Opinions divided on private instruction as supplement to high school track and field coaching

For The Baltimore Sun

Olivia Gruver won the NCAA pole vault championship last spring with a vault of 14 feet, 9 inches as a sophomore at Kentucky.

Her ascent began at Franklin, where she won three state titles, but it also received something of a boost during that time. Indians girls coach Paul Hannsen said Gruver also regularly trained at DC Vault — a company that prepares pole vaulters in the Washington area — throughout the winter and spring seasons for about two years.

Gruver was doing something that more track and field athletes are trying — taking on a personal or private coach. This is happening in different ways throughout high school sports. There are shooting coaches in basketball, pitching or batting coaches in baseball, and fitness coaches all around.

But it’s a concept not all coaches are comfortable with.

Hannsen said what many coaches appear to think: Just don’t upset the team dynamic. Franklin won the Class 3A indoor state title for girls last winter, and Hannsen said there’s a delicate balance a coach must keep.

“You just have to make sure it doesn’t affect the team,” he said. “The obligation is to the team.”

Anibal Gonzalez is a private coach. He will be working with six middle-distance and distance runners this winter. His two daughters, Ellie and Bridget, both ran for Catholic during their high school days.

Ellie won The Sun’s Female Athlete of the Year honor in May 2013, and her father always took an active hand in both of the daughters’ training. Anibal Gonzalez works in real estate construction but ran in high school in New Jersey and then at Mount St. Mary’s, and believes he’s just trying to help these runners improve.

“If you clearly have a kid who is above and beyond the skill level of the other athletes, the coach should really try and make every opportunity to make sure that kid continues to excel and go on to the next level, if that’s what they want to do,” Gonzalez said. “If that means they have to have an arrangement to have somebody outside of the coach himself, then they should try to make that a workable situation.”

Gonzalez has worked with Josh Rosemore of Beth Tfiloh during all three of his consecutive Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association C Conference championships in cross country, the most recent of which came a few weeks ago. Rosemore said he liked the personal touch Gonzalez gave him, and learned from it.

Coaches who don’t like this concept feel it can give the athlete too many voices in his or her ear, which might make a teenager’s life more difficult.

“They often have a different plan or goal for an athlete, and as we’ve all heard before, too many cooks spoil the dish,” said Adam Hittner, one of Hereford’s track coaches. “The last thing any teenage athlete needs is to have two people giving two different sets of instructions with two different long-term goals.”

However, there are situations in which an extra coach can help, such as if the school coach doesn’t have as much experience overall or in a specific area. Gruver went for extra help because pole vault is one of the few events in which coaches simply aren’t as knowledgeable.

Hannsen said a paid coach could be beneficial in that kind of situation. He knew of Gruver’s situation with DC Vault and said it worked out fine at the high school level.

Howard County has found a middle ground in this area. Matt Clever, the commissioner of track and field in the county, and said some of its 12 schools don’t have a pole vault facility.

This winter, Reservoir will be a central location for pole vaulting in the county. Two days a week and selected Saturdays, pole vaulters from any school can come for instruction with a certified pole vault coach, something that’s been done the past five or six school years.

This also will take place in the spring.

“We saw a need; we’re trying to provide for that need,” Clever said.

The bottom line seems to be that area coaches understand these outside teachers can help an athlete the way DC Vault aided Gruver, but there are risks, and high school coaches want to find the right balance if someone has a private coach.

“It’s fine line, and you’ve got to be careful,” said longtime McDonogh coach Jeff Sanborn, who’s an assistant coach this season. “It’s a slippery slope if we’re not careful. You can’t say that it’s not a good idea, but it poses challenges for everybody.”

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