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Almost two weeks ago, I was listening to a press conference announcing that Alan Culpepper, a two-time U.S. Olympian in 2000 and 2004, has been named the new head coach of Northern Arizona Elite, a pro distance running training group in Flagstaff, Arizona. He seems like a solid pick—somebody who can relate as a former high-performing (and self-coached) athlete, who has enthusiasm, and according to the team members I talked to, cares a lot about them individually.
All those attributes are critical, of course, and I don’t doubt that Culpepper and his runners will find success together. But that announcement felt really familiar, like I’d heard and seen so much of it before. I subsequently made a list of professional distance training groups in the U.S. and their head coaches…and quickly realized why:
- Adidas/Golden Coast Track Club, coached by Terrence Mahon
- Adidas/Tinman Elite, coached by Joan Hunter
- Asics/Mammoth Track Club, coached by Andrew Kastor
- Brooks Beasts, coached by Danny Mackey
- Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, coached by Keith and Kevin Hanson
- Hoka/Northern Arizona Elite, coached by Alan Culpepper
- New Balance Boston, coached by Mark Coogan
- Nike/Bowerman Track Club, coached by Jerry Schumacher
- Nike/Oregon Track Club Elite, coached by Mark Rowland
- Nike/Union Athletics Club, coached by Pete Julian
- On Athletics Club, coached by Dathan Ritzenhein
- Puma Elite, coached by Alistair Cragg
- Reebok Boston Track Club, coached by Chris Fox
- Under Armour/Dark Sky Distance, coached by Stephen Haas
Two of the country’s largest running organizations support elite runners, too—the Atlanta Track Club has a relationship with Adidas and the elite group is coached by Amy Begley; the Boston Athletic Association also aligns with Adidas and its High Performance team is coached by Mark Carroll. We could also add coaches who train Olympians independently (unaffiliated with any brands), like Joe Bosshard, Jon Green, Mike Smith, and Ray Treacy.
By my count we have 16 formal pro distance training groups funded (at least in part) by the major shoe brands, with 17 head coaches. Two women. No people of color. Many athletes have excelled to the highest levels under their guidance, but this kind of ratio begs the question: Why hasn’t the sport (and the running industry) done better?
In American distance running, the shoe brands hold the most power and influence—nearly all of it, in fact. The U.S. has become more globally competitive because the brands have helped financially sustain individual athletes and these group training opportunities. In many arrangements, their funding pays for coaching, housing, health care, facilities, performance incentives, travel, gear, and more. Most of these companies have issued statements in the past two years about valuing diversity and have made various efforts to show that they do. But those initiatives, so far, have largely not extended to leadership and coaching in the division of the sport that has most lacked inclusion across the board, from recreational to the NCAA and the post-collegiate elite levels.
It takes time and effort to diversify hiring pools, so when these few high-profile positions are up for grabs, it’s appropriate to wonder what strategies were used in the recruiting process. Who knew the opportunity was available and how were they encouraged to apply? Are enough people given a chance for consideration? What networks are tapped to pull in candidates who have the talent but maybe not the big name?
The pipeline into pro coaching is shaky at best, with no direct career path, where hiring is often based on connections. Some coaches get their start in the NCAA, where the environment isn’t any better. According to the 2021 College Sport Racial and Gender Report Card by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Black coaches hold 9 percent of head coaching positions for men’s teams in Division I; white people comprise 82 percent of women’s head coaching positions in DI. Narrowing the stats down to NCAA cross-country and track and field isn’t encouraging either. The annual Women In College Coaching report card by the Tucker Center for Girls & Women in Sport still gives the sport an “F” for the number of female head coaches for DI women’s teams, holding about 18 percent of the 347 positions in cross country and track.
We’re three generations removed from the passage of Title IX. Women’s participation in sports is at an all-time high. Women’s distance running is bursting with talent and depth. I refuse to believe that given these factors, no women are qualified to coach pro athletes or lead pro groups, aside from a smattering of assistants, like Jenna Wrieden, assistant coach at NAZ Elite whose résumé had nearly 15 years of NCAA coaching experience prior to accepting the job in Flagstaff (a position that was posted publicly and yielded more than two dozen interviews).
More research from the Tucker Center points out the barriers that are at play, many of which are widely known but a few that we don’t talk about enough in this division of the sport. Coaching is an historically male-dominated, male-centered, and male-led occupation and we don’t stop to think about how deeply embedded that bias is in all of us.
In the many (many!) times I’ve reported and written about the shortage of female coaches, every woman I’ve talked to has given credit to a male mentor who gave her a chance. If not for that support and the opportunity to advance in their careers, they would’ve gone a different way.
“To reverse the Old Boys’ Network, you have to break that down and create an Old Diversity Network,” to quote the “Best Practices for Recruiting, Hiring and Retaining Women Coaches,” a resource focused on NCAA coaching, but full of valuable insight for the pro ranks, too. “You have to create a network that allows you to be able to reach out and identify quality individuals to help diversify your staff.”
How do we break the cycle? Look to the men on that list above and the brands that back their groups. Who will they encourage? It’s up to each of them to start recognizing and elevating the diverse array of talent we know is out there, the people who are waiting for a break and an opportunity to lead the sport, too.