By: Joe Cullen and Chris Catton
Telling the tale of the recent boom in high school distance running would be impossible without mentioning RunCCG, an online coaching company formed by Chris Catton and Tim Goldsack. The two have coached large swaths of elite high school runners, and in doing so, helped make online coaching services more prominent through their use of social media. We sat down with Coach Catton to discuss his background as a runner and coach (fun fact: he coached Craig Engels in HS!), his coaching philosophies, and the future of RunCCG!
Edited for clarity
Joe Cullen: How did you get started with coaching?
Chris Catton: I went to Wake Forest. My dad is a football and baseball coach so I wanted to be a teacher and then I just got a job — I graduated during the financial crisis of 2008 — so I got a job in town. The first thing they tell you when you’re in school for education is to not take on the extra things your first year, it’ll [already] be hard enough.
My school said that I could be the head coach of track and cross country. I said, “Sure, it’s a good school, I’ll take it.” We started off with a pretty good team — the team had been decent before I got there — and then year after year, our top guy got better, and as our top guy got better, the team underneath did as well.
And then I got married and my wife and I had to move to Pennsylvania. Coaching was kind of my thing, at that point I had done it for six years. We kept having to move though, because we had the five-year [medical] residency in Pennsylvania, and then we had to move to Dallas for a year.
JC: How did RunCCG form then?
CC: With a little kid at home, I wasn’t going to teach that year, so I thought I’ll just try to grow this side business. I’ve been coaching people on the side, like five at a time, so let’s take a year to really grow this. We tried to grow it, but when you have less results to post about, it’s harder to run and manage.
Then there was the spring of 2020 and COVID. It was almost a perfect storm because one of the harder things for athletes is, “How do you do this [online coaching] and stay on your high school team?”
At this point, no one had a coach or a team, no one had practice or meets. One thing that really grew it was, Coach [Tim] Goldsack [RunCCG co-founder] coached a couple people online that did the marathon, I coached a couple people online, and we got them to the Olympic Trials and had one win at the Indianapolis Marathon.
Then, we set up this thing where we’re going to coach these high-schoolers, but a lot of them were juniors and in other sports, they’d have to put film out, they needed some sort of results.
We thought, “We're going to train these people and we're going to have them run time trials and we're going to have their friends rabbit them. We're going to get videos of it and we're going to have them send it to coaches and we're going to post about it.”
JC: You had a strong career at Wake Forest, dipping under 1:50 on multiple occasions. How did your successes and failures as a college athlete influence your coaching philosophy?
CC: I used to give this speech when I spoke at camps. To take one thing from my college experience, you can complain about a coach, which I’m sure I did a million times. You can complain about your meets, or the heat you’re in, or whatever.
The one thing you can do is control so many variables yourself. You can eat right, not party all the time, roll and take ice baths and see the trainer. There’s plenty that you can do on your own to control your success. I’d say about 99% of the people who are complaining about how they’re doing aren’t doing those things, so I always felt like it was hypocritical at some point for me to complain.
JC: So you’ve coached Craig Engels’ team, then at Mount Carmel [in Pennsylvania] before you transitioned to RunCCG. How would you compare the experience of coaching teams and coaching in person compared to RunCCG, where a lot of your interactions are through calls or texts?
CC: One positive thing is that when I coached teams, our track teams were big, and there was a lot of management. You had to make sure everyone was entered in their events and organized. That made the management aspect of coaching a lot of people online easier.
Relationship building was big, and I think that goes as much being a teacher as being a high school coach. As a teacher and coach, you need to identify kids’ strengths and weaknesses. That communication [in person] is big.
One advantage, however, is that every person I coach is motivated. When I coached high school, not every person was motivated or necessarily even wanted to be good. That doesn’t make them a bad person or a bad person to have on a team. It’s just that track wasn’t their passion.
If you’re going to contact us [at RunCCG] and hire a coach, you’re really motivated. That might not mean that they’re the best runners — there might be better runners, someone who’s less motivated but beats them — but it’s easier to coach these motivated people. I never really think about whether someone is actually doing the training.
JC: Exactly, it’s self-selection. If you’re going out of your way to work with RunCCG and spending all this time immersed in running social media and culture, then you’re going to be gung-ho about running and living up to your potential.
CC: I totally agree. The other thing is, I definitely feel more pressure to help people reach their goals and accomplish certain things. They’re hiring a coach, so you know they’re easier to work with, but there’s also more expectations out of the coach.
When a kid says, “Hey, I want to break nine minutes in the 3200,” or “I want to make Foot Locker Nationals,” it definitely puts more of an urgency to achieve that.
JC: Another aspect you’ve alluded to that I’m kind of curious about is the relationship with your athletes’ high school coaches. How do you manage those relationships?
CC: That’s the question that comes up most on our Instagram lives. The big thing, when I was a high school coach, we didn’t have a pole vault coach. So we always had pole vaulters who would go to this one warehouse where a coach had a bunch of mats and he taught a bunch of pole vaulters. He was doing a great job and our pole vaulters came back and got better and were motivated enough to do the outside work, so I was totally happy and my ego wasn’t injured or anything.
With us, though, our number one rule is, it has to work with a high school coach… Everything has to be above water, so we ask the athletes to make the arrangement with their coaches, like “Am I allowed to do this or not?”
And if they are allowed, then it’s full head of steam, we’ll take it on and help them get as fast as they can be. But we also have the idea in mind that this athlete is on a team. They might have a conference meet coming up, and the team might need to win the conference meet, so they might need to run four events and that’s great.
So you're just going to keep in mind that you're not just coaching to get as fast as they can, but you’re also coaching someone who’s on a team and that coach is letting you coach someone on their team. You have to understand that there are sacrifices that come with it, and I think that’s a good thing. You gotta learn how to work within a team and do things for other people.
JC: You’ve mentioned Coach Goldsack and your partnership with him. In terms of RunCCG, how do you guys split up the coaching responsibilities?
CC: That’s a good question. Tim lives in Houston and he was the coach at South Alabama, so he takes a lot of the people in Texas, he takes everyone in Alabama.
It took us a while to get to this point; we figured it’d be best for us to coach everyone ourselves in one state, so that we weren’t competing against each other… And I think you get a better familiarity with how things work in a state. For example, I take the kids in Pennsylvania, and I could just get a good idea of, “Hey, that kid’s from a strong district,” or “Hey, that kid who emailed is from a school with a really good program.”
But now it's easier because we just take a region or state, and Coach Goldsack is a super hard worker, he’s really diligent — he does most of our social media stuff. I guess I’m more on the creative team, I’m like, I thought of this idea when I was walking the dog or I thought of this when I was running. He rolls up his sleeves and does a lot of the social media, which outside of results and building relationships, is the most important. He’s really good with the marketing aspect of it and helps us show off all the hard work the kids do.
JC: Speaking on that creative side, what are you most excited for in RunCCG’s future?
CC: You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. We definitely have to keep broadening our horizons, we’d like to do a cross-country camp next summer. That’s new for us — we wanted COVID to settle down before we got committed to that, but I guess it never really settled down so it didn’t really matter.
We’re going to get involved with having our own meet or being in charge of a meet in the winter, so trying to bring some more things to the table.
JC: I know we touched on coaching philosophy at the beginning of the interview. I wanted to come back to that — what do you think is the biggest backbone of your coaching philosophy?
CC: My biggest talent is identifying where someone is starting. We get people across the board; it’s not necessarily relative to how fast they are. You can have someone who’s run a lot, somebody who’s raced a lot, somebody who’s run very little, somebody with a bunch of injuries, somebody with very little experience running at all. I think the biggest talent for me would just be identifying where to start because you can have all these grandiose ideas about where you want to get somebody.
But if you try to skip steps and don’t start at the right place, it’s going to be very difficult to get where you want to go. Sometimes, you want to show off and throw all this fancy training at them, but you have to understand where each person is starting from; it just makes it a lot easier to build.
The biggest foundation of that is consistency, not trying to wow yourself or wow them with one workout or one week or one number of mileage. To just keep building them throughout the year, another thing we do is just train throughout the whole year. We’ll have people doing more workouts than other people during the summer. More people are doing that now, but we’ll do tempo runs and fartleks throughout the whole summer.
JC: One last question to cap it off: If you had one piece of advice for a younger high school or college athlete who hopes to get into coaching one day, what would it be?
CC: The biggest thing is identifying what kind of coaching you want to do. If you want to be involved with college coaching — some of my best friends are college coaches — it's never too early to build important relationships.
It’s a good thing to do when you’re in high school and one of the top kids in your state, just be polite to other coaches and tell them congratulations on how their kids ran. To ask other coaches questions–not saying, “My coach makes me do this, what should I do?” But asking, “What do you guys do for stretching and rolling?”
When I was in college, I would talk to Coach [Bob] Braman at Florida State to ask different questions about running and coaching. He remembered that like 15 years later. Be a good person on your team, be a good teammate, be a good addition to your team while you're in college if you want to be a college coach.
Don’t be a distraction, don’t be a liability, be the person at practice who can be counted on at meets and to conduct yourself well.
Also understand that it’s not going to have an immediate financial return and don’t get frustrated. Most of the people I know who started off as volunteers in Division 1 — the ones who really committed knowing it is going to be tough for two years–they’ve all gotten their chance.
Another piece of advice that I would give coaches is you can’t be afraid to take the wheel when it’s your turn. Your first job might not be the job you dreamed of, whether you’re a high school coach or a college coach. Let’s say your first job is in a random conference, you have to treat it like it’s the World Championships or Olympics.
You really have to be where your feet are and have a bunch of passion for what you’re doing at that time. Everybody has big ambitions about where they want to get to, but if you’re not doing your job, it’s going to be tough for that to happen.