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Shaker Heights cross country coach teaches kids to pursue their dreams

Shaker Heights cross country coach teaches kids to pursue their dreams
Dave Englander, third from left, has helped shape the boys and girls cross country teams at Shaker Heights. (Photo: Dave Englander)

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio (BVM) – Dave Englander, a science teacher at Woodbury Elementary School in Shaker Heights, runs the girls and boys cross country teams at the city’s public high school. With the goal of helping his runners find success, he’s focused on doing more than just improving their times.

Last year’s regional cross country coach of the year has been tremendously successful, leading the girls team to consecutive top three finishes in the state, and helping a number of his athletes to the collegiate level. However, Englander doesn’t coach just to churn out results, he believes that there are more important things that can be taught through high school coaching.

Englander was a wrestler in high school, not a runner. In fact, the first cross country meet that he ever participated in was as a coach. Even without the experience, he learned many of the important life lessons that he tries to pass down to his high school runners through his time wrestling in high school. 

“I didn’t run in high school and I was an average wrestler at best, but I gained a lot from my experience as a wrestler,” Englander said. “…Wrestling taught me a lot about self-reliance, confidence, what I was capable of, and how I could be better than I thought I could be. I want to pass that on as best I can to coaching, because the world isn’t always a great place, and a lot of times kids don’t really understand that they have control over what happens to them. Running gives them a sense of, ‘If I put something into this, I get something out of it.’ I think that’s really important.”

The Shaker Heights coach preaches focusing on every runner, trying to help them get the best out of themselves and beat their personal record times, regardless of whether they have the kind of talent to help the team reach states. Treating every runner with the same kind of respect, as long as they are willing to work hard, creates an environment of mutual respect where runners are willing to push themselves to be the best that they can be. The hope is that it can help them beyond just improving their results at meets. 

“Ultimately this is about a lot more than just winning cross country meets,” Englander said. “If I were only doing high school coaching for that, I’d be a pretty sad coach and person. At the end of the day, I’m an educator, and I’m trying to help kids find themselves and help kids be successful, and learn how they have control over their destiny to a certain degree. How their actions have merit and how they can help themselves.

“That’s really the overall purpose of this; winning meets is important… but even if kids aren’t college or state level runners, they can become runners and everyone can learn something about sacrifice and working towards a goal.”

While creating a rewarding environment for runners who might not have become athletes otherwise, Englander simultaneously pushes his top runners and helps them to compete at a regional or state level, with many of them even getting college scholarships through their times. For Englander, the joy from helping his athletes achieve their goals through the sport often comes with perspective. 

“I think the joy from that success comes…with perspective,” Englander said. “Sometimes once they get to that level, I get so worked up and caught up with what’s happening. [Coach] Petrick and I work well together because we have very different outlooks on the competitive side of things. Petrick is a ‘love to win’ guy, and he gets very excited when good things happen. I’m a ‘hate to lose’ person.

“It’s very rewarding to see these kids have success, and I take tremendous pride in watching them go on to run in college. I looked every weekend to see how Sophie [Carrier] was doing at Kentucky, how Alexa [Jankowsky] was doing at Ohio State, and how Hailey [Stupay] was doing at Allegheny.”

Englander tries to take an individual sport, where different athletes are competing with each other to have the fastest times, and create a dynamic team environment. Through activities like a week long cross country camp before the school year starts, and weekly team dinners at different runners’ houses, Englander creates a team where everyone is on the same page and is able to find common ground. 

“Creating that kind of environment is essential beyond just a competitive standpoint,” Englander said. “When current runners look back at cross country 20 or 30 years from now, the races aren’t going to be their focus. They’re going to remember the team dinners [and] they’re going to remember hanging out with some of the other guys…

“These things are important, and it’s so easy for kids to fall into their niches and their cliques. The camp in particular, but all of the activities that we do are designed to break down barriers so that kids can really see the commonalities that they have amongst each other.”

Englander’s emphasis on helping runners be in a comfortable and rewarding environment doesn’t mean that he doesn’t push them hard. They run six days per week, mixing in integral training and tempo work, while pushing each other to get to the next level. He admits that there is no secret to success. It all comes down to being willing to put in the work, and being willing to fight when you feel like you have nothing left. That’s why he’s devised his “HHH” philosophy which gives his runners a gameplan in their race. 

Englander explained that in the first mile you run with your “head”, the second mile you “hunt”, and try to pass as many people as you can, and the last mile, you run with your “heart”.

“It comes down to slowly tearing apart your shoes, day after day, mile after mile,” Englander said. “There are people that are so talented that they can have success without that extra work, but ultimately, to be the best, talent or not, you still have to put in those miles.”

Englander is optimistic about the upcoming fall season, but thinks it’s more important to put emphasis on the process rather than results. He thinks there is already too much pressure on kids at that age, and wants to allow the hard work to take care of the results.

“I’m optimistic, but years and years ago, there was a parent that said to me, ‘It must be very difficult for you to hinge your happiness on the performance of teenagers,’” Englander said. “That was an interesting way of looking at it. You never know how kids are going to change and what life circumstances are going to pull them apart….There is just a lot on these guys. 

“If we focus on the process of working hard every day and doing what we need to do to get better, the product will take care of itself.”

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