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When It Comes to Coaching, Shalane Flanagan Says “I Had Imposter Syndrome”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Shelia Burrell, Shalane Flanagan, Lauren Fleshman, and other pro coaches talked to Women's Running Coaching Collective about their experiences, plus the state of their profession and our sport.

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Few pro running squads and track and field athletes are coached by women. That’s despite strong performances, a surge in women’s running in recent years, and—frankly—this being 2021. What gives?

Women’s Running Coaches Collective, an organization that aims to support, inform, and inspire women coaches at all levels, brought a handful of these elite women coaches together (virtually) to discuss this issue.

The panel featured five top coaches from across the sport of professional running and track and field, each with valuable insights for any fan of our sport. Each shared her own unique path to becoming a coach of world-class athletes, which illuminates the obstacles to (and benefits of) coaching.

Lauren Fleshman

Fleshman is coach of Littlewing Athletics in Bend, Oregon, was a 15-time All-American and five-time NCAA champion at Stanford University who went on to win two U.S. championships. She started coaching as an undergraduate assistant in her fifth year as a cross-country/track athlete at Stanford University. Alongside her coach Deena Evans, who led the team to an NCAA cross-country championship, she noticed the power dynamic her position bestowed—even as she was focused on her own running and still close with the other athletes. Later, when she was running as a professional for the Oregon Track Club in Eugene, she felt restless and isolated. A friend handed over the coaching reins of a recreational club called the Flyers. “I was so scared. I felt like I did not know what I was doing. I didn’t have an understanding of the knowledge I did have,” she said. “Part of me was carrying this doubt I could do it.”

And yet, she did. Later, after signing with the women-led apparel company Oiselle, she had an opportunity to coach her own group of elites, also sponsored by Oiselle, Littlewing—now in its eighth year. “It’s been a learning process. I feel like I’ve come into my own in the past three to four years,” she said.

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Shelia Burrell

Burrell, now in her twelfth season as the head cross-country and track and field coach at San Diego State University, is a two-time Olympian and five-time U.S. champion in the heptathlon who coaches world-class speed and power athletes individually. “I’ve probably been coaching my whole life,” she said. It started in earnest, if not in a formal capacity, when she was a collegiate athlete at UCLA, when she’d help her teammates after practice and then when she started personal training and teaching people to sprint—“fly”—on the side. From there, with the exception of Olympic years when she was focused on her own training, she coached high school and junior college, always appreciating the teaching aspect of the gig and pursuing continuing education. “Once I retired from competing, I applied for my first real coaching job—not someone’s assistants’ assistant,” which led to her first paid coaching role and a successful track (and field!) record.

“When I got into coaching, I had done my [USATF] Level 1s and USOC women in coaching seminars,” she said. At that time, “They needed diversity on their staff,” she said. “I had a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t want to get a job because I was a Black female. It was more important for me to be very good. I didn’t want people to think I got the job only because I was an Olympian, because I was female, because I was Black.”

Shalane Flanagan

Flanagan—the Olympic silver medalist, New York City Marathon champ, and American record-holder—first started coaching as a volunteer assistant at University of North Carolina (her alma mater). “While I was training at a professional level…I felt like I needed another purpose outside of my own running,” she said. During her storied career, she also volunteered at Portland State University and coached with the Bowerman Track Club’s youth program. “I would say building the Bowerman women’s program a bit of a coaching internship as well just learning how to cultivate the dynamic of a highly competitive environment and group, and allow people to still thrive and be their best is challenging and yet extremely rewarding,” she said. “I was lucky in that my mom was actually a coach at Michigan State, so I have always believed coaching was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how it would manifest itself and where I would land.”

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She built her own landing pad two years ago, finding a role as a coach with the Bowerman Track Club when she retired from professional running. “It wasn’t like they were knocking on my door to hand me this position. I definitely advocated for myself and said, hey, I think I can be good at this, and please just give me a chance,” she said.

Laura Caldwell

In her eighth year coaching the Asics Greenville Track Club Elite in South Carolina, Caldwell has coached at the high school, collegiate, and recreational levels, too. As a runner at Florida State University in the midst of Title IX’s implementation, she broke the school 800-meter record and went on to qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon and find success as a master’s runner.

She started coaching as a graduate assistant at FSU. “I never thought I could do that…I backed into it,” she said. “I did discover that I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed working with the women who were on the team. Looking back I feel like they hired me as a buffer,” she said. But the experience paid off as she has been coaching ever since (with a stint away to publish and edit Racing South Magazine).

Amy Yoder Begley

Coach of Atlanta Track Club Elite, Yoder Begley still holds Indiana high-school records and was a 15-time All-American and two-time NCAA champ at the University of Arkansas. She’s coached at the high school and recreational levels. After finishing her pro career, which included U.S. Olympic Trials berths, placing sixth at the 2009 IAAF World Champs, and winning national titles on the roads, she applied to several collegiate coaching jobs. She didn’t get any offers.

After a year of networking, she got five. In 2013, she became University of Connecticut’s head cross-country coach and assistant track and field coach. In 2016, she and her husband became the first full-time coaches of the ATC, after being sought out for the position. Today she coaches both the elite and recreational groups, “a very rewarding part of my job, because I get to see people who start from walking or come back from injury and I get to watch their journey…Sometimes it’s more rewarding than working with the elites, I’ll be honest, and they know that, they drive me crazy, they break my heart a lot of times,” she said.

Charlotte Lettis Richardson

Richardson, WRCC co-founder and a running coach of 48 years, moderated the discussion. She was a top U.S. runner in the 1970s, including U.S. Olympic Trials qualification in the 1500 meters. “Let’s all admit, coaching is one of the last bastions of sports. It’s still an old-boys’ club and a very male-dominated profession. And it’s hard sometimes to be admitted into that club,” she said.

“I’m so encouraged, so inspired, and in awe of every single person on this panel—pioneers, Olympians, record-holders…Coaches who are reinventing what it is to be a woman coach. Their knowledge and approach to coaching is starting to truly change the landscape for women coaches,” Richardson said.

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The following is a condensed version of the coaches’ conversation, which has been edited for clarity.

Screenshot of webinar featuring Clockwise, from top right: Charlotte Lettis Richardson, Shelia Burrell, Amy Yoder Begley, Shalane Flanagan, Lauren Fleshman, Laura Caldwell
Clockwise, from top right: Charlotte Lettis Richardson, Shelia Burrell, Amy Yoder Begley, Shalane Flanagan, Lauren Fleshman, Laura Caldwell Photo: Screenshot courtesy of Elizabeth Carey

Richardson: Do you feel coaching at the professional level requires a different skillset? Has your coaching philosophy changed if you have previously coached at the high school, college, or club level?

Caldwell: I think there’s a lot of similarities from group to group to group. Physiology is physiology…but you have to build on that with each level.

Fleshman: As a professional coach, you’re inheriting how a young woman treated her body during puberty, especially in distance races in a sport that has a real ideal runner body myth. It’s pushed pretty hard at a time when bodies are changing. Young women respond to that in a lot of different ways. You sometimes get delayed effects of bone density issues or the injury cycle.

The other thing is there’s a lot of untapped potential in that 22 to 28 range if somebody went through puberty and didn’t fight their body in college and stayed healthy but maybe didn’t reach what they viewed as their ultimate potential. You can take an athlete like that and now their body and physiology is soaking in the training better at this next phase of life. That’s really exciting. Those are the types of athletes I recruit and enjoy coaching. I love the idea of having that second wind and being able to shepherd women through that. Keep them healthy and strong and getting them to believe in themselves again if there’s been a lapse in that.

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Burrell: The difference for me is not so much on the Xs and Os of coaching. It’s more with the relationships you have with athletes and what it is that you have to do to bring the best out of them. At the collegiate level, you coach everybody because that’s what is expected of you. At the elite level, I’m much more selective of the athletes I coach…My mantra is I want to enjoy track and field.

Flanagan: There’s a demand and intensity with professionals. It’s their career and their life. There’s no clocking out…They demand excellence from themselves and they demand that from their coaches…It can lead to a lot of stress. I look at my job right now to be the stress reliever. How can I provide certain aspects? It may not be writing the workout, it may be making sure they have the PT they need, that they can sleep well, that they’re getting nutrition.

Richardson: Why do you feel there are so few women coaching professional teams or athletes?

Fleshman: There’s clear data on who does the majority of household labor and unpaid labor in the home, kids or no kids, but when you add kids into that, there’s a pretty big chunk of any woman’s life in her professional career where if you, unless you’re the anomaly…you’re going to be having to do more outside of your job than your male peers will. Our country is not set up to support families with young children. I think that that causes a huge cliff where a lot of really talented female coaches end up deciding to do something else that is less torturous, that has less friction. There’s a lot of friction as a parent of young children, and as a coach of athletes, everybody needs a lot.

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I remember watching Dena Evans, who had small children, just this incredibly gifted coach and she powered through. She traveled, she nursed in strange places. There was nothing about her profession that was set up with a person like her in mind. As I coached alongside her, I got to hear more about how challenging that was. It made me scared, honestly. I respected what she did, but that was a big thing for me. This looks really hard. Any male coach I’ve had never has his kids at practice. They seem to be able to do it because they have someone else to take care of all that for them.

Caldwell: One thing is you just don’t see that many!…Also, if you’re going to set up a group, it takes a lot of time and money…It’s a big undertaking.

Burrell: For a period of time, I was very involved in having women coaches get together and navigate the hiring process. It has changed, where the pendulum was before. There was a huge rush, a lot of female coaches being hired in the speed/power events, and then it sort of dried up. It became less important to have that diversity on collegiate staffs. There were very few Black female coaches in the system…I became very dissatisfied with collegiate coaching environment…In 2021, it is starting to shift back a little bit.

Flanagan: For me, what I feel like would prevent me from doing a good job and taking this position was if I didn’t have a good support system…I moved to be 300 meters from my parents so they could watch Jack [her son]…I have a saint for a husband…He is also a coach so he understands.

Burrell: I’m very fortunate. Shalane’s very fortunate. We have Olympic rings behind our names. There’s some name recognition. I got my first coaching job with limited coaching experience…I had a foot in the door based on what my athletic accomplishments were. Not every good coach is a former athlete. Some of these coaches that are trying to get jobs now are not former Olympic athletes.

Some of the challenges that face some of the younger coaches getting into coaching are who you know and who your mentors are along the way…If you’re a female, and you’re a really good coach, the guy who’s not that great of a coach, who’s able to just sit around with the guys and have a beer, or go to convention…is more likely to get that job or position that they really aren’t that qualified for or good at. They don’t have to be as qualified as we do.

Some of the challenges women are facing in coaching right now are not about our abilities or our knowledge. It’s really about how the system is set up and what is viewed as valuable as an assistant coach. It’s not the ability to coach, it’s about your ability to follow, or be loyal. We call them Do Boys, someone that does what I tell them to do.

Fleshman: Women are still not being considered as capable of coaching men’s programs pretty much across sports.

Richardson: Do you think the sponsors of the professional teams have a responsibility to hire more women to coach at this level?

Fleshman: Yes. When it goes back to market forces, there tends to be less women. The person who can pitch it—I’m in this bucket, Shalane is in a similar bucket—we didn’t have a lot of the coaching credentials. We had connections. We are the rare women who can do what men have been doing for all of history. A part of me feels bad about that, but it’s also a part of how it’s always been done. But corporate responsibility should include gender, race. We can shame them into doing it. We can celebrate—really hard—the companies who are doing it. We can encourage women to pitch their pro team idea.

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Caldwell: Who’s in power? It’s usually men…A lot of times they’re going to hire people that look like them…It’s up to us to really scream and yell about it. Because it’s not right. This isn’t the way it should be. Women are just as capable as men. My husband thinks that women make much better coaches. I would say I think he’s right.

Richardson: How can we create those opportunities for women?

Flanagan: I believe in mentorship, big time. I’m just getting started as a coach at this level. I am looking to mentor. The best thing we can do is take our knowledge and pass it forward.

Burrell: That mentorship piece is critical…It’s mentorship with other women who are in positions of power that are more helpful.

Fleshman: I have a memory of being coached by Vin Lananna, who had at least three other coaches on his speed dial he was always talking to…I’ve reached out to a couple male coaches. It’s hard to build the same kind of camaraderie with them…It would feel more natural to do that with other female coaches in power positions.

Another thing is media stories, showing more and more people what we’re doing. Women’s Running has done an amazing series on that this year. It’s important for all of us and our male allies to take it seriously and push those stories out. Be generous in sharing them to our own audiences. We need to see more women doing it.

Richardson: We hear about the psychological and emotional abuse of top women athletes by male coaches in many sports and at all levels. What would having more women in the coaching ranks do for some of the horror stories we have seen and heard of?

Fleshman: Women are certainly capable of being terrible and abusive coaches. [But] when you look at statistics, it is primarily men leading the charge in offenses. It’s toxic masculinity culture, within the Me Too movement, it spills into every part of life. When you have a power dynamic, with a male in power and a female athletes. There’s a lot of unlearning that men culturally need to do in order to better support their female athletes and make them feel comfortable, respected, and safe in their environments and a default.

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The dominant culture has been taken on, internalized misogyny, by women, too. It’s an overall cultural thing we all need to be working on: centering the female athlete, the female body, when coaching women, our development curve. We aren’t exactly the same. We obviously have a lot in common. But there are some differences. We swim in different waters, off the track, we bring that same body onto the track, into the arena.

Probably why less women are causing those problems is that we know what it’s like to walk through the world in this body. Hopefully we’ve taken those life lessons into our coaching. There are no formalized coaching workshops that coaches are required to take. That would be good.

Caldwell: Women tend to be a little more nurturing. That is not a bad thing in coaching.

Richardson: What do you see for the future of women in elite coaching, of women in coaching, and why? Why do we need more women in this job?

Fleshman: My hope for the future is that the elite side of the sport becomes more professionalized, like golf or tennis. Ours is still run by USATF. You have to master this craft, but it’s very humble, a very humble salary…It’s a passion thing. I love that it’s a passion thing, but would love for it to be more professionalized and to have a true domestic circuit based around professional athletes. To have official networks of us. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

Flanagan: Allowing other sponsors to come in would be massively beneficial to these entities. We have sponsors, but it’s still not enough…I would love for us to be able to monetize and better elevate our sport. It comes from leadership.

Burrell: Sometimes it’s seeing the success of women who are in the roles now. The more willing we are—myself included—to share, network, and communicate, would open the door for more of us…My perspective is that this has actually inspired me to think bigger again, to reach out and have conversations with other female coaches. Looking forward for the future of women in coaching, if we can be consistent and committed in that direction, then we can see change.

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Yoder Begley: I want to continue to help the coaches. It’s about networking connections and giving them opportunities. Networking is so big. A lot of times we stay in our own little bubbles; we don’t get involved. I know USATF can be sometimes tiring but that’s a part of networking as well…Engage in conversation…Help bring up the next generation…I’m surprised the number of women who are in GA or assistant positions and I’ve asked them if their head coaches had set goals for them or given them specific roles, and the answer is no. Those are things we can help them do because their head coaches aren’t doing it for them. They aren’t asking, too, because they don’t know how to ask.

Caldwell: I’ve been doing it for a long time…I look at the generations coming up. I’m in awe of your capabilities, and your ‘go get it’ [attitude] that I just didn’t have. I think the women that are coming up behind you guys is going to be much stronger, because they had you to step on. I see it as stepping stones. That’s what WRCC is doing.

Richardson: What is a good way to build connections with other coaches?

Flanagan: I think I have done a terrible job of exactly this. I have moved into a new space, a new chapter of life, and I have been overwhelmed…I had imposter syndrome. People call me coach and I look around…I was excited to participate because I don’t think I have a strong network with women. My advice is to take a leap of faith and start building connections ASAP.

Burrell: Cold calls. I had questions about acceleration. I called Vince Anderson. Email them, call them, and flatter them, especially for men, you have to tell them how great they are.

Elizabeth Carey is a writer, author, and running coach based in Seattle, Washington. Her first book, GIRLS RUNNING, is available now.