Welcome to Interview #32.
I am pleased to share with you the wisdom of Division 2 Cross Country Coach of Edinboro University, Rick Hammer.
This interview is jam packed with great advice for athletes looking at competing at the Division II level and for cross country and track athletes.
Coach Rick Hammer is in his third season at the helm of the Edinboro University Cross Country programs.
Hammer has enjoyed a highly-successful first three seasons at the helm, maintaining Edinboro’s reputation as one of the top NCAA Division II programs in the country. His women have won back-to-back NCAA Division II Atlantic Region titles, and captured their first PSAC crown since 2006 a year ago. For his efforts, Hammer was recognized as the USTFCCCA Atlantic Region Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year.
Where do Division 2 cross country coaches most often find players for their teams?
I think that most DII cross country programs recruit mostly athletes from within their region. Most DII programs are not nationally known the way a Big 10 or PAC 12 school would be. Most cross country programs also have limited scholarship funding and recruiting budgets that make it difficult for a recruit from the opposite side of the country to make a visit due to the cost of travel.
Many times athletes are referred to us from a high school coach who used to run for us and had a good experience. We also get referrals from other alumni that are connected to the high school running scene in some way.
We travel to relatively local meets and watch races live as much as we can while coaching our own teams, but we probably look at meet results online more often and contact the athletes and coaches of the athletes that catch our attention with their performances.
What can or should high school athletes do from their end to get on your radar screen? What are the important steps for an athlete to get noticed by you?
The obvious step is to run fast. The nice thing about recruiting cross country and track is that determining an athlete’s ability is relatively easy. Marks on the track are very comparable, and though cross country courses vary in difficulty they give you a good idea of athlete hierarchy in a state or region through head to head competition.
With websites such as MileSplit.com and Athletic.net providing statistics and event coverage it is very easy to identify good marks and compare multiple athletes from across the country. You can see an athlete’s performance progression through their high school career and see what kind of trajectory they are on. It is not hard for us to find the athletes that we really want and will have an immediate impact on our program.
I like it when athletes are proactive and initiate the contact and interest. There are so many athletes out there with the potential to run at the DII level that it is impossible for a coach to contact everyone with the potential to help their team.
In short, I would tell a perspective athlete the best way to get noticed by a coach is to work hard, run as fast as possible at races, be a good student/citizen, and don’t be afraid to reach out to coaches at the programs you are interested in. Make your interest in a college program known to eliminate the risk of being overlooked as cross country has a very high participation rate at the high school level!
You are solely the men’s and women’s cross country coach. How do you interact with the track and field coach when recruiting? Do you share athletes or are Division 2 cross country runners purely cross country?
My official title is the head cross country coach and assistant track coach. 100% of our cross country runners also run the distance or middle distance events on the track. We share a recruiting budget and scholarship budget. Since we only scholarship the distance events on the men’s track team a men’s scholarship is pretty much completely my call. We discuss the scholarship levels on the women’s side as we do try to offer a complete indoor and outdoor track team in addition to our cross country program. Since I am the full time coach of the distance runners during the track season I pretty much handle all of the recruiting of distance runners outside of a quick meet and greet and getting scholarship amounts approved on the women’s side.
Cross country recruiting is all about recorded data, right? Or is there more to it?
The nice thing about recruiting cross country and track is that determining an athlete’s ability is relatively easy. Marks on the track are very comparable, and though cross country courses vary in difficulty they give you a good idea of head to head comparisons. With websites such as MileSplit.com and Athletic.net providing statistics and event coverage it is very easy to identify competitive marks and compare multiple athletes even if they haven’t raced each other.
Being fast is only the first part of the equation though. Once we identify who can run at an ability that can help us we want to get to know the athlete to make sure they will be successful in our training system. We look at their grades and speak to their coach about their work ethic, character, and discipline.
We also speak to their coaches about what they do in practice to run the marks that they have run. We want athletes that have ran enough volume to adapt to the demands of college training and racing, but we also want them to have room to increase training volume as a means of improving performance.
We then invite our recruits to campus and have them stay with some of our athletes who embody the lifestyle of our program. We rely heavily on the leadership of our team to help vet the recruits that have an interest in our program.
We have limited scholarship money and thus have to be careful to invest wisely in the right athletes. We have passed on athletes with good marks that we don’t think have the work ethic and personality to be successful in our program.
How do you use social media when recruiting? What is your advice to recruits about their use of social media?
I was starting my coaching career about the same time that Facebook really started to become popular. I have found it to be a good way to connect with athletes who don’t regularly check their email, especially international athletes. I also try to follow my athletes on Twitter to keep up with their meet results and other life events. I try to use my Facebook and twitter accounts to promote the successes of our athletes/program…but that is an area I could stand to do better in.
I would caution all recruits to be very careful what they post on social media. I am very upfront that I use social media as a screening tool in the recruiting process. I do my best to look through a recruit’s Facebook and twitter page to gain insight as to what kind of a lifestyle they are living now and are thus likely to live in college. I would think many coaches have similar practices. Anything posted on the internet is pretty much there forever. I would caution them to be very careful what they post as it might affect them for years to come beyond just the college recruitment process.
What are a few of the most common mistakes that prospective-student athletes make in the college recruiting process?
One of the most common mistakes that I see from prospective –student athletes is placing too much emphasis on the amount of the athletic scholarship vs. the total bottom line cost. I understand it is flattering to say that you have a certain percentage of your college education covered due to your athletic ability, but when your career has concluded and you find yourself with a degree and the monthly payments for it I would think it would matter more to make that payment as low as possible vs. where the money that helped you along the way came from.
I also think many recruits don’t understand that DI does not always mean better cross country. NCAA designations refer to the total amount of money that an athletic department spends on all athletics, not the strength of each individual sport. There are several strong DII and even DIII programs that could compete well with and beat many DI schools in cross country.
I don’t think that many recruits recognize the overlap of talent between the divisions and get too caught up in Roman numerals and NCAA Championship designations. Ultimately, I would think they should look for the best academic fit with a running program they would enjoy being a part of, could improve in, and would be a valued contributor to regardless of NCAA designation.
What is the role of the parent in the recruiting process?
I personally feel like choosing a college is the first big step into adulthood. From birth until HS graduation most athletes are under their parent’s wing. This changes for most college students when they go away to college, and I think they should own the decision for the direction that experience will go.
I prefer to see parents that offer advice and help guide their child to a sound college decision, but do not make the college decision for them. I think parents are certainly entitled to ask questions during the recruiting process for the sake of offering sound guidance…but the athlete should dominate their side of the conversation with the parents asking questions on anything the athlete missed or on any answers they didn’t understand.
How do your runners do academically? How are they able to balance athletics and academics? What are some keys to their success?
I am very fortunate to coach in a sport that has a lot of type A people that participate in it. It is common if you are the type of person that runs every day you are also the kind of person that does the other things that you are supposed to every day. This includes going to class, turning in your homework, and getting to bed at a decent hour. Runners are often creatures of routine and habit. A big part of the key to our success in the classroom as a team is recruiting the right people and getting them set in the right habits.
Could you share any examples of how competing at the collegiate level has impacted any of your alumni in their lives after college?
I have only been at Edinboro for a couple of years now, but I know of several alumni from previous jobs who are now coaching at the college level. I think this is due in large part to their experiences on a team and wanting to make college athletics a permanent part of their lives. We do have an alum from Edinboro who works for Flo-Sports covering high school and college cross country and track. He is a good connection to have!
What are the differences in running cross country in high school and college?
There are many differences, starting with the racing distance. Women will move from a 5K to a 6K at all NCAA divisions. Men will move to a mix of 8K and 10K racing. This difference in racing distance means that one’s training has to change. No matter how successful an athlete was in high school or how successful their high school program was they will need to adjust their running volume and workouts to address the demands of a longer race if they want to find success in college cross country.
Due to the longer race most athletes find that they race less frequently in college than they did in high school. Greater emphasis is placed on workouts and development as a runner between infrequent racing in college, while many high school programs race a couple of times a week.
Running cross country and track is a year round thing in college and the seasons are a bit longer than in high school…especially if you are a national caliber runner.
There are far more overnight trips in college running than in high school.
In high school I think you have a wide variety of dedication levels to becoming the best runner one can be. In college the variety of dedication levels in significantly less. People who are not committed quickly learn that college cross country is not for them.
What do you wish your incoming freshmen knew before they trained with you for the first time?
I wish all freshmen coming into college knew the level of commitment it takes to being a good college runner on a good college team. Most good college teams are essentially a compilation of 4-5 years’ worth of high school all-star runners. It can be hard to accept the level of commitment necessary to be good while finishing near the back of the pack in most practices and races during the early part of one’s college career. It can be humbling to someone used to being the front runner of their school, and I wish more freshmen came into college with the understanding that they were going to be beaten by their teammates early on as well as the perseverance to use that time to develop without allowing their confidence to take a hit.
I also wish they had a good understanding that I will ask them to do difficult things they don’t think they are capable of on a regular basis. I would like to think they picked me as their coach and our program to be a part of because they felt I knew what I was doing and had a good plan to intelligently progress their running talent.
I regularly ask for the difficult from my athletes, but I never ask for the impossible. Their perception that something is impossible comes from their past experiences in training and racing. Our practice goals for them are based off of that same past, but with an objective view point and an eye on how to progress it to a better future.
Finally, I wish they understood the importance of open lines of communication. I would like to think that I am the expert when it comes to training in the coach/athlete relationship, but athletes have expertise that only they can bring to the table. I can never tell them how they are feeling. They need to feel comfortable telling me how they feel whether that is an injury, soreness, sickness, or too easy of a work load. They know if they have had adequate sleep and nutrition and should make me aware if they do not. The failure to share such critical information can ruin a training session or even a season.
The coach/athlete relationship should be a partnership and that partnership can only succeed if both parties feel comfortable communicating with each other. Many college running injuries could be avoided with better communication, usually on the part of the athlete not sharing something they should have. Too often the athletes want to prove their toughness by training through an injury or don’t want to disappoint their coach in a practice session by letting them know they are sick. I wish my athletes would be open books when necessary with what is happening in their lives as it pertains to daily practices and that they would prove their toughness at the races that matter.
Bonus Question: Is there anything important that you would like to share directly with high school athletes or cross country runners in particular as they navigate the recruiting process?
I always encourage recruits to make a pros and cons list for every school that they visit. Once they have visited all schools they have an interest in they need to compare those lists and determine the priority of each pro and con. It is highly unlikely that any school will be the perfect fit for your entire wish list, but a list of pros and cons can help you identify the best fit.
I also encourage recruits to be on top of the recruiting process and to try to make decisions sooner rather than later to allow them to enjoy their senior year. Having the college decision out of the way makes their senior year more enjoyable, and it allows their future coach to sell their commitment to other recruits and help to build a better team around them. Making an early decision on where you will run in college is beneficial to a recruit’s present high school and future college running career.
Finally, I encourage recruits to always be upfront and honest with the coaches recruiting them about where that school stands in their minds. Don’t be afraid to tell a coach “no” once that is your final decision concerning their program. If we as coaches are recruiting the way that we should be and pursuing athletes that will make our programs better we are hearing “no” far more often than we are hearing “yes”. Letting us know we are off your list allows us to take you off of ours and to give that opportunity to someone else for whom our program is a better fit.
A special thanks to Matt Durisko for the photos.
Rick Hammer was appointed Edinboro’s men’s and women’s cross country coach in early August 2013. He is teamed with Anne Carlson, who serves as Edinboro’s head track & field coach/director of cross country operations, to oversee Edinboro’s running programs.
Hammer has enjoyed a highly-successful first two seasons at the helm, maintaining Edinboro’s reputation as one of the top NCAA Division II programs in the country. His women have won back-to-back NCAA Division II Atlantic Region titles, and captured their first PSAC crown since 2006 a year ago. For his efforts, Hammer was recognized as the USTFCCCA Atlantic Region Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year.
A December 2004 graduate of Huntington College (Ind.) with a bachelor’s degree in Business Management/Economics, Hammer was a two-time captain, national qualifier and Academic All-American. The Plainfield, Ill. resident received his master’s degree in Physical Education – Coaching Emphasis from Ball State in 2009. He has been working on a master’s degree in Business Administration from Lewis.
Hammer and his wife, Cecilia, reside in Edinboro.
Next, take a look at What is NCAA Division 2?
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