Building and maintaining an athletic program
When I first came to Polson in the summer of 1976 I never knew that I had found a home where I would spend the rest of my life. I was a math teacher at the high school and an assistant boys basketball coach and head track coach. Having never had the reigns of a boys track and field program, I was most apprehensive in that area. I knew that Polson had a pretty good history of fielding competitive teams in track and field with their most recent championship coming in 1974. That first year was a learning experience. Only two of the returning boys had been to the state track meet the year before and less than 20 turned out for track that spring. At the divisional that year, I was able to watch a veteran coach from Hamilton named Lloyd Clark. He had one of the top programs in Western Montana and his teams were consistently at the top of the Western A division. I absorbed as much from him as I could during the meets that first year.
After attending STATE that year I knew that I would have to do something different with our program to build it back to being a consistent contender. The task ahead for me as a head coach seemed awesome and I felt a little apprehensive as to whether it could be accomplished. We needed to get more kids out and the coaching staff had to be knowledgeable and effective and motivated. My goal in the beginning and throughout all the years was to create a program where kids were successful as individuals and team oriented as a group. Although track and field is a sport made up of a number of individual events, I soon found out that team success was huge when it came to motivating kids to do give their best effort. Track and field events are technique events and each event requires a lot of practice and hard work. Leadership is extremely important. I needed leadership in the athletes and the coaches to build success. Polson was good to me in both areas. Over the years we gathered an outstanding group of coaches and the Polson area provided us with quality athletes to work with.
Question was, what could I do that might go above and beyond what had been done in the past to build and maintain a successful program. I wanted the athletes at PHS to be motivated and want to be part of our program. I needed the athletes in our school to come out and want to be part of a program in the spring of the year. Many were ready to take a break at that time. I very much needed the cooperation of coaches in other programs and the encouragement they could provide to compete in the spring. This is harder than it sounds as many coaches are centered in “their” programs.
How do I begin? First I decided to attend coaching clinics on a regular basis and encouraged my assistants to do likewise. I decided to have an overall plan for the many parts of the season with individual planning for every practice. I started with a publication that I placed in the commons on a weekly basis called “Pirate Tracks”. It was totally about the kids in our program. Individuals were highlighted on a weekly basis and team and individual results appeared in every issue throughout the season. I also started keeping track of every athlete in every event for every class A athlete in the state of Montana. I ranked them and kids in our program and provided a weekly update. These updates were handed out at a meeting that I started having every Monday before the weeks practices started. Kids were able to see where they stood statewide in their events. All athletes were rewarded for “personal best performances” at these meetings. The goal was to be ranked in the top six in the state in each event. I also kept fantasy team scores based on the marks that were recorded. Athletes always knew exactly where they stood on a statewide basis. Needless to say, I never ran out of things to do on Sundays throughout the season.
I worked hard at obtaining complete uniforms and equipment for the program. Anyone that has coached a field event knows the importance of the “right” discus or the “correct” pole for the pole vault. And we wanted our athletes to look good and to represent the community of Polson in the best possible way. I said many times that when arriving at a meet I wanted other schools to see us coming and know that they would be in for a battle that day. PRIDE in themselves and the program they were part of was a huge part of our success over the years.
Coaches going home early from practice was not an option. Flexibility was important when dealing with our individual athletes. I encourage multiple events but it was not a requirement. Get them out for something, get them interested, and maybe multiple events would happened for them. Many times you could find our coaches working past 7:00 at night (practice started at 3:45) with individual athletes. I can’t begin to thank all of the coaches for the effort that they put forth. As the head coach, I was always the last one out and locked the gate and closed down the locker room.
At some point about 2/3 of the way through the season the entire team went to one of the local “ice cream” shops where I treated them to whatever they wanted (within reason of course). Was kind of expensive when the turnout in the boys program alone stretched into the 60’s and 70’s but the fellowship and memories were priceless.
It was amazing how fast things started heading in the right direction. We had some very good seasons and some great seasons over the next 30 plus years. Our coaching staff underwent some changes over those years but I was always able to fill positions with qualified people. Some of the people came from the ranks of athletes that had gone through the program at PHS. Once again I reflect on how “lucky” I was to be coaching at PHS and to be a member of the Polson community.
In 2008 my friend and Girls Head Coach Bruce Thomas headed off to Alaska. We shared assistant coaches during his days as a head coach and each of us assisted the other in our programs. In order to organize practices a little better the programs were united that year and I was the head of both programs. All that I was doing for the boys I now did for the girl program also. Sunday for me involved even more time on the job essentially doubling my workload. What a pleasure though, working with such a great group of talented girls. Many great memories.
I would encourage coaches trying to build or rebuild a program to go the extra mile if that is really what they intend to do. The hill is sometimes steep but not impossible to climb. Be creative. Never quit searching for ways to get kids involved with you and your program. Always put the kids first. Their success is your success. Reaching the top is one of the most satisfying experiences you will ever experience.
THE OLD COACH