Coach Alex Lyons' 5 Principles for Coaching High School Runners

Coach Alex Lyons of Chicago-area Lyons Township High School outlines his 5 'First Principles' when it comes to coaching high school athletes, and the importance of keeping these key principles top of mind throughout the process of guiding an athlete's development. 

First Principles for Coaching High School

by Alex Lyons

A coaching colleague often reminds me that we teach what we need to learn until we learn it. That’s how I feel about the following post. I’m writing down these principles as much for myself as for anyone reading–as a reminder of the central tenets that should drive my choices when working with high school athletes.

There are many effective ways in which to organize a practice, and a healthy team environment can take multiple shapes. There are, however, common practices I see among the best high school coaches. Here they are.

1. Respect the Load-Capacity Balance

There’s only one way to become a great runner, and that’s stacking up months and years of consistent, unspectacular training. I’ve known this was true as a coach. Until recently, however, I didn’t totally appreciate how to maximize the likelihood that athletes stayed healthy and could put in these requisite training blocks.

Amidst all the complexities of training a unique individual organism, there is a simple and critical balancing act constantly at work: the scales of load and capacity. On one side is load, or the amount of work (i.e. training) an athlete is assigned. On the other side is capacity, or the body’s ability to absorb and withstand the load placed upon it. Athletes that enter our program come to us with varying levels of capacity–and those levels vary even among athletes who have never run before. Not all beginners are created equal.

Lots of things affect capacity. Movement quality affects capacity. Level of activity in the athlete’s childhood affects capacity (and also movement quality). Most importantly, coaches affect capacity, through our sensitivity (or insensitivity) to its slow but critical buildup. If we assign a brand new athlete–or any athlete with a low capacity–an excessively high amount of work, the load will outstrip the capacity, and the athlete will get injured. And what happens when an athlete sustains an injury and has to abstain from training? She experiences an extended bout of reduced load–and with no load to adapt to, her capacity falls further. This is a recipe for an injury cycle. I try to ask athletes to train today in a manner that will let them train tomorrow. By all means, train hard. Do as much work as you like–provided the load is manageable enough that the athlete can absorb it and show up to practice the next day ready, and excited, to train again. When in doubt, do less.

2. Build the Movement Bank Account

There are other ways to boost an athlete’s capacity beyond the patient and gradual turning of the volume/intensity/density dials. As I mentioned above, athletes with a more diverse and extensive movement history in childhood come to practice with a greater capacity than kids who were less active while young.

25 years ago, a typical childhood involved lots of time outdoors: chasing your friends, inventing games, climbing trees, throwing footballs or snowballs or rocks, running and leaping and moving. These improvised, unsupervised, highly variable games involved all the movement patterns a great athlete must master: accelerating, decelerating, changing direction, coordinating upper and lower limbs, utilizing full ranges of motion, and more. The diverse movement ecosystems in which kids grew up weren’t just fun: they were better athlete development programs than whatever absurdly expensive “functional athlete” or “speed camp” course you might purchase from a personal trainer. The first and most effective vaccine a young person received against injury was a healthy dose of play.

We as coaches may not have influence over our athletes’ early upbringing, but we absolutely have influence over how they spend their time at practice–and what they need is a chance to play. Athletes will raise their capacities for hard training if they engage in the movements of childhood–and, if thoughtfully packaged as a game, this “training” will be the best part of their day.
Need your kids to develop the capacity to accelerate and decelerate? How about rolling out a soccer ball, or playing small-sided games of ultimate frisbee? Want to work on joint and soft tissue/fascia mobility? Try low-walk relay races, or “Deep Squat Push Hands,” where kids get into a squat position and try to knock each other over. I’ve never heard so much laughter at practice–and it’s training. It’s meaningful, joyful, capacity-building training.

3. Zoom In and Out

This past spring, an athlete on our team was struggling with some non-specific soreness in her lower legs. The athlete was also a movement disaster, with all kinds of red flags that would indicate susceptibility to injury. I wanted to know what workouts she could or couldn’t run, and what cues to give her, and what strengthening exercises to assign, and what about ice, and massage, and stretching, and yoga? How could I fix her by tomorrow?

But that short-term approach wasn’t enough. To get unstuck, I had to think about the problem from a more global lens: what kind of environment might ask the athlete to move better? For example, since this athlete had trouble with generating flexion, and struggled with long ground contact times and high peak loading rates, what might progressively teach her to find those flexion positions? We started experimenting with wicket drills, and regular use of dribbles. We played with various types of med ball throws, looking for a variety of manners to develop flexion and power.

Just like coaches think of training on micro-, meso-, and macro- levels, we can use those same lenses to think about movement quality. When an athlete is dealing with an injury issue, short-game strategies like reducing training load are perfectly fine. A movement cue like asking an athlete to increase cadence might also help–but we can’t stop there. No coach would accept the premise that a single workout on a single day would sufficiently develop an athlete’s aerobic engine; that process takes months and years of consistent work. The same is true of biomechanics. Good training programs involve long-term commitments to movement quality, delivered drop-by-drop, one month after another. By all means, reduce the volume for your athlete with shin splints until the tissue bank account restores itself–but also start thinking about why it’s getting drained in the first place.

4. Never Be an Athlete’s Last Coach

Load and capacity are important. The technical nature of training is important. Thinking on micro-, meso-, and macro- levels are important–but none of that is as important as our sport’s ability to transform a young person.

The greatest part of coaching is watching an athlete achieve something she previously thought was beyond her scope of capability. You get the honor of watching a human being discover that her view of herself is too small, her limitations self-imposed.

The irony is that such powerful moments grow from the most mundane soil. We help lift an athlete to those transcendent performances through patient, daily attention to principles of load and capacity, through our ability to zoom out to the macro level, to see down the road of an athlete’s career. Every time we encourage a young person to listen to her body and run one fewer rep, every time we encourage patience , we’re steering her one degree, moving her three more inches down the path toward her potential.

Of course I don’t mean to suggest that hard work is unnecessary–but getting your athletes to work hard will not be your problem. Athletes in a healthy team environment want to work hard, and once they get their first samplings of momentum and success, they’ll be eager to throw themselves into training–and that’s where the coach comes in.

You have two options.

  1. You can push really hard, right away.
    ...and throw an athlete into the training deep end. Maybe she lasts a few weeks, a few months, maybe even puts up a great performance–but this is not a sustainable long-term strategy. And when she breaks down and enters an injury cycle, and misses training, and over and over has to ride a stationary bike while her friends run in the sunshine, when that past big performance becomes an albatross around her neck, she might start to wonder why, exactly, she is doing this sport she used to love.
  2. Or you can go slow.
    You can bring the athlete along gradually. She still might experience injury road bumps, but the time away will be shorter. Progress might come in smaller amounts, but it will come. Almost without noticing, she’ll get fitter and fitter, until, months or years down the road, she has a startling, breakout performance–and it’s far less likely that she’ll have to wonder why running isn’t fun anymore. Magical moments arrive on the backs of mundane ones.
Training modalities should align with the team’s culture and philosophy. I think a good program takes the athletes seriously, treats them with respect, values their input and long-term well-being. Just like these values should be visible in the daily rhythms of practice–in the way we speak to athletes, what we encourage, what we do or do not allow–they should be visible in the training we assign.

It’d be a mistake here not to address the importance of a program’s cultural environment. Team culture is the primary factor in whether we become an athlete’s last coach–but training is a branch of culture, not its own silo. Just like our values should be visible in the daily rhythms of practice–in the way we speak to athletes, what we encourage, what we do or do not allow–they should be visible in the training we assign. Demonstrating patience, listening to your athlete, taking what she has to say seriously–these are as vital as any pre-race talk or postseason speech you might give. Training grows from a program’s value structure; it does not exist alongside it.

5. Don’t Let Your Ego Drive

I once read an interview with Mark Wetmore where he described his coaching philosophy in the following points: “Be patient, avoid death-defying workouts, and minimize the effects of my own ego.” Brilliant. That’s a philosophy for long-term flourishing.

I think that final point about ego is particularly important. There may be no more critical responsibility for a coach than to keep our egos from driving the bus. The place from which I make my worst decisions as a coach is when I start wondering how an athlete’s results will reflect on me. A coach’s role is to invest in the long-term development of the whole human being–athletically, psychologically, and emotionally–not to stack up race results that make the coach look smart.

That’s an easy standard to set, and a challenging one to uphold. I want to feel like an exceptional coach–like I am the owner of some magical training recipe that will always produce great teams. I’m competitive, and I want to win. Ego is a normal, human quality that I will carry forever, but I try to take tangible steps each day to keep the wiser pieces of me in the driver’s seat. I write in a journal; I meditate; I seek out mentors who will guide and support me; and I do things, like writing this blog post, where I’m forced to articulate the things I believe. We teach what we need to learn until we learn it.

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Coach Lyons & Cross Country Team

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Coach Alex Lyons
About Coach Alex Lyons

Alex Lyons is the Head Coach of Girls Cross Country & an English teacher at Lyons Township High School, and a passionate life-long runner.