Marc Bloom's 'Amazing Racers' First Look: FM's Leadership

FM Leaders Rally Team Culture

--Last in a Five-Part Series--

A MileSplit Exclusive first look at the themes and stories from the upcoming book about the most successful HS distance running program of the past two decades.

The Girls Team win the 2010 State Meet with one senior, three juniors, two sophomore and a freshman.

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A coach can only do so much-even a coach with experience, knowhow and innovative ideas like Bill Aris. At Fayetteville-Manlius team leaders are crucial influencers in helping to sustain high standards and adherence to good values.

Leadership on a cross-country team takes many forms and exists in a delicate balance within each season's personality power structure. Just about any runner has leadership potential, and it does not necessarily have to be the oldest or strongest team members. 

One fall season some years back Aris was upset by his boys' lack of cohesion and told them they had not shown that they deserve to run the Nike New York Regional. Out of the blue, a sophomore spoke up and called out older teammates. After that, the team rallied in training with better unity, ran the regional and qualified for nationals.

Another season more than a decade ago, a couple of senior girls lapsed in focus, failing to uphold prized accountability. Aris admonished them but also asked another senior girl, one admired for her maturity and diplomacy, to intervene. After the girl pulled her two errant teammates aside and gave them a talking-to, the pair, the next week, closed ranks and helped set the team on its way.

Leadership is a constant: it's always in the wind. Effective leaders know they can never let their guard down. Training, racing, on the bus, at team meals, in the weight room, stretching, stride-outs... there is always something to say or observe or react to. Oftentimes, a few words or even a glance can go a long way.

The Manlius Girls at the State Meet in 2009, en route to a 1 through 5 sweep at Plattsburgh.

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Once when a key varsity girl was in a rut, falling back in workouts and feeling sorry for herself, her closest friend on the team called out, "Hey, get your act together." She didn't say "act" but more common usage in that context. The lagging girl got the message. Next meet, she was runner-up in a major meet to lead the squad.

Another year, right at nationals, a girls' team leader noticed another girl picking at her breakfast on race day morning. The leader knew something was up. She spoke to the picky eater, whose nerves had gotten the best of her, and calmed her down with the right message of focusing on how fit she was-how fit they all were-from their final workouts back home. The girl marshaled her confidence and raced up to speed in Portland.

Leadership must be fluid and adapt to change. Leaders, and sometimes coaches themselves, tend to treat athletes as though all will respond to the same messages of consent. One year, a girl told me, she realized too late that her leadership style, which she'd picked up from others in prior seasons, did not work for the current personalities she was attempting to influence. 

Another girl with a vast resume of success--and who enjoyed being a leader when her turn came--told me that when she was young and being nurtured she required different handling than her peers. She said that while others may have responded to a high-energy, rah-rah style, she preferred a more toned-down, cerebral orientation to acquire coherence. Talking things out, reasoning, was her m├ętier.

The 2010 Boys Team discuss how an honest conversation led to a revitalized program at NXN

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Such differences are not always obvious and usually require a coach's cunning, or acute sensitivity of team leaders, to uncover. One year the F-M boys had a strong leader, in performance and personality. He appeared to be an excellent role model. One underling told me he felt a calm when doing warm-ups alongside this formidable young man. But that subservience proved to be a handicap; it was no one's fault in particular. It was just that the team members gave the leader such unqualified respect that they did not allow themselves the freedom to realize they could run with him, they did not have be stuck from behind.

Aris himself did not see this coming until the season was almost over. As a result, he made some changes the next season that broadened the F-M leadership approach. He created rotating leadership, which proved effective for this particular makeup of athletes.

Here, a greater number of athletes would have an opportunity for a designated leadership role, as chosen by team members and with a leadership style they themselves would devise. Each leader would be "in charge" for a specified period of time. This allowed for greater variety in leaders' approaches and gave more runners a voice in team standards. No one who wanted to lead would be left out. No one would feel snubbed.

The Stotans of 2004 competing hard at their local League Championship

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This expansion of leadership also facilitated a more open discussion of issues. There was less need for closed-door, work-it-out encounters in which personal accusations, while helpful, could be bruising.

Aris said that by and large a team's desired leadership chemistry could find some common ground in the personalities of his dogs. If his current dog, an American Staffordshire, saw a deer in the park, she would hunt it down. If his former dog, a chocolate lab, saw a deer, he would frolic with it all day long. "You need ruthless competitors together with those who go with the flow," Aris says in the book. 

Marc Bloom was the editor of four national running magazines including Harrier XC, which led to the start of NXN and Great American. "Amazing Racers," Bloom's tenth book, will be published August 6 by Pegasus Books. That same day, on Tuesday, Aug. 6, the book will be launched with a Barnes & Noble event in the Syracuse area, at the branch in DeWitt. Bloom and Aris will speak and sign books. Former F-M athletes will be in attendance. All are welcome. More information to come. "Amazing Racers" can be purchased at Amazon and wherever books are sold.