Q&A with Susan Russ

Harpeth Hall Preparatory School

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.1, January 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1401/qaruss.htm

In 26 years as Head Track and Field and Cross Country Coach at Harpeth Hall, an all-girls’ preparatory school in Nashville, Tenn., Susan Russ has amassed 20 state titles—more than any other coach in the state. She has been named Tennessee State Track Coach of the Year three times, Regional Track Coach of the Year eight times, and Metro Cross Country Coach of the Year 10 times. The 2003 NFHS Sectional Coach of the Year, Russ is also a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

Before beginning her career at Harpeth Hall, Russ was as a physical education teacher at Memphis State University, where she created the women’s track and cross country programs. From 1969 to 1979, she built the programs into serious contenders, leading the track team to a second place finish in the Tennessee State Collegiate Track and Field Championships and seeing several members of the cross country team qualify for national competition.

At the start of the 2005-06 school year, Russ stepped down after 20 years as athletic director at Harpeth Hall to concentrate full-time on teaching physical education and coaching the school’s varsity and junior varsity cross country and track and field teams. In this interview, Russ talks about treating athletes as individuals, evaluating her own performance, and working with parents.

CM: In 26 years at Harpeth Hall, your teams have won 20 state championships. What part of that success comes from your approach?

Russ: The key is that we work very hard to help each girl reach her potential. We give as much individual attention as we can to each member of the team and make sure each athlete feels important. At the same time, we emphasize a team concept, with everyone pitching in to do their part. Focus, concentration, dedication, commitment, and hard work—those are the ingredients to success and what I emphasize.

What’s the key to coaching high school girls?

The most important thing is to never give up on a girl. Monitor each girl’s progress to keep her at a level where she can be successful. I’ve also learned that it’s really important to avoid over-training and to teach the girls to pay attention to their own bodies and communicate with me so I can head off potential injuries.

How do you approach the start of a new track and field season?

Most of the new athletes have a basic idea of what event they’d like to compete in, but I also talk about the concept of being part of a team and emphasize that to field a full team we need people in every event. Early in the season, I’ll have each girl try a lot of different events. I encourage them to take risks. Being unafraid to try something new is an important part of track and field. And you really have to encourage athletes, especially girls, if you want them to try a new event, particularly if they feel they’re not going to be good at it.

How do you assess your athletes’ potential in cross country?

With the returning athletes, we already know how to group them. With the new girls, we learn by putting them into workouts. At the beginning of each season, we divide them into training groups because they do so much better if they have somebody to run with. I plan those early workouts so that I can observe which athletes are achieving at similar levels. Then, I have a pre-season scrimmage race where there’s not a lot of pressure, and that’s where we really begin to see who can do what. Some girls work really hard in practice, but have trouble in competition. Others don’t push themselves much in practice, but all of a sudden, they really step it up on race day and you see a totally different person.

Do you set goals for your athletes?

The athletes and I set them together early in the season. The girls set specific short-term and long-term goals. I don’t want them to say, “I’m going to be state champion in the 800 meters.” Instead, I want to hear what they’re going to do to get there. And every time a girl comes to practice, I want to know what her goal is for that day.

How do you set goals for your assistants and for yourself?

Before the start of the season, my assistants and I sit down and talk about our goals for the year: “What do we think this team can accomplish? And how are we going to get there?” Every year, my number one goal is to get to know each of my athletes individually. On top of that, always have specific goals for some aspect of training that I need to improve, drawn from the previous season.

How do you evaluate your performance?

Everything my girls do is recorded—in training, practice, and competition. After every competition, I replay the meet in my head, going over every race, every throw, every jump, just like watching a video playback, and I take notes. I have a constant evaluation process going on the entire season, and then at the end I look back and review everything we did.

I don’t measure success by whether we win state championships. I ask myself, “Did we accomplish what we were capable of doing? Did we get everything that every girl had to give?” And if we didn’t, I try to think of what we could have done differently. I also sit down after the season and have a conference with my athletes. When the gun goes off, they’re the ones who have to perform, so their assessment of how things went is a very important part of my evaluation process.

What have you learned about working with parents?

If your program is well-organized, with clearly stated goals, you really shouldn’t have many problems with parents. Occasionally we’ll have a parent who thinks his or her child should be doing something else, and in those cases we sit down and talk with the parent. Ultimately, they need to understand that the coach decides what the girls do and don’t do.

One of the most important things is to be a good listener. You have to listen to parents and work your way through any problems. If they understand that you have their child’s best interests at heart, most problems can be avoided.

How do you get girls to come out for the team?

One of the biggest challenges for high school track and field coaches right now is getting kids to participate. So we work hard to identify girls who are good athletes and make sure they know about the program. I’ll walk up to a girl in the hall and ask, “What are you doing in the spring?” And if she’s not already in another sport, I’ll say, “I’d love for you to come out for the track team. This is what I think you could do.” I don’t let any of those chances slip by. Sometimes a one-on-one approach and letting a girl know someone is interested is all it takes.

This year, we have 60 girls on our cross country team. It’s the largest group we’ve ever had, and I think what draws them in is that they like working out and being in good shape and they hear it’s fun.

How do you help athletes who are being recruited by colleges?

First, I identify those athletes early in their careers and explain the demands placed on collegiate student-athletes. If a girl really wants to compete at that level, her focus and concentration will have to be a lot stronger and she’ll have to work a lot harder in the offseason. If it’s something she wants to pursue, then we put a resume together. I find out what schools that girl is interested in attending and contact the coaches at those schools, giving them all of the proper information. But the main thing is to make sure the athlete understands what it takes to get to that level.

What do you want athletes to take away from your program?

I want them to experience a real sense of accomplishment, learn to work toward their goals, and get used to taking risks. They should understand that life is all about ups and downs, and the key to being successful is knowing how to deal with those peaks and valleys. If a girl has a bad race, I don’t get mad, because that doesn’t accomplish anything. If she had a bad race, she already knows it and doesn’t need me to tell her. So my first question to her is, “If you could do it over, what would you do differently?” By the same token, if you win the state championship, you get to celebrate, but you still have to come back and tackle the next challenge. Everything is a learning experience.

What do you tell athletes about Title IX?

I get asked all the time, “What did you do in track?” Well, I didn’t do anything. Growing up, I always considered myself an athlete, but I never had the opportunity to compete in organized sports. Apart from intramurals, there just weren’t any teams. When I was playing intramural basketball at Murray State, I found out there were girls on my team who’d played in high school, and I just couldn’t believe it. I said, “You played on a high school team? Like the boys?” I didn’t even know that existed for girls, because in Illinois, we didn’t have a girls’ team. And at Murray State in Kentucky, they didn’t have a team either. We have athletes coming through now who don’t realize that women’s sports didn’t always exist. So we talk about it from time to time. I want the girls to know opportunities for women have not always been what they are today.

How did you become a track and field coach?

I was hired to teach physical education at Memphis State, where they already had a women’s volleyball team and a women’s basketball team. I was talking with my husband, who was a track standout at Vanderbilt, and I said, “I want to coach.” So he said, “Well, why don’t you start a track team?” So that’s exactly what I did. In January 1969, I went to the University of Illinois, where they had a coaching institute for women’s sports, and I was just a sponge. It was a learn-by-doing clinic, and that’s all we did morning, noon, and night.

I’ve been to many clinics since, and I’ve put on clinics and kept up with all the changes in the profession, but the fundamentals that were taught in that clinic are still the fundamentals of coaching today. When I got back to Memphis State, I put signs up in the student center and got girls to come out for the track team. That was before Title IX, so I didn’t get paid to coach, and I already had a full teaching load. But that’s how women of my generation got started in coaching.

How do you keep from getting burned out?

I just love what I do and I always have. Sometimes it gets hard, but for every disappointment there’s a moment of joy. Earlier this year, when I stepped down as athletic director, it was because I felt stretched in so many directions. I wanted to be the best coach and the best athletic director I could be, but the program at Harpeth Hall has gotten so big that I felt overextended. I wanted to slow my life down. Some people say, “Why didn’t you just give up coaching?” And the answer is, “Because that’s what I love the most.” Why would I give up the thing I love most?