Q&A with Bryan Westfield

Ann Arbor Pioneer High School

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.1, January 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1301/qawestfield.htm

When Bryan Westfield first started coaching at Ann Arbor Pioneer (Mich.) High School, there were few opportunities for girls to compete in cross country and track and field. Twenty-five years later, his teams have become the dominant force in the state.

The Pioneer girls’ outdoor track team has finished first in its region 24 times, and the girls’ cross country team has finished first in its region 14 times. Westfield was named the NFHS National Girls’ Track Coach of the Year in 2002.

Growing up Detroit and Ann Arbor, Westfield graduated from Pioneer High School before attending Cornell University, where he ran the 400-meter hurdles and played running back and cornerback on the football team. Following a brief stint with the New York Giants as a member of the scout team, Westfield returned to Pioneer in 1965 and began organizing a track and field club for middle school and high school girls.

After the passage of Title IX, Pioneer created interscholastic girls’ track and cross country teams, and in 1979, Westfield took over both programs, integrating them into his track club. His teams started winning that first year of formal competition, with both track and cross country teams capturing regional championships. They have been winning ever since.

Along with working as a coach, Westfield teaches biology at Pioneer and leads the school’s gospel choir. In this interview, Westfield talks about the importance of providing opportunities, fostering year-round conditioning, and preparing his athletes for both winning and losing.

Why do you think you’ve had so much success in the last 25 years?

Our athletes have bought into what we do, and have committed themselves to an 11-month training regimen. They don’t necessarily have to be training for track all 11 months, but they have to remain conditioned athletes.

Here in Michigan, fall is the season for girls’ basketball and winter is the season for volleyball. Some of our young ladies are basketball players who come to us during the winter indoor track and field season, and some of them are volleyball players who don’t join us until March. But they’re all conditioning in an organized program for 11 months out of the year, lifting weights and doing cardiovascular training.

If they don’t play a fall or winter sport, they’re still not just hanging out at the park. They’re working out. We run a conditioning program four days a week from 3:30 to 5:00 during October, November, and December. It’s open to middle schoolers and high schoolers. We started this season’s program with about 60 young ladies who are not involved in any fall sports. It keeps young people from getting in trouble after school, and gives them an opportunity to do something athletic. It’s helped kids in the program tremendously, whether they’re track and field athletes or not.

What is your coaching philosophy?

My coaching philosophy is pretty simple: You only get out of something what you put into it. If you condition your body 11 months out of the year, you’re going to be a better athlete than you were when you started.

With each year comes more possibilities for young people to be involved. In Pioneer track and field, we don’t cut anybody from the team. The young ladies earn letters by completing the season, not by earning points. If they start on day one and stick with it through the state championships, then they earn a letter. And that’s motivation for a lot of people.

How do you balance a team that has some star athletes and some people who are just starting out?

We’re often criticized for it, but we use dual meets to let our younger, more inexperienced athletes compete against other schools. Because the dual meets have no effect on whether we win the conference, they give our kids an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise. When other coaches say, "We want to run against your best kids all the time," I tell them, "Well, that’s not the way we do business here. We want all our young people to have an opportunity."

We also split up our kids a lot. For example, on a Saturday, we might send athletes to three different invitationals, giving everybody an opportunity to compete somewhere. Our athletes know that regardless of their talent, they’re going to be competing every Tuesday and Saturday during the high school season. By opening the doors of opportunity, we can bring success to a lot of these kids. Then, toward the championships, we concentrate primarily on the better athletes. But that’s just for the last three weeks of the season.

After winning so many championships, how do you help your athletes cope with the pressure of being favorites?

We tell them that becoming a successful athlete means learning how to lose almost as much as it means learning how to win. You’ve got to handle yourself with dignity at all times, because there are going to be ups and downs, not only athletically but in all parts of your life. We prepare them to face the reality of coming up short, just as we prepare them to win.

How do you help them cope with losing?

In practices, we purposely put our best athletes in competition against folks who are better than they are, just to make sure they don’t get big heads. For example, Candice Davis, who’s now a sophomore at the University of Southern California, was state champion in the 100 hurdles during her sophomore, junior, and senior years. And each year, she set a new state record in the 100 hurdles. But we also made her run the 300-meter hurdles. In dual meets, we made her run on the B relay teams, as opposed to always being on the A team. We had her doing long jumps and high jumps. Sure, she could high jump 5 feet from natural ability, but we had kids who could jump 5’2" and 5’3". She was put in situations where she couldn’t possibly take success for granted.

We do that with a lot of kids. We’ll take a good distance runner and have her run a leg on the 4 x 800-meter relay. Or we’ll take a kid who’s usually the anchor on the 4 x 800, who’s used to always being in front, and put her on the second leg, so that she’ll get the baton back in the pack and have to work to catch up. We challenge them to do events that they’re not proficient in.

How do you help athletes who are being recruited?

At the end of their sophomore year, I send out as many as 200 letters detailing what the athletes have achieved academically and athletically to college coaches I know. Many coaches respond and send me blank information sheets that I can then turn over to kids. Then, during their junior year, when recruiting starts, I meet with the young people and their families to explain the process.

I always make sure the athletes enroll in the NCAA clearinghouse to get the recruiting process started, and I continue to be involved, but when the choice of colleges actually comes up and the athlete makes a commitment to go on the five official visits, I back away and let the parents and athlete and college coaches do their thing. I don’t want my biases to get in the way of what a kid and her family want to do.

How do you find athletes for your program?

I have announcements over the loudspeaker twice a week, encouraging people who are not doing anything after school to come by—especially the kids who rely on public transportation to get home and kids who are just hanging around school.

Our local paper will tell people that we have a track club conditioning program, and as a result of that, kids from the middle schools get involved, and kids from other high schools will come over. I might have a middle school gym teacher who says, "I think this kid’s got some ability, but they’ve got some problems in their family. I want to keep them busy after school so they don’t get involved in trouble."

We open it up that way, and we get a lot of kids. Of the 60 girls in this year’s program, abilities range from kids who can’t walk 100 meters to kids who are fairly decent athletes. There’s no competition, so they don’t have to worry about being embarrassed. It’s just general conditioning.

We also have a big sister-little sister program where the older students connect with the younger ones and mentor them academically and athletically. We let the kids get to know each other first, and then our older kids pick a little sister, and if that doesn’t work out, they swap sisters, and find a way to mentor each other.

What kind of goals do you set?

We never look at team goals and we never talk about becoming state champions. Our goals are all about improving individual performance. We want young people to see where they were in October and compare that to where they are in June and July. I ask the kids to write down their goals, and some of them have nothing to do with track and field. They just write, "I want to lose weight," or "I want to be more disciplined." I’ve read hundreds of them, and every one is different, and very seldom do they say specifically, "I want to run the hurdles in 13.6."

What do you like about coaching girls?

Well, I’ve got five daughters, and I enjoy working with girls. I see them wanting to learn, just because they’ve been denied so much—not everyone in this particular generation, but certainly their mothers and grandmothers. My wife wanted to be an athlete, and was denied that opportunity in high school. She and I talked about that when we were first married, and when our daughters were born, agreeing that if they ever wanted to be athletes, we wanted them to have that opportunity.

I come from a family that has both black and white members, and the 1967 Detroit riots, which were strictly about race, started in my old neighborhood. I have a strong spiritual base, and discrimination has always challenged that. I come from the civil rights movement, so I’m always interested in helping folks, and looking for ways to help people who may have been denied opportunities in the past. These women are eager to learn, to try to better themselves, and to do things that other people say they can’t do.

Does retirement ever cross your mind?

I haven’t thought about it, but I’m sure I will. I’ve got an assistant named Kent Bernard, who was a bronze medalist in the 1964 Olympics, and we’ve been friends since our college days, when we competed against each other. I’m 61 now, and he and I both know we’re going to ease our way out of here pretty soon. But I still enjoy coaching tremendously. I look forward to practice every day, and I look forward to biology classes every day. I haven’t gotten to the point where I don’t enjoy my job any more, but when that happens, I’m out of here.