Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Catching up with former 4:01.02 High School Miler, Steve Magness...

Today we chat with the 7th fastest high school miler of all time (4:01.02) Steve Magness.  He accomplished his time during his senior year at the 2003 Prefontaine Classic.  The picture to the right is during that race(courtesy of Palmer photo) with Steve running next to former Jesuit HS/Stanford runner Michael Stember and with high school and American record holder in the mile, Alan Webb in the background.  Interesting to note that the majority of the fastest high school miles have been recorded against elite athletes such as Steve's time above in the Pre Classic.  To check out the all-time high school mile times in HS only competition, check out the following link below.  Steve went on to compete at Rice University.  He is currently coaching runners and is quite a student of the sport.  You can check out his highly educational blog at

1) How did you get your start in distance running?
I was always pretty good at the PE physical fitness mile we'd run every year in school and the fact that my dad and grandfather, who was a sub 4:30 HS miler way back in the 20's or 30's, I kind of always knew I'd run track when I got to Junior High. I just kind of did it because I was good at it until High School when some of the older runners on the team took me under their wing and helped bring me to that next level.

2) When did you realize that distance running was your sport and you can excel in it?
During my freshman year in High School. Up until then, I was a soccer player and runner, but the success I had that first season in cross-country, the fun of being on a good team, and the way running fit with my personality made me choose running.

3) What are your highlights from high school competitions? PRs on the track?
In HS I ended up with PR's of 4:01.02-mile, 1:52.70-800m, and 9:06-3200m. My whole senior year track season was a highlight, but the two biggest races that stand out were running in the Prefontaine Classic and then a 4xmile relay we did at one of the bigger relay meets. The Pre Classic is obvious because it was a once in a lifetime thing and the experience was amazing. The relay was special to me because we had spent the previous 3 years trying to beat the Woodlands and Kingwood, who were two perenially national ranked teams, and my final year we came together as a team and pulled off a victory. Also, after splitting 4:03 going out in 56, that was the first time I knew I was on another level in my own running.

4) Looking back at your high school training, what do you feel like really worked for you? What didn't work? What would you do differently if you could do it again?
My HS coach did a great job of figuring out what worked for me. I think we hit on a great balance of aerobic, anaerobic, and pure speed work, so I think the best thing about my training then was balance. It took us a couple years to find that balance, so if I were to change anything it would be to find it earlier. But I have no complaints about my HS training. Sure some things probably could have been tweaked here or there, but it served me well and we did the best we could at the time.

5) Tell us a little about your college experiences. Highlights?
My college experience was pretty bad. I was so up and down and had so many strange things occur. I really think I needed someone to hold me back because I have a tendency to keep pushing no matter how I feel. The highlight of my college career was probably qualifying for NCAAs in Cross Country as an individual.

6) Who was the coach that really clicked for you and you feel helped you run your best?
My High School coach Gerald Stewart. We really clicked training-wise and personally. He was a sprint and field coach until my sophomore year and the thing I loved about his approach was that he admitted he didn't have all the answers, but he was going to do everything he could to figure it out. And he followed through on that.

7) What led you to coach?
I kind of stumbled into coaching on accident. I knew I'd eventually get into coaching because I was always interested in trying to figure the best way to maximize performance. I started helping out my friend Andy who didn't have a coach at the time and then that kind of led to me getting into High School coaching. During one summer break in college, my HS coach retired and the school didn't hire a new track coach until very late into the summer, so I just kind of took the kids on the team under my wing and helped out. That led to me helping them out for several years.

8) Who are or have been your coaching mentors and what have you learned from them?
My two coaching mentors are Gerald Stewart and Tom Tellez. Coach Stewart taught me how to coach. I could go on and on about what I learned but it was more than the specifics of training. I learned the way to interact with your athletes and deal with the ups and downs of this sport. Some of the more important lessons I learned were to never stop learning, leave your ego out of it, and always look at what you are doing instead of blaming the kids for "not trying." On that last point, I've found that too many coaches blame the kids if they don't run well. Instead, I can remember a time when Coach Stewart pulled us aside and said: "it's my fault we didn't run well and I'm going to fix it." That takes a lot of guts as a coach, but it gains respect from your athletes if you follow through and fix it. Tom Tellez taught me so much about the technical side of the sport. The man is an absolute genius when it comes to track and biomechanics. In addition, I learned the amount of dedication and curiosity it takes to be a world class coach. What I love about coach Tellez is that he finds out how things work and doesn't care if some "guru" says otherwise. One lesson I've taken away is it doesn't matter what your title is or who you've coached, it matters whether you know what you're talking about or not.

9) What do you feel like you do well as a coach because of those high-level experiences as a competitor?
My experiences competing at a high level allows me to relate to all the problems the kids go through. Whether it's a bad race, workout, injury or some other problem, I've most likely been in the same situation or have had friends who have had. It really makes a difference when you can tell the kid that you've been there yourself and know the solution to the problem.

10) For an elite high school runner, what do you feel are the keys to success in terms of training?
In working with some elite high school runners to me the keys are developing the extremes while erring on the side of caution. What I mean by developing the extremes is that the focus should be on aerobic development and pure speed/biomechanical development. Pure speed doesn't refer to doing 200's or 400's but 60,70, up to 100m sprints. People generally think of a base as an aerobic base but in reality, you have to create a biomechanical, neurological, and speed base on which to build which is where pure speed development comes into play. The other big thing is that as a coach you have to remember that these are new runners and everything is a new training stimulus. Bring them along gradually and see consistent improvement. I'm talking more about workouts than mileage or anything else. Far too often you see HS kids going to the well on almost every workout. My feeling is that you set up the workouts so that they are somewhat challenging but the athlete walks away feeling great. As he progresses you challenge him a little more, but for the most part always keeping him from going over the edge.

11) What is your best advice for a young coach just getting in the "business"?
Read everything you can. Talk to all the best coaches that you can. Learn from many different sources and don't just get stuck in one system of training. Be creative and open-minded. In essence, never stop learning. Every athlete is an individual and will respond to the training individually. It's your job as a coach to come up with a plan to address this individuality. Don't just make every single one of your kids do the same thing because they are training for the same race. Lastly, remember why we do this. It isn't for our ego, it is to help the runners reach their goals. 

12) Anything else you would like to add.
Thanks a lot for the interview Albert, and thanks for all the great work you do for High School Cross Country. It is much appreciated.

Thank you very much for your time, Steve!  AJC

All-Time HS Mile times vs. high school competition only:


Fitz said...

Not blaming your athletes for "not trying" is some of the best advice I've ever heard. Why is that not more popular advice for coaches? Kudos to Coach Stewart for understanding that.

Anonymous said...

"Every athlete is an individual and will respond to the training individualy. It's your job as a coach to come up with a plan to address this individuality. Don't just make every single one of your kids do the same thing because they are training for the same race."

Lord, I wish more coaches understood this...

Anonymous said...

Lord, I wish more parents didn't think they were coaches.

Anonymous said...

Not all coaches are good coaches. Some parents were good runners and trained under excellent coaches.

A coach said...

Personally, I have met more parents than high school coaches that ran in college at a high level, trained under good coaches at a high level, and know a lot about running at a high level.

Don't get me wrong there are a lot of good high school coaches out there, but it is probably a 50/50 chance you will get a good one at your public high school.

Anonymous said...

it all depends on location for good coaches. I use to be from nor cal, CCS region, and the public schools around where I went were run by pretty bad coaches. You had few really good one and some okay, but most were pretty bad.

Now living in so cal, its a total transformation between the competitiveness that I felt from being in nor cal.

Albert Caruana said...

I don't know any profession where everybody is great.

Would love to hear more comments about the interview itself instead of side comments from anonymous posters.

Anonymous said...

In an ideal world every athlete would get individualized training. However it's just not realistic for schools with large programs. Individualized training probably is reserved for the better and more motivated athletes.

As for the interview, I liked this quote from Magness about his disappointing college career:

"I really think I needed someone to hold me back because I have a tendency to keep pushing no matter how I feel."

Just because you can doesn't mean you should and it's important the athlete learns this...

NCR said...

Great interview. As a coach it is hard to balance when to back off and when to push. That is the "art" of coaching more than the "science" of it. To hold an athlete back you have to have the respect and trust of your athletes, the easy thing is to max out every an athlete and a coach.

Sounds like he cares about the over-all development in the athlete and not just immediate results. Too many coaches push their athletes to max out and not think of their future in college.

Anonymous said...

Anon, I completely agree with the statement "In an ideal world every athlete would get individualized training. However it's just not realistic for schools with large programs. Individualized training probably is reserved for the better and more motivated athletes." My question for the coaches here is, if a HS coach is unable to provide that individualized training, either due to time constraints or personal coaching doctrine, would it then be acceptable to see an outside coach? What if it was off-site and didn't preclude the athlete from engaging in regularly scheduled practices?

John said...

NCR makes two great points. First, the coach/athlete relationship is a partnership. Two-way trust and communication is paramount.

The second part, is something I was thinking about this morning during my run. Is a great coach someone who maxes out his athletes in high school to get immediate results or is it someone who prepares his/her athletes properly so they progress throughout high school and can compete at the next level in college? There always seem to be discussions about certain HS programs that have great success but the athletes rarely go on to succeed in college and beyond.

Peter Brewer said...

Lots of things to chew over on this post, but I'd like to address first the idea of seeing an outside coach as a remedy for a larger team having more generic workouts rather than individualized workouts.

High school is mostly about getting kids into running, and working with them through the maelstrom of adolescence. It is also about the socialization of being on a team that suffers through workouts together, competes together, wears the same uniform. All high school coaches I know, know enough to take a general workout and individualize it. With intervals, some run fewer or slower or with more rest. But they all run the workout together. With distance, some run longer or shorter or slower or faster. But they all run the trails at the same time.

The potential problem with an outside coach is that it pulls the athlete away from the team. This sets up the possibility of exceptionalism, elitism, and could dissolve the team gestalt rather quickly. At the extreme edge, the outside coach is an accessory to the narcissism of some parents who need to have a privileged experience for their child (see club soccer).

The other point which would take more space, is the overall purpose of high school athletics . . . preparation for a college experience, or an end in itself? Consider this stat: fewer than 2% of high school athletes compete in college at any level.

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