ETSU’s women coaches/athletes strive for peak performance
By Nancy C. Williams, Photos by Nancy C. Williams
Among the graduate students in the East Tennessee State University sports center are some fresh, young athletes making history—not only as technological leaders in performance research but as women entering the male-dominated field of sports training.
What’s even more remarkable about this cadre of women, however, is their passion for pushing athletes to just the right level of peak performance. And, they’re making inroads where female coaches have been scarce in the past, in non-traditional sports— like rugby, weightlifting, rowing, canoe/kayak, and bobsledding.
The students are involved in the recently established work of ETSU’s Olympic Training Site, and they are setting their sights on gold.
“When I found out about ETSU’s program, I applied here and nowhere else,” says Heather Abbott, a second-year doctoral student in sport physiology and performance. Abbott, who is from Franklin, N.C., has been a Division 1 goalkeeper for women’s field hockey.
Among her current assignments? Serving as assistant sport scientist for the USA women’s field hockey team, as assistant sport scientist for ETSU’s Olympic weightlifting training, and as strength/conditioning coach for the ETSU men’s club rugby team. In her spare time, Abbott is working on her personal weightlifting skills.
“The women’s field hockey team is stationed at the huge Spooky Nook sports complex in Lancaster, Pa.,” says Abbott, who is learning how to apply complex data to team sports and individual competition. “I go each month for a week to work with heart-rate monitors on the players.
“It’s all about measurement,” she adds. “The idea is to show how closely sport science and technological data can work together, how applicable they are in the coaching process.”
According to Abbott, exercise science is “preached” at ETSU. “It’s been an amazing experience to see how everything works together—timing substitutions for players to perform better, finding out what an individual is doing consistently, determining when they become fatigued during a game, etc. We do benchmarking studies to help coaches make their strategic plans, and we help train athletes on-site at ETSU, too.”
The Olympic program at ETSU is operated in tandem with the university’s Center of Excellence for Sport Science and Coach Education (CESSCE), both directed by Coach Meg Stone. Using the latest equipment and sport science research findings, ETSU is gaining national and international recognition as the leader in coaching development and strength and conditioning for elite-level athletes. More than 30 sports are represented in the university’s program, and 20 students from around the world have come here for doctoral studies.
Jana Hollins, who also works as an assistant coach for Milligan College’s cross-country and track/field teams, says that she employs different tools for the different goals. “This experience has given us the opportunity to be around the sports we have a passion for,” she says, “especially in teaching exercise education.”
Besides Abbott, two more Olympic “hopefuls” in training at ETSU are Meredith Hardy and Megan Poole. Hardy, a senior from Gray, Tenn., is majoring in exercise science and is playing on the ETSU women’s volleyball team. She hopes to compete for the U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball team one day. “I began playing volleyball in middle school and have been on the ETSU team for four years on college scholarship,” Hardy says. “My teammate just went pro in Europe for the Sweden team, and I would like to go pro in Europe myself eventually.”
Poole, a junior from Gainesville, Ga., in exercise science and pre-physical therapy classes, is a scholarship weightlifter in the Olympic Training Site. “I took a physical education class in high school, and the football coach taught ‘Olympic lifts’ for a body-sculpting class,” Poole recalls. “He suggested that weightlifting might be a natural fit for me.” She has now been lifting weights for the past seven years, and she is engaged in national collegiate weightlifting competition for team and individual medals.
Poole is seeking to become one of the top 15 women in the U.S. competing for a place at the Olympic trials. “For the last Olympics,” she says, “they only took two of these weightlifters.”
But Poole, who is only 21 years old, says the peak age for female weightlifting is 28. “That means I still have a few more years to compete,” she says.
Not all of the athletes will compete personally for Olympic goals. Aubrey VanGoethem, a second-year master’s student in kinesiology and sport studies, from Crystal Lake, Ill., is working with the ETSU women’s volleyball team as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. “The Center of Excellence has been a good transition for me,” VanGoethem says. “I’ve just started to experiment with the monitoring system, and I hope to move into advanced rehabilitation.”
Emily Brockelman, events coordinator and assistant to Meg Stone, sets up education events, clinics, and sports camps, and she is organizing all the details for the Ninth Annual Coaching and Sport Science College that will be hosted by The Center of Excellence in December at the Millenium Centre for coaches from around the world.
Each June, The Olympic Training Site hosts “Olympic Day” for up to 300 young people to be exposed to a variety of sports. Stations are set up for rugby, field hockey, tennis, basketball, weightlifting, and more. “Half of the participants are girls, half boys,” Meg Stone says. “This year, we used a tray on rollers in the gym to simulate a bobsledding experience…they had a blast.”
All of the women students credit their enthusiasm for the ETSU program to their intrepid mentor, Meg Stone.
“She is a pioneer in getting women involved in what was a male-dominated field,” Abbott says. “We get excited about everything she sets up for us.”
Stone is a two-time Olympian who competed in discus for Great Britain in the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games.
Before moving to Johnson City, Stone was the coaching manager for the United States Olympic Committee. Recently she was presented with the prestigious “Legends in the Field Award” by the College Strength Coaches Association, the only woman to be so honored, and she received the honor of being the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
In November 2008, Stone was appointed the director of the ETSU’s CESSCE, which supports the first doctoral program in the country in coach education.
“Our goal in developing the center was to create a doctoral program and recruit more athletes at the elite level,” Stone says.
For the women in all sport activities at ETSU, Stone sees a great future. “I think the sport science field is lacking in female involvement,” she says. “There is a significant need for balance—not just women working with women but women coaching men as well.
“Women have a huge opportunity for employment after this program. I encourage anyone interested in a career in this area to contact us. There is just a lot of good stuff happening here.”
For more information, contact the CESSCE at (423) 439-9476, or firstname.lastname@example.org.