Runners are like cats in the world of sports. The athletes try to best themselves in every race, so it’s a highly individualized sport, one that takes a great deal of effort to challenge physical strength and push mental toughness. Only after the fact, when the times and race finishes are added together does it become a team sport. Yet, they’ll pair off to train together, partners supporting each other in the effort to beat the clock.
Hermann High School cross-country Coach Josh Morris is good at herding cats and he knows how to get the best out of each runner. As for the team aspect, class-level makeup within the team has a lot to do with competition success within the conference and district in both experience and endurance.
“We’re just now getting to the point where we’ve got an upper-classmen team,” he says. “When I first got here, I ran five freshmen on varsity, with two seniors. Last year I ran six sophomores and one freshman, so now we’re juniors and we’re seeing the fruits of our labors.”
He has seen improvement in his spring track team, so he’s hopeful about the coming cross-country season.
He says it’s a hard sport to sell.
“Not a lot of kids are looking to go out and sweat and the number of miles these kids run can be intimidating, but we need to take these kids where they are,” he says. “The sport is a little bit infectious—this is the biggest team we’ve ever had.”
Coach Morris says there are two seniors on the squad that have never run cross-country before and will probably make the varsity team. So, cross-country being both an individual sport, as well as a team sport, could challenge the best of coaches. How does Coach Morris prepare these kids for competition?
“I’ve tried to be more individualistic with my workouts, as opposed to a whole team workout,” he explains.
He sees where improvements are needed in each athlete and will work to improve those, but he has to consider the team as well. Putting the focus on each athlete’s strengths seems to achieve better results, according to the coach.
“We might just touch on the deficit of that athlete, but really work on the strengths,” he says. Some of this [improvement] is just consistency, getting out there [to run] everyday.”
Depending on the season, he emphasizes aerobic conditioning—how long can his runners maintain a particular speed? In cross country, endurance is the game.
“That’s what we focused on this summer,” he noted. “Track season we focused on speed, speed, speed—everybody trained as 800 meter runners or milers.”
Coach Morris coaches both the Middle School and the High School runners for a total of 46 kids. His goal with the middle-schoolers is to make sure they have fun and are successful, because he’d like to keep them on the team as they advance through the school system.
“[The training] is very individualized because we have kids that can run five miles without stopping or maybe a quarter mile without stopping,” he explains.
He’ll try to group the runners based on ability as much as possible.
At the high school level, he may have three separate workouts for his varsity and two others for junior varsity that are similar, but still allow for differences to achieve goals to address physiological differences among the runners.
What motivates these kids to run for Coach Morris and what lessons will they take with them from the sport?
“Discipline is huge for these kids,” he says. “They like running, but they just wouldn’t go run five miles in the summer when it’s 95 degrees outside.”
He says they learn to set goals and to forge the daily discipline it takes to achieve them. He also admits that personality plays into the attraction of long-distance running—it’s not for everybody.”
What goals as a team would Coach Morris like to achieve this season? He says both the boys and girls have big goals.
The boys have never been to State as a team,” he starts. “Taking both teams to State is the goal. If we don’t take both teams, that would be a disappointment.”
Possibly because of its simplicity, cross-country is a sport that garners little attention, aside from parents that cheer their kids on from a distance.
Coach Morris wishes more people knew about the effort his kids put into the sport.
“A lot of these young men and women that are juniors and seniors that only participate in cross-country and track have trained probably 50 out of 52 weeks in the year,” he notes. “Whatever success we have or don’t have this year, I just hope people realize the amount of work these kids put in.”