In October, The Hidden Opponent asked its community of over 60,000 social media followers--many of which are athletes--to nominate coaches that they felt set the standard for promoting student-athlete wellbeing and mental health. Athletes from across the country submitted nominations, and Coach Lauren Loeffler of Trinity University was one of the honored coaches.
Loeffler, the assistant coach of the Trinity University Cross Country team, is much beloved by students and staff alike. A former DePauw cross country star and 8-time NCAA DIII All-American, Loeffler has taken her extensive running background and turned it into a successful coaching career, where she has been a pillar of support for the athletes on her team.
“Coach Loeffler is an indispensable resource for Trinity cross country athletes,” Maia Dykstra, a former Trinity cross country and track athlete, stated. “During my time at Trinity, she provided me advice and support through some of the most difficult life situations I’ve found myself in, most of which had nothing to do with running.”
Dykstra described a time in which she had a “very difficult day” during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding herself not wanting to be at school, home, or practice. She ended up wandering into Loeffler’s office with a box of mineral samples from a geoscience class, which was “the only thing” she was excited about at that moment. “[Loeffler] let me talk to her about my box of rocks for [...] an hour. I’m quite sure she had plenty of other things to attend to, but instead she listened to me talk about rocks because as weird as it was, that’s what I needed.”
One of Loeffler’s colleagues, Coach Terris Tiller, stated, “Coach Loeffler is immensely kind, caring, and empathetic. She fully believes in the concept that a happy athlete will be a fast athlete - by ensuring the individual is content, safe, engaged, and healthy, athletic success will be a direct outcome, and she coaches according to that philosophy.” Tiller, who recently joined the Trinity XC staff, says that working with Loeffler has been “an unexpected highlight.”
Social Media Manager Kai McClelland met with Loeffler to ask her a few questions about her career and coaching philosophy. A transcript of the conversation is included below:
Kai: How did you get into coaching?
Back in high school, my coach always went above and beyond to support me. That meant everything from having a spare sandwich packed in her lunchbox to making sure she kept clean sports bras in her bag in case I needed an extra. She showed me that even just the small things–a little note before practice or an extra hug at the starting line–can make a big difference.
When I graduated and moved onto a college program, I saw how my college coach was able to take things to the next level. I learned how much it was my responsibility to become a better athlete, as an adult. My high school coach was an amazing coach that I really needed at the time, and my college coach helped me take the next step [in my career]. So as a coach, I wanted to be able to combine the two.
So it was partially being an athlete that made me want to be a coach, but it was also just my overall experiences with my own coaches. I also knew about the kind of coach I didn’t want to be like. But in general, I thought if it were at all possible for me to get into coaching, it would be such a privilege to represent something that was so life changing for me.
Kai: That’s really cool! So now that you are a coach, what are some of the goals that you have for your team?
As an assistant, one of my main goals is to support the program that the head coach wants to run. I start with that, and then build.
When I interact with my athletes, I want them to be able to process information and apply it to themselves. There's lots of information they're going to get over four years in college; they're going to be told lots of things. One of my goals is to just kind of help them process that information without really steering them in any direction. I don’t just want to tell them what they want to hear. I want them to be able to talk through things and provide a space for them to process information in the way that they need without just telling them what to do.
Kai: What are your favorite moments with your athletes during a season?
There's so many to pick from. For me, I love the little moments, like watching them get something in a form video or open up to new people at practice.
In college running, a lot of athletes are doing the same thing that they did in high school without seeing the same big results that they used to. As a college coach, you have to be ready to dig deep and wait it out with a kid while making sure they're still progressing. So I love the little moments when things click, like when a 200 feels easier or a lifestyle change makes a big difference. They lead to the bigger, fun things.
Kai: So you’re more excited about the things leading up to the big win instead of the win itself?
Well, it’s not just about the big win. It’s about how they handle the big moment. I am a competitive coach and I do want the best for my athletes; I want them to win and I want them to perform at a certain level. But regardless of outcome, watching people change and develop over 4 years is so unique and special. Despite similar circumstances, each person’s journey is so different. Watching them finally get to the moment of “I’ve worked hard, I put a lot of things together to handle this big moment, I’m ready” is the best part.
So yeah, it’s fun when it all adds up on the right day with the right conditions, but what I really value as a coach is when all the little moments add up to them being able to handle that big day, no matter the outcome. It comes down to: have I gotten this athlete ready for the big moment? If they do everything they can and it doesn’t go their way, will they still feel like a good person? Can they see who they are outside of what the result is, whether good or bad?
We all want a big win, but being an athlete is about being able to keep going, whatever that means. I can't tell an athlete what that looks like, but I can be there for them when it's hard, be there for them when it’s easy, and celebrate the wins and things we get to do along the way.
Kai: As a coach, why is mental health important in sports?
In sports, you can work really hard and still not get the results to show for it. To cope with that, you have to be able to be a solid person, know who you are, and understand your purpose. Mental health ties into so much of that. It’s cherry on top for the best moments and a lifesaver during the moments where things don't go to plan. It accentuates the positives and gives you hope during the negatives.
Mental health gives you consistency in sports where there normally isn’t.
Kai: If you were to give one piece of advice for coaches that are looking to do better for their athletes’ mental health, what would it be?
When you have an athlete that has been struggling mentally, I think a lot of coaches start to automatically go through a checklist to see what the athlete should be doing or what’s going wrong. I’d like to challenge coaches to listen first instead of jumping to conclusions right away.
Pause before you go down your checklist of things that you think the kid needs to do better. Pause before you assume that they just went out the night before or that they're just telling you something to get out of practice. Ask a few questions before you assume that they're doing things in a certain way.
Congratulations to Coach Lauren Loeffler for receiving this honor!