Thursday, October 29, 2009

Catching up with Sacramento State coach, Scott Abbott...

The following interview was done by former Evergreen Valley runner, Kevin Liao. Scott Abbott is the head cross country and distance track coach for Sacramento State. In a very short time, Scott has recruited one of the best class of runners in California as he attempts to put Sac. State back on the running map. During his high school days, he was a key member of 3 Jesuit HS state cross country championship teams. He competed at UCLA with one of the America's best distance runners (as you will see below) under the tutelage of the legendary Bob Larson. We both would like to thank Scott for taking the time to answer Kevin's questions.

1. What is your background in running? When did you start running?
I always loved playing sports and competing athletically. When I got to high school; however, I was pretty under-developed, so I wasn't sure what I would be successful at. I heard the cross country team went to Disneyland, so I thought that sounded cool...that's how it all began.

I was lucky enough to play a major role on some amazing teams at Jesuit winning three straight state cross country championships. I was fortunate to have an amazing coach (see below) and amazing teammates (21 of my high school teammates went on to run at D1 universities), including my good friend and classmate, Michael Stember, who went on to be an Olympian in the 1500m, and who is still one of the most physically-gifted middle distance runners I have ever come across.

After Jesuit, I ran for UCLA where I was team captain in both my junior and senior seasons and lead an awesome group of guys at UCLA who are all still very close friends of mine. I was also very proud of graduating Magna Cum Laude from UCLA. While at UCLA, I was also blessed with the opportunity to be teammates and good friends with Meb Keflezighi, who will go down in history as one of America's greatest distance runners. I learned (and still learn) so much from Meb about how to approach the sport, as I have never come across a runner who has more integrity in his approach to the sport than Meb.

2. You were coached by Walt Lange at the legendary program at Jesuit. Talk about your experiences while in high school.
Oh, where to begin with this is hard to sum up in a few words the experience of running for Coach Lange at Jesuit, as it was probably the most definitive experience in my life, and really helped form me in so many ways into the person that I am today. Much of success I have had academically, athletically, and personally, I can chart back in some way to the life-transferring skills that I developed in Coach Lange's program.

It is easy to focus on Coach Lange's phenomenal record (9 State XC Championships; more sub-4:05 1600m and 9:10 3200m runners than any other high school coach ever) to recognize what a great coach he is, but to truly capture why he is undoubtedly the finest high school coach in America, you have to go to practice on a daily basis and watch his simple, no frills, consistent interaction with his athletes of all levels. A student-athlete that persists 4 years in his program, regardless of what level they have achieved at, accomplishes something more significant than any tangible award or record; they will have developed the understanding that personal success is achieved simply and patiently through showing up on a daily basis and effectively and diligently getting your work done. Such a simple message, but such a powerful tool to arm young adults with as they head out into a world where more and more people try to cut corners and are in a constant search for instant gratification or the easiest way out.

3. Besides Walt, who do you consider to be your coaching mentors?
Bob Larsen was my college coach and he was a master of organization and his easy-going and patient style has always been something I try to incorporate in my approach with my athletes. Eric Peterson was the head coach at UCLA when I worked as an assistant there, and he is an excellent motivator and very involved with his athletes. He really showed me how an individualized approach to an athlete can help bring out the best out in them.

As a UCLA alum, I feel obligated to mention Coach Wooden as well. It is impossible to be a UCLA student-athlete, and furthermore, a coach, and not have Coach Wooden leave a petrified footprint on your personal and professional development.

4. When did you become interested in coaching? How did your experiences while running at Jesuit and UCLA influence the decision?
Actually, I really became interested in coaching after college when I worked as a school teacher for 4 years, and I realized that I really loved interacting with young people and helping them pursue their passions. I felt that coaching combined all of this with my competitive attitude and love of sports.

5. What were the biggest lessons you learned in your first stints of coaching at the high school level at Bend High School in Oregon and Jesuit and at the collegiate level at UCLA?
In my experiences coaching and teaching, I have learned that people learn, develop, and perform best when they are involved and invested in the process. It is amazing how much people can accomplish when they feel like they have ownership in a given experience. So often coaches (and teachers) feel like they need to be the holder of truths or that the flow of information and control has to be unilateral. In all of my experiences, from teaching middle schoolers, to coaching high schoolers and college athletes, to working with Olympians during my internship at the Olympic Training Center, I have learned that the very best teachers and coaches are those who can stand alongside their students or athletes and go through the process with them in a cooperative manner. It is about understanding where they would like to go, then helping them draw a map to get there, and walking beside them every step of the way. You may achieve limited success in coaching by drawing the map for them and telling them which way to go, but the great coaches ultimately bring out the best in their athletes by involving the athletes in this process. The sport of distance running, in particular, is such a personal pursuit and requires such a strong ability for the athlete to self-motivate, you can really retard an athlete's ultimate level of achievement by being a "control-freak", for lack of a better term.

6. If you were able to go back to coaching in high school, what would you do differently?
This is tough because I worked under two very successful high school coaches in Bob Latham at Bend and Walt Lange at Jesuit, so I kind of just followed their leads while I was there; however, if I was to give advice about something that I underestimated the importance of at the high school level, it is RECRUITING. I know this is the forbidden word (especially when talking about a private school power like Jesuit), but I am not talking about recruiting middle-schoolers to come to your school to run; I am talking about recruiting within your campus walls. The successful programs do have great coaches that understand the sport, but lets be honest, they aren't coaching a bunch of "beefaloes"; they are coaches that are good at getting talented runners to come out for the sport and are good at keeping the interest level of the runners to keep them in the sport. High school coaches have to constantly sell the sport to their team and to talented runners on campus. The top teams usually have the most runners at every level (frosh-soph, JV, ect.). Bottom line is you have to be relentless about getting kids out and keeping them out. You can be the greatest physiologist in the world and understand training and distance running like no other, but if you don't have kids with ability, you will not be successful.

7. What was the state of the Sacramento State distance program when you took over in 2007? Were there any major changes you had to make?
I took over a distance program at Sacramento State that had been through a very rough stretch of years since moving to Division I. They had a great tradition of excellence at the D2 level in the 70s and 80s, but kind of sputtered as they moved into D1 in the mid-90s. They had gone through a lot of coaching turnover when I arrived, and really the first step was to just establish some stability. As a Sacramento native and someone who has decided that this is where I would like to be to raise my family, I have made a long-term commitment to this university and to the process of building the program at Sacramento State into a championship-caliber program that can be competitive at the national level.

Upon taking over here, I was pleasantly surprised by the how motivated, talented, and committed the current team was, and also by some of the great things that were in place within the track and field program, the athletic department, and the university as a whole. There haven't been really any drastic changes that needed to be made, as I truly believe that there is little institutionally/organically preventing Sacramento State distance running from being very competitive. Rather it has just taken a commitment to the process of working with the student-athletes, recruiting top talent, and attaching the program with the community here in Sacramento. This is a commitment that has been void for some years here, and I believe that we have made significant strides in the past 2 years towards putting this program in the thick of things here in the West Region.

8. You’ve had excellent recruiting classes over the last few years. Talk about some of the athletes you’ve brought in and the process of recruiting them to run at Sac State.
The recruiting has gone well, which really is a testament to what a great product we are selling. One of my core philosophies in taking over the program here was to "secure our borders" in recruiting first and foremost. There is so much talent in this region, and it is such a shame that historically so much of it has left the region. It would be one thing, if they were leaving and going off to other parts of the country or to major conference schools, but we have lost a lot of local recruits over the years to other state schools and other mid-major schools, and that is really disheartening. I really respect the athletes that we signed in my first season that really got the ball rolling for us in the process of securing our borders.

On the men's side, Cameron Mitchell and Chris Romo from Woodcreek High School and Kyle Lackner from Jesuit were three guys in particular that bought into this idea and had the courage to choose Sac State and really take the reigns in this building process. Without those three guys and their pioneering spirit, I really don't think we would have been able to parlay such a fine recruiting class this past year that included Dan Mitchell (Del Campo 8:56/4:15), Matt Case (Del Campo 1:52/4:17), Nathanael Litwiller (Clayton Valley 1:52, 4:14), Cole Younger (Mt. Whitney 1:53), Jake Arveson (Monterey 1:53), Natinayel Wolde (Willow Glen 4:23), Robert Davis (Royal 1:55), and Devin Lockert (Petaluma 1:56).

On the women's side, interestingly, our program has gotten a face lift from a handful of local athletes that have returned to the area via transfer to revive their careers here at Sacramento State. This is further testament that we have become a very attractive option for the local athlete, even those that have gone off to other places. Lea Wallace (Vintage HS/Cal Poly), Erin Lewis (Modesto HS/Univ of Oregon), Caprice Bradshaw (Fairfield HS/New Mexico St), and Jenni Eiremo (El Camino HS/Iona) were four very high level local products that have found their way back to the area and come together to give our women's program a shot in the arm, and this past year, we built on this by signing Rachel Mitchell (American HS 10:44/5:02) and Danzel Bradshaw (2:16/5:06), and we now have a women's program that is in a position to really make some noise at the conference, regional, and national level.

The bottom line in recruiting has been that we have been the "right fit" for so many of these athletes, academically, athletically, and socially. We aren't snake-oil salesmen, we have just done a very good job at finding athletes where this is the right vibe for them. We provide a D1 program that is competitive at the highest levels where athletes can come in and make an impact right away and play a significant role in the exciting process of leading a team on the rise, and to do so at a major state university in the capitol city on a campus with phenomenal athletic facilities and an optimal training environment for a distance runner in terms of accessible running trails.

9. What are some of the biggest changes for most high school athletes when they adjust to college? How can incoming freshmen better prepare themselves for this transition?
This is a great question, as I honestly feel that cross country runners have the toughest transition of any student-athletes in moving from high school to college. Partly because the dynamics of the sport itself actually change, especially for the men. The guys move from 5K to 8K/10K and the women move from 5K to 6K. No other freshmen athletes have to go through this (the basketball hoop isn't raised a few extra feet, the pitchers mound isn't further away, etc.), so essentially the basics of the sport are the same for the other athletes, the level of competition is just elevated. Freshmen cross country runners go through an elevated level of competition as well as a fundamental change in their sport, and they have to adjust to this often before they even start classes and are officially a college student. It is a difficult transition, not to mention dealing with be surrounded by athletes on a daily basis in practice and in competition that have all achieved at the highest levels, and finding yourself positioned in races in unfamiliar places (ie further back), as well as managing, most likely, an increased training load in both volume and intensity. They have to do all of this while moving away from home for the first time, adjusting to a more independent academic environment, and then dealing with all of the social dynamics that the college environment provides.

As far as preparing for it, freshmen can do themselves a great service by really communicating with their new coaches and future teammates in the summertime to make sure they are training at a proper level, so they do not get ambushed in the first few weeks with a major increase in training. I also believe it is very important to make a good first impression, and to make a significant commitment to get out of the gates well academically, athletically, and socially. So many adjustment issues can be traced back to student-athletes just getting off on a bad foot in the first few weeks of college, maybe thinking "hey, I'm just a freshman, what I do doesn't really matter...I can always get back on track later." This is a very dangerous approach.

I know a lot of programs will blanket redshirt all freshmen, and I understand why they do this; however, if an athlete is healthy and ready to contribute, I really think it is important to let them compete to get integrated with the team and the lifestyle of a student-athlete, so they will hopefully start establishing good habits.

10. Talk about the clinics that you’ve organized for the last number of years. Who are the targets of these camps? What are some important lessons that you emphasize to coaches and athletes at your events?
I run the Cross Country Base Camp in Marin, CA every summer. It is a camp for high school runners, and it is a lot of fun. We try to create an environment where high schoolers can learn to really enjoy the sport (back to the idea of selling the sport) and enjoy the process of working to get better. We have clinics from elite athletes, coaches, and dietitians about sport performance, so we do want the campers to learn; however, my most important goal is for them to have a good time. It is a great opportunity for high school runners to meet other runners that share similar goals and are equally enthusiastic about their sport. Often, distance runners are not the most celebrated athletes on their campuses, so hopefully, summer running camp can allow them to come together with like-minded people and have a good time with their sport and continue to fuel their passion for it.

11. Your profile says you did your master’s thesis on NCAA track & field reform. What are some things the average track fan doesn’t know about the shift from amateurism in track and field?
When I started coaching at the college level, I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in Sport Management. Part of the goal of that was to increase my body of knowledge and my body of work in order to be more successful at what I do. That degree has allowed me to approach this career not just as a running fan, a former runner, or as a guy looking for a fun/cool job, but rather as a sport professional who understands the dynamic and somewhat complicated world of college sports. To be a successful coach at the college level, you have to be able to do more than just recruit and coach athletes or understand training theory, you have to be able to navigate a tangled administrative and bureaucratic environment. There is a lot of politics in the sport at the highest levels, and it is important to approach that aspect of coaching as a "coat and tie" professional, rather than as a guy in sweats with a stopwatch in hand.

My thesis looked critically at the structure of our sport at the collegiate level and examined ways to make our sport more attractive to the general public, as well as function more efficiently and effectively in order to enhance the competitive experiences of all track and field athletes at every level.

12. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Not really...I am pretty certain I have already been way too long-winded as it is; I do want to commend you guys at, as it is so important for our sport to have people that do your work, especially at the insanely committed level that you guys do. This is where our sport lives, and the internet has been the single most important factor in not only keeping our sport alive and relevant, but is has really been a driving factor in the huge gains that the sport has made in performance and visibility. Your site is bookmarked on my web browser and I love reading everything that you guys put up. Keep up the good work!

Scott Abbott
Cross Country/Distance Coach
Sacramento State Track and Field

Sacramento State Track and Field

2007, 2008, 2009 Big Sky Champions

2000, 2004 US Olympic Trials Host

2003, 2005-2007 NCAA Championship Host


JRJ said...

Yes! Another great interview from a Sacramento coach! Abbot's the man!
-Jason Jimenez

NedT said...

Why isn't there anything about his Dr. Pepper addiction?

RUNHARD76 said...

Don't take this the wrong way, but as a coach for many years I was surprised at the comment of question #6. many programs are not just about the best runners. Look at Joe Newtons program. Success is not only in having the best go the dictance, but also having kids that take running as a life long acctivity like the "beefaloes". I have had many good teams that have been able to run with the best even Jesuit. I understand coaching college is different, but trust me it's not that much different. SJS RUNHARD76

toxtoba said...

RUNHARD, thanks for pointing that out; I should have distinguished between "winning" and "success"; I was talking specifically about the importance of getting talented runners out in order to be competitive at the highest levels. But you make an important point about defining success, and I hope I was clear when I talked about my experience running for Coach Lange in question #2, that I feel that his success as a coach has not been defined by wins and losses but rather the lessons he teaches in the pursuit.

We all feel like "beefaloes" essentially in some environment (I felt that way in my college days), but my lack of talent at that level did not prevent me from having a meaningful and successful collegiate running experience.

Thanks for your comment.
-Scott Abbott

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