Today I get the privilege of posting my interview with college coaching peer and friend, Matt Kennedy. Matt and I have been competing against each other the past few years as his Oklahoma Baptist University Women’s Cross Country teams have taken the NCCAA and now the NCAA Division II by storm.
Our team likes to coin it a ‘friendly’ rivalry, but the truth is, that whenever we line up against Coach Kennedy and his ladies we know that we are in for a fight. This past fall they were 20th at the NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships in their first year being eligible for the NCAA post-season.
I really enjoyed his responses and love his passion about developing a CHAMPIONSHIP CULTURE. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
- How long have you been at Oklahoma Baptist University and what is your official role/title?
I am currently in my 9thyear overall at Oklahoma Baptist University. I returned to OBU in the summer of 2011 following three seasons as the head coach at Friends University. I had previously coached at OBU from 2007-2009. In 2015 I became the head women’s cross country coach at OBU and I also serve as our program’s de facto Director of Operations.
- What is your educational background?
Despite being out of the state for the last 12 years, I am a Texan at heart. I graduated from Holliday High School in 2001, Midwestern State University in 2005, and will graduate from East Central University in December 2018 with a Master’s in Education. I am also a USATF Level 1 Certified Coach.
- What is your running background?
My competitive running background is actually very limited. I was one of three boys that went out for cross country my freshman year of high school and the only one to qualify for the regional meet. My sophomore year, however, I had finished in the top 10 at the regional meet and our team had qualified for the state championships. My competitive running career ended with back-to-back team runner-up finishes at the state cross country meet my junior and senior year.
I was not seriously recruited to run in college and certainly did not receive any scholarship offers. I was not very good! This coupled with an injury my senior year meant I stayed home for college. I joined a cycling club and a year later, I completed Wichita Falls’ Hotter’n Hell Hundred.
I have always felt like not running cross country or track in college has been a ding on my resume, and it probably is. However, I truly believe it has helped me personally as a coach. Without a decorated running career to lean on, I found it necessary to do everything possible to get results. There are definitely some experiences being a collegiate athlete would have afforded me as a coach, but producing successful athletes who improve is ultimately what I am hired to do.
- If you had to sum up your coaching philosophy, what would it be?
One of my favorite quotes is from Bill Walsh. He said, “The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they are champions: they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.” This quote is in our girls’ lockers and in the team locker room. I want my athletes behaving like champions full-time. I want their desire to achieve positive results to be their guiding focus. This committed focus and dedication to a full-time culture of excellence will serve them well in their competitive running careers as well as be a strong foundation for their life after athletics.
- What is your favorite XC workout?
My favorite cross country workout is a long cut-down or progression run. We will typically do this type of run every other week and we have several ways of turning a regular Long Run (LR) into, what we call, a Quality Long Run (QLR). This is a phrase coined by my friend and colleague Coach Mark Heard a few years ago and is the perfect description of the workout.
One of my favorite variations to the QLR is simply running each mile of a long run faster than the previous. The girls will start at a very easy and comfortable pace but by the end of the run be at or near threshold pace. For me, this type of run achieves volume, strength, and confidence. This type of QLR ensures that the run starts out very much under control and relaxed. It also reinforces our program’s beliefs about race strategy.
- What is your favorite Track workout for a 1500/5k kid?
(Long Answer Warning) My favorite track workout is somewhat involved and I have used many different variations. The basic idea is to have a medium/hard effort that is equal to or longer than race distance followed by efforts with rest at and faster than current race pace. I like to do these types of “Pace Combo” workouts 10-12 days out from major competitions.
Before I give a specific example of this workout, I want to address my intentional thought related to NOT doing this workout exactly the same way every time. I believe variations and deviations from the routine/norm, especially in this type of effort, will elicit a different response from the athlete’s attitudes and the athlete’s body. The body will respond most strongly to an unfamiliar stimulus and the athlete will be FOCUSED in an intentional way to something new and different.
Ultimately, this Pace Combo workout is about the athlete’s confidence. By the time of the season we get to do these types of efforts, most of the work has been done and the athletes are in good shape. This workout is about making sure the athletes are radiating confidence as much as anything. The last variation of this workout I did went like this:
5000m (tempo effort) + 1000m Surge (race pace effort, no break between 5k+1k) = 6000m finish (4:00 break/jog to the track), 2x 1000 FAST (3:00 after each), 2x 600 FASTER (2:00 after each), 2x 400 FASTEST (60 seconds after each).
The first 6000 meters are done without much feedback from me and without the athletes checking their GPS watches. Typically, I’ve found that athletes will run faster than prescribed if they simply relax and run by feel. All the recoveries are active and include some jogging. The 1000s, 600s, and 400s are all done progressively faster. For example, if the 200 split during the 1000s is 39 seconds, the 600s would split 38 and the 400s 37.
As you can see, the workout total including and following the surge 1000 equals 5000 meters (surge 1000+2×1000+2×600+2×400). After the workout ends, if I can add up the times from all these efforts and get 16:05 for example, I know I’ve got a girl who is ready to break 17:00 in a race – because she managed a workout (yes, with breaks, but…) FOLLOWING a 5000m tempo! You must learn to run fast when you are tired. This is how you race and this workout accomplishes that mission.
- What’s the most challenging part of your job as a college coach?
I think the most challenging thing about being a college coach, especially at a small college, is all the other jobs that are associated with my primary job. Many days I find myself adding already completed, unplanned tasks to my to-do list simply so I can cross them off!
- What’s the most enjoyable part of your job as a college coach?
No doubt that the most rewarding part of my job is the relationships I get to have with the athletes and their families. Results are defiantly a close second but results without relationship are not effective in the long term. I love watching a girl break a major time barrier, achieve a goal, or hit a new personal best, but what makes these moments so much sweeter is the day-to-day life I get to share with the athletes. I get to see firsthand all the work that goes into making these moments possible and I am thankful for that.
- Favorite coaching memory?
I have been fortunate to work with many elite athletes and Olympians over the years and I am thankful for all of those awesome memories, but my favorite coaching memory occurred just recently. This past cross country season was OBU’s first as full members of NCAA Division II. This was a season two years in the making. Athletes were specifically recruited and other strategically re-shirted to make this season special. At the end of the season, our team had the first two NCAA All Americans in school history, had achieved the first NCAA National Ranking in school history, had the first D2 Conference Championship in school history and had run at the first NCAA National Championship in school history. It was memorable and enjoyable.