Today we chat with Valley Christian SJ head cross country and track and field coach, Josh Small. He has been the head cross country coach for several years and took over the helm of the track and field team this past season. Josh has experienced it all as a high school, junior college, college and post collegiate competitor with the Nike Farm team. He coached two time Collegiate 10000m. All-American Jen Bergman in high school as a junior and senior. He's also a long suffering San Jose Sharks fan and one of these years, that playoff beard is going to work!
To read the interview at cross country express: CLICK HERE
1. How did you get your start in running? What other sports did you play besides cross country and track & field?
I grew up in the small town of Hood River, Oregon which at the time had a population of about three-thousand people. Sitting on the Columbia Gorge it is famous for windsurfing, apples and amazing fishing. I guess you could say I was born a runner and was very active as a child. All of us were. The neighborhood kids ran around everywhere, we were always outside, when we weren’t on foot we were riding our bikes around town. The only rule was to be home before dark; somehow we always made it back in one piece.
My first race was in sixth grade. Every year Hood River Junior High (there was only one in the whole town) would have a scrimmage against the school from the next town over in Odell. I entered the 400 meters, which was the second longest event of the day. I vividly remember the adrenaline of lining up at the start, the sound of cinder under my feet, and the cold wind in my face and the surreal feeling of coming down the home straight. I have been at it ever since. Running was an outlet for me, I just felt at peace out there on the trails. I still do.
2. Tell us a little about your high school experiences. Highlights? What did you learn from those experiences?
I graduated from Santa Cruz High School and humbly was an average runner at best, hitting 4:36 for the mile and 9:59 for 2 miles. I had six different coaches through my four years of Track and Cross Country, many whom were knowledgeable and good athletes themselves but there was not the consistency you desire as an athlete. I had to be internally focused and driven as a runner. From the start I was a student of the sport, reading and designing training plans for myself. What I needed most was to close the books and trust my coaches and my training, but that was difficult for an impatient teenager with a new coach every season. I was always second guessing and trying something new. What I needed more than anything was to not over think it and just get out there with my team and be consistent day after day.
3. What about your experience in college? Highlights? What did you learn from that experience?
After I graduated high school my parents made it clear that if I wanted to go to college I had to pay for it myself. All I knew is that I wanted to keep running. No one understood it, they said that running was a waste of time and I should get a job; that running wouldn't take me anywhere. But I felt strongly this was what I wanted to do so I took a part-time job that worked around my practice schedule and enrolled in Cabrillo College to run for Coach Brock. After one season the school dropped the track program so I moved to Monterey and transferred to Hartnell College, a top program in Northern California coached by Gary Shaw. Things started to click in college, my times dropped and I earned a full scholarship to Fresno Pacific University where I graduated with a degree in Kinesiology.
I formulated a lot of my own training philosophies during this time from personal experiences and the amazing coaches I had. At Hartnell we won two Northern California Cross Country Championships, at Fresno Pacific we were ranked in the top 25 nationally and I won the conference title at 10,000 meters. The successes were memorable but what I value most is the time with my team. I learned that there is power in a group of competitive individuals working toward a common goal, that selfish motivations are trumped by selfless ones. There is no greater testament of this than the family-like bond you create with your teammates. We were together all the time and are friends to this day.
4. You ran on the Farm Team after college. Who coached you and what did you take away from that experience?
After graduating I still felt I had not reached my potential as a runner, so I turned down a graduate assistant job and moved to the Bay Area in hopes of being able to train with the Nike Farm Team. Much like High School I was an average collegiate runner who had no business being on that team but Jeff Johnson welcomed me into the group. After that summer Vin Lananna took over for the next few years. Gags and Jack Daniels came in soon after.
There were two training groups on the Farm Team, the "A" group that consisted of people who were shooting to compete at the world level and the "B" group that were shooting to compete at the national level. Then there was the band of misfits I was a part of. We dubbed ourselves the unofficial "C" team, for "Team Cutters," because quite frankly we should have been cut. One workout I remember well is when the guys in the top group unexpectedly joined us. There was Brad and Brent Hauser, JJ White, Nathan Nutter, Jason Balkman, Greg Jimmerson (just to name a few) who were coming back from a summer of racing in Europe, others the Olympics. Somewhere in the middle of the workout it was my turn to lead and what resulted were perhaps the greatest few intervals of my life. We were the guys off the back trying to keep up. We never asked questions, just put our head down and did the work. It was fun and I was running faster than I ever had before. The first thing I noticed was the talent and work ethic of the athletes there. I am thankful to this day for my opportunity to be a part of that day in and day out, even as an outsider just running for my life.
Out there I trained harder than I ever thought possible, but lost the idea of recovery. In the zeal to keep up I pushed my limits and the miles. I was running my personal bests in practice but my racing suffered as I left a lot out there in practice. A good friend and "training partner" Jureg Stalder (who owns a 28:06 personal best at 10k) took me through some of the most brutal workouts I have ever experienced but also emphasized the need to recover and adapt from the hard work. If anything the most valuable lesson is that you can train hard, and not to be afraid of it, but also train smart and listen to your body. It is often an art as much as it is a science.
5. What led you into coaching? Who have been your biggest coaching mentors?
The passion to coach has always been there. Looking back, even as an athlete I had a coach’s mindset and approach to my training. Coach Greg Brock who is now at Santa Cruz High School has been an influential person in my coaching and my life. Not only was he an amazing runner in his day competing for Stanford, but has a Zen like approach as a coach. He always had an open door and I would often stop by his house just to talk. He was a great mentor and still is to this day. It probably drove his wife crazy stopping by as I did.
He doesn't remember this but during one of our many conversations he once told me, "It is better to be 90% fit and 100% healthy than 100% fit and 90% healthy." The principle behind that is coaching to the individual. Consistency of training is key in distance running, you can't run your best over-trained and injured. It is a delicate balance. Most importantly he taught me that coaching is more than putting together training. It is about being there for your athletes and taking an interest in their lives off the track.
6. What was your first experience coaching? Highlights? What did you learn from that experience?
My first coaching job was as distance coach for Notre Dame Salinas during a redshirt season at Hartnell. It was a great season as we set some school records and made it to the CCS Finals in the 800. I also had a short stint at Harker, in which we qualified for the State Championships in cross country. Each school has its own culture and challenges, but at the heart of it all kids had this in common: they want someone to believe in them.
7. What do you do besides coaching (ie. what pays the bills)?
I have been in education since 2000. I taught Biology and Earth Science for 9 years before moving to Physical Education which is what I teach now.
8. How did you end up at Valley Christian SJ? What was the state of the program before you started there?
Valley Christian is a high level academic institution whose philosophy of education and ideology matches with mine as an educator. I was encouraged by my wife, a graduate of Valley Christian to apply.
The student-athlete here is generally motivated athletically and involved in many other activities such as the participating in our integrated science, math and engineering program, our music conservatory, robotics program, and various academic clubs and AP courses. So they are busy. The team had experienced success with top finishes in track & field and women's cross country. I started as an assistant under Coach Jonathan Lee who had done an amazing job establishing a passion for running and core philosophy that we hold to this day. Team culture is something that evolves over time and something we are still working on. It has ebbs and flows and changes with us as we mature as coaches, a community and a team.
9. Jen Bergman recorded another All-American performance at the recently completed NCAA meet. Tell us a little about her high school career and did you envision some of her success at the University of Arizona?
I was very blessed to have coached such a talented and dedicated athlete so early in my coaching career. I started coaching Jennifer her junior year, she had missed her sophomore track year due to a knee injury in the growth plate known as Osgood–Schlatters. At the start of the season I sat down with her and her parents and discussed our training and racing goals for the upcoming year. My goal was to run as fast as we could without risking her health. If needed our times would be sacrificed to remain injury free with the goal of building a base for her senior year.
Keep in mind Jennifer was very young as a junior at only 15 years old. Due to her knee issues that summer we did no running and supplemented with pool running every day. This was not time just floating around in the pool. These were difficult workouts that would last upwards of 1.5-2 hours with a high level of intensity. While some may use a running belt to help float and hold form, she used diving weights to make it more challenging. It takes a special kind of athlete to do that kind of work in the pool day in and day out, to remain focused and not lose heart. By that fall we began running 2-3 days a week and continued to supplement with pool workouts. In the end it was good enough to win CCS and finish second place at state.
As a senior Jennifer went on to win CCS and qualify for the Footlocker Nationals with a 6th place finish in the West Region qualifier at Mt. Sac. Obviously she was an accomplished runner but if there was ever a hint at her future success it was in her resilience. Every time she experienced a setback she came back stronger and more determined.
Her senior track season things were clicking but after a sluggish race she was diagnosed with Mono. After her disappointing end to her senior year, and the second straight year ending in tears, I told her that there were bigger races in her future. We had a good idea she was going to be good, but I had no idea those bigger races would come so soon as she led her team at the NCAA Cross Country Championships her Freshman year (at age 17) and went on to finish third in the 10,000 meters as a sophomore. She was a ferocious cross country runner, as seen qualifying for footlocker in high school; she just had bad luck on the track. She is now a four time All-American, PAC-12 champion and finished 8th at USATF championships in June. She also just signed a contract to run professionally for Mizuno, so I guess she's doing ok.
10. What would you say have been some of the biggest changes when it comes to training from your own running in high school to what your runners do today?
Tempo runs. They are nothing new but in the 90's we just didn't do them.
11. Once cross country season gets rolling (late September/early October), what does a typical training week look like for your team with a Saturday race?
While the core philosophy of what we do hasn't changed, every year is a little different based on the needs of the athletes. While days shift around based on scheduling this is very general program of what we do, which I'm assuming is similar to what every other program in the country does as well.
Fartlek / VO2 Max / Lactate Tolerance
(Something hard, varied race pace, etc.)
Trail Run, 60-70% vVO2
Mid-Long Run / Training Run + Hill Sprints or Strides
Threshold, 70-85% vVO2 / Cruise Intervals / Speed
(Sometimes threshold, sometimes something fast)
Trail Run, 60-70% vVO2
12. What changes as you get closer to the section meet?
When October finally rolls around we move into our competitive phase of training in preparation for the league, section and state meets. Throughout the macrocycle we try to touch upon every energy system in each phase of training but emphasize different components. Traditionally our focus shifts from elevating the lactate threshold to placing a greater emphasis on VO2 Max.
We also try to get on to the championship course a few times to do our workouts. Outside of that we change very little of what we do. We keep pushing all the way to the end, reducing mileage and increasing intensity 7-10 days before the goal race. The key is getting to the end of the season healthy, adapting to the work and staying consistent through the season.
13. Aside from the running, what other exercises do the runners do that you feel are just as important for their improved racing times?
For the record I believe that if you want to be better at running, you have to run, there is just no way around it. But the biggest thing we do outside of our training regimen is morning pool workouts. We also do simple plyometrics, hurdle drills, etc. A key aspect to training is recovery, we encourage rolling out sore muscles and ice baths after key workouts.
This year at Valley Christian we have hired a director of human performance. We are excited to bring his expertise and passion into the weight room.
14. For the coaches that want to be successful at the section and state meet levels, what would you say are the keys to getting to that level?
I'm a firm believer that a coach's job is to spur internal motivation, not be the motivation. It is our job to inspire and teach athletes to love the sport. The aura of running for team rather than self is a powerful thing. A selfless athlete will push themselves well beyond what they could ever do out of selfish motivations. Teach the athletes to love and run for one another. Each person on your team has a role and responsibility as a member of that team. For some it may be in leadership, others work ethic, others compassion. Draw out the best in each athlete not just in performance but their character as well.
You need to be true to who you are as a person, you can't fake it. You have to coach to your personality. You can't emulate another successful coach or mirror their training. Different kids, different culture.
15. Anything else you would like to add.
Never stop learning. My conversations and runs with Chris Pup, Craig Lee, Jim Meyer, you and so many others and have helped me grow as a coach exponentially. Never stop striving to be better. Try something new every year. Be willing to throw it all away and start over. Teach the love of running and the sport.
Thank you Albert for all you do. You are promoting and growing the sport, you are doing a good thing here!