COVINGTON, Ga. – It starts with encouraging and helping each other.
That in turn, develops the unity so prevalent throughout the Newton Rams boys’ and girls’ cross-country teams. And that unity promotes growth, both mentally and physically through all their runners.
“Cross-country by its nature is an arduous task,” says boys coach Stephen Foster. “We foster team unity through consistent positive encouragement. We always wait for everyone to cross the finish line and help each other in and out of practice.”
While Foster and girls coach Courtney Jackson are in their first years coaching the Rams this season, both have prior experience in the sport, with Jackson entering her second year, and Foster beginning his coaching career in Australia in 2010.
Both coaches enter this season with the goal of progressing this young team and building them into a successful unit for both now, and in the future.
“We are a young, fairly new team with only a couple of athletes who ran last year,” Foster said. “We’ve had a few of our runners finish in the top 10 in various local meets, and half our team ran new personal bests at our last meet.”
With two first year coaches, and the youthful team looking for more experience, Foster noted that each runner set their own personal goals instead of establishing an overall team goal. That way, each athlete can improve at their own pace.
The team, in fact, is so young and new that there is not a single senior on the roster, and only a handful of juniors. Both team captains can be found within the underclassman group, which excites Foster that he will be able to watch this team really progress over the next two to three years.
“Celene and Kijana are our female and male team captains and do a fantastic job of encouraging others and leading by example,” Foster said.
With the team – and the program as a whole – striving to get better, Foster knows the importance of them bonding together over the next few seasons, which is where the important factor of encouragement begins as an act, along with many other attributes, that he tries to teach to his runners both on and off the field.
“Despite cross-country being an intrinsically individual sport, we encourage teamwork on and off the course,” he said. “Responsibility and accountability are two more life skills instilled in our athletes. On our longer run days, it may be tempting to cut a little of each corner. However, we teach that you are cheating yourself and your team when you do so. Regardless of how much more effort those extra few steps may feel at the time, it is always best to give 100% in everything that you do. Your work ethic is a reflection of who you and your team are.”
It is common for a coach to not only teach, but also learn from his athletes as well. As Foster helps prepare them for success on and off the field, he hasn’t necessarily been taught a specific attribute by his team. However, he has learned much about his runners and has learned how well they represent a broad spectrum of the thousands who participate in the sport.
“I am in a unique position as I am Canadian, and part of a cultural teaching exchange program,” he said. “My athletes have done a fantastic job of representing Newton, the south and the United States. That might not be your typical answer of ‘they taught me patience,’ but I am quite proud of this group of athletes and always happy to be called their head coach.”
However, he doesn’t do any of this coaching and teaching alone, as Jackson, the aforementioned girls coach who echoed many of his sentiments about the team and program, can usually be found doing more of the same to help build and develop the team into a successful one.
A former assistant cross-country coach at Eastside, this is her first season with the Rams, and whatever tactics and methods of coaching and practicing Foster is doing for the boys, Jackson is more than likely doing the same for the girls.
“We coach together,” she said. “We implement basically the same workouts for both teams with some repetition differences.”
She also noted that their cohesiveness in coaching together is key for the growth and success of the team.
“Foster and I jive well together,” she said. “We complement each other nicely because we share very similar coaching styles. We’re both very flexible and adaptable coaches that are willing to try new things. Yet we both also have very high standards for holding our team accountable and ensuring both personal and team success.”
With individual goals being the route of the boys’ team, Jackson noted the same as true for the girls’ team. She said their constantly looking to improve on both speed and endurance, as half of the girls’ squad is also new to cross country.
Even with the constant hard work to improve, and the growth of the team being shown, Foster noted a few simple moments as among his favorites for the season.
“The best moments have to be the smiles after the race when they run a new personal record or place better than expected,” he said. “Also, the quiet bus ride back, knowing that everyone has given it everything they had and are exhausted from the race.”
With improved times and steady progress from both the boys and girls team, Foster would like to see his runners get faster for regionals and qualify for state before the season comes to an end.
The team’s last pre-Region meet will take place at Morgan County on October 18 where they will work to display their consistent improvement, before taking on the Area 1 & 4 AAAAAAA Region meet to hopefully extend their season into the state level meet.
Foster is confident. So much so that he has set some parameters on how they prepare for the remaining regular season meet, with the thought in mind that some runners making state is a more than attainable goal.
“Nearing the end of the season, we’ve somewhat limited our overall mileage and are focusing on individual’s splits during training,” he said. “We’re making sure that everyone is feeling fresh and running as fast as they can.”