Coaches go the distance despite unclear outcomes
Sideline advice dispensed at high volume throughout race
October 14, 2017
Each meet, the Park City High School cross country coaching staff chases their teams around the course, hoping to catch them as they pass and dispense encouragement to its athletes, or slip them a bit of small but vital advice.
In total, head coach Steve Cuttitta said the staff ends up running "about four or five miles" per meet – which his watch measures.
"Depends on the meet, of course, but I'd say that's a good average," he said. "Sometimes we get more, like even six or seven if the race is spread out, or if there's more races."
During Wednesday's Region 11 finals meet at the Big Cottonwood Regional Softball Complex in Salt Lake City, there were four races.
Following the starting gun of the JV boys run, coaches Dave Yocum, Peter Wood, and Cuttitta watched the Miners take off, then started running the opposite direction, up a hill to a spot where the runners would soon pass by.
Cuttitta leaned into the lane as the Miners started passing.
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"Nice job, Bennett!" he said to the first runner. "Right, Andre, here we go Andre! Great spot, Conner! Hey, Andre and Conner are right there! Hang tough Nick, next group, next group."
As a runner himself, Cuttitta said he doesn't remember much of what people have yelled at him over the years. But that doesn't stop him and the other coaches from doing it.
"It's more important for us; we think we're helping," he said. "I don't think it does much. I've had people yelling at me when I've raced for years and I think I remember maybe a quarter of it."
But he and the other coaches are aiming to be part of that 25 percent that filters through to the runner's mind.
"We can tell them to stay with the group," he said. "Some kids need some running form, just like 'Hey drop your hands, pick your knees up, look ahead.' But those are really simple things. I'm not giving them strategy in the race."
As soon as the racers in red and white had passed, the group of coaches dashed across the track and ran down to another spot to intercept the athletes, cheered again, then ran farther downhill.
At the bottom of the hill, where the track runs parallel to the parking lot, Cuttitta explained that, more than anything, his messages are positive reinforcement, and a way to make races more like practices. He said he usually won't say anything to a runner that he or she hasn't heard before.
"It's easy for negative thoughts to creep in when you're having a rough day," he said. "So hearing a positive voice is…"
His focus shifted as a runner passed.
"Hey, Nick, looking great!" Cuttitta shouted before continuing the thought. "Is as important as anything."
In a later phone conversation, Nicole Detling, owner of HeadStrong Consulting in South Jordan, concurred — with a caveat.
Detling, who works as a sports psychologist and has coached several runners, said the way an athlete reacts to someone on the sidelines is personal, and what might seem like the right words can have a negative impact. She said parents and coaches come to the sideline or the bleachers with good intentions for their athletes, but knowing what to say is critical.
"The best thing to do is just ask them, 'Hey, do you like it when I do that,'" she said,
"'Would you rather I be quiet?'"
For example, revealing a time to a runner – whether it's above or below average – may add pressure, which has physiological manifestations, she said.
"It can decrease the efficiency of the stride and that can change the outcome of the race," Detling said.
"In those moments it can have a negative impact on the runner and those moments add up over the course of the race."
By knowing what Cuttitta can and can't say to runners to ensure their success, Detling said he is ahead of the curve.
As the racers entered the final mile, the coaches left their spot facing out to the road and slowly walked toward the finish line. Then the runners came streaming in, past their encouraging coaches, finishing where they finished, helped or not.
The runners crossed the finish line and piled up under a stand of pines a few hundred yards after the finish line. After a huddle to discuss how the race went, the coaches walked back to the starting line where the girls varsity was getting ready to run. In a few minutes, the coaches would start their circuit over again.
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