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ND Cross Country

ND cross country coach Sean Carlson emphasizes importance of team culture

| Thursday, November 15, 2018

Seven and a half years ago, Sean Carlson came into Notre Dame as a volunteer to the cross-country team. Carlson had just spent a year getting a master’s degree and had coached at St. Charles North High School in Illinois, before deciding to take an unpaid position as an assistant to renown Irish cross-country head coach Joe Piane.

Working from a cardboard box in the office, Carlson spent four months using his saved money to pay for his expenses. He’d be the first one in, at 7:30 a.m. sharp, and wouldn’t leave until Piane left, usually around 11 p.m. After four months, one of the six full-time coaches left the program, and Carlson’s hard work landed him the vacant position.

Today, Carlson is an assistant coach at the cross-country program at Notre Dame. In addition, he is the head of a men’s team that just won their first ACC championship and is ranked 10th in the National Coaches poll.

A native of the Chicago area, Carlson attended North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. There, he was under the tutelage of Al Carius, who has been coaching the Cardinals for over 50 years. Carius has coached a dynasty Division III cross-country team. With an all-division record of 18 cross-country titles, 15 second-place finishes and 121 All Americans, North Central has become a behemoth under Carius.

Carlson holds Carius in high regard, saying the esteemed coach is “a better person than he is a coach — and he’s won national titles a lot.” In addition, Carlson credits Carius for helping him get into coaching.

Coming from a winning culture like the one at North Central, Carlson is now trying to bring that kind of mentality and success to Notre Dame. Carlson wants to create a setting where athletes don’t just win on the track but in life as well.

“We’re trying to create winning culture. That winning is not just in the result of a track meet, or a cross-country meet. That winning is in the results of the rest of your life, you’re doing things to the best of your ability, you’re winning that day,” Carlson said.

Carlson, who is in charge of recruiting, is pivotal in every aspect of culture-building. Carlson’s recruiting process involves finding the best students and best athletes in the country from a narrow pool of recruits. One of the things that distinguishes Notre Dame’s recruitment process, however, is that the Irish adamantly stand behind the idea that if Notre Dame is not a recruit’s first choice, that recruit is not the right fit.

“I want guys that truly believe in our philosophy, in our culture, of what we’ve shown them on their visit. That’s why they want to run here,” Carlson said. “If you get guys in the locker room to buy into that, to come here for those reasons, you’re getting the right kind of [athletes].”

Reminiscent of Herb Brooks’ famous line in “Miracle,” Carlson aims to find the right runners for his team, not necessarily the best ones.

Echoing the message given to freshmen during orientation, Carlson notes that he wants to teach his runners how to be better people, not just better runners. Notre Dame, Carlson says, is not just about getting students into jobs, “it’s about helping you become a better person, helping you through the next forty years of life.”

Guiding all his young athletes to make the right decisions is what Carlson says to be the biggest part of his job. His belief is that by helping members of the team become better people, he’s creating a culture in which the team is willing to do anything for the program and willing to fight when a race gets difficult.

Another idea that Carlson tells his team is that despite the members of the cross-country program being close to each other, they should be teammates first, friends second.

“If you make a bad decision, a friend might kind of justify that for you,” Carlson said. “A teammate is going to give you the honest answer, whether you want to hear that or not, it’s going to be the truth. A teammate isn’t going to be there to protect you, they’re going to be there to support you. That’s what we’re trying to promote, to keep them close.”

The Irish men’s program has had quite the progression in recent years, going from middle-of-the-pack to second place in the region in a matter of two years. The success has come so quickly that not even Carlson imagined it happening the way it has. Now that the team is doing things better than it was a year ago, Carlson wants his team to improve what it’s doing right.

“We need to focus on continuing to do things that we’ve done to get to this point and then just do them better,” Carlson said.

Carlson is very much enjoying his job right now, which he said is no surprise considering the success his team is having. A distinguishing factor for Carlson however, is his ability to take pleasure in the process of improving — something he thinks is important to have in life.

“I enjoy [my job] a lot right now, while we’re successful. But I also enjoyed the process of building us to this point. I think that’s what you got to enjoy about life and about whatever you’re doing, it’s the process of getting better,” he said.

The Irish will head to the NCAA national championship meet this weekend and are already planning on having a better 2019 campaign. As for now, the Irish will try to focus on, per Carlson, “doing what’s right, every day.”

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