The Buford Cross-Country program is led by Buford High School Alumni, Matthew Johnson. This is Coach Johnson’s first year as Head Coach after transitioning from an assistant coaching role. Buford Athletics sat down with Coach Johnson to check in and see how the season is going.
Buford Athletics: The 2019 Cross Country season is well underway. How has it been going so far?
Coach Johnson: It has been going well! We have been training really hard and have been improving each race. Our team grew significantly in numbers this year, which has been awesome. We have the most runners we have ever had! We have a nice balance of experienced upper-classmen and young runners that have been stepping up for us when we need them. We have always prided ourselves on being a pack running team when we race. Competing with a pack running mentality is where we have seen most of our success in past years, and it is no different this season. Right now we are entering the second half of our regular season, so we are really focused on keeping everybody healthy and hitting several key workouts over the next few weeks that are going to sharpen us up and have us ready to roll come championship season. We always prepare with the big picture in mind. We want to be running our best at the end of October and early November when it matters most!
Buford Athletics: You are a Buford graduate, and you even ran four years for the Buford Cross Country team while you were here. What does it mean to you to now be the head coach of the cross-country program here at your alma mater?
Coach Johnson: It sounds cliché, but having the opportunity to give back just a little as a coach to a sport and a program that gave so much to me has been a dream come true. I have so much passion for Buford Cross Country and love the kids and coaches that are involved in our program. As passionate as I was as an athlete, I think that passion grew when I became a coach. I definitely feel a tremendous responsibility as the head coach, but even more than that I see an unbelievable opportunity to make a difference in the world around me. This sport has impacted my life in so many positive ways, and it’s my desire for the kids I coach to be able to experience the sport in the same way. Buford is my home...it has been for my entire life. I love this place and the people that are a part of this community. Having had the opportunity to come through this program as a student-athlete first, and now be back as a coach has really been something special. It feels like I am back where I belong...with my Buford FAMILY. It has definitely come full-circle.
Buford Athletics: You were able to run cross country at the collegiate level. How has that helped prepare you to coach HS kids and lead a program?
Coach Johnson: My experience as a collegiate runner has been an integral part in preparing me to coach high school cross country. I gained so much knowledge about the sport, proper training, and injury prevention throughout my collegiate career. More than that though, I gained a lot of life experience. I have experienced success, and I have experienced struggles as a runner. I know that those experiences have made me a better coach because I can relate to our runners in many ways and understand many of the struggles they might face. I try to give them perspective and help them see their full potential as runners and people. The biggest thing I want our kids to understand that I learned throughout my collegiate career is that running is not their identity. It is not who they are, but rather something they do to compete and have fun. They need to know that they are much more than a runner. I always tell our kids who join our program that I expect cross country to be a priority in their lives, but it shouldn’t be THE priority. We are going to push them to be better runners, and we are going to compete to win, but when it’s all said and done, I want every kid that comes through our program to walk away after four years with much more than just faster PRs. I want them to walk away with lessons, relationships, and experiences that will last a lifetime. Looking back, those are the things over my running career that I value the most and ultimately what I want the kids in our program to find value in.
Buford Athletics: Who are some coaches who have positively influenced you as a person and as a coach?
Coach Johnson: I have had many coaches over the years (in many different sports) who have positively influenced me as a person and as a coach. First and foremost, my high school cross country coach at Buford, Drew Eager is really the one that really helped foster my passion for running. He played a major role in helping me fulfill my dream of running in college and has always served as a great mentor and friend. He also is the one who first gave me the opportunity to come to Buford as an assistant coach back in 2015. If it wasn’t for that, I would have never started a career in education. It has been awesome having him back on our cross country staff, and I am constantly looking to him for advice and guidance as a coach. There are also many other coaches at Buford who I looked up to when I was an athlete in high school, and continue to look up to now as a coach. Names like Dexter Wood, Tony Wolfe, and David Snell, among so many others pop into my head. We are fortunate at Buford to have some of the best coaches out there, and I greatly value the wisdom and leadership they have to offer. I truly believe that at Buford we are “better together”, and it is something special to be a part of a group of coaches from different sports that all have the same mission. Outside of Buford, two of my college coaches are men I will always look up to. My head coach in college, Adam Ward is incredible at getting the absolute best out of runners and helping them reach their full potential. The training knowledge that he passed down to me during my college years has made me a much better runner and coach to this day. Much of the training approach and philosophy that I use today with my high school runners I adopted from Coach Ward. Lastly, a grad-assistant coach I had in college, Pardon Ndhlovu, is someone I greatly admire as a runner and a person. Pardon moved to the United States from Zimbabwe back in 2009 and has a perspective and overall positive attitude towards life that is infectious. He competed in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as the 2017 World Championships in London. Overall, I am beyond grateful for the positive impact that these coaches and so many more have had on my life. While I know I can never repay them for their investment into my life, I can pay it forward to the athletes that I have the opportunity to coach each day.
Buford Athletics: What has been the biggest challenge for you in your transition from assistant coach to head coach?
Coach Johnson: Overall I feel like my transition into a head coaching role has been fairly smooth, largely due to the support and guidance I have received from those around me. From assistant coaches, to our athletic director, to my own wife and family, they have been there from day one to assist me anytime I have needed it. I would say the biggest challenge or learning curve has not been the coaching aspect, but more so the administrative aspect. There are a lot of responsibilities and duties that I have now behind the scenes that I was never aware of when I first started as an assistant coach. I am always trying to think of new ways to do things better than I am already doing them, as well as areas I can improve as a coach. With that being said, I am constantly striving to get better at maintaining a healthy work/life balance while still accomplishing everything I need to, outside of our everyday practices. I am now in my 5th year of coaching cross country and it is something I think I am getting a little better at each year.
Buford Athletics: What are your expectations for the 2019 cross country season?
Coach Johnson: At the beginning of every season we sit down as a team and make a list of expectations. I like to use the word “expectation” more than “goal” because an expectation refers to a strong belief that something WILL happen...not just something you desire to happen. Truthfully, my expectations for our team every season are very simple...GIVE NOTHING BUT YOUR BEST. I expect us to be a team that controls the controllables...our attitude, effort, and preparation. I expect us to be a team that focuses on the process, not just the result. We will train and compete with heart, passion, persistence, grit, toughness, and a desire to be the best we can be. I expect us to be a team that sees each day as an opportunity to get better through consistency, patience, positivity, self-belief, and self-discipline. I expect us to be a team that crosses the finish line knowing we left it all on the course. Lastly, I expect us to be team that operates as one FAMILY. If we hold ourselves to those expectations, we can walk away at the end of the 2019 season with our heads held high.