Coaching Lessons for Running & for Life

The other day, someone asked me who my favorite coach of all time was. I paused to contemplate this question for a minute before flipping it back on them. Who is your favorite parent? Both questions were impossible to answer. I couldn’t pick a favorite coach. I’ve had the fortune of working with a variety of incredible coaches as both an athlete and coach myself. Each of them have been great mentors in my life and have inspired me with their own wisdom. An alternative question to the impossible inquiry of: "Which coach?” would have been which pearl of wisdom was my favorite from each coach I’ve worked with? 

Here's my list of lessons learned from a list of great coaches:

  • Patience and perspective lead to longevity in the sport.
  • Sometimes it is just running. 
  • Racing is fun. It’s not life or death
  • The greatest power we have is belief in our own pursuits.
  • No two paths to success are the same. 
  • Run like your hair is on fire. 
  • Work your ass off. It pays off. 
  • Don’t mind the age gap. 
  • Understanding the big picture is key to success.
  • A true leader empowers others to lead. 
  • Relax in a state of stress. 
  • Don’t wait for a permission slip from anyone. 
  • Never a goal too big or too lofty. 
  • Run in the context of a full life. 

Sandy Hoddinott
Head Cross Country and Track & Field Coach - Ridgefield High School
Lesson: Patience and perspective lead to longevity in the sport.
From day one, Coach Hoddinott taught us the three tenets to success in running: Run smart. Work hard. Have fun. His emphasis was always on the "have fun" part. If we could find a way to appreciate ourselves, the process, and the sport we chose to pursue then we would have the ultimate success in running: longevity in the sport. If we put too much pressure on ourselves or trained too hard in high school, we’d run the risk of burnout or quitting the sport too early.  I have him to thank for my love of the sport today.

Bill Owens
Assistant Cross Country and Track & Field Coach - Ridgefield High School
Lesson: Sometimes it is just running. 
I remember standing on the starting line of the indoor Connecticut state open 3200m. I started to panic. I had won three titles in a row and felt an enormous amount of pressure to win on that day. He shouted from across the finish line: “Heather! It’s just running, put one foot in front of the other. You know how to do this.” He was right. Sometimes, all you need is that simple reminder. 

Ron Rosenfeld
Best Friend’s Dad and Assistant Track Coach - Ridgefield High School
Lesson: Racing is fun. It’s not life or death
Before heading the starting line of the New Balance Nationals DMR, one teammate started dry heaving due to extreme nerves, another had tears filling up in her eyes, I looked like I had just seen a ghost. He realized the ridiculousness of the situation and told us to imagine Papa (as we know him), running down the in field in a speedo. The thought was preposterous and fit his "appropriately inappropriate" character perfectly. It was the best advice we could have ever received in that moment.

Greg Herzog
Strength and (Mental) Conditioning Coach - High School Coach
Lesson: The greatest power we have is belief in our own pursuits.
Greg was the first coach who taught me the power of believing in myself and my abilities. I started working with him my junior year of high school. Heading into my senior year of high school, he told me that I would win the cross country state championship that year. I laughed at the idea. He told me that if I couldn’t take myself seriously, then no one else would. For five months, I envisioned the 5k cross country course and the competition I would run up against. I saw myself winning the race and believed that I could do it. When race day came, all I had to do was execute and remember that belief. 

Chris Fox
Head Cross Country and Track & Field Coach at Syracuse University
Lesson: No two paths to success are the same. 
It was my junior year of cross country and our team had a shot at a top ten finish at the NCAA cross country meet. I had a few good races and a few where I went out too hard and died hard. Leading up to the big race, he talked to the whole team about the importance of getting out hard off the line. He pulled me aside after and told me to walk the first two steps when the gun went off. That would be my only chance at helping the team; if I approached the race with ease at the start and built up as I went. We finished tenth that year and I’m certain he had those same side talks with all seven women. #SDOB

Brien Bell
Associate Head Cross Country and Track & Field Coach at Syracuse University
Lesson: Run like your hair is on fire. 
I was in the best shape I’d ever been in, and Coach Bell knew it. He told me I had a chance to do something big. I asked him what that looked like from a race strategy perspective. His answer? Be patient early on and when it’s time to kick: run like a crazy person. Like your hair is on fire. Like your life depends on it. I had one of the best races of my life and kept that thought with me for every race after. #TCB

John Oliver
Assistant Cross Country and Track & Field Coach at Syracuse University (now Stanford University)
Lesson: Work your ass off. It pays off. 
We used to call John Oliver “110% Oliver”. He works at one level and one level only. Full speed and at 110% effort. All nighters, planning travel for the team, and van rides anywhere for anyone at any time. On cross country race day, Oliver would be at every spot on the course. In fact, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if he covered more ground than we did racing. After three years at Syracuse he went on to coach at Stanford. His own career success has taught me that in running, coaching, and in life, there is no substitute for working your ass off. 

Brandon Bonsey
Assistant Cross Country and Track Coach at Syracuse University (now Georgetown University)
Lesson: Don’t mind the age gap. 
Bonsey was my assistant coach at Syracuse University for two years and then took the men’s assistant coaching job at Georgetown right when I took the women’s assistant coaching job there. I was always impressed with his ability to command respect of athletes who were just a few years younger than him. That was one of my greatest fears when I started coaching right out of college, and I felt so lucky to follow his lead and look up to him in the process. There’s certainly something to be said for “moving hurdles” early on in your career, but it’s also equally important to value your own knowledge and skill-set, regardless of your age. 

Chris Miltenberg
Head Women’s Cross Country and Track Coach at Georgetown University (now Stanford University) 
Lesson: Understanding the big picture is key to success. 
I had the pleasure of working with Chris Miltenberg for a short period of time at Georgetown. He taught me the basics of successful coaching: develop a positive team culture, create individualized training plans, and help every athlete to see the big picture of their running career. Coach Milt took an incredible job offer as director of track & field at Stanford University shortly after I started working at Georgetown, but I quickly learned how effective his philosophies were when I met the Georgetown women. It was no surprise that his team had won the NCAA cross country championship the year before.

Pat Henner
Director of Cross Country and Track & Field Coach at Georgetown University (now blazing a new path in coaching)
Lesson: A true leader empowers others to lead. 
Coach Henner is gifted in the art of empowering others to lead. In my encounters with so many coaches, I’ve see personal egos get in the way of doing what is best for the athlete. It’s always nice to feel needed, but it takes extreme selflessness to blaze a path for others to lead on their own. As a boss, Coach Henner was a great mentor. He taught me the important coaching lessons I needed to know and then gave me the power to execute them. He did this with his athletes as well. An independent athlete = a confident athlete. Coaches, bosses, and mentors like Pat are hard to come by. 

Mike Smith
Director of Cross Country and Track & Field Coach at Georgetown University
Lesson: Relax in a state of stress. 
Mike and I started coaching at Georgetown around the same time. Before moving to DC, he ran professionally and coached alongside the great Jack Daniels in Flagstaff, AZ. He’s full of coaching knowledge bombs, but his first piece of advice to the Georgetown women was to approach every run, workout, and race with gentleness vs. aggression. Repeat the mantra: “relax in a state of stress”. There are two ways to run 75 second 400m repeats, one is tense and forceful and the other is with calmness, ease, and relaxation. I use that mantra all the time in life outside of running. 

Julie Culley
Olympic Trials 5k Champ (2012). Olympic 5k Finalist. Assistant Cross Country and Track & Field Coach at Georgetown University.
Lesson: Don’t wait for a permission slip from anyone. 
Julie Culley has always been a talented athlete. But when she finished college, she had a decision to make. Get a job OR keep pursuing her dream to run. She balanced both worlds for a while, but then decided to give herself a real shot at running. Despite others opinions, she put “real life” on hold to chase her passion. Her PR in the 5k had been 16:25 when she made this choice, which was no where near fast enough to compete on a world stage. Julie didn’t stake any claims that she would make an Olympic team, she just wanted to see how much better should could get. After years of hard work and dedication to her dream, she achieved the ultimate success. She became an Olympian. Her story has always been an inspiration to me and now she’s able to share her journey with the athletes she coaches at Georgetown and give them the confidence they need to pursue their own dreams.

Steph Bruce
Professional Athlete. Coach of Elite and Non-Elite Runners. 
Lesson: Never a goal too big or too lofty. 
I started working with Steph Bruce this past year. It has, admittedly, been a year of up and downs in training and in life, but Steph has taught me how to use running to balance life’s stresses. She believes in her athletes and believes in pursuing BIG, impossible dreams. No goal is too big or too lofty in Steph’s eyes. She lives and breathes this philosophy in her own running. This year, six months after giving birth to her second son, she ran an Olympic Standard 10k time and qualified for the Olympic Trials. She showed everyone that the (seemingly) impossible is possible. I’m so honored to know her and to work with her myself. 

Lauren Fleshman
Professional Runner. Co-Founder of Picky Bars. Published Author (Believe Journal). Oiselle Muse. 
Lesson: Run in the context of a full life. 
Lauren Fleshman was never my coach and I've never worked alongside her as a coach. But she's a badass individual who inspires me. I've been lucky enough to spend time talking back and forth with her about anything and everything running related. She recently wrote a poem (which can be viewed here in video form) called: "From Retiring to Rewiring". The part that resonated with me the most was her new approach to running. Running and racing in the context of a full life. It's one thing to honor your potential in the sport, but it's another to enjoy this beautiful thing without making it the only valuable aspect of your life. Her words are in my head as I continue to jog, run, train, and race in the context of a full life. 

I feel so thankful to have had all of these incredible coaches in my life. As I continue to run, race, work, and coach athletes myself, I'll always carry their words of wisdom with me.