Interview with Coach Alan Versaw – The Classical Academy

Alan Versaw has been the head boys and girls cross country coach at The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs since 2000. In that time he has led the boys and girls cross country teams to 15 state titles. In 2016, he was named the Colorado Springs Gazette girls' coach of the year and will be inducted into the Colorado High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017.

Alan was generous to answer a few questions from the Colorado Coyotes on youth running and development, enjoy!

Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions from the Colorado Coyotes. First, tell us about yourself and how you got into coaching?

Though neither of my parents was particularly into sports, I loved sports from the time I can first remember. Like every American boy, I went through a stage of thinking football was the be-all and end-all of sports, but I eventually migrated and found that track was the sport I connected with best. My high school didn’t have cross country, and I would have to learn to appreciate it later in life.

My first teaching job more or less required me to also be a junior high football coach. I mostly hated the position and got out of it as soon as I could, promising myself I would never coach again.

Years went by, though, and I found I very consistently resonated well in the classroom with the cross country kids I had. I had run distance in high school, so I started turning over in my head the idea of coaching cross country.

When The Classical Academy started the high school in 2000, I threw my hat into the ring to start the cross country program and got the job—though I was not their first choice for the position. Things happened at a furious pace. I had to learn skills of the trade I never imagined on a near-daily basis. But, I also had the most wonderful set of kids to start with anyone could have ever asked for. What their coach lacked in understanding of training, they made up for twice over in infectious enthusiasm. The early years of TCA cross country was a wonderful experience of growing together.

You’ve been coaching at The Classical Academy since 2000, when dealing with youth runners what are a few things that you’ve learned and improved upon in terms of coaching and training?

I’ve learned the I can help plant visions and provide a lot of useful encouragement along the way, but unless the young athlete owns the vision, it’s really not coming any closer to fruition. That’s the big picture story. Over the years some of the things we do better in our program than we did in the past are that we incorporate more speed work in our training and include it through more of the year. We’re better at looking at a race that didn’t go well and analyzing what went wrong. An ongoing challenge, though, is simply tending all the little things that need to be tended to to be successful. You start focusing on two or three things and you’re likely to lose track of other things you need to be paying attention to as well. I’d label that is the single biggest ongoing challenge of coaching. It’s challenging, to say the least, to keep all the balls in the air at once.

What would you say the biggest adjustment is for freshman entering high school and joining the cross-country team?

It isn’t necessarily this way all around the state, but middle schoolers in Colorado Springs—and many other parts of the state as well—only run 2500 meter races. Going from there to the high school 5K is an enormous jump. It’s just as big of a jump in terms of training as it is in terms of race distance. Unless middle school kids are running in some kind of program in addition to their middle school program, it is very difficult to bridge them up to being competitive in their freshman year, even when they bring a good deal of talent—both mental and physical—to the table.

I realize that all programs vary in terms of training and mileage, if you could talk about the training approach at TCA and how many miles per week your top runners are running?

Anytime you work with more than a handful of runners, there are always compromises involved. My team training philosophy is to put team development ahead of individual development as a priority. It’s very easy to focus on an individual and try to bring him/her along to full potential, but much more difficult to bring along a team to something close to their full potential. But, more difficult equals more rewarding if you’re successful at it. Risk and reward is that way.

Tanner Norman was running 60 to 70 miles per week this fall, but 15 to 20 of that was on his own outside of practice. Typically, our top males are getting close to 50 mpw and our top females maybe in the mid-30s to up to 40 miles per week. Only a small number ever end up running more than that in our program.

This year you had the pleasure of coaching Tanner Norman who was the top boys cross country runner in the state and will be running at Iowa State next year. In Tanner’s case, what separates him from the competition?

Tanner separates himself from the competition in his unflinching willingness to do all the little things right. He gets rest. He puts in extra mileage we don’t have time for in practice. He does supplemental strength training. If you’re going to be an individual state champion these days, it doesn’t happen without those extra efforts.

All that and he happens to have a very nice aerobic engine.

In today’s era of parents obsessed with their children getting an athletic scholarship, just how difficult is it to get a scholarship in cross-country or track at the D1 or D2 level? When dealing with college coaches who are recruiting, what do you find they are ultimately looking for?

It’s a lot different story for boys and for girls. Frankly, it’s a lot harder for boys to get those scholarships than girls. First, there are fewer available because of NCAA rules on equity and the influence of football on the overall scholarship picture at a school. Second, a greater percentage of your top boys want to go on and run in college than is the case with your top girls. I’ve seen that percentage difference shrink over the years I’ve been coaching, but it’s still there. As a result, when college coaches go looking for boys, they are looking for top-end kind of talent. And, at least in Colorado, they can successfully hold out for it. The Colorado DI and DII programs, especially the most successful ones (of which there are several) can be very selective. I find the girl they’re looking for tends to fit a slightly different profile. Yes, they want top-end talent, but they’re always keeping an eye out for who they think is durable enough to deal with the load. Some coaches take a rather long look at personality as well, and perhaps more so with girls than boys. Is this girl someone who can adjust to a role that, at least initially, will be a lot less prominent than what she has grown accustomed to in high school?

I’d like to get your take on youth sports specialization. Running like any youth sport can now compete on a year-round basis. You can start the year running indoor track, move to outdoor track and then cross country, not to mention the limitless 5Ks that kids can run throughout the year. What’s your opinion on middle school children and younger competing year-round, will they enter high school with a significant advantage over kids who didn’t compete as often?

I love to see middle school children—and even younger children—active year round. But, let’s be honest, that’s much more the exception that the rule in our culture.

I’m not a huge fan of running year round, but I don’t think it’s necessarily as disastrous as some internet articles make it out to be. If they are running year round, I hope they’re at least doing something else occasionally as well.

Children should be active, and probably some variety of activities is a better plan than focusing on a single activity. If nothing else, it makes them less prone to injury. Ultimately, I’m a fan of youth activity mostly because people pay steep prices later in life when they aren’t active in their younger years. And, it is beyond dispute that boys and girls who have been active in their younger years, regardless of what they’ve been active with, come in way ahead of boys and girls who don’t take up running—or much of any activity—until high school. Honestly, that gap is very nearly insurmountable.

When dealing with high school boys and girls runners, what have you learned when dealing with the different genders when it comes to coaching? Running is a unique sport in that puberty can actually have an adverse impact on girls when it comes to running times. Do you have any thoughts on training girls so that they are running their best in the later years of high school?

Most girls can continue to improve through high school. Perhaps not as much as boys who are typically getting stronger at a much more rapid rate during the same years, but girls most definitely can improve. It’s a pernicious myth that girls typically won’t get any better as runners after about 8th or 9th grade.

I think you must begin by acknowledging most girls won’t drop times the way boys do in high school. But, working hard and long in the same direction will almost always yield improvement and results. We see that over and over again in our program.

Some girls, though, find the work isn’t worth it. There’s not much you can say to that—if it’s personally not worth it to the athlete, it’s not worth it and there’s probably not much you can do to make it worth it. There’s no need to get into any arguments over it. Seasons of life change.

But, for those who want to continue to work and continue to maintain a buoyant spirit, there is very good reason to believe they will be rewarded for their efforts. It’s kind of harsh that girls can’t goof off over the summer like some boys do and still be better in the fall, but that time of reckoning will eventually come for the boys, too.

You will be inducted into the Colorado High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 2017, which is a tremendous honor. The results of The Classical Academy under your coaching speak volumes. What advice do you have for other youth running coaches and for parents of young runners?

It is a tremendous honor.

My best advice for youth running coaches is to marry someone who has a high tolerance for having a coach as a spouse. When you marry a coach, you set yourself up for a life that many people wouldn’t choose for themselves. Coaching successfully requires a deep commitment to the kids. Coaching is not an excuse to neglect your spouse, and there will be some hard conversations and much give-and-take along the way, but ultimately someone who marries a coach ends up doing a lot of sharing of their spouse’s time. It’s inevitable. The unseen magic behind most successful coaches, at least for those who are not single, is a spectacularly giving spouse.

I don’t know that this falls under the category of advice, but it’s a full-out blessing to have the kind of relationship with your own children that they want to be coached by you. That’s going to vary by child, though. And, they must come to understand not every coaching decision is going to go their way.

For parents, my best advice is to let kids choose the activities they do. There may have to be limits set on how many activities they get to do, but the unhappiest kids I’ve seen as runners have been ones where it was more their parents’ idea than their own idea. It’s tough enough to excel when it’s your idea. It’s very nearly impossible to excel when it’s someone else’s idea.

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