Investing in People = The Key to Success - by Sam Nadel former DI Athlete/BAA Pro, Current UNC Coach
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Hi! My name is Samantha Nadel, and I am an Assistant Coach for the distance events at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I ran cross-country and track for North Shore High School, Georgetown University, the University of Oregon, and the Boston Athletic Association before stepping into my current coaching role. Here is my story from when I first started running full-time to my current role as a coach here at UNC. My story underscores how the lessons I learned regarding the coach-athlete relationship and process-focused mindset aided in shaping my current coaching philosophy and practice.
Prior to committing to cross-country and track full-time in high school, I played many other sports in addition to track, including soccer, softball, basketball, tennis, swimming, and karate. However, cross-country/track became the sport that I became solely focused on as I entered high school. Not only did I enjoy it the most and see the greatest improvements in it, but above all else, the warm, welcoming nature of my high school coach and teammates drew me in completely.
After high school, I was fortunate enough to be recruited at the college level and took “official visits” to four different universities to get a better sense of what life as a student-athlete was like at each of these schools. For me, the number one aspect I focused on while taking these visits was the coach and the team. Specifically, could I see myself running for this coach and fitting in with this team? Did their vision for their program align with mine? Would my coach and teammates invest in me?
After taking my visits, I chose to attend Georgetown University because I wanted to be in a supportive team environment where my teammates and I could reach both our individual and collective goals. To me, the most exciting part of college was the potential to accomplish big things on the national stage as a part of a greater whole-for something bigger than oneself, together.
My undergraduate experience was certainly not a smooth ride. I spent a large chunk of my undergraduate experience on-and-off injured and having to watch a lot of the action from the sidelines. The main thing that kept me going during this time were my teammates and coaches - they were incredibly supportive of me for my entire time at Georgetown, and always encouraged me to keep going when I was not sure if I could. My coach in particular always did a great job of helping me see the bigger picture and keep my injuries in perspective.
However, my experience in undergrad certainly highlights the concept of identity foreclosure. The injuries I sustained were especially challenging for me, as I considered my entire identity to be tied to the results I produced on the track. As a result of this, I sunk into a depressive state every time single time I experienced an injury because I couldn’t compete. The ups and downs I experienced at Georgetown for four years left me emotionally exhausted, to the point where I knew I wanted to finish out my eligibility, but I also knew that I needed a fresh start to achieve the results I was seeking.
After I graduated from Georgetown, I had a full year of eligibility remaining. I decided to use my remaining eligibility at the University of Oregon. I was fortunate enough to have an incredibly positive experience there, one that exceeded my initial expectations entirely. I remained injury-free and put up the results that I had been chasing for years. Additionally, I built incredible relationships with my teammates and coaches, who propelled me to even greater heights.
At both Georgetown and Oregon, the relationships I had built with my coaches and teammates were ultimately what helped me to manage setbacks, run my best, and be an all-around happy and fulfilled person.
That being said, the success I achieved at Oregon - we won the national championship every season I was there - reinforced the notion in my head that my results defined who I was. After I finished up my eligibility at Oregon, my experience with identity foreclosure propelled me to professional running. At the time, I saw this career path as the only viable option for me and didn’t consider anything else. In my head, this was what I was meant to do. Thus, I signed a contract with the Boston Athletic Association and moved to Boston immediately after finishing college.
Unfortunately while in Boston, I ended up injured for most of the year, forcing me to reckon with my identity and reflect on why I was doing what I was doing. Ultimately, a less cohesive support system combined with my sole focus on external results drove me to consider other career options (although I wasn’t completely aware of this at the time; more on that below). So, after a year in Boston, I came to terms with the fact that I was ready to move on from competitive running and began to explore a plethora of career options.
I was fortunate enough to begin a coaching career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Similarly to what I experienced with my coaches when I was an athlete, our coaching philosophy here at UNC is very relationship-oriented, where we invest in the whole athlete. We are always well-informed with how our athletes are doing academically, socially, and mentally, as we are engaging in this type of open dialogue with them every single day. Taking an interest in the athletes’ entire lives, not just their contributions to our sport, also works to combat identity foreclosure as it reminds them that they have value outside of athletics.
Another way we work to combat identity foreclosure in our athletes is having them focus on the process rather than on external results. Something that would have helped me as an athlete when I was struggling with injury would have been tying my identity to how I execute the day-to-day work, rather than on how I perform in races. In other words, focusing on what I could control rather than on external results where I had very little control would have saved me a lot of emotional turmoil in the end and likely would have given me a little more longevity as an athlete. I was the most miserable when I was hurt as a professional athlete, and it’s only now that I realized I was so upset because I based my self-worth on external results and I didn’t have a cohesive enough support system to keep me grounded. Ultimately, a strong sense of self comes from having agency and control over how one approaches each day.
Our coaching style here at UNC makes for an incredibly supportive coach-athlete relationship and team environment. We are a very hands-on, communicative, relationship-oriented coaching staff. Starting from the very beginning of the recruiting process, to when the athlete is on campus, and eventually to when the athlete graduates, the relationships that we build with our athletes form the foundation of everything we do here at UNC and only strengthen over time. Having the ability to mentor young athletes and influence their identities is ultimately how we as coaches can help them reach their greatest potential, both in and after college.
At the end of the day, athletes want to know that you care - not just about their workouts, but about them as whole people. If you care about somebody as a whole person, that is how he/she will ultimately thrive in all aspects of life-including running. To sum it up, my experiences as both an athlete and a coach all come back to the same common theme-what matters the most are the real relationships you build with those around you. When all is said and done, genuine, fulfilling relationships help you get through tough times and ultimately give your life experiences meaning.
Samantha Nadel is a middle distance/distance runner from Glen Head, NY. She was a six-time All-American in college, graduating from both Georgetown University (2012-16) and the University of Oregon (2016-18). At Georgetown, she earned All-America Honors three times-in cross-country, the Distance Medley Relay, and the 3,000m. At Oregon, she earned All-America Honors three more times-in cross-country, the 3,000m, and the 5,000m. In 2016-17, the women’s team at the University of Oregon won the national title in all three seasons (Triple Crown). Sam her teammate Katie Rainsberger were the only two women in NCAA history to score points in each season for a team that won the Triple Crown. Post-collegiately, she competed for the Boston Athletic Association in Boston, MA for one year.
Prior to college, Sam ran for North Shore High School (2008-12), where she was a New York State Cross-Country Champion, 2x New York State Runner-Up in the 3,000m, and a two-time Millrose Games Mile Champion.
As a current assistant coach for the distance events at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sam is now focused on guiding her athletes to reach their potential in cross-country/track & field and in life generally. She is excited to have a positive impact on the next generation of Tar Heels and help build UNC-Chapel Hill into a national powerhouse in the years to come! When she is not at practice or traveling for competitions, she enjoys running, weightlifting, hiking, reading, listening to podcasts/music, and spending time with friends/family.