The Thinking Man's Coach, Ivy League's Steve Dolan Knows How To Develop Distance Talent by David Hunter, note by Larry Eder
David Hunter has been putting together some fine pieces on the art of coaching and men and women who understand the art and science of coaching. The following piece on Steve Dolan, who was the coaching behind American collegiate record holder Donn Cabral makes interesting reading.
When you stop to reflect upon the current accomplished coaches in collegiate track and field, several names immediately come to mind: Pat Henry at Texas A&M; Mike Holloway at Florida; Vin Lananna at Oregon; and Beth Alford-Sullivan at Penn State, to name a few. But a new wave of younger skillful coaches is quietly developing top-performing athletes and is beginning to emerge as the next generation of notable mentors.
One such rising star is Steve Dolan - the long-standing head coach of men's cross country and the middle distance / distance coach of men's track & field at Princeton University who has just recently been named as the Director Cross Country / Track & Field at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dolan's pathway to Philadelphia has been a patient and fully-developed progression - not unlike the type of carefully-constructed training build-ups he assembles for the distance runners he coaches. Growing up in Minnesota, Dolan experienced diverse athletic opportunities. Later, as a track athlete at nearby University of St. Thomas, Dolan's broad array of athletic skills caused him to gravitate to the decathlon. "I was a jack of all trades," he notes. But he was quite more than that. After a national runner-up finish in the NCAA Div. III decathlon, Dolan returned the following year to capture the 1992 NCAA Div. III national decathlon championship.
As a collegiate athlete, Dolan didn't fully appreciate how that experience would aid him in later life. Now he does. "Being a decathlete was a stepping stone to coaching," notes Dolan. "It was my nature as a decathlete to really fall in love with the sport. I liked to study all aspects of it. That diverse, group knowledge is helpful when you get into coaching."
While working toward his masters degree in Athletics Administration at what now is known as The College of New Jersey, Dolan alertly stepped up to serve as one of its graduate assistants in cross country and track & field - ultimately progressing in just three years to become the head coach of the men's and women's programs in both sports. He hook was set. During his 12 years there, Dolan learned much and honed his craft. Before long, it was clear that this young coach was becoming quite proficient in helping young athletes achieve success. Smilingly, he notes, "I had a great experience there. It was a fun time for me. We had a number of athletes who earned All-American status or were national champions."
Dolan's professional progression continued when opportunity knocked. In 2004, Fred Samara, former Olympic decathlete and head track & field coach at Princeton University, gave the young coach a call. Dolan recalls his big break, "After a retirement on the Princeton track & field staff, Fred was good enough to reach out to me. His opportunity was tough to pass, a chance to coach in the Ivy League. I went from a really broad-based coaching experience to a more narrow-based one in terms of serving as the men's head cross country coach and working with Fred as the men's middle distance and distance coach on the track."
There's an old expression - "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity" - that seems to best describe what happened next for the new Princeton coach. The convergence of the blossoming coaching skills Dolan had been cultivating down the road in Trenton with the gifted, yet unpolished, athletes arriving at Princeton led to exciting and gratifying results almost from the start. "I have been very lucky. From the very beginning we had great athletes," recalls Dolan. "We had a steady stream of talented runners. Austin Smith was here when I arrived. He was followed by Frank McCreery. Then we had David Nightingale, Michael Maag, and Mark Amirault - all exceptional runners and multiple-time All-Americans. We just had a progression of athletes that were among the best in the NCAA."
But this wasn't just luck at work. Something else was happening here, too. During this steady parade of talented young athletes to Princeton, the coach was all the while gaining even more experience and further developing his own coaching style - a detailed and cerebral, almost scientific, approach to preparing his athletes to produce their best performances at just the right time. Evidence of this was everywhere: the Princeton men's cross country team fortified its Ivy League dominance; the men's distance squad shined bright in many venues - on the grass, on the boards, and on the outdoor oval; and in 2011, Dolan's distance charges even captured the Penn Relays 4 x Mile relay, the Tiger's first track victory at the Carnival in over 70 years. When they returned to Penn the following April; they successfully defended - and also added the DMR title.
But nothing on Dolan's resume can top the magical outdoor season that his distance troupe posted last spring. While Donn Cabral was clearly the headliner - two electrifying winning anchor legs at Penn; two Ivy titles; an NCAA steeple title [the Tiger's first NCAA track championship in nearly 70 years]; a USA Olympic team berth in the steeplechase; and an 8th place finish in the Olympic steeple final - he was surrounded by an exceptional supporting distance crew. "We had four guys break the 4:00 minute mile or the 1500 meter equivalent," says Dolan, referring to Cabral, Peter Callahan, Joe Stillin, and Trevor Van Ackeren. Had Callahan not sustained a season-ending foot injury early on, the Tigers - which nonetheless posted a world-leading time of 16:16.79 in capturing the Penn 4 x Mile title without their best miler - could have made a serious assault on the longstanding American record [Athletics West: 16:08.54 in 1984] and the collegiate record [Oregon: 16:03.24 in 2009] Coach Dolan knows how special this season proved to be. "I feel so fortunate. Not only did we have great performers. We had great character and great guys on the team. It couldn't have been more fun."
The type of special, supportive and collegial team chemistry that perpetuates itself year after year rarely happens by accident. How was it cultivated at Princeton? "Good runners and students want to go to a place where they feel they can succeed. And once it is proven that you can do it, that attracts folks," confides Dolan. "And there is a development piece. Even the best high school runners have to develop a lot at the next level. And that's what these guys have done. That's what's exciting. And I think you need the culture for that, too. You can walk in as a 9:00 minute two-miler which is great on the high school level, but it is going to take another jump in level to compete at a high level in college. That's what's been fun to watch."
How do you cultivate confidence in young athletes when they enter an environment already brimming with success? "It is hard and it takes time. But the beauty of the equation is when they come in, they are only 18. In essence, if they stay healthy, work hard, do the right things, and believe in themselves, they should continue to get better. That's the reality. You can't think too much about the times. By the end of their freshman year, often times they are going through their high school two-mile PR on their way to their 5K. Mentally, you have to be OK with that. That's the kind of stuff it's going to take to be good at the next level."
But Dolan's career highlight to date is likely the meticulous and progressive year-long training buildup that he - along with his athlete - constructed to be Donn Cabral's roadmap to London. The dream of an Olympic berth for collegian Cabral was not unrealistic - but a long shot nonetheless. It has been well-chronicled that in recent Olympiads collegiate track & field athletes, once a dominant influence in the make-up of U.S. Olympic teams, have captured an ever-dwindling number of positions on the United States Olympic team.
Undaunted, Dolan and his Olympic hopeful forged ahead with their plan. Dolan explains it this way: "This is something Donn and I talked about more than a year ago - the dream to make the Olympic Trials and to make a run to try to make the Olympic team. When the outdoor season concluded in 2011, he was NCAA runner-up in the steeplechase. His time was 8:32 and the Olympic 'A' standard was about 10 seconds away. It may have seemed like a ways away, but in my mind, even at the end of last year, he was ranked 10th in the USA - so he wasn't that far away. But it was going to take another step. We both talked about aligning the whole year to make that the goal: to make the "A" standard and make the Olympic team. We kept that in our mind throughout the year as we set up the progression of his training and when he would race. We knew he could have great college success on his way to that goal."
With the goal set and the progressive build-up assembled, it was time to execute the plan. "Donn has always been a strength runner and we played on that strength through cross country," explains Dolan. "During the fall, he did weeks in the 100 mile range. Off that training, Donn earned All-American honors in cross country. As we went indoors, we continued to develop his overall strength through aerobic fitness and his ability to run longer. It wasn't high quality; it was a little more strength-oriented, to make sure he was as fit as he could be."
As the progression continued to build tremendous aerobic capacity for Cabral through the winter, an important planned shift in training approached. "As we got to the latter stages of indoor, we shifted focus. I knew that for Donn to run the Olympic "A" standard and to maximize his steeplechase capability, he now had to shift his focus to speed. I told Donn, 'you have to become the best 1500/mile runner possible. You are as strong as you're going to get and now you have to get more comfortable and get faster.' It was fun - almost magic - to watch his progression between indoors to outdoors and how he got faster and faster as we added the quality to his training. At the Penn Relays he anchored the two relays to wins and you could really see that from a miler standpoint, he had arrived and his speed was in there."
Dolan's plan for Cabral left nothing to chance. Light, but regularly-scheduled, hurdling sessions spiced the progressive build-up. "Throughout the fall and winter, we consistently promoted good hurdle development. By the time we got to the Trials and the Olympics, I felt that he was technically amongst the best hurdlers in those races," states Dolan. "We did minimum drills - not long sessions. It became very innate for him. He could hurdle efficiently and with either leg."
Dolan even brought a precise, almost scientific, method to analyzing Cabral's speed progression. "We wanted to get his barrier-free 3000 meter time below 7:50, knowing that the steeple barriers would add another 30 seconds. If he could do that, he would be a sub-8:20 steepler. We also felt that he needed to become a 3:57 miler. We were trying to get to those quantifiable marks in the flat races while also having him be the best possible hurdler. Then it would be time to get in some steeple races and then to sharpen. At Occidental [where Cabral won the steeple with an American-leading, 'A' standard time], it started to come together. It was fun to watch it play out."
An important series of under-distance racing - not unlike a similar program developed by Alberto Salazar and employed with great success with his protégé Galen Rupp - proved to be an essential facet of Dolan's progressive build-up for Cabral. The coach acknowledged the similarities: "There are parallels there. We thought Donn's limitations would his 1500/mile speed that could hamper his ability to run the 'A' standard or to finish the races off the way that he would need to in order to make the Olympic team. To address this, we made the decision to put the 5000 on the shelf for the spring. And he loves the 5000. He was an All-American over 5000 for the past two years. And he could have run a huge personal best at any point this spring. But we wanted to keep our eye on the prize. So we decided that the best way to do that was to focus on steeples and 1500's. And, in the end, it worked. He didn't get the college 5000 PR that he could have. But the 1500 and steeple races we felt would be the kick-in."
Guided skillfully by Dolan's progressive build-up, but against long odds, Cabral made the USA Olympic team. He was one of only about a half dozen collegiate men to do so.
Back from the Olympic Games and riding the wave of recent track & field successes at Princeton, Steve Dolan is poised to undertake new challenges and new adventures at the University of Pennsylvania. "After I returned from the Olympic Trials, I was contacted by Penn to see if I had interest in the Director position. I didn't know, but I thought I should at least explore it," explains Dolan. "So I came down and met with them, and I was impressed. I think the Ivy League is the best conference in the country to coach in. I just love the kind of student athletes you work with and what they stand for. You're here at the home of the Penn Relays. Franklin Field is your home. I got excited about the opportunity to broaden my horizons again. Princeton has been an amazing run, but I was intrigued by the opportunities here at Penn. Penn is a special place, too."
It is apparent that Dolan has found contentment with his role in life, his position at the top of an Ivy League program. "I'm a college coach and I love it. I see myself coaching at Penn and in the Ivy League for a long time. I like working with students and the opportunities to watch them grow as people, as students, as athletes during that four year time. Every coach has the chance to really be a positive impact on the students they get to work with - on and off the track. My heart is in college coaching and I would like to do it for a long time - and I can't picture a better place for me to do it than the Ivy League." And given Steve Dolan's pattern for success, it will likely be no time at all until the University of Pennsylvania whole-heartedly agrees.