Mental Preparation for Cross Country Championship Races

Posted by Scott Christensen

Your team has just qualified for the state cross country meet with an excellent performance at the section race. Let the celebration begin! That is, for about four hours anyway. A good rule for celebrating (or pouting) is the Midnight Rule.  Championship meet mental preparation begins.  Celebrate your victory until no later than midnight of race day, and then get back to work.

Begin to focus and lay out a plan for the state meet; and this applies to everybody: coaches, athletes, and parents. If your athletes are living “in the moment” like most championship athletes are, then let them savor the win that day, but by the next day you as the coach have moved on and they will get the message to do so too.

My recommendation is to deliver an informational sheet to the team members the very next day after you have qualified for the state meet that mixes a little light-hearted humor with the strong message that things are getting serious now. Whatever your style of coaching cross country is, stay consistent with the information and its delivery to the athletes. While no coach should just copy somebody else’s information, it is useful to look at a template of what others do.


Download this FREE REPORT: Race Strategy and Tactics for the Endurance Events: 800m – 5000m


Below is the very sheet I give to the Stillwater athletes after we have qualified for the state meet. Now, please realize Minnesota is a two division, four hundred school state, so there are some peculiar local aspects that must be addressed in our situation that probably do not apply to your scenario. That is fine. Just cut and paste information that is relevant to your team.

Remember, this first bit of information, more than a week out from state, is meant to be a bit funny to keep them loose at this point, while delivering a strong coaching message.

crosscountry boys.2



So, did I hear that you made the State Cross

Country Running Meet?

Congratulations. Earning a spot on the boys’ varsity for Stillwater in the Minnesota State Cross Country Meet is a tremendous accomplishment. You have no doubt spent years training for this moment with many setbacks, heartbreaks, and breakthroughs along the way. While you have earned the opportunity to compete, it is not a reward. It is a chance for you to race and add to the historical lore of this program. If simply making our state team is your seasonal goal, then please tell me so that I can scratch you from the meet. We are not going to the state meet just to participate, but to try to win it. It is not a celebration, but an extremely grueling race with very high stakes.

Perspective: By now you have received numerous hugs from your mom and heard several old yarns from your dad following your qualification to the state meet. Weird Uncle Billy and sensible sister Sally have also weighed in to congratulate you. It is time to put it to rest over the next week. Ask your parents to not talk about it all the time and tell grandma enough is enough.   Talk about the Republican debates, climate change, Bernie Sanders, anything but the race. It will be mentioned hardly ever at practice. The state meet is just another 5K to conquer, just another race we always run as part of this program. We need not make special shirts, shave heads, grow beards, or act like you are so very cool. It is just another race.

Our Team: Making our varsity for the state meet is a gauntlet of the expected and unexpected. First there is beating 70 of your teammates. Then you must perform well at the end of the year in our biggest meets. Then because of Minnesota State High School League rules that make coaches select their varsity squad 18 days before the state meet you have to be in the right place at the right time with your full body of work. This rule is a coaches’ nightmare that makes life simple only for the fancy suit and tie wearing administrators. In the end, I must follow one simple idea: which 7 guys give us the greatest chance to win the state meet. This leaves many broken-hearts and looks of confusion behind with races yet to be run.  

The Competition: There will be 16 schools competing in the AA state meet and a large number of non-scoring individuals who are part of the race, influence it, and cause confusion among the teams competing. However, they have earned the opportunity to race too. It is crucial that you all realize that it may be that you are in like 36th place, but you are really in about 15th in the team competition. The other 21 runners are non-scoring individuals. Keep cool and realize where in this race you really are. This is where pack running by the team is so useful, as our group of runners can solve the problems in situ. While there are 16 teams that are on the course, we need only worry about a few of the teams: Hopkins, Mounds View, Centennial and Minneapolis Washburn. We should respect these teams to the utmost, but we have no reason to fear them. We race these teams and others throughout the year to get ready for this day.

Our Goal: While our goal is to win the state meet it has to be more specific then that. Our real goal is to win every position in the meet. Our #1 beats everybody else’s #1. Our #2 beats everybody else’s #2 and so on through #7. If that was to happen we would establish seven career bests, and win the state meet. If we can just win 4 of the 5 scoring spots we will win. Mission accomplished. I know, not so easy.

Our Uniform: We will be wearing our Nike championship mango orange top and aqua blue shorts. Why do we do this, our school colors are red, white, and black? We do it for the spectators; so Aunty Sherry and Cousin George who drove 150 miles to watch you run and have never been to a cross country meet in their lives can see you, cheer for you, and urge on the Stillwater team.

Our History: 12 times on the Minnesota AA State Meet stage for a Top 3 team trophy over the past 19 years, including 5 State Championships. Luke Watson and Wayde Hall have been our individual state champions.

The Race: 11:00 am start. Lane 4. This follows the girl’s race at 10:00 am. There are significant course changes this year. There is now only one lap of the first wetland pond. The distance is made up further into the race. Awards follow 30 minutes after our race (noon) in the St Olaf College gym.

The Day: Ace driver Brad Dixon picks us up at 7:45 at SHS. Arrive at St Olaf College at 9:15. Extra team members put up or tent and we establish base camp away from everybody else below the hill. Varsity goes to the field house with me for chips and numbers. Warm-up from 9:45-11:00. After race: Leave St Olaf about 1:00 pm. Get to McDonalds in Lakeville about 1:30. Home around 4:00 pm.

Checklist: Remember everything. There are no uniforms or shoes to borrow from the junior varsity at this meet. DOUBLE CHECK YOUR GEAR BEFORE LEAVING HOME. Remember your music.   Temperature guidelines: 54 degrees à Scientists say this is optimum temperature in which to run. In the 40’s à no problem, just extend the warm-up. 35-40 à consider a very light hat and very light gloves. Use junk. Things you can throw off at any time in the race.


Coaching Resource: Daily Training Schedules for High School Cross Country Runners


Race Strategy & Tactics for the Endurance Events: 800m-5000m

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Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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