Coach's Changes Propel Cross Country

While there are many skills that good coaches possess, the ability to make adjustments is what can truly make a coach stand out. Any average Joe can form a game plan or draw X’s and O’s, but the only best coaches recognize when changes need to be made and can execute them in his team’s interest.

In some sports, the adjustments that a coach makes are obvious. Everyone knows when a basketball coach switches from man-to-man to zone defense, or when a soccer coach subs in a set of fresh legs late in a soccer match. But in sports like cross country, common spectators are largely unaware of a coach’s influence through things like training plans and racing strategies.

For this reason, I want to draw attention to the adjustments that Harvard coach Jason Saretsky made in his team’s training regimen for the 2012 season after a disappointing conclusion to the squad’s 2011 campaign.

In the middle of the 2011 season, the Crimson turned in what appeared to be a breakout performance at the Paul Short Invitational, placing in the top 10 out of a deep 40-plus-team field. Then-sophomore James Leakos had his best showing of the season at the meet, and later remarked that he and the rest of the team were so excited about their performance that they pushed themselves too hard at practice in the following weeks.

By the end of the season, be it by overuse or sheer bad luck, most of the team’s top finishers from Paul Short, including Leakos, sustained injuries that rendered them unable to compete.

This year, instead of aspiring to repeat the impressive showing at the Paul Short Invite, Saretsky held his top runners out of competition during the week of the meet. Realizing that Paul Short occurred when his team was shifting from strength and aerobic workouts to race-specific exercises, he decided that his runners would be better served if this transition were not interrupted by a race.

“That was one of the changes that I think really helped the men’s team from a training standpoint,” Saretsky said. “They didn’t have a race in the middle of that transition phase.”

Acknowledging the excitement that followed the Paul Short meet in 2011, Saretsky also worked with his team to ensure that they wouldn’t allow their post-race emotions to affect how they approached training in the ensuing weeks.

“It’s really the subtle things, in terms of training,” Saretsky said. “As much as there’s a science behind it, it’s more of the art of coaching that separates good coaches from great coaches. There’s not some sort of magic formula or recipe for success.”

While Saretsky is correct in saying that training for success in long-distance running is anything but formulaic, he was definitely onto something with the adaptations that he made in the Crimson’s approach to workouts.

In order to accurately relay the impact of Saretsky’s adjustments, allow me to explain Harvard’s 2011 and 2012 Heptagonal Championships (the Ivy League championship meet) more fully.

A year ago, all of the Crimson’s top runners on the men’s team watched as a badly weakened roster sputtered to a seventh-place finish.

Now, you might be tempted to interpret “all” and “top runners” in my previous sentence loosely. Don’t.

Literally, of Harvard’s five scoring runners from Paul Short, a total of zero ran at Heps. The unexperienced squad that competed for the Crimson at the meet ran hard, but any hopes of having real success in 2011 were dashed due to injuries.

Fast-forward a year, and the story is drastically different. About two miles into the men’s race at the 2012 Heps, the Crimson was sitting in a tie for third place and in striking distance to win the team title. James Leakos, who didn’t even compete in last year’s race, was battling eventual-winner Chris Bendtsen of Princeton for the lead until the last 600 meters.

Though Leakos and the rest of the Harvard squad faltered in the final stages of the championship meet, their sheer participation in the championship meet represents a significant improvement that took place since last year.

The simple fact is that the men’s cross country team was stronger in 2012 than in 2011, in part due to Saretsky’s coaching. And if we’re going to criticize and scorn coaches when they mismanage lineups or don’t call a timeout, the least we can do is recognize them when their efforts make their teams better.

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