Want to Run in College? This is what it takes: Shayla Houlihan of the University of California, Berkeley (Cal), by Cait Chock



2009 NCAA Cross Country Champs, photo by PhotoRun.net

This is part of our series, WANT TO RUN IN COLLEGE?, written by Cait Chock. This piece is an interview with Cal Berkeley coach Shayla Houlihan.

Want to Run in College? This is What it Takes: Shayla Houlihan of the University of California, Berkeley (Cal)

By: Cait Chock

Shayla Houlihan is used to hard work. Setting her sights on a big goal then systematically figuring out the execution from point A to B. That natural drive and motivation fits just perfectly in the world of distance running. Houlihan knew in her heart she wanted to be a coach, she also knew in order to be the best coach she could be that would first mean improving her own times. Got the goal, next the execution.

A walk on to the University of Northern Iowa, Houlihan rose the ranks, earned a scholarship to the University of Utah, setting records in her wake. Houlihan then signed a contract with Brooks to run professionally and in 2010 was the fastest steeplechaser in the US. Racing in two USA Championships in addition to the 2012 Olympic Trials, Houlihan had built up her coaching credentials as well as her PR's. End goal in mind, execution going marvelously.

With a Master's degree, working as the University of Utah's assistant coach, Houlihan moved to the position of assistant coach in Arizona for Team Run Flagstaff. Houlihan brings to the table all the pieces to fully understand the athlete and the intense drive to be their own best. Now assistant head coach for both men's and women's cross country and distance track teams at the University of California, Berkeley (Cal), Houlihan shares how she's able to expertly put all the pieces into place.

1)   What catches your eye when it comes to recruiting high schoolers? And what year do you really start keeping a particular runner on your radar? (ie: soph, jr. sr.)

There are SO many different things that catch my eye. It might be an interaction with another competitor after a race, or an interaction with another teammate or even the way they communicate with their coaches. I'm constantly looking. At Cal we are looking for someone that wants to be a part of a championship culture. A prospect that wants to kick butt in the classroom, cross country course, and track is the complete package! 

I start looking very seriously at Juniors, but because of NCAA rules we cannot have much contact until July 1st going into their Senior year of high school. I am finding that year after year the recruiting process starts earlier and earlier for the top end kids. Women generally want to have their decisions made earlier than the men, which is fine. We really try to make the recruits feel comfortable with their emotional timeline. It's important to me that they make the right decision that will fit them for the next 4-5 years. This is a decision that is going to affect the rest of their lives so it's important to me to help find their way.

2)   What are some of the key traits you look for in an athlete outside of strictly fast times? Are there certain things about a particular runner that, even with great PRs, will stop you from recruiting them?

I touched on that briefly in the previous question but a prospect that cannot communicate and someone that changes their priorities during the recruiting process. These individuals are not clear on what is important to them and their future. My top men and women prospects for 2014 class knew exactly what they wanted for their future and those priorities didn't change throughout the recruiting process. This made the recruitment process very easy because I knew that ultimately Cal could provide all of their wants and needs for the next 4 plus years.

3)   How do you factor performance times of a runner against their training volume? Do certain times carry more weight in your opinion if they're run off of lower miles or less intensity?

I think this subject has a fine balance. There are a some very good high school coaches out there that know how to balance both, which I find very important. It's hard for to say that a kid that has ran low mileage and ran super fast times is going to be a perfect pick-up. I think many college coaches do look for the kid that has lower mileage and faster times. A kid that can run moderate miles and moderate intense workouts in combination with circuits, hip mobility, is ultimately an athlete. Athletes make great runners, period.

4)   Throughout the recruiting process, what are some important tips you make sure to give the runner as they prepare for the upcoming transition to college?

During their final season I tell them to have fun, enjoy their final races. I always want to make sure they are supportive of their high school. The track season is a good time to start getting more and more familiar and comfortable with each other. I act as cheerleader until after their last race. We will then start transitioning from their current high school coach to me, Coach Sandoval and Davis. Once again it is a lot of communication between us, the prospect, and high school coach.

5)   How do you, if at all, individualize an incoming freshman's training?

I am the primary summer coach and cross country coach, which makes for a very easy transition. I individualize each week so they get a good idea of what we do on a daily basis once cross country season starts. My upperclassmen do a great job of connecting with the prospects ahead of time for a team camp they put on in Lake Tahoe over the summer. While in Tahoe they have the opportunity to learn all of the drills, strides, patterns of training, etc.

6)   In your experience, what's separated the runners who have successfully managed the transition to college and continued to improve from those who didn't?

Communication. Hands down communication. It has to happen in order for coaching to happen at its highest level. It may be as simple as stopping in my office between classes to express how classes are going, but it is consistent and constant.

7)   After freshman year, what is your formula for successfully progressing the athlete through to the end of their collegiate career?

I don't know that there is necessarily a formula, but I think it once again is very individualized. Freshman year is hard. There is such a big transition that has to happen. It also depends on what goals the athlete wants to achieve. I can't force the workload or even work ethic of my stud 10k'ers on an 800 meter person, but once goals are established anything is possible for that individual.

8)  Having had a successful college career that led to a professional career with Brooks, can you give some insight from the opposite perspective. What do you feel were some of the key factors that helped you succeed to such a level?

Well, thank you, first of all! Being successful at the different levels was because I constantly worked on what I ultimately wanted to achieve for my future. I knew my sophomore year of college that I wanted to coach. From there on out I learned as much as possible about the human body. I also learned about the psychological aspects of the mind and how it functions during high pressure situations. 

My goal was to be a Division I coach at an extremely competitive school in the PAC-12. What steps did I need to take to get there? I needed a master's degree, experience with athletes and to be faster at my own running. At this time I was a walk on at the University of Northern Iowa. I had some work to do. By my 4th year I had improved my times so much that I was able to attain a scholarship, start my Master's degree and run my last year at the University of Utah. My 5th year I was able to qualify for the NCAA Regional meet in the steeplechase and finished year 1 of my Master's! I was able to stay on with Utah as a volunteer assistant and do my training on the side. 

I kept getting better, since I was still in school I kept training. I finished my Master's and did not get a coaching job so that next year I stayed on with Utah, and continued training. My daily life was simple: my workout, practice, more of my training, work until 2 AM, repeat. I had my break through. I was undefeated in the steeplechase going into USA Championships. I signed my professional contract with Brooks the week leading into USA's. My contract was through the Olympic year so I decided to devote all of my time and energy to my training for the next 2 years. Brooks was great. Their vision of what the track and field world should be was the same vision I had for our floundering sport, but that subject is for another time. They allowed me to be able to be passionate on and off the track about verbalizing my views on racing and training. I still held close to me the passion I had for collegiate coaching. In this time I was able to coach all different levels of athletes and be around different types of coaches and coaching styles. I learned so much and am very thankful for that.

9)   Finally, there's been a dramatic rise in high school performances over the last decade. Running Times recently did a feature on the girls' side (http://www.runnersworld.com/high-school-racing/why-are-these-teens-so-fast?cm_mmc=Twitter-_-RunningTimes-_-Content-HighSchool-_-FastTeens). Do you tend to agree with the major points made, do you have any personal opinions/theories about high schoolers (boys and girls) training more and getting faster? Do you see this trend as continuing?

There is no doubt that coaches and athletes alike know more than ever these days. It's all accessible at their finger tips. I do think times will keep getting more and more competitive. This article struck a nerve with me because it does not address the psychological aspects of what toll it takes on teens growing up too early and putting pressures that shouldn't necessarily be there at their age. I think that is the bigger issue here. 

It's great that they are running fast and I love watching it, it's fantastic! What about when they need to start professional careers and they don't have good enough degrees to get them jobs or no degree at all?? The reality of professional running is that most cannot make it last past their late 20's. Then what? There are so many developmental things that are missed with skipping out on your youth and your college years. You need to learn how to communicate and work with others, research, write, the list goes on. To think that these young women are going to break the mold is a bit ambitious if you ask me. I hope they do, but the reality of it is such that you have to set yourself up for your future, and what you want to attain for your life!


Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.

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