The philosophy of new Elon University cross country coach Nick Polk is deep, but simple.

“A culture of confidence: knowing and believing in your training so that when you get to your starting line, you know exactly what you need to do,” he said. 

Polk was hired the same day the athletes’ reported back to campus for preseason

Just days before preseason training was scheduled to begin, the Elon cross country team lost head coach Christine Engel when she left for a head coaching job at Duke University. The runners were left not knowing if they would have a coach when they returned to campus. 

“We were all shocked,” said sophomore Kimberly Johansen. “It was like, ‘what are we supposed to do now?’ It made us think more about how we go about things and our program values. We see that and pass that down to our freshmen. That dynamic and culture doesn’t change.”

Heading into preseason, the team didn’t know what was to come or who would fill in that gap, but the team captains knew they had to step up and address the team.

“We went from knowing what to expect all the time to not even knowing if we had a coach and we had to think, ‘how are we going to approach this season?” said junior captain Elyse Bierut. “We were going to carry on with a positive attitude no matter how much unknown was there.”

The team recognized this was a great opportunity for Engel, but hearing the news didn’t come without some concern.

“It was really unexpected knowing her all these years, and I was really saddened by the news,” said senior Luis Vargas. “After the announcement it was definitely hard to gather our thoughts. I was nervous coming in, but Elon always looks after us.”

The process to hire a new coach moved quickly, and just a week after Engel’s official resignation, Elon hired Polk.

“The potential on the roster is very high. The incoming guys and girls on paper should take the program to the next level,” Polk said. “And this was a chance for me to become a head coach, so I wanted to take on that challenge as well.”

As a three-time All-American runner and national champion at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan and assistant cross country and track and field coach at Grand Valley State for the last three seasons, Polk has experience. He was also a competitive runner for ZAP Fitness, a professional running team in North Carolina.

Polk said running at an advanced level and the experience of competing for a national championship has prepared him for the opportunity. 

“[The opportunity is] being able to coach developmental runners and top-tier runners at the same time,” he said.

MORE: Elon releases 2014 cross country schedule

With any new coach, a new style of coaching is inevitable. 

“We have to be open-minded for what our new coach is going to bring to the team,” Johansen said. “We all have to learn.”

When Polk met with the runners for the first time, he brought up one point that stood out to Vargas — trust. 

“As upperclassmen, we have to trust him with his workouts and training, but he’s putting his trust in us and finding out where we are,” Vargas said. “We are his guide coming into Elon and we have to be able to maintain our environment from the past and integrate with him as well.”

Polk is bringing in some new training techniques that he said he hopes will take the team to the next level as a nationally competitive Division I program. 

“I am coaching them looking at the whole picture and their all-around fitness,” Polk said. “From strength, to core, to stretching, to the biggest part, which is running.”

Polk said his changes will include more aerobic-based workouts with longer distances and more intensity.

“The biggest change is doing more drills involving dynamic movement and aerobic strength,” Polk said. “And that’s what we have to focus on to get us ready for the end of the season, the most important part.”

According to Polk, the Colonial Athletic Association — which Elon joined this summer — is a strong cross country conference dominated by the College of William & Mary, but his goal for the season is to chip away at that lead and take Elon runners to the next level with an intense training environment.  For Polk, the key is creating a pack of good upfront runners. 

“Every athlete is different, so I have to specialize the training and individualize to their needs,” Polk said. “I want to challenge them to do new things that they haven’t done in the past and maybe change some of the old ways of doing things.”

Polk described his style of coaching as laid-back most of the time, so he and the team can enjoy their experiences together but stressed the importance of maintaining a competitive atmosphere.

“I want a culture that’s committed to everything we do,” said Polk, who wants his runners to be locked into the sport 100 percent of the time. “The whole runner lifestyle: training, sleeping, eating well, everything outside of running that makes you successful.”

Luckily for Polk, that environment shouldn’t be difficult to foster in the Elon cross country program, which was built on that standard and is enforced by the athletes.

“We value the same things,” Bierut said. “Coach Engel helped build that culture and facilitated that atmosphere of the positive culture that we have, but we built the culture so we still hold each other and ourselves to high standards. It’s really up to us as returning athletes and it’s already clear that our new coach is going to help facilitate that.”

Being flexible is a huge part of the 2014 season for the Phoenix. There are two new coaches — volunteer assistant Wil Zahorodny also joins the staff — new training and coaching styles, 35 percent of the team’s runners are new this year and it’s a new conference to compete in. Things are rapidly changing for the cross country program, but its goals are the same and the new coaches are prepared to take the team over the bumps along the way as long.

“Things might not always go as planned, but we have to be flexible to get us to where we want to be at the end of the season,” Polk said.