Coach Across America: Chicago Coach Uses Running to Teach Leadership

Noelia Run Coach

A current Serve Illinois AmeriCorps coach at Chicago Run - an organization promoting the health and wellness of Chicago youth through innovative, engaging and sustainable youth running programs - Noelia Fraga brings a unique perspective to coaching that helps her encourage her students to strive to be their best. As a Chicago native and a participant in after-school programming herself as a child, Noelia can see the value these programs bring to the children who participate, and how they provide structure and purpose for youth. After spending college breaks returning as a volunteer to the program in which she grew up, choosing to further her career by working with youth just seemed to make sense to Noelia when she graduated from Knox College in 2014. Her mother, a friend of Chicago Run Executive Director Alicia Gonzalez, saw her post the position online and recommended Noelia apply for it. As a former Chicago Public School student herself and someone experienced in working with youth from diverse backgrounds, Noelia was a great fit. Although she had the leadership and mentorship capabilities required for this position, she saw the running aspect of the role as a bit of a challenge: “the sports aspect I knew I wasn’t the strongest in – they are specifically geared towards running, which, while I grew up playing soccer and volleyball, running was not really my thing.” She applied, was interviewed, and accepted the position in July 2015.

Chicago coaches

After attending the Up2Us Sports Coach Training Institute in Los Angeles last September, Noelia felt her coaching techniques really began to develop. She says, “training has helped me in my coaching role by getting me to really think about how my words affect how my students see themselves and their performance during practice.” She already knew and was comfortable with some coaching strategies from her past experiences, but other strategies that are rooted in youth development, she had never been introduced to. “Skills such as how to give proper praise and building a positive culture were things that I never would've known how to do or implement.” She now avoids saying generic phrases of praise and instead, is more specific about what and why the things that the students do are praise worthy. While Noelia possesses many of the necessary qualities required to be an effective coach and mentor, her attitude towards coaching really helps sets her apart. When asked what being a coach has taught her, she says that “coaching has improved how I see the world. It helps me think about the words I say.” Noelia knows that effective coaches practice positive reinforcement with their teams, and she strives to make sure the feedback she provides is constructive and beneficial. Noelia has been able to build strong relationships with her students, and is grateful that they see her as a coach, as a mentor, and as a friend. She shares that “being a mentor and a friend to the students is important. I do not want them to see me as someone just telling them what to do. I’m doing something right, and that makes me happy”.

Noelia was able to make a significant impact in the life of one student in particular, Kate. Noelia could see a decrease in interest and motivation after many of Kate’s friends had graduated and left the program, leaving her as the oldest. Noelia reminded Kate that the younger students now look up to her, and that a positive attitude would help her stay determined. Kate took Noelia’s advice and rejuvenated her passion for running, while becoming a role model to the group of younger runners. In fact, Kate went on to write a letter to the Chicago Run organization, thanking them for the opportunity to participate in the program and how much she was looking forward to more upcoming races.

Chicago Run will soon be launching a pilot program, called LaceUp, directed towards high school and college students who want to stay involved with the program after they age out of it. Noelia will be a key part of this. These students will be able to continue pursuing their passion for running by training for larger races, such as a 10k. In addition to athletic training, these students will also have the option to participate in other activities, including a resume workshop.  

To Noelia, there is more to coaching than just a focus on winning. It is the relationships and friendships she has built with the students at Chicago Run that are the most valuable to her, as well as the relationships they build with one another. Noelia feels that “building a positive culture is something that I already knew was important, but was something that I didn't know how to conduct before my Up2Us Sports training. Having a team chant at the end of practices has helped the students really feel like they are a part of the team, and has helped build and solidify their friendships with one another despite being in different classrooms and grade levels.” She loves being a part of their lives and witnessing the students set, reach and exceed their own personal goals. Noelia has been able to transform the attitudes of students, and can see that they are motivated now more than ever before. She works hard to provide the students with a positive learning environment that challenges them, and she stands by a coaching philosophy that she has developed since starting at Chicago Run: “if I’m having fun, they’ll have fun too.”

Thanks to Haley Word, a volunteer through our partnership with Humana, for helping us compose this inspiring story.