Alexi Pappas: A good coach will help you love your sport

Running is a sport where the athletes are driven by love: at some point along our athletic journeys, we fell in love with the sport. This love can strike at any stage in life, but for many of us, it was first sparked by a coach – sometimes later in life, but often in high school.

It is not always our choice what coach we might have in high school, but the lucky ones get someone who is selfless, energetic, and thoughtful. A great coach, I observe, turns “I” into “We” and gives athletes permission to believe in themselves. 

My high school experience was quite different. When I was in high school, I didn’t love running. The coaches at my high school (at the time) were insistent on everyone on the team focusing solely on running – this may be a good idea for a college athlete or an aspiring Olympian, but I was only 16 years old when I was asked to quit all other activities and just run. And while I was a very talented runner, one of the best in California as a sophomore, I wasn’t in love with the sport yet. I enjoyed winning and I enjoyed running as one of the many activities I did at the time: soccer, theater, student government – activities I loved because of the leadership I found in coaches and mentors there. I was not ready to quit soccer, student government or theater.

A 16-year-old should never be asked to quit anything. A 16-year-old should be encouraged to do all the things that will stretch her mind into believing in itself. And so, I got kicked off my high school team by coaches who simply didn’t understand this. I didn’t run my junior and senior years of high school. My high school coach had a hugely negative impact on my impression of running. It would have been very easy for me to never run again.

But my life changed when I got a phone call from the first coach who helped me understand what running can be at its best: her name was Maribel Souther and she became not only a coach but a mentor and a maternal figure for me as I moved across the country to pursue running at Dartmouth. The first thing Maribel did was to bring my new teammates and me to the woods of New Hampshire to engage in a training camp where there was no tap water or electricity. There, we had no distractions besides the sound of our footsteps in the woods. There, I understood that running could be a team sport and that it was okay to love running and also be good at running. At the time, I was the worst on my team and also in the Ivy League and probably one of the worst D1 runners in the country. I was not good enough to travel and compete with the team. However, that did not mean I couldn’t love it. Maribel took us adventuring through the woods and allowed me to understand how to amuse in pain alongside teammates who truly wanted me to be by their side. I improved slowly but surely. Being good, I learned, would come with loving what I was doing. And loving what I was doing took being around other people, and most importantly a leader, who loved what they were doing.

Maribel retired from coaching when I was entering my junior year, and this was when I was lucky to meet another incredible coach in my life: Mark Coogan. Where Maribel essentially introduced me to running in a way I hope people get to be introduced when they are much younger, Mark brought me into the mental side of the sport and showed me what believing in myself really meant. Mark is himself an Olympian, and so his confidence in me meant a lot. It was more impactful for me to hear Mark tell me it was okay to set lofty goals than when my dad told me the very same thing. This is the benefit of having a coach who has “been there,” as Mark has. It’s a different sort of mentorship than your parents can ever provide. Mark picked up where Maribel left off and helped me understand that my love for running could translate seamlessly into my commitment to my goals in running and, ultimately, success beyond my wildest dreams. I may not have been ready to take this kind of step as a 16-year-old, but when I met Mark, I was 20 and ready. Mark gave me permission to believe in myself in a way that has left a permanent impact on me. I have not stopped believing in myself.

When I had the chance to go to Oregon for a fifth year to be coached by the incredible Maurica Powell, I took it. Maurica is a rare person in that she is able to be extremely focused on coaching at the highest level one moment, and then switch gears and show us how to have a flourishing personal life outside the sport. Yes, Maurica elevated me as a nationally competitive and NCAA Championship team member athlete, but she also showed my team and me what it was to be a successful woman with a thriving career and vital family life. There were times when Maurica told us when she had stayed up late because her son was sick, and there were also times when she didn’t tell us anything about her personal life because it was Championship week. In total, she knew how to help us develop as athletes who could win national titles and also as people who can envision their life after college, and for that I am very grateful. Maurica knew that in order to be a successful athlete, you need to feel that you are thriving. This is a word that she uniquely used, and it continues to be a guidepost for any life decision I make today: “will this choice make me thrive more or less?” This guidepost applies to everything from training decisions to non-athletic choices – a thriving life needs to be balanced, and that balance is different for everyone. This was the perfect lesson to learn as I transitioned into a professional running career.

As a professional, I’ve had the gift of being coached by Mark Rowland, Ian Dobson, and Andrew Kastor, who helped me become the Olympian I am. Coaching in the pro world feels similar but different from coaches in the academic world: you become more of a partner with your coach, two professionals chasing the same goal. But the same general principles still apply: a good coach will always make you believe in yourself and encourage you to have a thriving life … and above all, a good coach helps you understand how to love the sport.