Cathy Ganshirt Morlock has long been a successful educator in the Marion, Virginia school system where when she teaches 5th grade students. In 2012 she was named the district’s Teacher of the Year for her leadership and best practices in the classroom.
Yes, but will you coach?
Morlock was busy enough with her schedule, of course, that she was not expecting to take on any new assignments. Which meant she really did not expect to embark on an entirely new path of success as cross country coach for the women’s and men’s teams at the high school level this past fall.
It all started when the Athletic Director for the school district called to ask if she would consider taking the job because the longtime cross country coach, a legend in the state actually, had just stepped down. And the new coaching candidate did not want the job after all.
A runner says yes
Morlock did not come to the coaching scene without prior experience. She had coached tennis at a high level for many years, and has long competed in that sport herself. Her own children Maggie, Michael and Jimmy have all been involved in athletics, especially swimming and soccer, sports that happen to have similar aspects to running in terms of training schedules and commitment.
But the athletic director was more succinct: “I know you know how to relate with kids,” he told her.
After Cathy Ganshirt Morlock got the call from the AD, she held a meeting with her husband Paul Morlock to discuss the idea. He works out of town as a hospital administrator during the week and returns on weekends, so there was room in the evening schedule for Cathy to take on the position. She also recruited the assistance of her daughter Maggie, a recent grad of Marquette University who was living back home while searching for a position in her field of Criminal law and justice.
Paul Morlock had competed in the sports of cross country and track in high school and track at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Knowing the time commitment involved, he was not immediate in encouraging his wife to take on the coaching job. Yet it wound up being something Cathy really wanted to do, for herself, and for others.
As a longtime runner Cathi Ganshirt Morlock knew the general ins and outs of training. She understood the need for a training plan, risks of injury, fatigue and illness. Most of all she understood that success does not happen overnight.
“With the transition in the program I knew that a lot of our kids did not get in many summer base miles,” she explained. “So rather than go into the season making assumptions about what they could do, I asked them to write down their own goals about what they wanted to do. We decided to work on those goals together. Some kids just wanted to ‘letter.’ Others wanted to make it to regionals or districts.”
That goal-setting process turned out to be great way to get to know the kids up front. What she discovered as she went along was that coaching runners was not just about running, although she did plenty of that with her team. “I ran with the kids every day,” she noted. “And I told them, ‘Hey, I’m twice your age so you better be able to beat me in practice every day.’ ”
Support systems emerge
From such humble motivations emerged a support system that saw her runners begin to encourage each other toward their goals rather than thinking only for themselves. But developing leaders within the team proved a bit more challenging.
“We had a senior girl’s captain who learned what it meant to become a real leader,” Morlock said. “She learned that being a captain wasn’t just about comparing girls to each other.”
When the inevitable peer pressure that builds between teenagers started to control the team dynamic in a less than positive way, Coach Morlock pulled her captain aside and told her, “I’m not kidding you. We are not going to treat each other like this.”
The message was simple: Be a leader. Yet the athlete initially responded: “I don’t know how to do that.”
“Then we’ll work on it together,” Coach Morlock told her. At that moment, like a scene from the movie “Mean Girls,” the commitment to team leadership started to show results. By the end of the season, the team captain threw her arms around her coach and said, “You know…I didn’t know I could do that. But it worked because somebody cared about what I said and how I said it.”
Improvement and success
Between all the team and leadership lessons, some real running improvement occurred. Coach Morlock used some classically progressive training methods. These included lots of short hill work, because the team races and trains in a mountainous region of the country. Cadence drills were used to teach pace based on military file running, a drill that requires teamwork while at the same time increasing fitness. The Marion team thus became known for working together and for passing competitors on the uphills.
Music to run by
She also experimented with speed work while blaring the music of the Beatles. Her runners protested at first. “This really isn’t our music,” they told her.
So she hit them with the Rolling Stones as well, also played at full volume. Pretty soon they were cruising the track to sounds of Mick and Keith, whose musical abandon took the runner’s minds off their self-imposed limits. It worked. The Marion team began to improve their speed.
Hugs for all
At meets Coach Morlock adopted a somewhat unorthodox reward system to honor the efforts of her runners. She waited at the finish line to hug each and every runner as they came through the chute. “A few of the guys were funny about the hugging at first,” she said. “But then it became part of our system of support for each other.”
That message of unconditional support really began to take hold throughout the team. Her runners fanned out on the course each meet, choosing strategic spots to cheer on their teammates. The enthusiasm bridged back to each practice session. A true team was forming around the concept of togetherness.
While her husband Paul Morlock was cautiously supportive of his wife’s efforts at first, it soon became clear that the coach in the family was doing some great things with her team. “I’ll admit there was a little bit of ‘I’ll show you’ in my motivation to do well,” Coach Cathy Morlock says. “But once Paul saw that I was doing some things right, his experience came into a play and he offered suggestions, like, ‘Have you tried this…”
Cathy’s daughter Maggie, a recent college grad and accomplished competitive swimmer in her own right joined her mother’s team as an assistant coach. “Maggie is a good role model for the athletes, especially the young women who were a little insecure about their efforts. Having Maggie there to help out with the team was really great.”
As it turned out, the swimming experience of her daughter Maggie proved a valuable attribute when two athletes experienced leg injuries and were prescribed to use pool training to maintain fitness. The pool was a familiar environment for Maggie Morlock who knew how to keep the kids engaged. Both runners were able to heal up and compete in the regional meet toward the end of the season.
Toward season’s end when the team was making preparation for Regionals, Cathy Morlock attended a coach’s meeting to gain information about the meet schedule and rules. “I’ll admit, I didn’t really know all the rules,” Morlock she says. “So I had to ask a lot of questions.”
Sitting there among all those veteran cross country coaches, Morlock was surprised when one of the eldest and most experienced in the bunch turned to her and asked, “Are you the Marion coach?”
“Yes I am,” she responded.
“So, are you the one that hugs all your runners when they come through the chute? Because if you are, you’re making the rest of us look bad,” he grumped, but with a touch of humor.
Breaking rules can be a good thing
The incident caught Morlock a little off guard. Yet she realized that perhaps “breaking a few rules” when it comes to cross country etiquette could be a good thing.
At season’s end many of her runners had indeed met the goals they’d written for themselves last year. A few advanced to the District meet as they hoped, and the entire team turned out to cheer them on.
As for her own training, the already svelte Coach Morlock realizes how much she now misses her daily runs with her kids. “I feel fat and slow,” she joked, although that is hardly the case as her steady state weight is just over 110 pounds.
The mother of three busy children and focused teacher never really slows down. She just shifts speeds and adapts to the pace of the day. Just like she tells her runners to do on the course, and in life.