Welcome to the Ask a Coach series, featuring Aly Coughlin! Aly is a new contributor with Strong Runner Chicks, as well as a former NCAA national qualifier and graduate assistant coach for Tarleton State University with a unique perspective as both an athlete and coach. She has a blog of her own called Run Healthy, Run Happy and is currently searching for a full-time coaching position (so if you have any connections to openings, send them her way! 🙂 In this interview, Aly shares valuable lessons that both athletes and coaches can walk away with.
1. Please introduce yourself:
My name is Aly Coughlin. I ran for Tarleton State University, which is in Stephenville, TX, where I was a national qualifier in the steeple chase & 2x cross country national qualifier. I just graduated with my Masters degree in Kinesiology (also at TSU), and while in grad school I was the graduate assistant coach for the cross country and track teams.
2. Why/how did you get into coaching?
I have always known that I wanted to be a coach. My dad has been a high school football coach for as long as I can remember, and my grandpa was also a coach, so I’ll just say it runs in the family! With that being said, I’ve been surrounded by sports my entire life and I can’t imagine my life any other way. I also feel as if I have learned so much from being an athlete and believe I have a lot of knowledge to share with athletes of my own. Running is something I am truly passionate about and I cherish the moments it’s given me in my life so far & look forward to the many more it will bring.
3. How do you view the mental game of running?
Running is SO mental!! The saying that running is more of a mental sport than physical really is true in my opinion. Of course physical training and ability can potentially get you far in the running world, but in order to cross barriers in reaching entirely new levels of success, an athlete has to be mentally strong. If runners can learn how to mentally prepare for races and different situations, they will be much better off. Knowing how to react and respond is super beneficial–for example, if the competition goes out faster/slower than you planned, how will you react and adjust to that? Staying mentally strong in running is crucial because you are faced with so much adversity and must learn how to overcome those times. I find the mental game to be extremely advantageous, but can be detrimental if not prepared.
4. Do you work to enhance the mental game of your athletes? If so, how?
Yes! I try to do it in a way during training sessions that will provide them with something to turn to during actual situations. I like to use the visualization concept quite a bit. For example, in practice if they are doing intervals, I try to make certain parts of the intervals a race simulation. I also really believe in positive self talk and affirmation–fake it ‘til you make it!! If you tell yourself you are going to run strong, hard, fast, the chances are way higher of you actually doing so than if you have negative thoughts running through your head.
5. What do you do with your athletes to improve their mental health?
To improve their mental health, I like to take time to encourage that they are doing something throughout the week that takes their mind off of competing. Going to dinner with teammates and friends or going shopping or to the movie can actually be very therapeutic in the grand scheme of things. Being focused on the sport is fantastic, of course, but if that is the only thing the athlete is focused on, it has the potential to cause symptoms of burnout. I want my athletes to enjoy running, and if they are able to give me their complete focus and work hard during the times of practices and races then it will be more enjoyable for everyone.
I also try to ensure that they know they are always able to open up to me if they need someone to talk to. As a young, female coach, I feel as if I am able to connect with these athletes quite well considering that I just recently experienced many of the things they are experiencing. I know there are plenty of times that I would have loved to have someone to talk with about my personal struggles but didn’t feel as if someone truly would understand or relate, so I try to make it known from the beginning that I will voluntarily be that person if they need me be.
6. How do you motivate your athletes?
I have learned that coaching is definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Some athletes need more of a positive and encouraging motivation style, while some actually respond better when there is something on the line. I usually try to start out on more of the positive, encouraging side and adjust as needed. Sometimes there needs to be some “tough love” to set fuel to that fire, but I have learned that there is a time and place for that! When the going gets tough during races and practices, I try to be as encouraging as possible because I’ve been there–I know how some days go. Staying as positive as possible tends to yield better results in the long run.
7. How do you balance all the demands of being a coach?
There is no doubt that coaching is extremely time consuming, but I honestly enjoy it so most of the time it doesn’t really feel like work. While I have only been able to experience it to an extent as a graduate assistant, I felt as if I did a pretty good job at balancing the demands of being a full-time graduate student with the practices, traveling, meet preparation, and day to day tasks. I tried to just stick to as consistent of a schedule as possible, and my personality type is very schedule-oriented so I found this to be the best way for me to take care of all my responsibilities to the best of my ability. Of course some days felt super demanding, but I usually found a way to make it work!
8. What is your philosophy of coaching?
I intend to lead by example and build responsible, respectable individuals on and off the track and field. While it obviously important to train my athletes to run to the best of their ability, it is of greater importance to train them to become leaders in both the athletic environment and in everyday life. I want them to be confident that they have the ability to lead, and to not settle being a follower in this world. I aspire to be a successful coach who leads my athletes to discover their true potential and the joy that comes from learning to love every aspect of the sport.
9. How do you create a positive-coach athlete relationship?
I have learned from my college coach that creating a positive relationship all starts with trust. If the athlete knows that the coach truly has their best interest in mind and cares about them as an individual, rather than just another number on the team, then the athlete will buy into their training as time goes by. Having an open-door policy is also an essential aspect to the coach-athlete relationship. Allowing athletes to voice their opinion on how they feel about training, races, etc. provides the coach with ability to make any necessary adjustments that will ultimately lead the athlete to more success.
10. How do you work to enhance your athletes’ lives outside of sport?
I kind of touched base on this in previous questions, but I try to keep them in an overall positive mindset and encourage them to do things they enjoy outside of the sport as well. While running will consume the majority of their time for give or take 4 years during college, it won’t be their identity for the rest of their lives and it is important to make that known. Building relationships and finding hobbies that are enjoyable in their free time outside of running is beneficial in a variety of ways. I also try to make the connection between lessons learned in running with life in general. If they take what they learn from the sport and apply that to their everyday life, it will pay off!
11. What are some of the challenges you see in your athletes?
Student-athletes face quite a few challenges. Time management, comparison, balance, and body image are a few that immediately come to mind. It is easy to fall suspect to these challenges, especially with social media being so prevalent in society today,
How would you advise them to combat these?
For time management and balance, I encourage setting aside specific times throughout the day for different things and writing down schedules/to-do lists so that they can stay organized. I personally found this to make things a little less overwhelming as a student-athlete, so I hope that they find it helpful as well. As for comparison and body image, I try to remind them that everyone is different and every single runner has their own strengths and weaknesses. I remind them to focus on themselves and embrace what they bring to the table. In a way, they have to have a “tunnel vision” perspective and ignore some of those outside sources. I also try to make it known that it is always okay to seek help and advice. It doesn’t make someone any weaker of a person, and often times they will become stronger by doing so.
12. How do you work to promote positive body image and healthy running habits with your athletes?
I see so many young girls comparing their bodies to those of elite runners and feeling the need to do whatever it takes to obtain that “runner’s body”, even if it is in an unhealthy way. It’s really saddening, but it’s the society we live in today. Media outlets are always encouraging fad diets and unrealistic body types, and many runners are susceptible in falling into the mindset that if they look like someone, they’ll run like them or be as successful as they are. This is far from the truth, but it requires coaches, parents and others to place emphasis on healthy habits and a positive body image. I try to share any articles, pictures, or videos that promote this concept with my athletes and other runners. If it has potential to be relatable to an athlete and help them overcome any negative thoughts, I will share it.
I also try to veer away from any comments or remarks that point out things regarding physical aspects of the body. Acknowledging runners for who they are as a person, their achievements, competitiveness, work ethic, etc. are so much more important for their long term health than a number on a scale or how they look compared to others. If the time spent worrying about body image was spent on doing the little things to become a better runner, more success and results will come than if they simply looked like someone else. Healthy=Strong=Happy!.
Connect with Aly Coughlin:
Blog: Run Healthy, Run Happy.
Do you know a coach who would be great to feature? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be in touch!