College Recruiting: A Give and Take, Part VI - HS to College Transition

What changes in training lie ahead for the high school athlete who wants to train to compete at the college level?


Bonus Points: Find and identify the Olympian in the photo above.


Large portions of this topic necessarily narrow our focus a little to the realm of distance runners. While other track and field disciplines undergo changes in training between the high school and college levels, the increase in volume and intensity for distance runners, as well as the particulars of how the training program is put together, are often points of contention between high school and college coaches.


Occasionally, you hear instances of runners leaving college programs to return to their high school coaches (think Alan Webb). More frequently, you hear college coaches lamenting the fact that runners they have recruited have turned out to be “inadequately trained” in high school.


As a high school coach, it is sometimes hard to emotionally let go of a runner’s fortunes after coaching him or her through four years of high school. It’s all the more difficult to do that when the athlete has performed well under your system of training and shown steady progress through high school. It is more difficult yet if you and that athlete have bonded on the coach-athlete relationship. Still, “let go” is the operative phrase.


Once the state meet, or the last post-season meet of the summer, has come to a close, the athlete falls under the tutelage and care of the college coach. If, as a high school coach, you cannot accept that situation, the problem lies on your end. I confess, there have been times I’ve had trouble letting go, especially when quite capable athletes have struggled under the new system. In those cases, the problem has been on my end. I definitely did not call, text, or e-mail every other day, but I spent too much time with my thoughts turned in the direction of the problems of graduated athlete. Such an individual’s performances no longer fall under my job description.


So, if grown adults ought to be able to pass an 18-year-old athlete from one professional’s care to another’s, what’s at issue here? Why is the topic even arising in a discussion of college recruiting


The topic arises on two fronts. First, sometimes-dramatic changes in training can be enormously troubling to the psyche of the high school athlete. Second, the tendency of some college coaches to play the “inadequately trained in high school” card can be damaging to relationships between coaches at high school and college levels. So, similarly, can the tendency of high school coaches to make too-public observations about how much better the athlete performed in high school be damaging to these relationships


Let’s take the situation of the athlete-in-transition first.


If an athlete has performed well enough in high school to be actively recruited by college programs, it is usually safe to infer that the high school coach’s training has worked well for that athlete. Yet, the college-level training frequently represents a dramatic change for the athlete, and particularly so for the female distance runner. All too often, young women who flourished at 35 to 40 miles per week of volume struggle with injuries and performances alike at 60 to 75 miles per week. Legion are the shipwrecks of gifted female high school runners who never made the adjustment--some physically, some psychologically, and some both—to the college level of training. Universally labeling such athletes as “weak” is a cop-out of the highest order. “Weak” is the plan that doesn’t figure out what to do with a gifted individual who, at least for the present, can’t handle more than 50 miles per week.


Are body changes sometimes (one) part of the picture here? They can be, yes, but if that is the first (or, worse yet, the only) place we're looking for answers, we're going to be missing a lot of important data. Maybe it’s not too much to suggest that unrealistic training expectations sometimes contribute as well. I know of college women who were recruited on the promise that they would be taken upwards in training volume along a carefully designed and monitored plan. Later, they discover the carefully designed plan involved ramping up their mileage by upwards of 60% over a period of a few short weeks.


Let’s be honest, that is not a recipe for success. At least in the near term, it is a recipe for disaster. And a significant number never recover from the year-long disaster that begins sometime during their freshman year. Though less frequent, this happens with male athletes as well. Most female runners can get to 60 to 75 miles per week, and most men to a little higher than that, if only the increase is accomplished without the urgency of building Rome in a day.


I have never heard a college coach describe his or her training program as falling under the “throw the eggs against the wall and keep the ones that don’t break” heading, but—from the outside looking in--some programs evoke images of that model. The eggs that break generally leave the program and are never heard from again, but you could make several impressive XC teams of each year’s broken eggs if only you could restore the scorched-over desire to run. Most often, you can’t.


With all due respect, I think the high school model holds some important lessons for the college coach (and I don’t doubt for a second that the converse is also true). At the high school level, we do not hold the power of the scholarship. Each season, we are compelled to work with the kids who pay the activity fee and show up for the first day of practice. If ever you will succeed, you must learn two rules—the kids must enjoy what they’re doing and they must stay healthy. If it is no longer rewarding, there is no scholarship hindering their free will to leave the program. There are no expendable crewmen on the Starship High School XC, at least not in my quadrant of the galaxy.


Now to the question of the relationships between high school and college coaches....


I confess that I tend to bristle when I hear a first or second-year college runner being described as “inadequately trained.” Jay Johnson made a great point in his closing comments on the role of the high school coach. He said, “The answer across most colleges - public and private, prestigious and not - is that many HS students find their workload in college, from a strict academic standpoint, less challenging than their typical HS day which consisted of 2 AP classes, the Honor Society meetings, volunteer work in the counseling office during lunch, followed by track practice in the afternoon.” Even with that description, Jay only began to scratch the surface of the academic experience of the kids I coach.


With the exception of a select few schools—and you know the names—college kids are in class about 14 hours a week. Well, at least they’re scheduled to be in class that many hours. Compare that to the closely-monitored 33 hours per week in the classroom at the high school level, all the while being reminded of how much colleges want to see well-rounded (loosely translated as “overcommitted”) applicants. Truth be told, with all of the other commitments my runners have that I have little or no influence over, I’m maxing out a large majority of my kids by asking them to run up to 40 miles per week during the school year.


Note to all high school athletes reading this: You don't have to do every activity on the planet before graduating from high school--it's okay to say no to things that people want you to do but which end up as added layers of stress.


Yes, if I had the will to do this sort of thing, I could get a few of our runners to go to 60 to 70 miles per week and make a percentage of those who do reach that level achieve better things than they could before. But, in the process, I would lose most of the team and the experiences that make us a team. Paradoxically, if we were a 60 to 70-mile-per-week team, we would never have made it to NXN. We needed the girls for whom 35 miles per week was all they could muster, but who were pleased to give their team that much.


If you’re a college coach muttering about undertrained athletes, consider that there would be a whole lot fewer (especially young women) to select from if they were trained to the standards that you would prefer. Are you sure you’d be able to outcompete the other schools to sign the ones remaining in the pool of talent?


Now, about the sin of high school coaches muttering too loudly about how the kid has never done as well in college as they did in your high school program…


First, that may be true in some cases and some events, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it broadly true for any high school coach. We all ought to take some humility from that observation. It’s also worth saying that training for, say, the 800 in college is highly specialized to… the 800. It’s not particularly relevant if this individual you coached in high school ran a better 5K in high school than in college if his/her college training is geared toward the 800. It might be relevant if he/she is being trained for the 5K, but beware of lurking variables (and plenty of variables lurk in the lives of college students, lest we too hastily dismiss the memories of our own pasts).


I know of several off-the-charts-great high school coaches in Colorado. And, I periodically check up on how their graduates do in college. You know what I’ve learned? In most cases, they’re doing even better in college. Quite a bit better. Yes, our hearts feel for the ones who go to college and have their running careers fall apart. But, don’t let the trees keep you from seeing the forest.


With that cliché, I sign off. Your turn, Jay!

The question that I'm supposed to answer in this installment is, "How to improve the transition from HS training to collegiate training."  Simple question on the surface, but complex if one considers the following.


- Are we talking about females or males?

- Are we talking about cross runners who also have nice 800m PRs or kids who were better in cross in the fall than they were in the 3,200m in the spring?

- Is the kid entering a program where the college coach expects them to "contribute"* as a freshman or are they joining a program where they will automatically red-shirt because the cross program is so deep? (Note: most kids would fall between those two extremes in most college distance programs.)


These are the first thoughts that came to my mind when Alan posed this question; obviously I can't give you, the reader, a blanket answer that will fit your unique situation relative to this question.  Also, if you asked 20 good college coaches the same question you will get a wide variety of answers and I don't want to pretend that my answer is "the answer."  I hope that long preface doesn't sound like a cop out, but it's important for your to take my thoughts with a grain of salt.  That said, I'm fortunate that to have experience with a wide spectrum of recruits, from 10:00 3,200m runners as a JUCO coach to sub 8:50 3,200m runners as an assistant coach in NCAA Division I.


I called several coaches before I sat down to write this response and two of then said verbatim what I was thinking. They simply said that a good coach will find a way to develop a young man from York HS, a program where the kid ran a lot of miles to run fast (not to mention that he's had the privilege to in Mr. Newton's program), but they'll also be able to coach the kid who ran very little, and maybe played wide receiver on Friday nights and then ran cross races on Saturdays**, to race fast.  Think about that for a second - more than one coach (I only polled accomplished coaches) said that it doesn't matter what the athlete's training background is and that they can and are willing to work with both types of kid and that they actively recruit both types of kids. 


Now, I need to be honest that if there are roughly 600+ collegiate distance coaches in the US, I would say only 25% can help both kids reach their genetic potential, but the flip side is we often think that there are only 5-6 capable distance coaches in our country (there's more), that they all coach NCAA DI (some of the BEST don't and many good one's don't), and that the parent and HS coach have to find the perfect match for Johnny or Sally's training (you're overthinking it, just find a college coach who is successful year in and year out with a lot of kids, not just one star every few years). That said, my guess is that had I asked this question 10-15 years ago the answer would have have been that most coaches would want the "fast, low mileage kid."  But now many college coaches are realizing that sometimes they run out of time remediating that athlete to "real college training" and that it's not a bad thing if the kid ran 30, 40, 50, 60 miles per week years freshman through senior, even though 60 miles a week would may have sounded like a lot of miles 15 years ago. But again, the thing to take from this is that a good college coach can recruit either type of kid and help that kid realize their genetic potential.***


Okay, so you're probably thinking, "This is by far the worst article in the series - I have no practical information to improve this transition."  Well, here you go, I'll give you a suggestion and I'll give at least one story to illustrate the suggestion.


1. Tell kids to wrap their minds around new numbers:


- In college, athletes on the track will run the 1,500m and the 3,000m, not the 1,600m and 3,200m. If the kid has a great race in their conference indoor 3,000m as a freshman they likely came through the the first 1,600m FASTER than they ran the 1,600m as junior.  For example, I ran 4:40 for 1,600m as a junior and though I ran that in the Denver area (5,200 ft.) it still only converts to 4:33-4:34 1,600m at sea level; I ran 8:22 as a freshman in the Big 8 3,000m which is about 4:27-4:28 1,600m pace.

- Similarly, at the Division I level the way you qualify for outdoor nationals is to hit a regional qualifying performance. Then you go to one of four NCAA DI regional meets and if you perform well you advance. The regional standard for the women's 5,000m run is 16:52, which is roughly 5:26 per 1,600m and roughly 10:52 for 3,200m. I haven't been to a HS meet in a while, but I'm going to say that the 10:52 girl does pretty well in most meets in most states (California the first big exception that comes to mind), yet she has to maintain that pace for 4.5 more laps just to get into the NCAA DI Regional meet, let alone be competitive in that meet.

- For most kids, their long run in HS will become a distance that they will run 3-4 times a week; thus, by the time they come home for winter break their old "easy day loop" is way too short for their new easy day and they might simply run it twice to get the appropriate stimulus. Big change.


2. Athlete: When the college coach sends you your summer instructions do the following:


- Read it; sleep one night.

- Read it again; sleep another night.

- Read it again and email the coach 3 questions about what they've written.  In this email ask only questions that directly relate to the training guidelines they sent you. Do not ask how many quarters you'll need for the laundry machine in the dorm or any other question your parents are curious about.  Tell the coach you have read their training guidelines three times and that you're writing to make sure you do not misinterpret the guidelines and that you make smooth training transition.


That said, you might get lucky, like my wife, who when see received her document thought is was a list of "nice to do before showing up on campus" not "must do before showing up on campus or you will be woefully unprepared."  She somehow made it through her freshman year, but to be safe you should contact the coach and make sure you're doing exactly what they want you to do. Again, keep this separate from any questions about dorm assignments, financial aid, etc. to show the college coach that you're taking this training transition process seriously...let your parents call Housing to see how many quarter the washing machine takes.


Note: If a parent or coach tries to do #2 themselves then they need to go back and read Part 5 of this series.


3. Parents and HS Coaches: Let the kid do most of the dumb things they did when they got the offer to compete at _____ college/university.


- Brent Vaughn ran fast in HS for 3,200m, something under 8:50. I called him this morning and asked, "How many times a week did you eat fast food spring of your senior year, when you ran well?"  Though he took his lunch once a week, he admitted that most weekends he had at least one fast food meal, so he settled on 5-6 times a week. I do not condone this, but I do think that if his HS coach or his parents had tried to help him change his diet the summer prior to college it would be counter-productive. Suggestion #1 above will scare any kid who truly wants to be good, which should translate into doing everything they can to be prepared from a training standpoint, yet if the kid was fueled by fast food the past 3 years don't change that - it's simply too many variables to try to change at one time.


Quick Soapbox Rant: Every year a parent - actually, that's not true, every year it's a mom - asks me if we're going to discuss "diet and nutrition at camp?"  We do and diet and nutrition are important...and NOT NEARLY as important as sleep and hydration. Going to bed earlier than your competition and carrying a water bottle to class aren't as sexy as saying that you're "watching your protein intake and supplementing with flax seed oil" but I will take a rested, hydrated, burger eater every day over a coffee drinking vegan who thinks Jimmy Falon is way funnier than John Stewart.****  If you want to know more about the importance of regeneration, get Hans Selye's book Stress without Distress as the principles tie together both training, which athletes like to focus on, and regeneration and recovery, which athletes like to deceive themselves into thinking is less important than training.  Training and regeneration are equally important - you can't "absorb" the training without a regeneration phase, which is a long way of saying "get enough sleep to support your training."


- This is not the summer for the kid to do a lot of new things - if they simply do the same things they've done previous summers, while following an anal (yes, anal) interpretation of the training guidelines sent by their new coach, they'll likely enter college excited, refreshed and ready for the challenges I discussed in part 5.


...well, I think that's a decent list.  The other things I sorta want to suggest I'm not sure the majority of college coaches would agree with, so I'll keep those to myself.  Please feel free to write a comment below as your comment(s) will likely help Alan and I write the wrap-up to both this question and the series. Thanks for your time.


*HS coach, athlete and parents should all know the answer to this before the kid agrees to go to any school. It shouldn't be that hard for the college coach to answer.


**Think this is is a stretch?  Well, that's what Olympian Christian Smith (800m, 2008) did in high school.


***No doubt that statement has infuriated one out of three HS coaches reading this.  Do you disagree?  My recommendation is that you share your story about the kid who went to _____ and didn't get better in the comments below, and state your name.  It will help make this article a better resource for other HS coaches.


****Took me a while to figure this out, but every kid, if you pay attention in the recruiting process, will give up some big "tells" as to who they are and how they lead their lives. If a kid loves Jimmy Fallon then I know they stay up later than the kid who has never seen the Colbert Report.  And this is important because the first kid probably gives better phone, but I want a kid who, when presented with the exciting options and opportunities that dorm life have to offer^, chooses the less exciting, but realistic, "monastic method" of sleep, wake, study, train, eat, study, repeat.


^XBox/Wii at the benign end, bongs in the middle, while the opposite end has been omitted here so as not to scare moms or give college freshmen, especially adventure-seeking young men, any ideas.


Links to All Parts in Series:

Part I - Introductions

Part II - Scholarship Amounts

Part III - Closure on Scholarship Amounts

Part IV - Role of the High School Coach

Part V - Closure on Role of the High School Coach

Part VI - Transitioning from HS to College

Part VII - Wrap-Up


New Recruiting Series

First Article