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.
The origins of RunCCG
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.”
Follow RunCCG on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/runccg/