Anyone attending a big high school cross country meet at Wickham Park in Manchester, CT, will see thousands of people: parents, grandparents, officials, athletes and of course, cross country coaches. With the foliage, the history, and the tradition, it's a special experience, and everyone has his own story. A relative newcomer to The Wickham Park Experience might not know a lot of faces there, and no one should judge whose story is more or less important than anyone else's, but Simsbury's Head Cross Country Coach Mike Cohen should be part of the conversation about who the elite coaches are. His XC teams have won five state championships there, yet that casual observer could bump into Coach and not know he just jostled one of the great ones. Additionally, Coach's XC teams were runners up once and hold three third place finishes. When people add 460 team victories to his impressive totals they begin to get the picture of outstanding coaching talent.
Now fast forward to the indoor track season. We have a variety of events from sprints to the 3200 meter run, and several field events, including the pole vault. Now consider the differences between coaching cross country and the pole vault, and consider a coach who can do both successfully, and you have Coach Cohen. For Indoor Track he is the Head Coach for boys and girls, and they have two conference championships and five divisional titles to their credit. And many of his championship teams needed the points in the pole vault.
On to the outdoor season, during which he serves as Head Coach for boys only, but the number of athletes does not diminish that much. During the outdoor season he focuses his coaching on the PV, javelin, and middle distances. Now we know why Simsbury churns out so many successful 4 X 800 relay teams. Need we mention the state record that Simsbury holds? When we consider the variety of events Coach has taught, and his 95-33-1 record, we have the picture of versatility, and when we add his teams championships to the mix, it place Mike Cohen on the mountaintop of CT coaches.
Before he closed the books in his classroom in 2006, Coach Cohen taught biological sciences at Simsbury High for 35 years, and in the time he taught and coached he blended his knowledge in the sciences, his experiences as an athlete himself, and the art of coaching into a program of excellence in CT. He sees his role of coach as an extension of the educational experience, and like so many wise men who coach kids, he knows that many of his lessons taught after school are the ones kids are likely to take farthest in their lives. As he says, he believes in an effort-based training to build lessons in self discipline, commitment, responsibility, goal setting, and teamwork. He strives to create a positive and nurturing environment on his teams, no matter what the season. Kids pick right up on all that, and as a result, for example, the Indoor Track and Field team, which Coach started about five years ago, is now the largest winter season sport at Simsbury High.
A big part of the attraction is Coach Cohen.
Athletes praise their coaches after completing a season or maybe on their first visit back to high school after starting college, but some of the most meaningful praise comes from athletes who graduated more than a decade and a half ago, like Ryan Eckel, a 1996 graduate of Simsbury High. "Coach has the very rare (or so I've found) combination of being an incredibly intense motivator getting maximum effort from his athletes, while being a true 'expert' in technical knowledge, exercise physiology and coaching science. All other coaches I've met or ran for (including college and post-collegiately) have none or only one of these qualities, but Coach possesses both."
When he was in his thirties he stated a running program, and not being a natural spectator, Cohen began training himself for participation in local road races. Soon, 5Ks were not long enough, and he took on the challenges of 10Ks and half marathons, and ultimately entered marathons. No surprise. However, due to unusual wearing down of cartilage in his knees, he had to stop running, but he needed to keep his connection to competition, so he began to coach as a volunteer at the high school level in Granby. Then, in 1985, he accepted the position of Assistant Coach for girls there, and in 1988 he became the Boys Head Cross Country Coach at Simsbury High.
After learning and growing through the seasons, he is wise enough to listen carefully to his athletes' feedback, so in the 1990's when some of them asked about attending the Green Mountain (VT) Running Camp, he became affiliated with it. He started off visiting it, then later on served it as a staff member and lecturer, and ultimately, presenter. A few years ago was appointed a Director there.
That kind of advancement is similar to the advancement he has accomplished at Simsbury High through the years. By the end of his career there he had served SHS as a coordinator of biology and also as an Assistant to the Vice Principal for four years. Keep in mind he's also coaching two seasons during this period. Once again ─ versatile.
In all he has done, he has excelled.
Consider the Stratton Brook Cross Country Invitation. It was already 20 years old when Coach took it over in the early nineties, and took it from a nice cozy Friday afternoon get-together to a first-class Saturday meet that continues to be a premier event on the Connecticut XC circuit, and is also very respected by the coaching community. Erik Peterson, a former athlete and current Assistant XC Coach at SHS, speaks of Coach's organizational skills and his commitment: To paraphrase Peterson, on the day before the Stratton Brook Invitation, Coach will finish practice on a Friday and then start to prepare for the next day until about 9. Then he'll be on site of the SBI at 4:30 the next morning. "He is a perfectionist. When we host the SBI countless hours go into planning and setting up. He orders everything for the SBI in July."
The same planning goes into the annual Greater Hartford Track & field meet, for which Coach Cohen is a major organizer.
As far back as 1994, the CT High School Coaches Association named him "Connecticut Coach of the Year in Cross Country," and more than a decade later it named him CHSCA Outstanding Coach, so it's clear his skills just get better with age.
Less noticeable and harder to measure than the championship banners that hang in the SHS gym is Coach's ability to connect with his athletes to motivate each individual in his charge to perpetuate the eternal goal of improvement. To achieve that goal, Coach Cohen must develop a sense of each of his athletes, so he knows what buttons to push. A good example of this is Cohen's relationship with Jefferson Wilkes, now a cadet at West Point. Once, during a one-on-one "chat" with Wilkes, Coach asked of him, did he deserve to be great? After letting Wilkes process the answer, and confident of his conclusion, Coach planted the seed of motivation inside of Wilkes's heart and mind. And because that motivation came from inside his athlete, Coach knew it would be intense and successful. Wilkes simply stated, "Coach Cohen is the reason I am where I am today. There [were] countless times when I thought he was insane, but that's only because I was used to most of the world having lower expectations."
Ryan Eckles again: "We just expected to be near the front of any race we were in. It's a testament to Coach that in the process of pushing us (and teaching us to push ourselves) he instilled a love of running in his athletes. Among my high school teammates, almost all are still active runners to one degree or another, despite having to juggle kids, careers, etc. And many are involved in the sport through coaching, which I suspect is inspired by Coach. In contrast, about 10% of my college teammates still run on a regular basis."
Erik Peterson personifies Eckles's statement. He sees things from a different perspective from his position as Coach's Assistant in XC. He recognizes Coach's commitment to and concern for his athletes' performances in a way athletes don't always see...a coach's nerves. As Peterson says, "...he still gets nervous before meets after all these years."
So Mike Cohen does not see the end of the course yet, although he knows he's closer to the end of his career than the beginning. There are more young freshmen to motivate, more pole vaulters to inspire, and more championships to win.
There are still more opportunities ahead to continue to be versatile and excellent as a coach and leader.
So next time you're at a XC meet at Wickham Park, and you bump into a person you may not recognize, understand you just might have made contact with one of the great ones.