The high school teacher and cross country coach from Katy, Texas named Inspiring Coach Of The Year.
Interview by: Somyr McLean Perry
In June, running company Brooks Sports of Bothell, Wash., announced the winner of its inaugural Inspiring Coach of the Year award. Cross-country coach Amy Pitzel of Katy, Texas, took home the prize, which included more than $12,000 in cash and running swag for her team at James E. Taylor High School, also known as Katy Taylor High School. She beat out a stacked field of 10 finalists from across the country all with impressive credentials a mile long. Competitor magazine’s executive editor Somyr McLean Perry caught up with Coach Pitzel to discuss inspiration, motivation and passing notes in class.
Competitor.com: What did you do before you signed on at Katy Taylor?
Amy Pitzel: I was in recruiting sales—I was a head-hunter. But sales were really hard for me; it’s against my personality and I needed a change. I ran track and cross-country in high school, so when I completed a teaching program I was lucky enough to get hired on at Katy Taylor coaching the cross-country team and teaching government. I feel like I’ve found my niche and I love it.
What are your team’s most recent accomplishments?
We actually had a big 2010-2011 season. We placed third in varsity boys at the McNeil Cross-Country Invitational in October. In late August, we won our division at the Friday Night Lights meet put on by The Woodlands. That was the first meet that my boys had won as a team since I started coaching. We also won the Brenham Hillacious Meet held in late September. I have had two teams (one boys’ team and one girls’ team qualify for the regional meet) and I have had two individuals (Austin Bussing, current runner for Kansas University, and Rachel Murray, current soccer player for St. Edward’s University) qualify for the state meet.
Coaches must have an arsenal of motivational tools in their pockets. What are yours?
It’s my goal that all my kids know that I care about them, no matter what level of runner they are. I’m kind of known for writing my students notes; I write something inspirational or something related to their individual success. Then I have it delivered to them during class. I want my team to know that I really believe in them.
We also host a run-a-thon in which the kids gather pledges and see how many miles they can run to raise money for our cross-country team. They really get into the team spirit and the competition with their teammates.
We also go to an overnight meet in Round Rock, Texas, called the McNeil Invitational and only the top eight to 10 runners earn a spot to compete. They run their hearts out to be able to go on this trip. After our time trial, I announce the runners who have earned a varsity spot at our team kick-off party and they get to come up and get their Varsity [tech] shirt. It is a big deal to earn that shirt.
Brooks launched this award in February and you are the first recipient. Why do you think you were nominated?
I think I had 64 nominations, all from current runners, some former runners and the kids’ parents. You know, my team must have felt like the neglected team for many years going through four coaches in four years. I think the kids were so excited to have someone truly dedicated to them and their sport. I’ve coached at Katy Taylor for six years and with parents’ help we try to create a real sense of community and a sense of involvement—any kid of any running ability can join my team. The team has grown from about 25 members (when she started coaching) to last year we had over 85 complete the season. Also, we hold team dinners every week. Each dinner is hosted by a parent and they have like 80 kids at their house sometimes! I appreciate and love all the parents for their support.
As part of the grand prize, Brooks is awarding you with about $12,000 in gear and money for team needs. What are your plans to use it?
We have a huge cross-country team with 110 kids signed up this year. Sometimes cross-country doesn’t always get a lot attention, but it’s the hardest working team, I think! These kids run all year ‘round. So, I want to use the money to get every kid a jacket that identifies them as part of the team, plus we’ll get new uniforms and make sure every kid has spikes to run in.
You were among 10 coaches from across the country nominated for this award. Which of those coaches is most inspiring to you?
Definitely coach Bob Ayton from Hatboro-Horsham High School in Horsham, Penn. He’s been coaching for 46 years, he has 17 undefeated seasons and so much passion for this sport and for his team. All of the finalists were such a neat group of people—no egos and a lot of inspiration. It was great to spend time with them and the Brooks team at the coaches’ camp. The people from Brooks went running with us every day, and are such a great company.
What was the most poignant thing you learned at the Brooks Inspiring Coaches’ Camp?
It really validated how much I love the sport and I learned so much from all the other coaches. I was really inspired by coach John Neff of North Allegheny High School in Pennsylvania. He is part of the Brooks ID (Inspire Daily) program and was one of the coaches invited to be a part of the Brooks camp. He divides his team into groups with a senior as its leader. Every week the group leader chooses a MVP to recognize. I love the idea of honoring so many kids every week and that the seniors get to be leaders.
Who would you say has been your greatest inspiration in your life and career?
When it comes to sports and running, my dad has always been my biggest fan. My dad literally thinks I can do anything I put my mind to. He is the one who was at all of my elementary field days and junior high track meets when my love for running started. Dad was the one that convinced me that I could run a marathon, and he even flew in from his home in New York to run my first marathon with me in Austin, Texas.
What is your mantra, either for training or for life?
Always try your best at whatever you do. I could never coach something or be a part of something unless I really loved what I was doing and was willing to give it my all. I do want to have a highly competitive team, but most important to me is that all of my runners are out there trying to be the best runners that they can be.
Somyr McLean Perry is the executive editor of Competitor Magazine.