B-Side Blog: To Run Or Not To Run...For Your School

Is it outdoor track season? The weather says it isn't as Sunday was Easter but it looked more like Christmas. Snow everywhere, but it wasn't an April Fool's joke.

A topic that has come up over the last few years, maybe even the last decade of each indoor season regarding whether an athlete compete for their high school or not? Prior to winning this year's New Balance Nationals Indoor Boys 400m title Brian Herron (Jr., Lakeside HS, GA/in picture above by Kyle Brazier) made a decision to not run for his school during the outdoor season. Brian has a more impressive resume' than most athletes who consider it.

Herron is the reigning US #1 ranked undercover prep speedster, copping a national record in the 300m (32.64) and the #3 performer all-time in the 400m at 46.21. He took down the all-world Tyrese Cooper (Jr., Miami Norland, FL) earlier in the season, and was considering running in the USATF Championships to compete for a spot to represent the US in the World Indoor Championships. Herron was asked what were the pros and cons of not running for his school team. "The con is the lack of meets... the pro is not having to deal with bad programs and bad coaching," Herron said without hesitation. "You can train with someone who can help you throughout time and get to college." Remember, this is an elite athlete, so his answer may not match up with that of a regular athlete who is just happy to be on the team.

Let's further breakdown Herron's comments. It's not as easy it sounds running unattached as a high school athlete. There are open college meets which are not always kind to high school kids. They are spread all over the country and the colleges may not let you in the meet. The pros seem to have more weight to them. Herron felt the limited amount of running may allow him to run faster longer. The other reasons were he didn't have to deal with bad programs, bad coaching and could work with someone (usually a club coach) who knew him and has his best interest in getting him into college. ALL good reasons! He forgot the cons of being responsible for gas and flight money, along with money for food and hotels to get to the open meets. I knew immediately when he said it, there was a problem with either the coach or the program

The main problem I see is that track is both an individual and team sport and not everyone on the team is trying to go to college or is an elite athlete. So this whole topic is for the elite. In my opinion, there are three reasons why an athlete would decide to not run for their school.

1) Governing bodies: State governing bodies keep athletes from competing in what I call the Big Boy meets like Simplot Games, New Balance, Texas Relays, and Arcadia. The last two weeks we have seen the great pole-vaulter Mondo Duplantis deal with the Louisiana governing body threatening his eligibility if he competed vs the pros at the recent Texas Relays. Eventually, he was allowed to compete. And last week it was Missouri's turn to pump the brakes on a couple of athletes from competing at Arcadia. There were many years that Illinois couldn't compete which is why many feel Lukas Verzbicas (Sandburg), a legendary distance runner, only ran cross country. Verzbicas knew he was the best in the country so he stuck to his guns and ran The Adidas Dream Mile and the Pre Classic. I am sorry but that schedule destroys any high school schedule.

2) Athletes want to work with someone (club coach) who has his or her best interest at heart and who are trying to get you into college. Definitely, some school coaches can check all of those boxes. For the most part, the club coach has a deeper relationship. The elite athlete has dealt with their club coach for years and they feel like family and know the athlete inside out. They have picked the athlete up and brought them home from practices for years, paid for entry fees, drove them to the meet, paid for the hotel room and many times paid for food. So there is a serious allegiance and loyalty. It is the club coach who took them from nothing and turned them into the current elite athlete they are; who contacted the colleges on behalf of the athlete guiding them through the recruiting process. It's very tough for the school coach to match the relationship and the results of the club coach.

3) Bad programs/bad coaching: This to me personally is probably the number one reason why an athlete decides not to run for their school. The elite athlete is using track to not only get to college, but perhaps to receive a scholarship. A lot of times the athlete has to dumb down in their training simply because they're on a higher level than the rest of the team. What they do workout wise in a club practice, would make a lot of their school teammates quit. I've heard it a million times "they work too hard." The athlete is then looked at as selfish and doesn't care about the school team. It's a simple case of the elite athlete's bar is set higher. I've always said if the school coach is doing a good job, athletes and parents wouldn't need to seek out the club coach.

The school coach is about winning championships, scoring points or if you're a fast sprinter, relays. The moment the word relays comes up, it can start an automatic beef with the school coach. They're looking at points, while the athlete is looking at how they've used up energy chasing down other relay teams, and then their individual performance suffers. If the relay team is legit, works hard, all four are on the same page, an elite athlete doesn't mind running. The club coach can see at times that worthless relays are being run and realizes that rest is crucial and that it can destroy an athlete racing too much. (We've seen that recently with a couple of prominent national athletes)

Personally speaking, my club athletes are already running fast times by the time they get to high school. They've been all over the country, and when they get in their school situations actually know more than the school coach does. I've had countless kids be asked to be an assistant coach or teach their teammates how to come out the blocks. When an elite athlete has lived a certain lifestyle on the track then goes to a school practice and athletes are standing around talking the whole time, and their club warm-up and drills is longer than the school teams whole practice, you now have a problem.

I was made aware of three bad coaching situations last week. A jumper, had a meet on Saturday but the coach wanted her to jump at Thursday and Friday's practice. Now legs are shot for the meet on Saturday.  The athlete didn't listen, followed the simple instruction to "sit down Friday". The result?... A PR on Saturday. Another athlete was thrown on the leadoff leg of a relay simply because they were the only one who knew how to use blocks. There were no go marks, handoff or practices. Another couple of athletes had four meets scheduled this week! FOUR! Fortunately, the weather has cancelled three of them. I had an athlete text me that her teammate was mad at her because she picked to run the 100/200m at the meet. Yeah, I said picked. Is this recess or intramurals? The hurdlers were called at a meet, and the coach said whoever wants to run them go check in. The kids looked at each other stunned. Not only had they not seen a hurdle at practice, but hadn't ever gone over one. These are what I call "Paycheck Coaches."

Tyrese Cooper (far right) always had his high school/club by his side throughout his career

Many school coaches have never coached a national caliber or elite athlete; every school is not going to have that type of athlete.  They don't know how to train them to peak for the Big Meets. The elite athlete has a different mentality than the rest of the team. Instead of the school coach being concerned about getting the rest of the team better, they're worried about the elite athlete who really doesn't need their help. Brian Herron was already #1 in the U.S. and national indoor champion. What possibly could the school coach do to help him? Because the elite athlete has reached this level, many times it's frowned upon by the school coach due to insecurities, lack of power over the athlete, and the simple fact they had nothing to do with their success. I have said this to school coaches "Look I'm letting you borrow this Mercedes Benz." "You can look at the car; it can even be parked in your driveway. But you can't drive it! I have the keys! Don't turn my Mercedes into a Pinto!" What am I saying? You aren't used to driving a car like this and you just might wreck it. "If I give you the keys, you wouldn't even know how to start the car." I've seen plenty of athletes thrown into events they aren't good at or been trained for just to score points. These are definitely reasons why an athlete would decide to not run for their school.

I spoke to several high school coaches across the U.S. on their opinion on this subject and what I found was the situation sort of depended on where you live or how track was viewed in that state. One coach in the Chicago area was livid because the club scene had taken over the school team. He said the elite athlete (most) only did club and that some club coaches told the kids they couldn't play for the school team. The numbers had dropped in all sports and the attitude by the parents would lead one to believe that all the kids were going pro.

A coach in Georgia who has been watching Herron's career for the last few years said that due to the weather they really don't focus on school track. It was what you did in the summer with your club team at nationals that mattered. He stated, "Coach the school team needed Brian, Brian didn't need the school team".

I asked another coach if an athlete stated that they didn't want to run for the school team what would he recommend. He said if the kid asked him to coach him he would. He said, "when you are surrounded by idiot coaches who get mad when you take an athlete to what the school coach calls a BS indoor national meet, he'd coach the kid in a second." I've seen that where I live. A school coach tried to convince an athlete that a state title was better than a national title. I believe the key word was...idiot!

A coach in Nebraska said a lot of college applications ask 'How many years did you run club? Highest national place?' Nowhere on there did it ask about your place in high school. I had a high jumper years ago go to college. When schools started asking questions, one of the first things to come up -- did you go to the Simplot Games? New Balance? How did you do against the Texas state champion? How about the California state champion? They could care less about his state title.

I know a respected coach who believes that coaching at the junior high level has set up athletes for failure in high school. He said one of his future girls came home from practice the other day and said the workout was 2x600, 2x200, 6x100, and 10x60m- ending with a jog around the school. The coach was mad because kids were dropping like flies. They had the same problem there that I've had from my athletes. The athlete said they couldn't prepare mentally for the meet, because they are told what event they'd be doing enroute to the meet. These coaches totally understood athlete would not run for their school.

I'm old skool and like the coach in Chicago said, "When we were in school, it was about school pride. It was a badge of honor to make the varsity." A couple of years ago I wrote about how it felt from wearing the heavy gray sweats to the "Varsity Blues" as we called them. I can recall walking around the school on meet day and all the girls saying good luck, and giving hugs. Ahh the good ol' days. The feeling when you got your name or picture in the paper. You were king of the city. Today, the elite athlete goes out of state to national meets at major universities or facilities. They get national attention on top of local from the media. It's more about positioning yourself for a scholarship now.

If you live in Illinois, and we are closing on mid-April and due to the weather, very few teams have even had a meet. Nobody is running. If the weather was fine, the reality is there are really only three meets that matter -- Conference, Sectionals and State. You won't be asked how you did at the such and such relays or the blah blah blah invitational in April. So you're talking three real solid meets.

About a decade ago, I had five guys who were highly frustrated with the school program. We had been to NSIC now New Balance and the school coach had a beef with the success they were having. The kids came to me and said, "Coach we want to go to the real meets vs the nation's best". It's hard to be hyped for these school meets. We had decided we were going to travel. The parents were all for it, a schedule was made. This was way before Illinois could even go to Penn Relays like the Lincoln Way East girls did a few years ago. The situation was worked out and they ran for the school. I know a current state champion who wasn't going to run for their school after the Illinois Top Times. The decision had been made a few days after Herron's. The school didn't know it and neither did the family.

In 2009, the great Shakeia Pinnick (Waubonsie Valley), a winner of 5 state titles and 8 all-state finishes at the time, left the school team for two weeks and rejoined the team after a dispute with the coach. The issue was about a tutoring session, and missed school practices due to workouts with her club coach. She was pulled from the team by her parents and was already signed with Arizona State. She was quoted as saying, "she was sad to leave the school team, but it would work out regardless". I can't recall, but I think she may have run in a college open meet or two.

Dajour Miles aka Cinnamon (Aurora West) formerly of Waubonsie Valley, missed a whole season due to an issue with her coach. She just trained and got ready for the summer track season.

In 2015, Candace Hill (GA), a 16 year old became the fastest high school girl in history running 10.98 in the 100m. Candace not only skipped one, but two seasons plus college and simply turned pro.

The debate will continue for years to come. There are many nationally who could do it. I believe as long as there is club track and there are issues within the high school program, it will continue. In a perfect world, both the club coach and school coach work together for the best of the athlete. It's tough being an elite track athlete, even worse being a coach of one and have to deal with people who don't understand the big time of recruiting and competing at a national level in the U.S. I am sure this will come up again.