Nutrition and Mental Preparation

By Patrick Gildea of Knox West


I think, to some extent, I have been coaching my entire life and I didn’t realize it until I was put in a position to actually do it. I ran track and cross country in high school on Long Island and then came to The University of Tennessee to do the same. Upon graduating I competed at the professional level. Along those stops I picked up different ideas and concepts from a variety of other coaches and athletes that I’ve worked with in some capacity. It was during that time that I gained my own perspective on how to successfully coach cross country. Of course, it also takes student-athletes, ages 14-18, to “buy in.” That buy in is all encompassing. It’s a physical, emotional, and mental agreement. I’ve coached at the college level as a graduate student and now in my current position at West High School where I serve as the head cross country/assistant track & field coach. It’s vital that you continue to expand your scope of the sport, your understanding of the simple and complex things that can help lead to your success as a high school cross country coach. Realizing that there is more to the sport that your league, your state can help guide your student-athlete’s in a manner that is appropriate for their age/grade and ability level.


I will preface this section by stating that I am not a registered dietician or nutritionist of any kind, it’s merely observations that I have made in my time in the sport and now as a coach. I always stress the importance of fueling and hydration to the student-athletes I coach. We try and keep it simple while realizing that it is a critical component to performance, whether during a workout or race. The majority of the student-athletes I coach bring their own lunches to school so they are aware of what they are eating because they understand the value that it has in their training. I don’t ever tell a student-athlete to stay away from one particular food, except suggesting that they maybe limit their donut intake! Like in their training, the student-athletes nutritional choices should be varied. Obviously, you’re not likely to be there to make their dietary choices for them although explaining that the decisions they make may impact their performance. Making healthy, nutritious decisions outside of training will prove to beneficial. We typically, try and have a nutritionist speak with our student-athletes during the summer months so that they are prepared for the fall racing season and beyond. Lastly, on nutrition, speak to your cafeteria staff about any after school snack programs that might be available. Most schools will offer an after school drink/snack combination, even at the high school levels. At Knox County Schools we’re given the choice of a milk/juice and snack each afternoon per student-athlete. We stick with chocolate milk because studies show that it is an effective recovery drink. The snack is typically a whole grain option or fruit. Our student-athletes are then able to replenish their body within 20-30 minutes after completing the day’s training.


Mental Training:

At West High School we’ve utilized a sports psychologist since 2014. It is someone that I saw in college so I had a personal experience with him. For us, our sports psychologist is another component to our overall training model. I will say that not every student-athlete sees the sports psychologist. There seems to still be a stigma there and, why that is, I am not sure. I have seen several of our student-athletes conquer difficult patches in their racing and overcome obstacles because that mental component was missing, or rather, not being trained as effectively as the physical aspect. It is important to get to know your student-athletes, not only in how each performs, but also what makes them tick. Some student-athletes already have that finger on the trigger and need to be managed in other aspects. For those that require it, it is an intricate component that can easily be overlooked by many coaches, novice and experienced alike, although it’s a key to performance. Simple things such as a “Motivational Monday” that many programs utilize can go a long way. Talking about how to set goals, how to relax in high pressure situations, and how to use the tools that the student-athlete already has to perform, could, in some ways, be paramount to any grandiose workout you discover. Sure, to be a better runner you need to have your student-athletes running, although they can’t spend all their waking hours running. The “other” hours should be comprised of how to approach a run/workout/race. How winning is grand and how losing has value in the overall process. I believe, ultimately, what every coach should strive to do is coach the overall individual. What works for one, may not work for another. Understanding that it’s an experiment in one’s self and his or her own athletic exploration is important. As a new coach, it’s relevant that you understand that each student-athlete is unique and brings different qualities to the course and blending all those personalities together creates an interesting dynamic and managing each individually is what will ultimately lead to success.

What we try and do is make sure that each student-athlete is prepared to the best of their ability. That when they get to the starting line, realizing that he or she has completed all their assignments and checked all the boxes in their training. That’s the definitive signal that tells them they are ready to compete. Also, realizing that there isn’t anything that we can fix or determine on race day is imperative. Sure, as a coach you can try to control all the variables leading up to when the gun goes off although there’s more value in displaying the confidence in your student-athlete, and in yourself is critical because that’s what’s reflected.

Patrick Gildea ran at The University of Tennessee, where he was part of teams that won Southeastern Conference and NCAA Championships in track & field. His senior year, the UTK men’s cross country team won the South Regional team title here in Knoxville, which qualified them for the NCAA Championships. Gildea then went on to compete professionally for the New York Athletic Club where he was selected for the World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan in 2006, finishing as the 2nd American and 51st overall. In 2008,  he was selected for the World Half Marathon Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, having secured a spot at the US Championships in Houston, Texas,  where he was 5th overall. In 2006, he ran the New York City  Marathon and finished 29th. He competed in a variety of US Championship events, ranging from cross country, track as well as in road racing. He currently serves as the Head Cross Country/Assistant Track & Field Coach at West High School. In 2016, he coached Megan Murray to three state titles in cross country and the outdoor 1600m and 3200m. Adam Johnston capped his senior year with a school record in the mile at 4:10.91. This past fall, his girls cross country team won the Region 2 team title and went on to finish 5th in the AAA State Championships. West secured two All-State runners in freshman Madeline Shook and senior Lindsay Stallworth,  who finished 9th and 12th respectively.