Gary is the distance coach for the highly successful Chico State cross country and track and field teams. His cross country teams have achieved D2 top 10 national rankings an amazing 24 times (11 for women, 13 for men).
Gary is also a highly accomplished distance runner with a 2:29 marathon PR. Gary was kind enough to share his coaching philosophies and training strategies in an interview conducted on 2/27/13. You can read part one here
In Part 2, we’ll learn about Gary’s thoughts on the role of nutrition, psychological aspects of performance, the acquisition of training knowledge, the most significant contributors to his teams’ achievement, and Gary’s greatest successes as an athlete and as a coach.
JM: As a coach, to what extent do you get involved in your athletes’ diets? How much do you promote certain nutritional practices?
GT: I don’t get that involved, to be honest, partly because it’s not my expertise. I have a decent knowledge of nutrition but I’m certainly not an expert. But another reason: You walk a fine line. I coach women and men and if you get them thinking too much about what they eat on a daily basis, it can lead down a tough road with the possibility of disordered eating if they’re constantly thinking about what they’re putting in. Thankfully we’re in a sport where it does allow for a decent amount of–you know if you’re running 100 or 80 miles a week, your body processes food really quickly. I’ve witnessed really good athletes who had–not the greatest diets and they had great success.
It doesn’t make a great case for nutrition and exercise but the most important thing I can do is get across to them that nutrition is important, but it’s something you don’t want to overthink, too. If you have a good sense of the type of diet you need to have then we should be in a pretty good place. One of the things I learned in college is that a natural diet is probably the best way to achieve good health. Don’t rely on supplements to achieve iron levels or get the vitamins and nutrients you need. Your body absorbs natural foods more efficiently than it does vitamins and things like that.
If I’m having talks with kids about nutrition-related things, one of my biggest goals is to have a good diet that relies on good wholesome foods that can provide the nutrients they need to support what we do out there. To really answer the question, I’ve had a lot of good talks with kids who may have been struggling with iron levels; that’s a common thing. Or maybe with injuries that were–maybe diet was tied into recurring injuries, so I’ll really emphasize the importance of a good diet, but it’s not something I really harp on with the group as a whole. It’s more of an individual thing.
JM: I want to talk about sport psychology a little bit. How do you prepare your athletes for competition? What’s the mental side of coaching?
GT: A lot of that depends on the individual. As we get closer to the championship season, I have individual meetings with each person running in the championship race, whether it’s track or cross country. I have a good sense of what people’s strengths and weaknesses are, both mentally and physically, so after years of coaching you develop a good sense of how to advise people and what to say and what not to say. I address the whole team the night before every race we have, but the individual talks are really helpful for pulling the most out of that athlete.
The things you talk about in those meetings can really vary, but the thing I try to get across to them is–it goes back to my competition days, and understanding what it took to pull the most out of yourself in those really big races and events and what has to be going through your head when you’re out there competing. The bottom line is, you’re going to be out there for quite a while and you’re suffering for quite a while, so the big focus for us is to really be in a place where there’s a lot of positive self-talk within the competition itself. I call it leaning on our fitness. You do all this work and you’ve committed yourself in so many ways to get ready for these big competitions and now it’s just so important that when you’re out there, you’re completely leaning on that and kind of buoyed by that kind of work. Those are things that helped me out through all of my races and I think they’ve helped us as far as getting people in the right frame of mind when they’re out there in the competitive realm.
JM: How did you develop your knowledge of effective training strategies?
GT: Just through a lot of research. It kind of worked out that when I was evolving into a coach, well at first, right when I started going down the road of becoming a collegiate coach, I invested in some good books on training. So I read a few books in the early going and I’ve read books since then on training, but at that same time, the internet was really starting to take off (I’m dating myself here) and sharing information became a lot easier. And there are so many resources online. I’ve taken a lot of great ideas from articles I’ve read, from studies, from different coaches. I haven’t modeled our training after any particular coach or team but our training’s been influenced by a lot of different coaches and it continues to be as I run across different ideas out there. I think we have a good base; there are some cornerstones to what we do out there that’ll probably never change while I’m here, but we tweak things yearly and I’m constantly evolving as I read more. I’ve been to a lot of coaches’ conventions where you’ve got different coaches speaking on training and I’ve spoken on training at these functions, so there’s just a lot of shared info out there. Our training has been influenced a lot in those ways.
JM: You’ve had remarkable success with your teams over the years. What would you say is the one characteristic that you have as a coach or one aspect of your coaching program that has influenced your athletes to achieve at such a high level?
GT: I’m most proud of the consistency we’ve had. When I was going into coaching, kind of looking from the outside, there were good teams in our region, like Cal Poly when they were Division II. They were a really good team that everyone looked up to. They would absolutely stomp the competition at the conference level or regional level. Then they’d go to the national championships and it was really hit or miss as to how well they’d do. I was kind of an aspiring coach at the time, and watching teams like Cal Poly, I thought, “Gosh, hopefully someday we’ll be able to compete at the national level,” but I knew it would be quite a challenge to be a consistent program at the national level.
So looking back, I’m really proud of the fact the we’re at a place where a bad day at the office is a 7th place or 8th place because those are still top 10 finishes. I’m really proud of that and I really think that a big part of that has just been the culture of the team, establishing a positive environment where the kids are enjoying what they’re doing. It’s a difficult pursuit, distance running is. There’s so much commitment, dedication, pain, suffering. There are no guarantees. You can put in all this work, you can do countless miles, all the workouts exactly how I tell them to, and you’re not guaranteed to have success. There are no guarantees that you’re not gonna get injured and maybe lose a season you had high hopes for. So there are a lot of variables.
It’s really important that the kids out there are enjoying the journey. You just don’t know what the next day is gonna bring or the end of the season is gonna bring. If you have a lot of people that are really enjoying the process, then we’re out there working hard together. And if things don’t go as well as they’d hoped, they’re able to bounce back from it well and see themselves through to a better day. We’ve got this culture in a place where the kids are supportive of one another. We have a very large roster, and only seven runners per gender are gonna run in the championships for us. And everyone knows that going into it. So 2/3 of our team isn’t going to be competing at the championship level every year, but a good portion of the 2/3 will be at the championships supporting the kids who did make the team. It says a lot about the kids and that culture has been a huge part of it. You know that pride and our success.
From the athletic part of it all, always having an eye to the future–a big part of the equation for us has been that any athlete who comes into our program isn’t expected to have success immediately. One of the first things I tell them is it takes time to have success at the collegiate level. You really have to look at things in the big picture. You have to be willing to take a step back to take two steps forward. As they feel more at ease in their surroundings, they really grow into it. You have kids who are maybe the last runners on your roster that first year who become All Americans later on down the road. It’s sort of a farm system that we have set up within the program that helps our kids develop from within to the point where they can really have success. So we’re not a program where we just bring in a great runner that immediately helps us become great that next year or the next three years. Our program is based on the kids who pay their dues and then it’s their time to help the process. Those are two of the main things that really stand out for our consistency.
JM: Last question: What do you consider to be your greatest success as a runner? And as a coach?
GT: I was a very average or below average high school runner, so I was really proud of sticking with the sport well past college because I wasn’t a very good runner in college either. But I stuck with it. I coached myself the whole way through. I was able to run a much faster pace at the half marathon–my half marathon pace in my lifetime PR was faster than my 2 mile pace in high school and it equals about the pace I ran for the 5k in college. The improvement I was able to make through the years, I’m really proud of as an athlete. I remember flying back from the Boston marathon a number of times just being so happy with how I’d done that even if the plane crashed I’d be totally fine with it (laughs). I’ll never forget that feeling. Even if that’s your last day of running you’d be pretty darn happy with how things went. And I had a number of those types of days. And breaking 2:30 in the marathon was a–really, that was the only race I cried after, cause I put in a lot of marathons and a lot of low 2:30s, so to break 2:30 was a pretty cool deal.
As a coach, there’s no specific day or year or event that I’m most proud of. It’s more the tradition we have and having Chico State known as a really solid distance program nationally, regardless of who you’re talking to. Whether it’s a D1 coach or D2 coach or D3 coach, people are pretty aware of Chico State. We fight the image of Chico State on our campus, just the image that’s out there nationally. I’m really proud of the fact that, at least in the running circles, we’ve made Chico State known for something more positive. It’s been fun to be a part of that.
I hope you enjoyed Part 2 of my interview with Gary. Please share this article with others and like my Facebook page. I welcome your comments below.