Matt Esche is the assistant men’s and women’s cross country, and track and field coach at Bradley University. Under Esche’s leadership, the 2011-12 women’s track and field team collected its highest point total at the Missouri Valley Conference’s outdoor championship since 2000. In 2012-13, the Bradley men’s cross country squad posted its best finish at the NCAA Regional since 2007, in addition to the men’s track and field team earning its highest point total at the MVC Outdoor Championship since 1987.
Matt was good enough to sit down with Winthrop’s managing editor, Ryan Matthews, to discuss turnarounds, setting and achieving goals, and the importance of social media, in addition to the success he and Bradley University have had on the on the track.
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Listen to the interview:
What has surprised you most about working as a coach?
What is surprising working as a coach is that there are many different facets that you don’t think that you are going to be tackling. As a collegiate athlete myself, I never thought of all of those logistics that went into being a coach, going to meets, dealing with per diems, dealing with parents, and traveling on buses, all the little details that make things go smoothly.
It’s been something that has been a little bit of a shock for me over the course of the last three years, but I think everything has gone well, and there has been a very smooth transition for myself and the team. I like to have my hands in every little thing I do, so it’s been okay for me.
What is the most critical characteristic or leadership quality required in your position?
I would definitely say keeping calm and controlling the controllables. If you’re able to keep calm and keep a straight face no matter the situation that presents itself, your athletes are going to stay calm as well. They are going to feed off of that. If you decide to go haywire and stress out—even if you don’t look stressed out and you don’t sound stressed out—your athletes are going to pick up on it.
The last thing you want to do is, especially in a sport like cross country, is hamper their performances. The more can stay calm and control the controllables, go the flow and the roll with the punches, you’re going to be okay. Your team is going to perform at the level that you trained it to perform at.
How has the need for information and data evolved during the tenure at both your current position and in the span of your career?
It’s evolved probably 360 degrees. It’s been unbelievable from watch, in comparison to what it was when I was an athlete in high school only 12 years ago. We didn’t have a lot of the tools and websites. Let’s Run is one of the big names in track and field/cross county and provides a lot of information at our fingertips that we’ve never had before and we couldn’t get right away. Now, all of a sudden, with meet results available almost immediately, and being able to send messages to kids using email right on your phone, or via direct message on Twitter—you’re communicating with these kids a lot faster.
That’s the way of the world today, and it’s changing everything. You can’t just sit back and make a phone call. You have to be on top of everything, and it pays to be the first one in the door. It also pays to make sure you cross your T’s and dot your I’s. It’s a balance. You also have this wealth of information right in front of you.
You need to make sure that you’re presenting the right information to the kids. With so many more media outlets, the question is: what do you give the kids? What kind of information are they really looking at? What are they really looking for? How much do they use the social media? How much are they looking at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram?
There are kids that we are recruiting right now at Bradley, they would never return a phone call, but once you approach them on Twitter, they get back to you really fast. Perhaps they didn’t have time to give you a call, but they knew you were interested because you had done the work through Twitter. At the same time, there are other kids who don’t have a Twitter account, or they have one, but they rarely use it.
You have to do a little more research on the kids you’re recruiting because now they’re putting things on Instagram, they’re putting things up on Facebook or Vine. You think to yourself: I don’t want my kids, my student athletes using those terminologies, saying those words. Alternatively, there are also the instances where you think: I like what that kid posted, he/she posts good articles, or he/she says good stuff and seems like a team player.
He/she might not be a bad kid, but today some young people use social media as outlets for frustration. You don’t want that on your team. I don’t allow that on Bradley’s team.
Who are some other coaches or leaders today that inform your coaching style?
Of course, the coach that I’m working with—have had the pleasure and honor of working with—is Marc Burns, the head coach at Bradley. Marc recruited me to come to Bradley and help him achieve our dream of making this a powerhouse. It’s slowly happening. We are fifth on the regional on the women’s side, ranked on the men’s side, the highest we’ve ever been on either side. Mark has been great, he’s really taught me about being calm, being relaxed. We have a great relationship. He’s a very calm and laid back guy, yet, at the same time, a little more intense than I am. We complement each other well. He’s been huge.
Then of course, there’s my college coach, Coach Larry Wieczorek at the University of Iowa. He kind of molded me into what I wanted to be and how I wanted to act. He was always challenging me, especially in my last two years in college, to always think like a college coach. What would I do in this situation? He trained me to think in ways beyond just as an athlete. So he attempted, from the time that I was 20-years old, to push the envelope and make me think outside of the box. Thinking about, if our opponent is doing this, then why would I as the coach do something different? Those two coaches in particular were very influential.
But even before them it began with my high school coaches who helped mold me into something that Coach Wieczorek could work with, Coach Burns could work with by instilling great values. Those are formative years, making sure you’ve got faith and family, the foundation for everything that you do. Additionally, making sure your school work comes before your running and your friends. You’ve got to make sure you have your priorities in order. If your priorities are not in order, nothing else is going to go right.
What are some success stories for your program and for yourself professionally?
Oh boy, this is really the fun question. A couple of my favorite success stories, one of this is with a girl by the name of Sarah Higgins out of Bradley-Bourbonnais High School. I loved working with Sarah, because she was a kid that came to us. We didn’t recruit Sarah. There was a coaching change when she was a freshman and she was running for us. In her freshman year, she had done a phenomenal job by getting into the nursing program at Bradley, which if you don’t do it via direct admission, it’s almost impossible to do.
By the middle of her sophomore year, however, she was stressed out. She was overworked, overwhelmed, and I remember one weekend on a Thursday, she came to us and she was overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted. We asked her what was going on, and she explained that she was having difficulty with her classes. Without going into much detail, we figured out real quick that she had too much going on at that moment.
We sent her home that weekend. We didn’t even let her practice. Sarah was home from Thursday evening all the way until Tuesday afternoon. We told her to go home and relax. Don’t come to practice. If you want to run, do what you need to do, but make sure you get your act in order. She wasn’t a bad student by any stretch. She wasn’t skipping classes or anything like that. You can’t into nursing if you aren’t a good student.
She had two tests she had to pass that weekend, and if she didn’t pass the tests, she was going to be in trouble grades wise. When she came back on Tuesday, she reported to us that she was a lot calmer, things were going well. She turned around and pulled off two A’s on the tests, brought her grades up in the nursing department, and right now, she’s finishing up her nursing degree. She’ll receive her RN at the end of the year. That’s one of my favorite stories.
The other story is simply watching what we have here at Bradley. As a transformation, we came in here four years ago and the cupboard was pretty close to bare on the men’s side. On the women’s side, there were still some can goods left over! I was fortunate to work with both sides, which was great. Both were excited about our direction and saw the way we approached things, how we were a laid back group of guys. But when it came to work, we wanted to work. They bought into that mentality right away.
One of the best things I’ve ever seen was watching this team slowly come from where it was, where you’re almost the laughing stock of the Missouri Valley Conference, to becoming one of the best teams in the Valley on both the men and women’s sides. It feels good to have other teams take notice. We have coaches calling us and asking what we’re doing, what changes we made. I think that’s incredible to see.
The women’s teams just finished seventh in the prestigious Peoria Notre Dame Invitational this past weekend, beating teams like Baylor, SMU, Duke, North Western, Missouri, some big name programs. And the men’s team is coming along very, very quickly. To watch a team turn around like that, I think that’s a great success.
But they’re doing that not only in the field, but they’re also doing it in the classroom. At Bradley, we maintain 3.48 GPA on the women’s side and a 3.18 GPA on the men’s side. Just to see a transformation of a program, what we were four years ago—sitting there and going, man, if only we could be ranked in the region on the men’s side, and if only we could be in the top five on the women’s side, that would be fantastic. We’re staring up at our goals going, “oh gee, this is incredible.” We’re getting very close. This is something that we’re very, very excited about.