Sandburg Coach John O'Malley: The Coach For All Ages Has An Eye For Talent

Coach John O'Malley always has a watchful eye on his program at Sandburg High School

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When you think of Illinois distance running the names of Joe Newton and Dan Iverson will most likely pop up. And rightfully so for the legends who crafted Elmhurst (York) and Naperville North boys and girls to state and national prominence. The same can be said for Orland Park (Sandburg) boys head coach John O'Malley. Malley, who is a Sandburg graduate, came back home to steer the Eagles ship in 2003. Since that time his squads have been amazing. The cross country team has qualified for the state championship every season since he has been at the helm. Success hasn't just been at the state level for O'Malley and the Eagles. They finished 15th and 4th at the Nike Cross Nationals the past two seasons. The Eagles 4x800 relay ran an astounding 7:37.36 to break the metric all-time state meet record in defending their title. The feat was US #1 at the time and drew praise from more than just distance running fans too! Individually, O'Malley's guys have won multiple state medals in cross country and track. Most recently his star pupils Sean and Chris Torpy won the 1600 and 800 along with the 4x8 relay 3A state titles. Sean set an all-time record in the 800 at the Midwest Distance Classic blazing a US #1 1:47.95. This weekend the Torpy's will compete in the very prestigious Brooks PR Invite in Seattle.  Somewhere either in the stands of Rend Memorial Stadium or in front of his computer at home on Saturday afternoon, you can bet Coach John O'Malley will be smiling.

Let's start with the beginning of the school year when you were preparing your team for the cross country season. Was there an extra fire inside to achieve more this season after placing second last year?

Yes, no doubt about it. Hinsdale Central ran fantastic in the 2014 state meet and we have to acknowledge their performance. Coach [Jim] Westphal and his staff did a great job and those boys ran fantastic. At no point in the season could we have matched their 14:52 average that they put together in the state meet. But one of the keys to developing the culture of our group of runners was the unwillingness to settle on preconceived standards and expectations, so we were never going to be satisfied with even a state championship let alone a 2nd place finish. They are a really competitive group by nature, so this fed into their personalities. From the beginning, our vocabulary centered on the concept of disrespecting the record book. I can't drive that point home enough. I learned so much from this group of runners, particularly guys like Max Lehnhardt, and this concept of disrespecting the record book is one of them. I could talk for hours on how to foster that mentality now. 

Additionally, one of the keys to that 2nd place that fueled our performance in 2015 was the fact that we let the inside box (box 7) get the best of us. I don't know how, but we've been inside box 9 for four years in a row and we should have been ready to execute, but I failed as a coach in that regard and that certainly motivated me personally. One of our mantras was to turn setbacks and challenges into the substance of our strengths and victories, so while an inside box may offer a disadvantage, we wanted one this year in order to offer us an opportunity to turn our setback into a victory. That is a small representation of the culture of the team. This is what we focused on individually and we all came up with personal ways in which we create self-imposed limitations and a plan to conquer them. So we were thrilled to be given box 4 this year at state. We thrived on challenges. We spent a great deal of time working on this culture, teaching it, developing it, providing opportunities for athletes to test it, and ultimately it was our part of our character. 

As a side note, I watch for this mentality in all areas of athletics, including other team cultures in our state. When you are given a setback, what is the narrative on your team? That is huge. An example of what I would call championship character is Yorkville's coaches' reactions to getting bumped up to 3A yesterday. We have some tremendously inspiring coaches and athletes in Illinois. Rarely, but on occasion, you hear people creating loser mentalities among their teammates or athletes with narratives like, "That school has a population way bigger than ours, that's why they beat us," or one of my most despised terms "Sectional of Death". How about Sectional of Life? Get excited about challenges. You are thinking this is the place where teams go to die? What are you teaching? What are you learning? Do you really believe in embracing challenges or not? Is it a nice talking point or a part of your character?  Yorkville's coaches immediately tackled their narrative (as far as I can tell from twitter) and responded with excitement about getting bumped up to 3A. Conversely, they could have launched a complaint fest about the IHSA. I LOVE their response. That is what I call Championship Character. I am now going to be cheering loudly for that team. I've always admired them, but I can't say enough about what that response illustrates about their culture. I guarantee it's a mere glimpse into how they foster that mentality. That stuff fires me up. That is true teaching. 

What specifically did you do differently this year vs. year in preparing?
The development of our narrative was critical to our success. Understanding performance psychology and performance character has been a huge part of our system. We as coaches talk a lot about having a training calendar planned out for athletes' physical training but we have never even thought of a psychological calendar. Who wouldn't agree with the idea that your mentality is paramount to success? My feeling was, if I am not actively a student of psycho-biology, understanding brain development and how stress works, then I am missing a huge part of coaching and teaching. With this in mind, a huge part of prepping for this year was the anticipation of being favorites, of being nationally ranked, and having the spot light on us from the pre-season. I've talked about some of that already in the first question, but what I'd say is that we prepared in many ways for that and the boys were ready to thrive on pressure. I never considered the concept of trying to "take the pressure off" of our athletes. To do that with this group (and maybe any group) would have been offensive to their character. Physically, I crafted their training on preparation for a long season. I have an original training program that enables them to be athletically versatile. I could go on forever about our preparation for the season because a lot went into it, but every team needs to make sure they actively foster a shared identity and a reason to compete that goes far beyond state trophies. Our runners and coaches did that very well this year. I was lucky to witness that in our athletes. Character is a means to a successful life and that is what I hope they leave our program with. 

Sandburg placed 4th at Nike Cross Nationals this past year which
was awesome. Illinois was very strong cross country wise. Do you
believe that the competition within the state prepared your team for
the ultimate test that NXN provided?
Definitely. We went to the starting line in Portland and looked to our left and right and saw who? Lyons, Neuqua Valley, Jon Davis, Jack Aho, Charlie Kern. Nothing new. We talked at practice about thanking Illinois--every one from Jamari Ward, to Neuqua Valley for beating us even though we ran 7:40 in the 4 x 800 in 2014, to Judy Prendergast, to certainly Lyons and their squad and NV and the depth of Illinois. As I've said, our narrative centered on thriving on pressure and challenges. Illinois makes sure that pressure and challenges are always present and seeing our athletes flourish--in any event--raises the bar. 
Unrelated to your question, but related to NXN, I will take a sidebar right now and note that NXN looked very different in 2014/15 than it did when Verzbicas was there in 2010. Nationally, other states value it more and are in a position to train for it specifically. It's taken more seriously now than it was even six years ago. Teams have adapted and gone all in on NXN.  I don't think we do that in Illinois and I think the first thing that needs to happen is the IHSA extend our coaching calendar through December. Nationally, many teams do not run well at NXN but there are a handful that have really upped the ante in their preparation and readiness for the event. It's not a new event any more. These are some things I think coaches in Illinois might want to discuss. On the other hand, perhaps we are perfectly fine with it being an ancillary event for us. 

Track and Field seems to be the main sport in general for distance
runners. So how did xc prepare your team as a whole for the monster
season that you achieved?
We diversify our training and individualize, but XC definitely was a huge physical prep for how strong we were this spring. Aside from that, by the time we emerged from the XC season in mid December, I think many of our boys were pros. They had competed multiple times in high powered situations and were ready to go to the line with the intent and confidence in breaking records and doing things that maybe haven't been done. 

Speaking of monster season, your boys collectively went and established themselves among the best ever in Illinois as well as the United States. Can you detail what it means to be a part of such a
It's humbling for sure. I can't say how much I love these guys. I got choked up the morning of the state track final this year because I felt nervous for the first time ever...and my nerves centered on the feeling that I really love them and want them to end with a feeling befitting their efforts and dedication. I was confident it would. On a personal level, these boys will be a part of who I am forever. They've taught me so much. I am a student of my athletes. Their values, their decency, their determination...when they were freshmen my two cherished places: a classroom and a finish line were threatened. Sandyhook and the Boston Marathon.Additionally, our athletic world has recently shown us example after example of the mythological icons being just that--myths. The Lance Armstrong's, Joe Paterno's, and Oscar Pistorious' of the world have fallen woefully short of the image of their story. And that is where Illinois cross country and track comes in. And that is where for me personally, this group of Sandburg runners has come in. There was no shortcut to an enhanced performance for them. They just always gave a little more. They have given me something to believe in. 
Take a look at our IHSA state championship picture. You will see no medals--our boys immediately took their state medals, walked off the podium and gave them to someone who they felt a sense of gratitude toward. Always, but especially when you win, you have the unique opportunity to inspire and give others something to believe in. They have given that to me. 

Sean and Chris Torpy bolted themselves as argueably the best twins
in USA history. Can you explain what they meant to your program?
No. I can't. And it's not just Chris and Sean. It is the Torpy family. They are inspiring. I mean, Sean Torpy shoveled my mom's driveway when he was a freshman and my mother was sick and homebound. He never told me he did it, he just went and did it. To give you another example of who they are, the reason they wear those headbands is because when they were sophomores they lost four grandparents in the span of two weeks. Throughout that awful time, which was right in the middle of outdoor, they never missed a mile, they were there for their family and they never made an excuse, even though they had a real reason to miss training, under perform, etc. So I got 60 yellow headbands and those were Torpy Tough headbands. They gave them out whenever they saw a demonstration of true toughness. They put those on and ran their butts off. 

It's funny how few college coaches recruit character. They recruit times. They don't talk to coaches or learn about the family. I am guaranteeing the Torpys will be huge performers in college and beyond and it's not because of a coach or a training plan, although I am confident those things will be in place, but that's not the point. We know why they are so good and it's certainly not because of me. 

I've enjoyed so much watching them go about their business. They are as tough as they come. Their workouts are marvels of performance. The first week of May we ran a workout, and I used an expletive and said, "We are about to break a lot of records." They have a capacity for work that you'd never believe. But far beyond their work ethic and incredible race performances, I cannot say how much their personalities and character have affected me personally and the team. On any given day, you'll see Chris Torpy drop back and pick up a young runner on the team and say, "Let's go. You're going to be great and you can run with me." Or Sean taking our state trophy to a cancer-stricken teammate's house. They are strong people first and foremost and then the strong running comes. 

7) There have been some pundits out there who criticize your method of
coaching in terms of not running the Torpy twins in the 3200/2mile on
the track in the post-season. How do you respond to that?

I'm decidedly excited about their performances and in no way see how running the 3200 would have lead to greater outcomes. I know my athletes well and make decisions accordingly. I appreciate that people think that they would do well in the 3200 and I agree. I think it's important to explore all possibilities and spend a lot of time being creative. So I continually explore options and am cognizant of avoiding confirmation bias or cognitive dissonance and I think it's a huge mistake when coaches try to mold their athletes to a preconceived event choice or a way of running. I am always willing to be wrong. 

You have been apart of some great feats as a coach such as Lukas
Verzbicas winning two Footlocker cross country titles and two indoor
national titles. He also copped the national 2mile record (8:29.46) as
an Eagle. Have you ever feel undervalued as a coach when your name is
not mentioned as one of the creme of the crop coaches when debated?

I've felt very supported by the coaching community in Illinois and have been humbled to be asked to present in Indiana and Colorado. I've also been really grateful for the awesome support from Milesplit.  And I think most coaches would agree with me when I say coaches who concern themselves with being valued as a top coach by others are bad coaches. I try not to be a bad coach. My concern is my value as a coach for my athletes.  Coaches don't run a single step of their athletes' performances or the work that lead to them, so to attach their name to those performances is a discredit to the athletes. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such great athletes. 

What are you expecting from your prized pupils (Torpys) at the
prestigious Brooks PR meet this weekend?

Big things. They've raced really well this year and these post season opportunities have given them a platform to run fast without prelims and with good weather and competition.They aren't going to run safe. They are going to do what they always have done: risk big, race tough and have barrier-breaking character. I can't wait to watch them. 

Lastly, you graduate a ton of seniors from your program. Where do
you see the Eagles in terms of the Illinois elite in the next year or

We are going to continue focusing on Championship Character and Championship Culture. We are going to continue to be disrespectful to perceived limitations and standards. Illinois has some incredible programs and the top programs in state have a ton of returning talent. It's exciting to see. Make no mistake, with only two runners who've broken 16:00 in an invitational, we have our work cut out for us. We are really excited about that process and I am guessing the boys will have much higher standards than what maybe others expect of them this year and the coming years. In the past 12 years, the program has had a total of one incoming runner who broke 5:00 in the mile in 8th grade, yet we've had four runners 4:10 or better as seniors and over a dozen different 4 x 800s under 7:50. I think the slowest we've run in the last five years is 7:46. So, I think there is a good culture going where kids know their work will lead to great things. Credentials don't win races.