The Strength of the Pack
Photo credit: NC State Athletics
These days I get lots of questions about our upcoming recruiting class. Usually the questions are about how our team feels about the high level of talent that is coming or how they picked my college, but the real question they’re too afraid to ask is this:
Why North Carolina State?
People want to know why 6 of the best high school girls in the nation turned down many other top programs for a state school in the south. But more than that, they want to know how we have consistently been at the top of the NCAA in women’s cross county, and have had walk-ons become All-Americans.
Most people seem to think that it’s the knowledge and experience of our coaches, or the ability to train outside all year, or maybe the high level of competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And those things help (especially our coaches!), but I believe the main reason is our way of life, our culture, our values.
Looking back, it’s even ironic for me to be at NC State.
When I was in high school, I was determined to go out west for college. I had decided that the best colleges for running were out west, but I realized I had actually been longing for big forests and beaches and mountains ever since I left Seattle for Pittsburgh in 2015.
If I’m being honest, the reason I visited my first time was because my parents went to NC State and I had always been a big Wolfpack fan in basketball and football. Then I met Coach Henes and the team.
As I got better in high school and visited those big schools out west I had dreamed about, I couldn’t help but think back to my experience with the people at NC State. I learned that Coach Henes was there for her athletes as a person first, and believed fully for each person on the team no matter their PR’s. She would sit down and give individual training and feedback regardless of if you’ve been qualifying for nationals or have been injured for 3 years and haven’t gotten to race once.
She wanted you to be at your best, but not just in running. She wanted the best out of you in life, too.
And then there was the team. I’ve never met a more positive and motivated group of women! No matter if you’re getting off of an injury or running 60+ miles a week, everyone strives to support each other. Every win is a win for the whole team, regardless of who’s racing.
They value and encourage hard work and hard recovery. And that’s when I knew I had to sign up, for a team where I was part of it no matter how I performed and where talented women would push me to my absolute best.
It’s currently the end of my sophomore year, and I’ve now been here two years! Looking back, I am so grateful I chose this school. I began to realize something I never did in high school — where I trained and raced mostly alone — which is that bonding with your team and being serious about a positive team culture can really change the outcome for you and your teammates. And it’s not easy. Far from it.
Not everyone is best friends, but at the end of the day we’re family.
It all starts in the summer, where we have a training trip out west — typically Boulder or Flagstaff — where we rent an Airbnb for about a month and just hang out and train at altitude. It doesn’t really matter the location — although I would certainly recommend the mountains as a perfect escape — but it’s about the time spent away from racing and school.
We all share one house with everyone, freshmen all the way up to 6th years, so we can really get to know each other as well as bring the freshmen into the team and our values. Not only are we reminded of how to train with — and not compete against — our teammates, but how much we can learn from the people around us.
Once we get back to campus and have been in school for a week or two, we have a shorter retreat to Asheville, North Carolina with the coaches. This one of the cornerstones of our program. The biggest moment is when we have a team meeting, but with only the women.
This past year, we went around and each said our role model, our biggest struggle and our best moment, all mostly from the last year or so. Everyone cried and laughed and cheered as we went around the room.
That hour or two is where we learned to trust our teammates like no other.
Then, the focus switches and we talk about team goals, and by the end we are on the same page as one another. We make it very clear that our goals are a group effort — not just the women who line up at the ACC or national championships. We are all in this together to motivate and take care of one another.
Besides that first big meeting, we have meetings about once a month to discuss how we’re doing and how we need to improve. But apart from those meetings we hang out often, and we do things that aren’t just related to running. A few of my favorites include: house wars, an eyeliner-required-emo-2009-themed party, & a cook off competition.
These things alone may be simple, but together we forge bonds and character that get us through the longest injuries and the steepest hills.
There’s also the training, of course, that is a huge part of any successful program. Yet there are a few things that really help my team progress as a team, and not just individuals. One of those things is doing workouts together — not just physically together, but trying to help each other get better and not compete in a workout.
We’ll signal our teammates who fall off to try to stay on, because if one person gets better, we all get better.
Another thing that brings the team closer are the short yet motivational team meetings at the end of weights. These meetings keep people excited for races and serve as a reminder to stay on top of the little things.
I’ve enjoyed writing about this team that I love, but I hope to promote something bigger than just one team. I hope to encourage athletes at every level to value a positive, motivating, and supportive culture as not just a nice addition to a team but the very core of a team. I especially hope high schoolers looking to run in college will take a good look at the people they would spend everyday with for the next 4-5 years.
After reading this you may be reflecting on your own team culture, how negative or positive it might be. I had the fortune to come into a team with a great culture, but I know very well that a positive team takes work and most importantly, leadership.
No matter how old you are, you can be a role model and leader for the people around you. Or at least start a trend towards a better culture.
It starts with one person and becomes contagious, until you’re attracting those people into your team. To me, one of the most exciting things about our recruits for next year is how team-oriented and positive they are! It will be so exciting to see new freshmen coming in who will hopefully continue supporting and motivating each other and the team.
Everyone adds to it for better or worse, but I want to leave you with this: If you step up into a leadership role, no matter your age, you could be someone who makes your team a better place and more successful.
PS: NC State’s women’s cross country team is definitely not the only team with a strong focus on culture, but this is just my experience running on a strong and bonded team!
SAVANNAH SHAW — NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY
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