Coaching Association of Canada

Heather Hennigar, ChPC, & Kate Van Buskirk - Athletics

1500m athlete Kate Van Buskirk’s #ThanksCoach profile is a testament to the significant impact her coach, Heather Hennigar, had on her development on and off the track.

Sometimes the best coaching advice comes from the athletes themselves. Below you’ll find Kate’s top remarks pertaining to how a balanced approach is what makes a great coach.

When it comes to a coach’s emotion...
Coaches walk a fine line and the most successful ones know when to step to one side or the other. Balancing positivity, encouragement, and support on the one hand with pragmatism, realistic goal setting, and the ability to push athletes on the other is an essential skill. Being passionate yet grounded, driven yet reasonable results in a clear vision; it keeps the athletes motivated and continually progressing at a rate that suits their ambitions. Coaches need to be calm and steadfast even when athletes are emotional and anxious. A coach’s poker face on game day communicates confidence and focus to the athletes.

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.

Being invested in an athlete’s performance...
As a coach, recognizing talent and potential, and committing to helping athletes maximize these assets without ever making it about yourself is difficult but essential. Great coaches are deeply invested in their athlete’s success as it relates to the athlete’s priorities. Consider that your role is more about helping athletes to get the most out of themselves, rather than simply coaching them to be a faster, stronger, or more accurate.

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.

The importance of having “been there, done that”...
Let’s face it, as a coach, if you’ve experienced what you are preparing your athletes for, your credibility increases. It’s important for you to be familiar with the training and competition you are prescribing to your athletes. Knowing that you’ve been in their shoes provides your athletes with a sense of security. That being said, not having experienced it first-hand doesn’t make you a bad coach. Bring someone in as a consultant to supplement the daily training environment with that experience, and don’t be afraid to register for a few competitive events yourself even though you may have called it quits long ago. Athletes like to know you’re still in touch with the daily grind of training and the demands of competition, even as a “weekend warrior”.

Heather spent many years as a highly successful international-level runner herself before moving into coaching, and her personal experience with training and competition is 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.