Coaching Association of Canada

#ThanksCoach Heather

Coach’s Name: Heather Hennigar
Sport: Athletics (track, cross-country)
Location: Victoria, BC

Athlete’s Name: Kate Van Buskirk
Position/Team/Club/Sport: Track, 1500m
Location: Victoria, BC

What does your coach do that makes him/her a great coach?

Heather’s coaching style is a beautiful balance of positivity, encouragement, and support on the one hand and pragmatism, realistic goal setting, and the ability to push her athletes on the other. She is passionate yet grounded, driven yet reasonable. She is calm and steadfast even when I’ve been emotional and anxious. She recognizes talent and potential, and commits to helping her athletes tap into and maximize these without ever making it about her. I have always felt that she is deeply invested in my success, but wants this success to come on my terms, and it is clear that she sees her role as helping me to get the most out of myself, rather than simply coaching me to be a faster runner.

I have always felt that Heather and I trust and respect each other, and this is perhaps the most crucial aspect of any coach-athlete relationship. She is a fabulous listener and asks her athletes for their input in training, race preparation, and their emotional needs. She establishes a partnership with her athletes, as opposed to a power hierarchy. Heather has an innate ability to read her athletes and gauge their individual needs, and adapts to these incredibly well.

Heather spent many years as a highly successful international-level runner herself before moving into coaching, and her personal experience with training and competition are a great asset. She has drawn on her own history as an athlete to relate to my experiences, and hearing about her struggles and achievements has normalized these things for me and reinforced that they are all part of the journey.

Heather is also a great advocate for the advancement of women’s sport and has served as a very strong female role model for me in athletics.

Write a memory/story about your coach.

In August of 2011, I represented Canada on my first Senior National Team: The World University Games (FISU) in Shenzhen, China. Heather was my primary event coach for the Games, and this was the first time that she and I had worked together in a coach-athlete situation. I was incredibly nervous and fairly naïve, and Heather was the perfect coach for me throughout the trip: she made sure to give me as much information as possible about what I should expect in terms of logistics, tactics, and international championship racing, but she also encouraged me to draw on my past positive experiences and trust in my preparation and strengths. She was encouraging without coddling me, allowing me to feel in control of my race day plan and my own success. I made my first international final and ran a personal best at those Games, and the first person I recognized after I crossed the line was Heather standing track-side, beaming at me.

What lesson(s) has your coach instilled in you?

Heather is a hugely calming force for me. I have a history of depression and anxiety, and Heather has an intuitive ability to recognize when I’m feeling particularly anxious or uncertain, and help me to work through these. Heather has helped to instill patience, as well as trust in my readiness and ability when dealing with race and performance anxiety. She has taught me that in order to get the most out of myself in a race, I need to go in feeling relaxed, confident and strong, not forcing the race, but remaining present in every step and breath and allowing for my rhythm and speed to come out naturally. She has taught me to keep every race and workout in perspective and to see each competition and season as part of my long-term development.

Why do you want to say “thanks, coach”?

In filling out this survey, I went back and reread several emails that Heather and I had sent back and forth over the past 4 years. At almost every meaningful juncture in my post-collegiate athletic career, Heather was present either in person or in the form of a congratulatory, encouraging, or otherwise supportive message. She has provided me tremendous advice in everything from tactics to physiology to nerve/anxiety management to the emotional highs and lows of being a semi-nomadic, cash-strapped elite athlete.

Every single one of my track coaches throughout my career, from age 11 to 28, has been male, with the exception of Heather. While these men have provided tremendous life and athletic coaching, it has been of paramount importance that I have had a female mentor, role model, and coach who can connect with me woman-to-woman. Heather is not my current primary coach, but I feel so fortunate to see and communicate with her on a regular basis in Victoria, and I know that if I ever need advice or someone to talk to about my athletic career, she will only be an email or phone call away. Thanks, Heather!!