Track coaches serve as unsung heroes

Written on May 23rd, 2018 by , Category Marlene Farrell Blog, Training

Eric Wuflman fires the starter gun at Leavenworth Ski Hill.

 

By Marlene Farrell
RunWenatchee.com

Track and field can be a gateway into lifelong running. Many runners, like me, dabbled in it as teenagers. Some took it seriously, aiming to smash personal or school records. Now that my son is in middle school, he’s giving it a try. Middle school track is ubiquitous now, and more than a million high schoolers compete in track and field every year.

Eric Wulfman, head coach of Icicle River Middle School’s track program and distance coach for Cascade High School, exemplifies the wisdom and dedication required to guide track and field athletes to excellence across 18 events.

The track season starts off gently, but builds to a crescendo of activity for coaches and athletes alike. At the season’s beginning Eric puts in about eight hours per week, but the commitment jumps to 40 hours when, between the two teams, there can be up to four meets in a week.

Eric Wulfman

Cascade is a small school district, and Eric finds it better to have free flowing, rather than exact plans, because he doesn’t have the numbers to sustain separate plans for each distance. Runners might practice middle distance one day and go long another day, alternatingly benefiting the various specialists. “I look two to three days out and set workouts a certain distance from the meets.”

Eric coaches kids ages 13 to 18, representing a range of maturity levels. “In high school the athletes generally have some prior experience in track. At the middle school level, our job is to introduce the events. The fun factor is crucial so there are games, treats and some limited social time.”

Eric’s coaching philosophy has evolved over his eight years coaching in Leavenworth. “I used to be more intense, expecting everyone to be serious and try really hard. But I realized a lot of kids hit discomfort and don’t want to go beyond that.” He’s eased up on some of his expectations to help retain kids in the sport. “Also, in middle school they might be good for one year and then grow and their body type changes. It can feel harder and hinder training.”

“USATF states that the general retention rate from 6th to 12th grade for track is less than 10 percent,” he explained, while he strives for better than that. “Once they can push through that artificial ceiling of discomfort and persevere, they’ll stick with it. The ‘aha moment’ happens at different times for different kids.”

Eric, a competitive runner, leads by example. “Being active in the sport you’re coaching lends credibility to what you’re doing, what workouts you’re prescribing. I can defend my plan when kids challenge it.”

Eric doesn’t do it alone. “Paid and volunteer help is crucial to success. No one-size-fits-all for learning events. It’s good to have different teaching styles and also have both male and female role models.”

He knows about building team unity. Recently, he took the high school distance runners on a field trip. They ran at Horse Lake Reserve in the Wenatchee Foothills, both a hill workout and a chance to run easy and loose down flowing trails. They topped it off with frozen yogurt.

A big part of a coach’s job is hosting meets, and Eric and the Cascade School District hosted four this spring.

Work starts several days before the meet. “I set up the online meet registration pages, so schools know which events we’re offering and how many athletes can do each event.” When registration closes, he makes the schedule and lines up the timing staff. “These days with automation we need only three people. Otherwise, we’d need three times more volunteers and several more hours of inputting results.”

After the grass has been mowed, there’s the marking for field events. Eric and others paint the lines for shot put, discus and javelin, and add barriers and flagging so it’s clear where the throw zones are and where it’s safe to walk. Final touches include setting up the pole vault, the high jump, raking the long jump pits and training volunteers at each field event station.

The meet itself relies heavily on timing via video camera. The results get posted to athletic.net, which is a nationwide database for track and field and cross country. “It’s useful to track what other athletes are doing. It’s especially useful for registration and immediate results.” However, Eric doesn’t overemphasize results. “Weather conditions and facilities differ, so you have to factor those in.”

Conversations with individual athletes are important, especially for those hoping to win. He knows how to talk about running. Not only did Eric run competitively in college and beyond, but he also immerses himself, through USATF training and his own personal research, about training theory, physiology and biomechanics.

Some Leavenworth high schoolers recently won their races because they followed plans they established with Eric. “For one athlete, instead of starting in the front, we thought it’d be better to tuck behind another runner. Then know the spot to make a move, be decisive and don’t look back. That’s what he did, and it worked.”

Talented high school distance runner, Zoe McDevitt, appreciates Eric’s advice to take it “one race at a time. Don’t worry about the other race until you finish the first one.” He also reminds her to roll and stretch her tight muscles.

Eric and the rest of the coaching staff are accomplishing a lot. Both programs are thriving, and 17 high schoolers are heading to state.

Coaching impinges on Eric’s own running at times. This year he’s training for a solo run in the Grand Canyon in June. “My training’s been up and down. A lot of standing and riding on buses makes me tight. I’ve added hot yoga to the mix to help.”

Thinking about the big picture, Eric said, “I tell myself that we’re giving them an opportunity. What they do with it is up to them. We stay positive so they’ll be more likely to participate in sports in one way or another for the rest of their lives.”

Bill Davies is head Coach of the CHS track program and his son, Landon, is a standout miler. Bill recalled Landon saying, “Dad, you don’t know distance coaching like Coach Wulfman. No offense.” Bill added, “It cracks me up. I’ve been coaching a long time, but he’s right. Eric knows his stuff.”

Marlene Farrell is a writer, long-distance runner and coach. She lives in Leavenworth.

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