Welcome to the first of our “Talks with Coach” series where we interview head coaches, assistant coaches, volunteer coaches — anyone who plays a role in leading a team. Today’s interview focuses on the mental side of running as it is a key part of mastering our sport. We first came across Adrienne via her Instagram account for the team, where she is active in sharing not only team stats, but inspiring messages that promote positive, healthy running. In this interview, Adrienne shares several golden nuggets and her unique approach to improve her athletes’ mental health by addressing two key pillars, transparency and normalization. Read on to find out more about them!
1 Please introduce yourself:
Hi! My name is Adrienne. I volunteer with the Millersville University Cross Country and Track & Field teams and run the Instagram account @healthyhappyfast. I was a student athlete & distance runner at Millersville University and graduated in 2004. In 2014, I graduated from Villanova University and became a registered nurse. I am a mental health advocate, avid amateur photographer, & dog-mom.
2 Why did you get into running/coaching?
I always loved being active and being outside – running was a natural fit. I started running competitively in 10th grade, after the high school cross-country coaches recruited me. I was shy and lacked a sense of belonging, but the cross-country team was a close-knit, super friendly group – so it didn’t take me long at all to realize this was a family I wanted to become a part of. Distance running became a way for me to make friends and have fun.
I started volunteering with Millersville’s teams on a daily basis two years ago. Head coach Andy Young struck up a conversation over the summer about ways to develop leadership & confidence in female athletes and we got to talking. I personally had a lot of regrets and shame about my collegiate career and wanted a chance to make things right – to use my knowledge, mistakes, and experiences to make a more positive impact. I created an account and a few test posts to show Coach Andy, and he really liked the idea – it all began from there.
3 How do you view the mental game of running?
A solid mental game is very necessary for both happiness and success. A consistent, positive mental game was something I really struggled with as an NCAA D2 athlete, so I also know how quickly negative habits, neglected mental health, or low self-confidence can take hold and sabotage it. I view mental game as a crucial part of our sport and any sport. I believe it takes practice and is just as important as skills, technique, and physical training. From the outside, running might look simple, but there is a hugely mental aspect to running well – knowing when to pass or how to run a hill efficiently, not losing your cool when you foul/get passed/lapped/elbowed/DQ’d/drop the baton, staying focused in less-than-ideal conditions, staying motivated for track and weight workouts, learning how to really listen to your body while simultaneously pushing it to its limits. Mental game is essential to being prepared for whatever might happen in competition, but it prepares you for every other challenge life throws your way, too.
4 Do you work to enhance the mental game of your athletes? I try!
a If so, how? I don’t think it’s enough to tell athletes “stay positive” or “keep your head in the game” – as mentors, we have to model a solid mental game, show it, explain how to develop and practice it, all while reinforcing this is an imperfect process of learning and growing. So that’s mainly what I try to communicate over social media. I’m lucky to have been part of previous teams that valued mental game and regularly taught skills like visualization, anchor phrases (mantras), mental racing strategies, & progressive relaxation, because I often find myself sharing these experiences. I’m also lucky to work with coaches who really focus on communicating these values. There is a united focus on building positive team culture, building confidence & leadership skills, addressing barriers to success, encouraging communication & self-reflection, and discussing mental/emotional strategy. We all consistently emphasize the importance of developing character & work ethic and work to remind athletes (and ourselves) to stay focused on positives, learning opportunities, and what we can control: attitude & effort. What I do is an extension of the already incredible work that the coaches and athletes are doing.
5 What do you do with your athletes to improve their mental health?
My personal approach is transparency & normalization.
Transparency: I am very open with our athletes about my own personal struggles and encourage them to be open with me, the coaches, and each other too. As a student athlete, I battled an eating disorder, overtraining, injuries, and was sexually assaulted my sophomore year. I don’t dwell on these experiences, but I don’t hide them from our athletes. I communicate that struggles and mistakes don’t ever diminish your value as a person, and I share how I’ve faced these issues & survived them. I try to remind them that I’m here for them as a resource if they ever want to reach out.
Normalization: I’m not afraid to start tough conversations. I discuss stress, feeling overwhelmed, destructive behaviors, injuries, comparison, body insecurities, orthorexia, depression, and wanting to quit. These issues are extremely common yet often difficult to admit or talk about – normalization means bringing them out of isolation and talking about them openly. I try and model how it’s more than okay to talk about this – it’s healthy. When you have a mental illness in college, it’s very easy too look around you and feel defective or isolated – as if you are the only person who feels depressed or has anxiety or doesn’t have it all together – but this simply isn’t true. When I talk about mental health issues and shared insecurities, I hope our athletes can see they’re not alone or unusual for thinking or feeling certain ways. I also stress caring and acceptance, but to be honest our athletes are already an extremely empathetic and caring group.
6 How do you motivate your athletes? I make daily posts on social media – often two a day & first thing in the morning – to share inspiration, quotes, advice, pictures, encouragement, team achievements, advice from pro’s, experiences, humor, and sometimes questions to hopefully get them thinking. I respect they have a bajillion things to do, so I keep it brief & simple. Over winter & summer breaks, I’ll also post links to short, relevant articles about sports psychology, nutrition, female athletes, role models, cross training, people who have overcome obstacles, tips to to combat training in temperature extremes, etc. I definitely encourage everyone’s comments or participation and frequently bring up how we’re all working on this together – that coaches, staff, and I have goals, setbacks, and challenges we are working through too – so we’re not asking athletes to do or value anything we aren’t also asking of ourselves. The feedback I’ve received from the athletes & coaches has been overwhelmingly positive.
7 How do you balance all the demands of being a coach?
Balance is something I’ve had to learn to be good at (still learning)! My personality type perpetually wants to do too much, but thankfully my significant other is good at reminding me to honor rest, balance, and boundaries. As a team volunteer, my role is flexible and demands little compared to a coach – when people say thank you for volunteering, my response is usually that I just wish I could do more. I try to come to home events and practices, but the most limiting factor for me is my heath: I have a rare autoimmune disease that has attacked my eyes, connective tissue, GI tract, & nerves, and leaves me bed-bound or immobile at times. I really appreciate the fact that I can still make a difference with our athletes and interact over social media – some days I feel exhausted, but I always post. It helps me stay motivated too, and provides a distraction from my constant pain and nausea. I am in a good daily routine with this role but ultimately hope my health allows me to do much more.
8 How do you work to enhance your athletes’ lives outside of sport?
I just try to be an encourager at all times and support all the interests that make them unique. Anyone who has worked with college athletes knows while you might “have” them for four-ish years, you keep them in your heart forever. I hope they know by now that I care about them as people beyond the team and that I’m always open to them.
9 What are some of the challenges you see in your athletes?
I see our athletes having to balance quite a lot – work, family expectations, pressure to succeed, finances, school, practice, goals, sleep & a social life – there isn’t a single person on the team I know who isn’t extremely dedicated, but it’s tough to balance all their different roles. We also have a very young team, and I think for most athletes, there are huge emotional and physical adjustments in making the jump from high school to college. It’s also painfully obvious how much “junk” the team can be hit with online, particularly from the diet and fitness industries: there is a growing culture of extreme results, focus on looks over health, and near-instant success, when in reality, very little of it is accurate, realistic, sustainable, or healthy.
a How would you advise them to combat these? I often make posts with the intention to remind athletes it’s perfectly normal to let professors or coaches know if they need extra help, and I encourage them to not feel embarrassed about reaching out to friends or teammates. Especially around exam times, I’ll make posts that encourage breaking down tasks or goals into smaller, more manageable steps, taking study breaks, planning & writing things down, prioritizing self-care, & taking one thing at a time – when you’re at practice, be fully present at practice, when you are writing a paper, give all your focus to that. I relate to those times in the semester where stress inevitably becomes extreme and you feel as if it the weight of everything that needs done could break you, so I try to communicate that I’ve been there too or share how I’ve learned to handle it in healthy ways. The same is true with addressing the transition to collegiate athletics – it comes back to reminding athletes that it’s an imperfect growing process and mistakes are expected, and encouraging open communication rather than allowing problems to grow into bigger problems.
Our team Instagram account is one of a growing number of online body-positive resources available to athletes, and I take content rather seriously. I try to only share from accounts or athletes I feel have a balanced, healthy approach to training, diet, and body image – often, I create my own content. I think it’s necessary to keep putting out information that’s healthy, positive, relatable, & accurate and to keep reminding our athletes that balance, consistency, small changes, proper fueling, and goal-setting are genuine means to lasting change. I emphasize trusting the coaches, trusting the process, and training smart. So there is a definite, deliberate attempt on my part to counterbalance exposure to bad information, because unchecked, this information could lead to injuries, illness, overtraining, and serious issues like disordered eating or a mental health crisis.
10 How do you work to promote positive body image and healthy running habits with your athletes? I think I mostly answered this in the question above (oops!), but yeah, that’s what @healthyhappyfast is all about! As a college athlete, there are so many numbers that literally seem to define you – GPA, weight, PR, bank account, size … even your student ID number – but they certainly don’t define your value as a human or dictate how much respect and love you deserve. I just try to promote that sort of mentality and information in a way that also celebrates the PRs and achievements too. And I’m blessed that ours is program where the coaches already really value athletes’ body image, confidence, personal development, and long-term health just as much as success.
11 Any last words of wisdom, shout-outs or topics of discussion?
Quick shout out to our coaches & especially our athletes. I’m perpetually thankful they’ve given me this chance to do what I do for the program. Thanks to fellow alumni Bob Vasile & Jo ‘Rupp’ – they care about these athletes just as much as I do and have really supported me too. There is so much genuine support — our team is truly a great group!