Q&A with Don Carnahan

Russellville (Ark.) High School

By Staff

Coaching Management, 15.1, January 2007, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1501/qacarnahan.htm

Don Carnahan is entering his 40th year as Head Coach of the boys’ and girls’ track and field teams at Russellville (Ark.) High School. A five-time state Coach of the Year, Carnahan has led his track teams to 11 state championships and 12 second-place finishes. Just last season, the girls’ team won the state indoor championship.

Carnahan has also served as Head Cross Country Coach since 1972. During the 2001-02 season, Russellville’s boys’ teams won the 5A Triple Crown, claiming the indoor and outdoor track and cross country championships in the state’s largest division. Until this season, he also coached defensive backs for Russellville’s varsity football team.

Carnahan has served on the Arkansas Athletic Association Track and Field Advisory Committee since 1980, with a stint as its chair for several years. He was inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2003.

In this interview, Carnahan talks about goal setting, working with assistant coaches, and how doping scandals are affecting high school athletes. He also shares his secret for staying motivated after four decades in the profession.

CM: You didn’t run track or participate in college athletics, so how did you end up coaching?

Carnahan: In high school, I did everything—football, basketball, baseball, and track—just because I loved sports. I thought then that I would like to coach some day. When I started at Russellville 40 years ago, I had no intention of staying this long. But we had some early success, and once you grow roots somewhere it becomes very hard to leave. So a love for sports is what got me started, but what makes me stay is working with kids and seeing them work hard to improve.

Has your coaching philosophy changed over 40 years?

Everybody’s philosophy evolves over time, but the important parts of mine have stayed the same. My staff and I believe in trying to help every single student-athlete be the very best that they can be. We coach the athlete who’s not as talented just as hard as we do the exceptional one. One of the greatest satisfactions we get as coaches is seeing athletes who may never be good enough to win a medal at a meet achieve their personal goals as they go through the program.

Another part of our coaching philosophy is to try to coach every event. The more experience the kids get in different events, the better for them and the team. They get to figure out what they like to compete in and what they’re good at. And if we can place in most of the events and not specialize like some teams do, our chances of doing well in meets are better.

Do you have all of your athletes set goals?

Yes. And although it’s hard to do, we encourage them to set personal achievement goals, not outcome goals. You really have no say in whether you’re going to be a state champion or not. You could do your very best, but some guy down the road may just be better than you. We try to get the kids to buy into the fact that achieving their personal goals is what’s important, not the outcome. That way they feel successful even when we aren’t the state champions.

How do you get your athletes to buy into setting personal goals?

Their goals have to be attainable. Some of them—especially the younger athletes—have no idea what I’m saying when I talk about an achievement goal or a personal goal. They only think about outcome goals. So we explain the importance of personal goals and tweak those goals to reflect what I think their capabilities are.

At the beginning of the season we work together to establish our goals, and then we re-evaluate them at midseason and possibly set new ones. At the end of the year we do individual evaluations of each athlete’s season, and if we’re lucky, we have achieved our goals. If we haven’t, we try to track down why we didn’t do what we thought we were capable of—did we set the goal too high or have an injury, or did we fail to do the caliber of work necessary to reach it? From there, the athlete has the off-season to work on their own and the chance to set new goals for the next season.

How do you help your athletes prepare for big meets at the end of a long season?

Our workout program changes as we approach that peak time of the year—we want to see our athletes rested, not worn out. Mentally, we try to keep them relaxed and avoid letting them get uptight over the fact that this is the competition we’re really trying to win. To do that, we just keep the focus on their personal achievement goals—not how good the competition is, but the personal goals we’ve been focused on all year.

There have been times when we should have been the champion, but we got a little too uptight. We didn’t lose because the other team was better than we were, but because we let our anxiety defeat us. As a coach, I work hard to keep that from happening.

How do you involve the student-athletes who aren’t the most talented on the team?

In cross country, most of our meets can be run with unlimited participation, so everybody is able to compete and feel like part of the team. It gets a little harder in track because each event has a participation limit. The meets I want to win are at the end of the year, so I use our early-season meets almost as a preseason. I use as many kids as I can in those early meets. They may not be in every meet, but they’ll at least get some early-season experience. We may lose a meet we could have won, but it pays off in the long run because we keep them all involved.

Each of your four assistant coaches is the head coach of another sport at Russellville. What is your approach to utilizing them?

Because part of our philosophy is to compete in every event, we work hard to make sure every event is coached. I just figure out what areas my assistants are strong in, and I coach the events that are left over.

What’s great about having other head coaches as assistants is that coaching is teaching, and my assistants have experience and understand how to teach. It probably takes five or six years for someone to really get to know an event well, so it’s great when I get a coach who stays for more than a year or two.

When I have a novice assistant, I will plan their workout down to the last detail, and as I become more confident in them I say, “Okay, you’re my throws coach. Plan the workout.” They’ve been learning from my style for years by that point, and I like that I can pass the responsibility for certain events to an assistant and concentrate on my own.

Does having successful college track and field programs in Arkansas help you as a high school coach?

We’re about an hour and a half away from the University of Arkansas. The team got a new indoor facility six or seven years ago and has been hosting some top-quality meets—the NCAA indoor championships and professional meets. A bunch of our kids take it upon themselves to go up there and watch the athletes they see on television and in the paper. I think their success and the interest generated has helped our sport not only in Russellville, but statewide.

What effect have doping scandals at the professional level had on high school track and field?

It’s killing us. It gives the sport a big black eye because it seems it’s the true stars who are cheating. It’s the biggest change I’ve seen in this sport, and I don’t know how we can protect ourselves from it. I don’t feel like we have a drug problem here with our kids, but it’s always a possibility. When their heroes are doing it and feel they’re benefiting from it, our athletes think, “It’s going to help me, too.”

Part of our school policy is that every team starts its season with a drug education program, but it’s hard to say how effective it is. I think by the time athletes are in high school they’ve made their minds up whether they’re going to do drugs or not. We may need to start the education process even earlier.

When it comes to recreational drugs, at the high school level we have random drug testing. It’s our hope that when our kids get into a situation where drugs are available, they will be able to use the fact that they’re tested as an easy way to say no.

For 40 years you balanced three coaching jobs. How did you handle it all, especially when two of the sports are in the fall?

It was pretty difficult, but I did it because I loved it. After a Friday night football game I’d take off at 6 a.m. Saturday for a cross country meet, then spend the rest of the day planning my workouts for the week. On Sunday I would start looking at game film and planning for our next football opponent. My wife thinks I work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months a year, and she’s probably not far from wrong. As a coach you work very hard and you don’t make much money, so you really have to enjoy working with the kids or you won’t stay long.

Entering your 40th year as a coach, how do you keep yourself motivated?

It’s the satisfaction I get from helping student-athletes improve. That’s what it’s all about. You’re lucky as a coach when you get that really talented guy, but seeing average or below-average athletes work hard to improve, accomplish their personal goals, and leave high school sports in a positive frame of mind is what keeps me coaching.