Coaching boys and coach girls can be two totally different styles in this sport. There are some coaches who seem to enjoy much more success coaching one gender over the other as the balance and transition to use different approaches and adapt quickly can be difficult for any coach's natural personality. One coach who has enjoyed steady and consistent success with her girls' team over recent years including a current active streak of four consecutive VISAA division 1 state cross country team titles is Cindy Walls of Bishop O'Connell. Coach Walls appears to strike the right balance with her girls to get the best out of them competitively, but also let them know that she cares about them. Quite a few coaches of the top public school programs in the state often want to ask Coach Walls at the Blue Ridge Running Camp every summer how she does it. Find out in our interview with Coach Walls coming in at #8 on our top 10 high school cross country coaches in Virginia list.
First, what her athletes (current or former) say about their coach...
Emily Blagg (Bishop O'Connell '12): It is hard for me to sum up Coach Walls in one paragraph, but here goes. I have run X-country and Track for Coach Walls for the past two years. I stress that I have been running for Coach, because although I love to compete individually and as part of a team, when I am running down the final straightaway I feel like I am not just representing myself and O’Connell, but I am also trying to live up to all the time and effort that Coach has invested in me. What I admire most about Coach Walls is that she cares deeply about every single one of her runners. Her criteria for success is not necessarily where an individual runner finishes in the race (although she loves to win!), but whether that runner has given it their all.Coach Walls wants everyone to do their best and she does an amazing job at getting us to believe in ourselves. Standing on the start line of a race is one of the most nerve wracking experiences for me, but when the gun goes off I know I am prepared because Coach Walls believes in me and she has given me the confidence to believe in myself. Over the past two years I have seen Coach Walls create a team that not only works hard and never gives up, but also a team that has fun and simply loves running. I feel very fortunate to have been able to compete for Coach Walls these past two years. As I look forward to my senior year of high school and what lays beyond, I know that of all the things and people I will miss after graduation, the biggest thing that I will miss will be running for her.
Interview with Bishop O'Connell coach Cindy Walls
Question #1 - First, please list your coaching credentials including # of team and individual champions at the state, region, and district level. Also any additional accomplishments such as personal awards and athletes who earned All-American honors or qualified for nationals.
5 Arlington County Championships (4 consecutive)
5 WCAC Championships (4 consecutive)
4 VISC Champ (consecutive)
2 All-Met Athletes as recognized by The Washington Post
10-Honorable Mention All-Met Runner (Wash. Post)
28 All-WCAC Runners
32 All VIS Runners
All-Met Coach of the Year, 2007 (Washington Post)
Question #2 - When did you first get started in coaching and why?
I began my coaching career in Los Angeles, CA in 1996. I was a fairly decent competitive runner and l had thought about coaching for some time. When we moved to LA our four children were old enough that I could think more seriously about that. Our two oldest kids were in high school and a husband and wife were coaching the boys and girls teams. After spending some time with them they brought me on-board and I loved it. I really wanted to share my love of running with young people and hopefully help them get the most out of the experience. I wouldn’t admit this to my kids then, but it was a good way to kind of keep an eye on them, too!
Question #3 - Who do you consider as some of your top coaching influences as far as training and philosphy?
Coach Jack Daniels is one person who comes to mind. He has an excellent and well-balanced plan, which is easy to implement for the high school athlete. The formulas provide the opportunity for all athletes and all levels to train and reach their potential. The greatest coaching influence on me was Martha O’Rourke, who won numerous state titles at Jenks High School near Tulsa, OK, and is one of the most successful running coaches in the state’s history. I’d become the head coach at Bishop Kelley H.S. in Tulsa and during my first year of head coaching we’d share a cup of coffee every week and talk about coaching, our teams, and practice schedules. Even though we were “rival schools” in a way, Martha was eager to share a wealth of know-how and experience and her generosity to do that is something I’ll never forget and try to put into practice with my coaching today.
Question #4 - What was your favorite or most enjoyable team to coach and why?
I’ve been blessed to have a lot of good runners who worked hard to improve themselves. But what I’ve always loved is the core group of young ladies on my teams who loved the sport, loved to compete, and tried their best to improve. They were excited to come to practice every day, they enjoyed each other and they created a positive atmosphere that is the hallmark of the O’Connell program. I just love being around young people who want to be the best they can and want the same for their teammates.
Question #5 -What do you think has made the teams which you have coached successful?
I believe successful teams are committed to the program, each other and their coach. They respect the sport, are willing to embrace all workouts and look forward to testing their limits when racing.
Question #6 -What would you consider a turning point in your program to take it to the level which you maintain today?
I believe our success at O’Connell began when we won the WCAC in 2004. The program had not had a lot of success and we weren’t terribly deep that year in talent. But I was fortunate to have two daughters who worked very hard and were great competitors, and the other girls on the team fed off of their energy. That success attracted more runners the following year, and we’ve been able to build on that for more and more success. The atmosphere was changed to one of commitment and purpose. The girls through my passion for the sport became energized by it. They believed in my vision and were willing to put in the hard work it took to elevate themselves and our program.
Question #7 -What would you say has been your biggest mistake as a coach and what did you learn from that?
My biggest mistake as a coach came early on in my coaching career. The state meet course in Oklahoma was less than ten miles from our school. I had my team run on the course for our hardest workout of the week every week. I thought it was a great idea. Wrong! The girls associated miserable hill repeats, 1000’s, 1200’s and mile repeats with the course…enough said…
Question #8 - What would you consider as your happiest or proudest moment as a coach? If unable to single out a single moment, mention a few which standout.
My happiest moment as a coach came last year at the O’Connell end of the season banquet. We always have a special night for just the team and my senior girls presented me with a scrapbook in which they had each decorated a page and wrote a letter talking about their running experience. All of the letters were great, but one in particular stood out to me. It was written by a young lady who recounted some serious struggles her freshman year. She told me that cross country was the only positive activity in her life and how important my encouragement and attention was to her. She ended up running all four years at O’Connell and having a great experience. While reading that letter it struck me once again why I love this profession.
Question # 9 - If you could simplify your training program and philosophy into 5 points of emphasis, what would they be?
Safe, challenging, well-balanced training plan
Consistent and positive encouragement
High standards and expectations
Setting realistic individual and team goals
Respect for the sport, teammates, and yourself
Question #10 - Describe a quality workout which could be described as a "bread and butter" and staple workout which the program has used over the years.
I love the 3-4 mile tempo runs. We do these regularly. We warm up 1.5 miles and cool down the same.
Question #11 - What do you consider as some of the greatest challenges that you face as a coach in trying to maintain a successful program year in and year out?
I think it’s a bit tough sometimes because young people have different sports in which to participate. Many girls play more than one sport and feel they have to play club soccer, or lacrosse during the season in order to remain competitive in those sports. Quite often they and their parents don’t understand the risks to their developing body and mind. It is a real challenge keeping these girls injury free as some head off to club soccer after our 2 ½ hr. practices. Trying to convince some of these young ladies, and particularly their parents, is a perpetual battle.
Question #12 - What do you consider is the most important part of the development of a high school runner in reaching their potential?
12) Success doesn’t happen overnight. It’s important to gradually increase mileage and intensity, and to develop individual training plans. A coach needs to recognize and remember that each girl and their developing body is unique and needs constant monitoring to keep them injury-free and able to reach their potential.
Question #13 - How regularly are you able to keep in touch with your alumni? How important is maintaining a relationship with your former runners?
I can’t tell you how many ½ marathon and full marathon training schedules I have prepared for graduating runners. I love to hear that my girls are still in love with running and racing. I keep in close contact with so many of my runners, and it’s not just about running. College classes and graduation, weddings, births, new jobs…. I love hearing from my past runners about what’s going on in their lives. One of my greatest joys is still having a relationship with “my girls”, and I’m lucky that so many of them stay in close contact.
Question #14 - What would you want to be your lasting legacy or remembered for as a coach when you are done?
That’s an easy one. I hope every runner I’ve coached thinks “Coach Walls truly cared about me and wanted me to be the best I can be each and every day. “
Question #15 - Why do you coach?
I coach because I absolutely love having the chance to help young people develop into positive and productive adults. Coaching allows me to establish a close relationship with young ladies and hopefully provide them with direction and leadership to flourish in all aspects of their lives. It’s a privilege to have that opportunity.