“My expectation is to continue being the same person I have been since arriving here five years ago,” Gene said. He believes in prayer, constant learning, courage in spite of the potential for failure, and the importance of giving back. Although his title has changed, his goals remain the same: “to continue helping others achieve their goals through track & field.”
From the Director’s Chair: A 5-minute Interview with Coach Earl Graves
Coach Earl Graves, who was an early participant in the School of Track mentor program, has recently been promoted to the Director of Cross Country/Track & Field at NCAA DII University of Mount Olive. “Moving forward, we intend on being one of the best programs in Division II every year,” he quoted in the UMO’s press release.
School of Track (SOT): Describe your personal athletic history.
Earl Graves (EG): I am from Richmond, Virginia. I got involved with the sport in 6th grade. I started out racing other kids in gym class and it took off from there. Originally I was a 400/800 guy and in college transitioned to a long sprinter/jumper.
I think the thing that I am most proud of is being on Lynchburg College’s All-time Top-10 List ten different times. It is pretty cool knowing that I will be a part of the school’s history for a long time to come. One thing I constantly thought about while I was on the team was, “how am I going to leave my mark on this program?”
SOT: How did you know that you wanted to get into coaching? How did you get connected to your first coaching gig?
EG: I didn’t! My original plan was to go to graduate school to pursue a Master’s in Counseling. I had about a month until graduation and I decided that I didn’t want to do that. Right around that time, my coach mentioned to me that he thought I would be a good coach. He helped me to get a head coach position at a local high school. I had to learn a lot by trial and error, but it was definitely a fun experience. That is where I developed my passion for helping people to achieve their goals.
SOT: Have you had a coach who has impacted your life?
EG: I am fortunate enough to have had several: Craig “Mug” Hedley, Joe Pardue, Kelly Guempel, and Jack Toms. These men always believed in my abilities, kept me humble, and have been great mentors to me. I definitely owe a lot to them for helping to shape my coaching style.
SOT: What is it like to be a Director of Track & Field/Cross Country?
EG: There are a lot of meetings! It’s important to take care of administrative duties (travel, budget, meet selection, etc.) and to make sure that your staff is on the same page and has what they need to succeed. Also, it’s important to recognize your weaknesses and delegate those responsibilities to your staff when possible. And of course, we need to model whatever values and attitude that you want the team to reflect.
SOT: What type of person is suited for that role?
EG: I think the best leaders have a good feel for what the team needs are currently. They must also be very dedicated, organized and truly enjoy all the preparation that goes into a successful XC/Track program. You also have to be a great communicator.
SOT: What is one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring coaches?
EG: Keep adding dimensions to your skills and learning from your peers. I believe you can learn something from every person you meet in this profession.
Soon after this interview, Atlanta Track Club announced the hiring of Eric Heintz as their High Performance Director, where he oversees the youth and adult training programs, as well as the elite and master’s teams. Before beginning with the Club, Eric was Head Cross Country and Track and Field coach at Marist School before resigning from his Head Track and Field position in 2017 to spend additional time with his family (including his wife and 3 young boys) and to finish up a Leadership Certificate from Johns Hopkins University. At Marist, his boys’ and girls’ teams won 24 state championships between cross country and outdoor track in only 13 years. Heintz is also a competitive age-group runner.
The genesis of passion
Coach Eric Heintz grew up in Mentor, Ohio. “It’s pronounced like ‘Menner’, if you’re from there,” he quipped. A self-professed “bad” little league player, he eventually decided to go out for his middle school track team.
He still remembers his first track practice. “It was so classic; there’s always a scary old gym teacher with a clipboard and a whistle and too-short sweatpants. He said, ‘raise your hand if you think you’re fast.’” About half the class did so. 12-year-old Eric was NOT going to raise his hand. “You are sprinters,” the teacher declared. “The rest of you guys are distance runners.”
“No joke, that’s how I became a distance runner.”
Convinced by friends to come out for the cross country team the next fall, Eric was exposed to his first influential coach, Jim Lefler. “He kept us all on the straight and narrow,” Eric explained. The next year, Lefler moved up to an assistant coaching position in the high school. “I had him for 5 straight years, and he was a big influence on me.”
By eleventh grade, Heintz was flirting with making the varsity team. Coach Lefler eventually persuaded him to pursue higher goals, and by his senior year, he was an impact competitor for their team. During this time, he also grew close to Ken Simko, another coach for the team. The pair of coaches complimented each other well, with one excelling at the personal side of coaching and one incredibly knowledgeable about the sport. “Through the two of them, I got the best of both worlds.”
Heintz ran at NCAA D3 John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was coached by the legendary Dick Mann. Although Coach Mann was only in his 2nd year at John Carroll, he had 40-some years of coaching experience at Cleveland Heights High School. “He was a wonderful human who really knew people,” remembers Heintz. Unfortunately, Heintz’ college career was somewhat lackluster; sometimes he felt that he was training foolishly. Coach Mann “coached like it was 1952,” a training system that didn’t work well for Heintz. Nonetheless, Heintz recognized the role that Coach Mann and his other coaches played in his understanding of the sport. They all brought different things to the table. “I kept having all these different experiences with people.”
A rocky start: transitioning to coaching
Eric started reading books: a LOT of books. “I don’t know if the kids these days know about this, but I used this thing called interlibrary loan,” Eric joked. The reading didn’t make him a better runner right away, but it did set him up for his first coaching job at a local independent school.
“I learned what not to do from the coach I was working with,” Heintz admitted. As an example, “over the course of that season, he never even learned my name. He often called me by the wrong name, even after I had repeatedly corrected him.” Nevertheless, he spent his time learning and gaining experience.
Soon, he moved to Atlanta to pursue a graduate degree at Emory University. He began teaching and coaching at a public school in Gwinnett County and managed to have some success during his 2-year tenure. He hit his stride at Marist School, however, where he taught History and served as Head XC Coach and either as the Head or an Assistant Track Coach for 13 years.
In 2009, he expanded his repertoire to include private coaching for all age levels. His group is called “High Miles Running”, and it all started with a Tuesday night workout group. “I inherited the idea from my mentor, Roy Benson.” Benson was a longtime high school coach in the Atlanta area, who also served as the Director of Track & Field at the University of Florida in the 1970’s. He also had a stint as the Executive Director of Atlanta Track Club, the organization that Heintz has recently joined.
Through High Miles Running, Heintz has now worked with athletes from ages 12-86. “I’ve seen the runner’s lifecycle, as people are starting to call it.”
For Heintz, the biggest difference between coaching high schoolers and adults is that the adults don’t require outside motivation. “They seek you out because they want to improve. They’re good at following protocols and doing what you expect of them.” Granted, all adults are also wrestling with the complications of life, family, and work.
Communication is the name of the game
Heintz has learned to efficiently deal with the challenge of coaching an incredibly wide breadth of ability and experience.
“At one point, I might be working with a guy who runs 4:10 in the mile and send him off on his workout, and then turn around and work with a girl who is trying to break 7:00 in the mile. The way you have to approach them on that journey is entirely different.”
Trying to stay relevant and provide leadership and guidance to a high school roster of 130 athletes, all of whom are at a different place in their life and training, can be a real challenge. Of course, there’s going to be athletes that you naturally have a closer relationships with. “Those personal relationships are what will keep you going.”
Creativity is vital. Heintz learned to schedule workouts on different days for different groups of athletes, so that their main coach could always be available during key interval days. He also “deputizes” upperclassman and team captains to keep things running smoothly.
“You have to trust kids until they break that trust,” Heintz advized. “I give them a fair amount of autonomy. If you treat kids as young adults, they are more likely to act as a young adult and rise to that expectation.”
Heintz is always looking for efficiencies to save time and be more productive. Although they had a brief team meeting before practice each day, he learned that practice time can be maximized by not using that time to deal with logistical intricacies, like when the bus will be leaving for upcoming meets. His favorite method is to communicate at the front end, by sending out one big email to parents and athletes at the beginning of each week.
“I have an open door policy at school,” he shared. This is an advantage to teaching where you coach. “I can grab kids in the hallway.”
Assistant coaches: your most important assets
“Communication is incredibly important, because those are the moments where relationships are built.” Despite all the mass communication, like GroupMe, that is now available, “you still have to find a way to talk to the students one-on-one as much as possible.”
His assistant coaches play this role during practice. They make sure to talk to the kids about things outside of running. “It helps the kids feel loved and noticed. They are much more likely to buy into the program when they know there are adults that care about them.”
“You have to have a wonderful staff, and mine is exceptional,” Heintz glowed. Last year, his varsity assistants were Kevin Lisle and Megan Hunter, both of whom have experience as runners themselves. “The two of them make my job a heck of a lot easier.”
He also has a staff of coaches who work with some of the less committed athletes – the ones who show up in August and then stop running again after October. “We still want to give them the attention they deserve.”
The thing he finds most rewarding about coaching is when his former athletes let him know that they are getting into coaching. He recounted a recent story of a JV runner who never made varsity, despite 2 years of concerted effort. This spring, she sent him an email, letting him know that she is moving back to the Atlanta area and wondered if she could help out with the JV team this fall.
“Here’s a young lady who, in many cases, would have been an afterthought. But she wanted to give back because the program and the coaches made such an impact on her… I’m blown away by that kind of commitment and love for the spot. That, for me, has been the greatest story of our success.”
Needless to say, she’ll be coaching at Marist this fall.
Advice for young coaches
Oftentimes, new coaches are in their early 20’s, and they have probably experienced athletic success. “A lot of people think, ‘if it worked for me, it’s going to work for you’, but that’s just not true.” Eric personally believes that the best coaches tend to be athletes who never quite made it to the highest level. “Maybe you were an NCAA qualifier, but not an NCAA champion.”
Whether you were an athlete or not, and regardless of how old you are or how long you’ve been in the sport, it’s imperative to remember this: “there’s a heck of a lot you don’t know.”
He recommends seeking out educational opportunities through USTFCCCA or USATF Coaching Education. Read books with varying perspectives. Ask questions of the people around you. “If you see someone with success, talk to them about what they do that’s a little different.” Talk about failure and things that they have tried. Sign up for mentor programs, even if you’re a mid-career coach who is looking to get better.
Educate yourself in the science, but don’t get lost in it. “You’re coaching people, not energy systems.”
The world is at your fingertips with the resources available on internet. “You don’t have to rely on interlibrary loan like I used to,” Heintz circled back. It might be old-school, but he also gives his assistant coaches a new book every year at the end of the season, based on where they are in their coaching journeys.
Creating a core philosophy
Most importantly, never stop trying new things. “I have a philosophy on training that we never drift away from, but I always change some of the stuff around the edges to see whether we might be able to gain just that little extra edge.” Often, these experiments fail and they are dropped, but “it’s my recognition that there are other things out there that I don’t know yet.”
Of course, it’s important to have a training philosophy: a “core that you can refer back to when making a training or coaching decision.”
Winning is important in the sport, and Heintz’ teams do a lot of winning. But it’s important to balance the social component for the athletes as well. “It has to be a wonderful experience. The goals of a coach should really be to create lifelong runners who love the sport, want to be fit, and who make good friends and good memories.”
“I want to help kids grow up and become good people,” not just be concerned about the victory at the end. Being able to see them improve their personal records is a rewarding bonus.
He also reminds coaches never to give up on self-care. “You can’t take care of your team unless you take care of yourself as well: and sometimes that means saying no.”
At 38 years old, he still loves participating in the sport. “It’s become part of my lifestyle, and a part of the fabric of who I am.” He’s not proud of any specific PR, per se, as those tend to be relative. “I’m 25 years into this running experience, and I’m most proud of that longevity! There’s something to be said about being an athlete into middle age.”
Take some time to look through Eric Heinz’ exceptional recommended reading list. Plus, stay tuned for a post featuring his unique perspective on the challenges of switching coaching “levels”, including from the high school level to the NCAA.
Dave Milner is a well known figure in the world of track and field for his work with the Music City Distance Carnival and other professional track meets for emerging elite athletes. We cover his experience as an athlete of the legendary Jack Daniels, his journey into (and out of) college coaching, Letsrun notoriety, and how he found himself coaching his first national qualifier in track and field.
In 1995, Dave Milner moved from his home in London, England to sunny Nashville, Tennessee to run for Belmont University. He would not graduate from this program, however, as he followed a young woman to SUNY Cortland. By absolute chance, his coach was the legendary Jack Daniels. Milner loved hanging out in Daniels’ office to talk about running – even if these conversations bled into his class time.
“I was less than average at running, but pretty great at drinking,” Milner admitted. Nevertheless, Daniels was the one who suggested that Milner, who was an avid student of the sport and a Psychology and Exercise Physiology double major, take up coaching. “At the time, I was fairly dismissive of it,” Milner remembers.
After graduation, however, he found himself managing a chain of three running stores. He was quickly pulled into leading the stores’ marathon training plan, and he had no idea where to start. “They told me, ‘you’re a smart guy, figure it out.’ So the first thing I did was sign up for a USATF Coaching Clinic… and a marathon, so I wouldn’t feel like a fraud.”
Twenty-five miles of his first marathon went well, but he received a crash course on “the wall” in the last half mile. Nevertheless, he found his niche helping adult marathoners qualify for big races: from the Olympic Trials to the age-graded Boston standards. Soon, he was leading Tuesday morning and night group workouts with a wide variety of committed runners of varying skill levels.
“Most of the runners I take on are relatively experienced, self-motivated, and thick-skinned. I don’t treat the woman who runs a 3:30 marathon much differently than I would a professional runner,” Milner explained. “Obviously the training is very different, but the same physiological principles usually apply, and the way I interact with the athlete and deliver their training is very similar. I wouldn’t take them on unless I thought they could handle it.”
Despite his “blunt as a hammer” approach to on-the-ground conditioning, Milner took a more subtle approach to planning the athletes’ training. As a new coach, “Jack Daniels’ Running Formula book was my Bible,” Milner shared. “Now, the concepts of that book are hardwired and memorized. I have a pretty good idea how to recreate Jack Daniels’ formula, but now, how do I put my own spin on it?”
Milner gleans as much information as possible from other coaches with the intention of melding their wisdom into his own unique training system. For example, Milner’s coaching is influenced by Peter Thompson and his system of “New Interval Training”. Peter is a fan of “floats” during interval workouts, wherein, rather than jogging your recoveries at a glacial pace, you just let your foot off the gas and cover the recovery jogs (say 200m) at your regular easy run pace.
He would also periodically bounce ideas off coaches like Danny Mackey and Pete Rea when he had the chance to hang out with them.
“I’m probably not doing anything that someone else isn’t doing,” Milner admitted, “But it’s always flattering when I share workouts with other coaches and they say ‘hey, that’s a good one.’ It helps me know I’m on the right track.”
The ability to adjust training cycles comes in handy when Milner is working with, for example, a mom who can only run significant mileage on the weekends.
When setting up a program, “I use a few basic tenets that Peter Thompson instilled in me,” Milner explains. For example, “Working backwards from your target event when planning the program, using 3-week cycles with a down week at the end of each cycle, and never doing a long run the day after a race. Some of his rules like that I still use.”
A foray into collegiate coaching
Some of the adult athletes that he was coaching were high school cross country coaches, and they convinced him to get into the field. Soon, he was coaching both high schoolers and marathoners. In 2002, he was invited on as a Graduate Assistant Coach at Belmont University. He pursued his Master’s in Sports Administration while working with the middle distance runners and doing recruiting.
After finishing this program, he returned to high school coaching and worked in a running store again. He led the school’s previously struggling distance program to significantly contribute to three state championships. He connected especially well with one exceptional athlete who ran 4:09 and 8:52 as a junior: the top returner in the nation going into 2007. This young man generated some buzz in the coaching community, and soon Milner found himself the recipient of a full-time, paid offer to return to Belmont University. Milner inquired if the position could wait until this high school athlete graduated, and the Belmont coach acquiesced. This gave him an opportunity to finish what he had started.
Milner began coaching full-time at Belmont in the summer of 2008. “I recruited and worked with middle distance. Plus, I led strength and conditioning, which was essentially glorified core,” Milner joked.
After over four years coaching a Belmont, Milner learned of an opening at another NCAA DI school that had, in his eyes, enormous potential. “It was kind of a dream job for me. I felt like they were a sleeping giant,” Milner recalled. “I felt like if the right person came in and could recruit effectively, they could turn the program around… Plus they had an indoor track. Seems like everyone does now, but eight years ago that wasn’t the case.”
“So this is a valuable lesson for aspiring coaches,” Milner mused. “I moved there on nothing more than a golden handshake and promise. I coached there basically on a volunteer basis at first… Things were going great, though.” Within the first year, everything fell apart. The new head coach was forced to resign. “I was just collateral damage. I realized it wasn’t going to work out.”
Milner then had a brief stint at NCAA DII King College, where the cross country team qualified for nationals for the first time. “They had the budget to pay for cross country, but not track,” Milner shared. In Spring of 2013, he had no way to make money. At this point, he knew it was time for a pivot.
Backwards and upwards
He took a job in the Running Specialty industry as an independent sales rep, and has worked with companies like Pearl Izumi, Nuun, Picky Bars, and Under Armour, while continuing to coach on the side.
Milner had always had a dream of creating a new kind of professional track meet in America, so he decided to throw his energy towards growing the Music City Distance Carnival.
After years of the hard work of bringing his vision to fruition, Milner laughs about a little notoriety he picked up. “I managed to get an F-bomb on the front of Letsrun.com,” he said, referring to an article on a professional track meet that he put on in South Carolina, funded out of his own pocket.
“I kind of saw the sport just dying a slow and gradual death just because of the way it was presented. If you go to an average college meet, nobody in the crowd knows what the f*** is going on,” he told Letsrun.com. The quote made it to the front page of the site.
Since then, he’s been able to distill his vision for how the sport of Track & Field could gain relevance to the general public: “gambling, beer, better meet programs, and team competition: that’s what it boils down to.”
“When I started MCDC back in 2003, there really was nothing like it, except for some post-collegiate meets in Indianapolis, which disappeared about six or seven years ago. It is great that now there are other meets that are similar, like the Sir Walter Mile in Raleigh, Festival of Miles in St Louis, and Portland Track Festival. Indoors, there is the Camel City Classic. These meets cater to up and coming post-collegiate runners too, rather than just the high-profile elites that can get into meets like Pre or Millrose.”
Milner, like the directors of the these meets, considers himself an advocate for the sport as he seeks ways to implement these strategies. He tries to stay in conversation with the elite East-coast track clubs to make sure that the meets that he puts on are working for their athletes, and, indeed, they have cooked up a 6-meet series called the Eastern Track League that will be announced this week.
The making of a track star
It was at the Music City Distance Carnival that Milner first connected with his most well-known coaching client, Quamel Prince. Prince was in high school at the time. As a collegiate athlete at Tennessee State University, Prince ran only 1:48 for 800m and missed out on the national meet, but Milner recognized greater potential. “After he graduated, I knew he didn’t have anything in place,” Milner said. “I hated for him to quit just because he didn’t have anyone to coach him anymore.”
Most of Milner’s clients were road-racers and age-group placers, but he decided to take on the training of Prince. “This kid had massive potential,” Milner shared. “Coaching someone with Quamel’s talent level was exciting!”
The duo found success, and Prince qualified for his first USA Track & Field championship in 2017, clocking 1:46.76 at MCDC.
Seven months later, he qualified for the 2018 U.S Indoor Championships. Citius Magazine named the relatively unknown middle-distance athlete as “the unsponsored underdog you should root for at USA’s”. He made the 800m final and placed 5th.
Four months later, he lowered his 800m PB to 1:46.30, again at MCDC. And at the U.S Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, he missed making the 800m final by just 0.04 seconds.
“In 2017-18 I carefully doubled Quamel’s college weekly mileage – from about 25 miles per week to 50-55. He is only 5’9 and about 135lbs and is really built more like a miler than a typical half-miler. I felt like he could be very dangerous at 1500m, with his finishing speed (21.74 FAT 200m), so put in place a strong aerobic foundation with a view to running 800 and 1500 equally in 2019 and 2020.”
Last fall, Prince joined District Track Club, a professional group based in the nation’s capital. He is in great hands now with Tom Brumlik, who heads up DTC. Although Milner no longer coaches Prince, he certainly played a pivotal role in his rise through the ranks of American middle distance running.
For more in-depth content from this interview with Dave Milner, stay tuned! We will be offering an inside look at what it’s like to coach an athlete at nationals, from the perspectives of several coaches who have done just that.
I met the Caldwell coaches in person for the first time at an indoor track meet at Clemson University. Mike had on his ASICS GTC-Elite cap, and I decided to introduce myself as we waited for our athletes to line up for the 5k.
A few weeks before that, I had joined a phone call with the Women’s Running Coaches Collective to discuss hosting their rich archive of newsletters on School of Track’s website. Laura Caldwell was on the call as a founding member of the WRCC. That morning at Clemson, I hoped that Mike would be able to make the introduction. He obliged with incredible warmth.
Later, they generously agreed to talk with me further about their journey into professional coaching. Although the pair is officially retired, they show no signs of slowing down: together, they founded Asics GTC-elite in 2012, a professional group located in Greenville, South Carolina that Laura and Mike coach full-time.
Laura Caldwell’s competitive running career didn’t start until she was at Florida State University, but she certainly made up for lost time, earning her spot as the school record holder over 800m for a year. Not only a successful runner, Laura found herself to be an inspiring coach as well; after graduating, she took on the GA position at FSU, where she studied social work and counseling. “I enjoyed working with people through that position,” she remembered. “Coaching was a culmination of that counseling education melded with my athletic background.”
Michael Caldwell, in contrast, was a serious runner in high school. He won a state championship and earned a scholarship at Furman University. As a graduate student at the University of Florida, he also competed with the prolific Florida Track Club. He placed as high as 3rd at Atlanta Track Club’s Peachtree Road Race.
“At first, I was more interested in coaching myself,” Mike shared. He studied exercise physiology and the science background allowed him to practice new theories with himself.
The pair met when Mike was a doctoral candidate at Florida State University. He felt ready to move into coaching, and decided to create his own post-collegiate group that was sponsored by “Racing South” running magazine. He had over twenty elite athletes who were competitive at the national scene, including a World Championship Qualifier and several 1988 Olympic Marathon Trails Qualifiers. Throughout this time, he kept up a 30 year daily running streak!
Mike embarked on an incredibly successful career at ASICS, where he held many impactful positions, including as the lead designer and product-line manager for the ASICS Gel-Lyte shoe.
Eventually, he transitioned into work with Nike, where he had the opportunity to observe both Alberto Salazar and Jerry Schumacher in action. “I was fortunate to watch Salazar coach at Nike, and to have discussions with him. He shared information with me. I thought that this is what I would do when I retired.”
Laura continued to compete well into her mid-40’s, qualifying twice to the Olympic Trials in the marathon. At age 44, she ran 1:15 in the half marathon; an incredibly impressive performance that Mike proudly reminded her to share with me. While Mike worked at Nike in Oregon, Laura began coaching at a local high school, as well as doing personal coaching for her friends on the side. “We just like that lifestyle – reading and studying every day and passing on the information that we learned,” Mike shared.
After retiring from the shoe & apparel industry in 2009, the pair moved to Greenville. Mike coached at Furman University for a few years before deciding to start an Olympic Development group. “When I was working in corporate, I didn’t have enough time to coach. My philosophy is that you really need to be around the athlete, not just see their training online.”
“When I was working in corporate, I didn’t have enough time to coach. My philosophy is that you really need to be around the athlete, not just see their training online.”
Vision for GTC-Elite
“What we found when we coached college was that there were a good number of students graduating with nowhere to go run,” Mike explains on their decision to start GTC-Elite. “They weren’t good enough to get a shoe contract, so their career was basically done. We wanted to provide an opportunity.”
At that time, Mike estimates that there were about 10-11 post-collegiate clubs for serious distance runners. Plus, there were very few opportunities for women to run competitively. Now, he guesses that there are closer to 30 groups.
“We went to the board of directors at Greenville Track Club with a goal: we want to have people qualify for the Olympic Trials.” Now, Mike serves on the Board, although he steps out if a vote is taken on anything regarding his elite team. Already, that goal has begun to be fulfilled; in 2016, the group had four athletes at the Olympic Trials marathon.
The president of the board has been very good at going into the community and soliciting contributions to support the club’s athletes. Revenue can be a significant challenge for clubs like GTC-Elite.
“We are retired and we’re at a place where we don’t need the money,” Laura explained on their coaching. “It’s more of a volunteer opportunity for us. We are a nonprofit so we go out and talk to people and get the community involved. We have sponsors who have worked with us since we started. ASICS has been very helpful to us, and we couldn’t have done it without them because equipment is so important.”
Mike credited Atlanta Track Club as “the best of the best at what they do.” Like Atlanta Track Club, Greenville Track Club recently started a youth program. “Our elite athletes are running that program, so they’re giving back to the community.” This helps the elite team gain support.
Unique challenges to professional coaching
“In college, we pretty much knew what was going on – if something happened the night before – whether we wanted to or not,” Mike joked after I asked him how coaching a post-collegiate group differs from his experience at Furman.
“The hardest thing is to keep them engaged and communicating,” Laura agreed. “You really need to know what’s going on in their lives so you can adapt to that. A lot of times they look at it as ‘Well I’m an adult, why do I have to tell you all that?’ But I just need to know all the pieces that go into the puzzle.”
Their group uses FinalSurge, which allows them to see their athletes workout data as soon as their watches sync to the computer. Then, both athletes and coaches are able to add comments. “One young lady, one hour after that workout, she would be done logging,” Laura said. “That’s one way to tell that they are really engaged and ready to do the workout. If it takes a few days to finish logging, maybe it’s not that important in your life. Running – being an athlete – it takes a lot of your time.”
GTC is very open with their training philosophy – even going so far as to share their training plans. Mike explains that there isn’t really a secret to running. “These people are always looking for the magic workout. We just look for consistency. You can get from A to B in myriad different ways, but if you apply it in the wrong way, it won’t work.”
“Anyone can get a workout book and follow the schedule, but it’s really about the timing,” Mike said. With Mike’s science background and Laura’s athletic background, the two have learned about moving beyond what’s on the page. “The artist has to come out of every coach.”
Advice for the journey
“If you’ve got a coaching position, grow where you’re planted,” offered Mike. “Don’t always be looking to go somewhere else. Opportunities will come up. Most people are looking for opportunities before they’ve had success.”
Laura laughed, “We’ve been married for 30-something years, so we pretty much think alike! I love that advice. Grow where you’re planted. I understand wanting to get ahead, but take some time to learn before you move on to the next big thing.”
Both coaches cited athlete development as an incredibly compelling reason to be a coach. Mike shared a story about one of his all-favorite athletes: a walk-on at Furman University. “His father dropped him off at my office and said ‘make something of him!’ By the end of the year – he must have been in the 3rd or 4th heat of the 5000 – but he had taken a minute off of his PR. He came afterwards and gave me a huge hug. He didn’t go on to run after college, but his desire has stayed with us. We still talk.”
“It’s really rewarding in itself to be able to work with someone and see them improve,” Laura adds. “To come up with goals that they want to go for, accomplish them, and move to the next. That’s very rewarding for me.”
Chris Catton, perhaps best known as the coach of high school phenom Craig Engels, talks with School of Track about getting high school kids to the next level, starting a personal coaching service, and the state of professional running in the USA.
Like most others growing up in Grand Blanc, Michigan, Chris Catton rooted for University of Michigan athletics. Ever since he was a kid, he knew that he wanted to be a coach… he just wasn’t sure in which sport! His family was in education, and coaching was a gig that fit with that job.
“My dad was a track coach when I was very little and he always talked about how great the sport was and how all the best athletes are involved with it.” His family could pick up the Canadian Broadcasting Channel from their house, so he grew up watching Kevin Sullivan race for Canada.
He continued to be captivated by track and field; as a college athlete at Wake Forest, Catton ran just under 1:50 for 800m: certainly a respectable performance. “If someone shares that with an athlete like Donavan Brazier or Clayton Murphy, though, that wouldn’t sound too great,” he admits.
High-level high schoolers
After graduation, when he was ready to move into coaching, he got lucky: “a local coach just happened to be stepping down from coaching to spend more time with his kids so everything kind of lined up.”
Pretty quickly, Catton began developing high-level talent at the high school level. Perhaps the most well-known of these athletes was Craig Engels, who was one of only 6 high schoolers ever to break both 1:50 over 800m and 9:00 over 3200m. Engels went on to have an illustrious career at Ole Miss, before joining the Nike Oregon Project.
“Craig was likely the fastest, but [I also had] others like Jake Hurysz and Scott Morgan, who were both sub-9 3200m runners and Footlocker Finalists.” Morgan had a very successful collegiate career at UNC-Chapel Hill. Hurysz went on to break the Colorado school record in the mile (3:58) and earn 3 NCAA DI All-American medals. He ran professionally for NJNY track club and now serves as the Operations Assistant for Men’s XC at Florida State University.
These front-runners helped him get the momentum moving for the rest of his high-school athletes. How did he move these runners into the next level? Catton says that it’s different for everyone. “Jake needed structure in his training above anything, Scott just needed someone to run with, and Craig needed to focus.”
“With each kid came experience and also a team of high level runners and a culture that enabled the bar to keep rising.”
Most high school coaches “know that the training, workouts, and “x’s and o’s” are only about 5% of the job,” observes Catton. “There’s SO much time, organization, and commitment that goes into coaching high school.” He suggests re-evaluating your coaching goals if you’re just in it for the training aspect of the job.
A tough landscape for professional runners… and coaches!
“Unless you’re a top 3 athlete at the NCAA meet, it is very hard to get a contract to support yourself,” Coach Catton mused.
He’s right; it’s hard to be a professional runner. According to Sports Management Degree Hub, only about 20% of USA top-10 track & field athletes make over $50k annually, even when you include sponsorships, grants, and prize money. Shockingly, 50% of these nationally-ranked athletes actually make less than $15k per year from all of these sources.
It’s easy to imagine how difficult it can be to compensate a personal coach when you are living below the poverty line. Even for our country’s top post-collegiate athletes, it can be incredibly hard to find and fund quality coaching and a nurturing training environment.
“There’s only a few ways to coach in our sport,” Catton shared. At the high-school level, most coaches are also teachers. “It’s hard to have a job outside education and coach high school.” Private running coaches, on the other hand, sometimes offer their services as a “side hustle”, outside of their day jobs.
Unless you’re an Olympic-level athlete, it is unlikely that you will just “fall” into collegiate coaching. “In order to be a college coach, you really need to get a start VERY early after college and make tons of sacrifices, both personally and financially, for a few years in order to get your position.”
Catton and good friend Tim Goldsack developed another idea that would maintain their friendship and keep them involved with the sport that they love. “We decided that we could do some outside coaching”.
The hardest challenge for them has been exposure: “How do people know you’re available, qualified, and willing to coach them?”
So far, they’ve had fun coaching all types of runners, whether professional, amateur, or not yet sure. “I like coaching the willing 6-minute miler as much as the record-holder or Olympic Trials Qualifier.”
Learning from the best
The best coaches are always learning from each other. Goldsack and Catton bounce ideas off each other on a regular basis.
Catton also notes that his relationship with Ole Miss distance coach Ryan Vanhoy has impacted his development as a coach. “Ryan and I have been friends for a long time, since he was a student at North Carolina,” Catton shared. “He’s one of the best coaches in the NCAA and the World, and I probably speak to him about training every single day.”
For those who do aspire to break into collegiate coaching, Catton offers: “start right after college and be willing to do anything, volunteer, go to grad school, and be willing to make a huge sacrifice.”
Emma Abrahamson was a star miler and member of the University of Oregon team that won the 2016 NCAA DI XC Championships. She may have retired from her running career, but she’s just getting started with her next adventure: transitioning her coaching/social media side hustle into full-time self employment!
The product? “Get After Fit” Coaching! Now, she lives in San Diego and she’s on a journey from athlete to social media influencer to coach/entrepreneur!
Emma Abrahamson got her start in swimming and triathlons. She was a precocious runner and was soon recruited by a club coach. At age 11, she quit swimming and went all-in with track & field. She remembers her personal trainer assigning intense workouts when she was as young as 12.
“I was running times that most middle schoolers can’t run. I dedicate that to her. She pushed me very hard.” The trainer, Suzanna Davis, was also a professional triathlete. “She helped set me up for a good high school career.”
After high school, Emma became a member of the University of Oregon team. Here, she was on the squad that won the NCAA DI Championships in 2016. The middle distance specialist ran a personal best of 4:39 in the mile!
Throughout her running career at Oregon, Emma began cultivating her personal social media brand through Youtube videos.
After graduating, she moved to Atlanta for work. Here, she trained post-collegiately for a short time with Atlanta Track Club Elite (AJC Peachtree Road Race, anyone?).
“A combination of everything led me to where I am today.”
A (YouTube) Star is Born
Her YouTube channel got its start when she was in Eugene, Oregon for an internship with Run Gum. On a day with too much free time, she decided to film “a day in the life”. Her videos began gaining traction among young runners. Soon, she even had a catchphrase: “What’s up fellows?”
She calls her YouTube channel “probably the best thing I did in college”. She clarifies that “it’s brought a lot of opportunities work-wise that I never thought I’d have.”
Young athletes who follow her on social media often ask for advice. Although it’s hard for her to keep up with all the comments and questions, Emma finds it very rewarding to hear from the athletes who look up to her and are motivated by her work.
This was a big inspiration for her to start her own training program to help people reach their goals. She already had some coaching experience — during breaks from college, she helped out with a youth club called Junior Mavericks. Seeing them succeed and run personal bests energized her.
“Coaching was always on the back of my mind,” Emma mused. “I looked up to my coach [University of Oregon Coach Maurica Powell]–especially seeing her and the inspiration she provides for her team.”
Coach Powell changed Emma’s outlook on how good she could really be as a runner. Emma dedicates her 1500m PR of 4:18 to Coach Powell (as well as her teammates), noting that she probably would have been satisfied with just breaking 4:25.
Now, Emma is ready: she is NFHS certified and has her USATF Level 1 certification class scheduled. She’ll be offering individualized training plans, weekly evaluations through Training Peaks, one-on-one phone calls, nutrition advice, and supplementary weight training. Her target athlete: everyone!
“This is a really cool opportunity. It’s so rewarding to see people accomplish their goals.”
On Starting a Business
Emma has some sage advice: “in the process of starting your own business, don’t be too hard on yourself.”
Emma admits that she didn’t know where to begin. After lots of research and conversations with mentors, she finally realized that there’s only one way to proceed: trail and error.
“It is pretty frustrating if you don’t know what you’re doing, but there’s never really a right time to get started so you might as well start now with doing your research.”
But struggling through this process has paid off big time for Emma.
“I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur until I started my personal brand on social media,” she observed. “I’m still in the beginning so I have a long ways to go, but it’s been fun!”
One last thing: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help from people who have [started a business] before you because it is hard but it’s definitely a rewarding endeavor.”