Early in her coaching career—not long after she began as an associate coach at the University of New Mexico—‘A Havahla Haynes clearly remembers a conversation she had with her boss.
“He asked, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ And I said, ‘I see myself as a head coach,’” Haynes says.
Looking back, Haynes realizes she may have been a bit naïve. Many coaches take years to rise through the ranks. “But in my mind, I thought that in five years, I should be making a move or advancing myself,” she says.
After five seasons at UNM, Haynes’ previous boss, April Likhite, retired as the head coach of Northwestern University’s cross-country team. Haynes threw her hat in the ring for the role, and got it.
It’s just one example of her approach to running, coaching, and life. “You can’t not try if an opportunity comes your way,” she says.
She took a similar leap when, in 2019, she made the move to SMU. Now, she’s head coach of a full women’s track and field team at a university where academics is emphasized—exactly where she wants to be at this point in her career.
“I don’t want student athletes coming in just being an athlete,” she says. “I want them to be successful post-college and achieve what they want to achieve.”
“Meant for Me”
Haynes started running on the encouragement of her active, healthy parents—and as a way to compete with her older brother, a Wisconsin state high school champion. “Everything he did, I wanted to do better,” she says. Soon, though, running took on more meaning. “It was a way to push myself and understand who I was as a person.”
She went on to compete at the University of Wisconsin, where her cross-country team placed fourth at the NCAA Championships in 2006. Haynes herself competed at cross-country nationals three times; on the track, she set school and state records, earned All-America honors, and qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials in the steeplechase.
She had positive role models in coaching from middle school on, and Jim Stintzi, her college coach, suggested her communication skills and running knowledge might make her a good fit to guide other athletes.
But at that time, her five-year plan had her heading in a different direction. Aiming for a job in advertising or marketing, Haynes enrolled in a master’s program in sports administration at Northwestern.
While there, she signed on to volunteer as an assistant coach under Likhite, and soon found herself more excited about early-morning practices than night classes. “It turned out I liked the coaching part more than I liked all the stuff I was learning about,” she says.
Still, she planned to look for a job related to her degree—until she got a call from Joe Franklin, head track and field/cross-country coach at the University of New Mexico. “We connected well and had similar philosophies—we cared about an individual and their progression and their health and well-being,” she says. So when he offered the job, she took it. “It just turned out it was meant for me.”
Not long after her move to Albuquerque, Franklin and Haynes’ Lobos began to see significant success. She coached runners to conference championships and All-America honors in both cross-country and track. Her final year there, 2014, her women placed third at the NCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country Championships—at the time, the best in school history.
Along the way, Haynes absorbed crucial lessons about building a team culture. “The thing I learned the most at New Mexico was that actually spending time with athletes and getting to know them as individuals was more impactful sometimes than the workout that was written,” she says.
Upon her return to Northwestern, Haynes knew she’d face a bit of a challenge in recruiting. The school has no track program, only cross-country. “Athletes who want to be good want it all,” she says. The job, as she saw it, was to earn their trust and show them “you can do everything you want, at the highest level, and I can help you get there.”
The first year was hard, she admits. But soon, the team started shining. By the time she departed, they’d risen six spots in the competitive Big Ten conference and saw many individual successes, including Aubrey Roberts, who finished 18th in her third appearance at the NCAA National Championships in 2018.
Also under her tenure, Northwestern hosted the Big Ten championship in 2016, something the school hadn’t done since 1976. “That was a great feat,” she says, made sweeter by a scenic course on Chicago’s lakefront.
Thriving Through Challenge
Now, she’s traded one city (Chicago) for another (Dallas), and in her first year at SMU, she’s coaching athletes to several personal bests. Then the pandemic struck, bringing the indoor track season to a dramatic end and leaving the fall uncertain.
Still, whether she’s navigating group Zoom calls or in-person practices, Haynes maintains a focus on positivity and well-being. She talks to her athletes about energy balance, getting enough fuel for their efforts, and balance in life, staying strong both physically and mentally.
“We talk a lot about mindset and how we think about failure,” she says. “A lot of people think, ‘Well, I didn’t win the race, that means I’m not good.’ And it’s really not about that. It’s about the progress that you’ve made.”
This story is part of a series on women in coaching, where we highlight female running coaches and their individual paths to success. Find more here, and discover tips from these women to improve your own running here. Feeling inspired? Check out our in-depth look at how to become a college running coach with advice from the coaches featured in this series.