overlooked. This newfound understanding has been crucial in empowering my athletes. I strive to instill in them a comprehensive grasp of the sport, highlighting not just what it takes to excel individually, but also the significance of team strategy and collective effort. Encouraging our athletes to take pride not only in their individual results, but all of the team's has been a game changer for the culture of our team.

Strategic planning

One of the most critical aspects of coaching is strategic planning, especially when it comes to entering athletes into events at the region level. The goal is not just to showcase their strengths but also to maximize team points. This requires a delicate balance, assessing each athlete's capabilities while considering the overall team dynamics and the competition's strengths and weaknesses as well. As a coach, I've learned the art of strategic entries, a skill that was not part of my purview as an athlete.

Creating practice plans for multi-event athletes

Designing training schedules for multi-event athletes is a challenging yet rewarding part of track and field coaching. It involves understanding each athlete's physical and mental capabilities and tailoring a regimen that optimizes their performance across different events. This approach contrasts sharply with my experience as an athlete, where my training was more focused and event-specific.

New Coach Series: Meet Daniel's Jacob Wichelns

The holistic view of the team

Perhaps the most significant shift in my perspective has been the transition from focusing on individual events to adopting a holistic view of the team. As a coach, my responsibility extends beyond individual performances to fostering a cohesive and supportive team environment. This comprehensive approach ensures that every athlete feels valued and contributes to the team's overall success. When I started our Leadership Council 3 years ago, a group of athletes from throws, sprints, jumps, and distance, elected by their teammates to represent them, one of the first issues the council wanted to address was the divide between the event groups. The throwers didn't know the jumpers, the sprinters didn't know the distance members, and so forth. Breaking down these barriers and creating cohesiveness between the team has been paramount in our growth.

Behind-the-scenes work

The role of a head coach encompasses more than just training athletes. It involves a considerable amount of paperwork, organization, planning, and logistical coordination. Ensuring that everything runs smoothly requires a meticulous approach to administrative tasks, something I was largely unaware of as an athlete.

"The shift from competing to coaching has not only enriched my understanding of the sport but also highlighted the importance of preparing the next generation. There's a chance that the future head coach of our program is among the athletes I'm coaching today. This thought inspires me to instill a legacy where knowledge, passion, and the spirit of track and field are passed down in our athletes, ensuring these core values are passed down and evolve with each generation." - Jacob Wichelns

Collaboration with the athletic director and staff

Another critical element of being a head coach is working closely with the athletic director, assistant coaches, and other staff members. This collaboration is vital for the smooth functioning of the program and involves aspects like scheduling, resource allocation, and ensuring adherence to regulations. As an athlete, my interactions with these key figures were limited, but as a coach, they are integral to my role

Understanding the journey: From athlete to head coach

Reflecting on my transition from an athlete to the head coach at Daniel High School, I've gained a profound understanding of the ins and outs of track and field. As an athlete, my world was about personal bests and immediate team objectives. Now, as a coach, it's a broader canvas, considering team strategy, training plan, continuous improvement, and the collective spirit of the team.

This journey has taught me that success in track and field goes beyond just physical training. It's about cultivating a team ethos where each member's role is valued, a lesson I didn't fully grasp as an athlete. Coaching has opened my eyes to the importance of each decision, from strategic event entries to fostering a supportive team environment and how it impacts our culture and successes.

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This dual perspective as both an athlete and a coach has been a rewarding journey, offering insights into the evolving nature of high school sports. It's essential for athletes, coaches and alumni to recognize and adapt to these changes, contributing to the legacy of high school track and field. Our sport is dynamic. Embracing this evolution is key to nurturing future generations who will continue to shape its future.

The shift from competing to coaching has not only enriched my understanding of the sport but also highlighted the importance of preparing the next generation. There's a chance that the future head coach of our program is among the athletes I'm coaching today. This thought inspires me to instill a legacy where knowledge, passion, and the spirit of track and field are passed down in our athletes, ensuring these core values are passed down and evolve with each generation.