By Camila Ryder
When a student is interested in joining Prep’s girls cross country team, coach Jill Henry lets them know right off the bat that they’ll be joining a supportive environment. “There is so much kindness among teammates,” she says. “Our team culture revolves around true camaraderie. The girls will work hard with each other at practice, but not to beat one another. It’s to collectively, as a group, become stronger.”
While individual and collective improvement is at the top of the girls cross country program’s objectives, Henry has prioritized mental health and wellbeing over the past 15 years she’s been coaching the team.
“We prepare each of our athletes to be successful runners, but our program’s structure and weekly routine also spends a lot of time focused on conversations about taking care of your whole body and mind,” Henry says.
It’s this approach to coaching that earned Henry the 2022 National Double-Goal Coach Award from the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA). Awarded to only 25 coaches in the U.S. who’ve made a positive impact on their student-athletes, PCA recognized Henry for how her program supports each student-athlete as a whole person at a live ceremony earlier this year.
When You’re Well, We’re Well
In the past few years, top athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have openly talked about prioritizing their mental health and wellness over competition. It’s more than a trend, though, as coaches and teams of all levels have long seen the correlation between sleep, stress, and nutrition with an athlete’s performance.
Initially, Henry’s incorporation of lessons on nutrition, hydration, sleep, and stress management was motivated by a desire to encourage each student to bring their best to the sport. “We saw how wellness education helped the girls on the team academically, socially, and emotionally, and so our commitment to that type of learning has grown every year to become an integral part of our program,” Henry says.
With the added stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, Henry wanted to find more ways to check in with each student on the cross country team.
“We started doing Monday reflection cards at practice” Henry says, adding that the positive relationships built between the coaches and athletes have led to a trusting environment, where athletes feel comfortable sharing their thoughts on what they’ve been struggling with that week, celebrating something they’re proud of, or unloading anything in general they want to mention.
“These notes are private, but the girls are free to talk to each other about them. They’re great for motivating important conversations among runners. I hold onto the cards and give them back to each student at the end of their senior season. For some girls, it’s cool to see their progression, both as athletes and as people,” Henry says.
She’s also implemented mental health days, where an athlete can have up to five days off per season, no questions asked. The team also enjoys weekly Wellness Wednesdays, where instead of running, they do yoga, go on a team walk, or try out another relaxing activity.
“We're trying to give each runner the opportunity to advocate for themselves and their needs, because a huge part of managing mental health is learning how to take care of yourself, learning how to say no, and gaining the confidence to speak up when you need help. It’s about giving these student athletes the space to make their own choices,” Henry says.
Supporting the Whole Athlete
Beth Pattinelli, who is Prep’s dean of students and one of the girls cross country team’s assistant coaches, knew she had to nominate Henry when she received an email from the Positive Coaching Alliance. Following rigorous criteria and a very detailed nomination process, Pattinelli got to work supplying answers to multiple essay questions and references from cross country alumni and parents.
“I read the criteria and I said to myself, this is Jill; this is our program!” Pattinelli says. “This award is more about drawing recognition to the powerful impact you can have as a coach when you think about the entire athlete, the entire person, and that’s what Jill does.”
Pattinelli remembers a key moment that exemplifies Henry’s coaching. A few years ago, the girls cross country team was expected to win state. “Then, we had a series of physical injuries and the girls got into a negative place mentally. They saw all their teammates struggling through injuries and were disappointed for them,” Pattinelli says.
Henry hosted a team breakfast and asked each athlete to write any negative thoughts they had about that tough season. Then they all crumpled up their notes and threw them into a fire.
“It just came at the right time and the right place, when they’d lost their emotional strength,” Pattinelli says. “Jill looked for ways to tell them, ‘This isn’t about winning championships, this is about building confidence.’ That is how she approaches the program. If there’s something the girls need, she figures out a way to help them, whatever it might be. Sometimes they need a mental health day. Sometimes they need a burst of confidence. At that moment, where it seemed like the whole team was struggling, we focused on getting them to a positive place.”
Coaching for Life
A soccer player and track athlete throughout high school, Henry did not think she’d end up coaching cross country. But when she joined the team 15 years ago, assisting then-head coach Michael Roffina, she quickly realized how unique the sport was in its emphasis on individual improvement. “Mike always stressed the incredible human development aspect of cross country, that this is a lifelong sport and we get to help each runner build a meaningful foundation,” Henry says.
Bringing in her own experience and observations throughout the past 15 years, Henry also saw how foundational mental and emotional health were to physical health. She even wrote a book about it. The Greatest College Health Guide You Never Knew You Needed, which Henry co-wrote with her husband Dave, shares helpful advice for students navigating college life and comes from interviews and research done with young adults and former athletes on Henry’s team. “Wellness is not just something we talk about once,” she says. “As a student-athlete, you have to manage your time, your recovery, and learn about what’s best for your body and brain. What better place to receive that education than in your chosen sport?”
“Ours is an environment that prioritizes health, not just as an athlete, but as a person” Henry says. “We’re trying to teach our athletes essential life skills so that they can take care of themselves long after high school sports are over. That’s more important than speed training. Do you leave here feeling happier, healthier, and more connected than when you came in? If so, then we’ve done our jobs.”