Joanna Hayes – Interview

CREDIT: Jeff Cohen

Joanna Hayes is an Olympic Gold Medallist and a Track Coach from the USA.  As an athlete, Joanna originally specialised in the 400m hurdles, achieving a silver medal at the 1999 Summer Universiade in a career best time of 54.57 seconds, and a gold medal at the 2003 Pan American Games.  In 2004, Joanna switched to the 100m hurdles, and at the Athens Olympic Games that same year, won Gold!

Joanna has spent most of her coaching career working at college level, with male and female short and long hurdlers (100 / 110m hurdles & 400m hurdles).  Her athletes have achieved everything from winning Pac-12 Championships, NCAA Championships and the NCAA Indoor Championships.

One of her most successful athletes is Rai Benjamin, who won the NCAA title with a time of 47.02, tying for the second-fastest ever recorded, setting the USC and collegiate records.  Rai is now co-coached with Joanna and another coach Caryl Gilbert-Smith and is representing USA at the World Championships.

Joanna was named the 2018 West Region Women’s Track Assistant Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA)

In November 2018, Joanna took on the up and coming track star Sydney McLaughlin, the then 19 year old who had already represented USA at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 as a 16 year old.  Following that in 2017, Sydney put together one of the greatest high school careers in U.S. history.  At the NCAA Championships on June 9th 2018, Sydney won the women’s 400 hurdles in 53.96 and followed that up about an hour later by splitting 50.03 on the fourth-place 4×400 relay to help the Wildcats finish fourth in the final team standings. After the NCAA Championships, McLaughlin announced her intention to forego her remaining three years of college eligibility and turn pro [collegiate rules stat you can’t be a professional athlete and be an athlete at college].

This year, in their first season together, Joanna and Sydney have achieved some incredible performances.  Sydney competed on the Diamond League circuit for the first time, won the Diamond League Final and qualified for her first World Championships!

A week before the start of the IAAF World Athletic Championships in Doha, we spoke with Joanna about her incredible season with Sydney and how the transformation from College coach to professional coach has worked for her.

How excited are you for the IAAF World Championships in Doha? 

I am really excited for the World Championships! It’s my first one as a Coach. I have been to them as an athlete and as an Ambassador with the IAAF, but not as a coach. I am going to be nervous! The athletes are ready, they are excited, I am excited it’s going to be great!

Are you more nervous in the lead up to this major Champs as a coach than you were as an athlete? 

I was a pretty nervous athlete, I used to get so nervous! I would be really nervous before my warm up and then right before the race. As a coach I don’t get nervous until Sydney is in the blocks – then I’m nervous! It’s funny though, it’s not because I don’t think she is going to do well, or that she is not ready…but from that moment she is in the blocks I can’t control anything!

Right in that moment Sydney might just change everything, or something unexpected could happen! Or something even greater than expected.  Then I start thinking ‘what if it doesn’t go well, what am I going to say? How will I help them?’! I just want my athletes always to do well and to be happy, which I know isn’t always going to be the case but that’s what I want.

I have my stopwatch and my hands get a little sweaty haha!

I’m never nervous when they warm up, I’m not nervous until they are not with me! When they are with me I’m not nervous at all! I think I get separation anxiety! Haha

CREDIT: Jeff Cohen

It’s been such a short time since Sydney came over to you, left college, went pro, signed a shoe contract and now has the expectation of breaking world records, winning gold etc….how has that journey so far been for you as her coach and how do you manage all these expectations on her? 

It has been a whirlwind! She went Pro at 19 and yet there are all these major expectations on her from around the World! Everyone is looking at her, she has a massive social media following, everyone has their own opinions about what she should be doing and how fast she should be running, etc etc. So when I decided to coach her, the main aim was to keep the pressure off her as much as we can in year one. There is going to be pressure, of course, but I don’t want to put any on her. The expectations I have given her is just to do her best and believe in herself.

This year, she didn’t have to do anything, she is a rookie! But she has had a phenomenal year! Did she break the World Record…no…but that wasn’t part of the plan! There’s no way I would say ‘Ok, so in your first year, we are going to break to the World Record!’ If I put that pressure on her, then what would be next? How would she live up to that?  There would be so many more expectations and possible disappointments after that, because every time you run a race, many outside people are expecting you to always run that fast which isn’t possible.

My goal for Sydney was to become consistent, and she has, she has gotten consistently faster each race so far this year. She is so young, she has years to break World Records…but it will come when it comes, I’m not planning for it. If you go for the win, the records start falling. Chasing the record isn’t fair for her, because then you start chasing the numbers and not just competing.

I’ve just tried to keep it light with Sydney and spending a lot of time getting to know each other. I knew her a little bit before, but only to say hi and give her a hug. You can’t really have communication with athletes at different universities, because of the rules.

When she started with me in November 2018, we decided to spend some time getting to know each other really well. I wanted to learn her moods, her facial expressions, her language, her lingo. Sydney is a teenager, so I often just get answers like ‘Ok’, ‘good’, ‘alright’…I need to learn what these things mean! I know that a certain look means she needs me, or she wants me to get away from her haha! So that has been the main thing, to get to know each other and understand what each of us are doing. It has been great spending quality time with her, laughing with her, joking with her, knowing who she is.

When I coached high school or college, I always wanted to know my athletes inside and out. You don’t coach athletes, you coach people who happen to be athletes. If you don’t know this person well and don’t care about what they care about outside the track, it’s very difficult for them to trust you and believe in you when they think you only care about the numbers.

Is that philosophy something you learned from the coaches you had as an athlete? 

Bobby Kersee was my coach and he knew us well. He is completely crazy, and we’ve always told him that! Behind the yelling and screaming at us on the track, he really cared about us as individuals. If we needed something he was there, he would support us, he understood us. He coached men too, but he did coach a lot of women – and as you know, we are complicated and complex! When it comes to personal things like periods and other female things, the male coaches have a harder time with us, and we put Bobby through a lot! Bobby did well though, he did lead as an example for me because I knew he cared. And you do have to care about your athletes, they aren’t all going to win…if you have a team, or more than one athlete (especially if you have more than one in an event), you really have to focus on how to treat them before and after, how to get them through tough times like injuries, or break-ups etc.

You have to learn how the athlete works. You might have one athlete who really wants you to talk to them the whole time they are warming up, they need you because they are so nervous…but then you have another athlete that doesn’t want to hear a word you say, they want to be on their own…so you as the coach have to have that balance and understanding.

Another example – one athlete might need more time to warm up, because they always go to the bathroom! So you have to build in 5 more minutes for their warm up because they are going to disappear half way through! And that’s ok, because that’s their routine and that’s who they are. You have to cater to your athletes enough to make them comfortable and be at their best. And if you have athletes that respect you, they won’t take advantage of that, they know the boundaries to stay in and know ‘Ok, my coach will let me do this before a race’.

Being personal is important to me – and it changes lives. I have worked with kids in East St Louis at The Jackie-Joyner- Kersee Center Boys & Girls Club, and it taught me a lot about the importance of getting to know them. Kids are all really the same in terms of the things that they need, which is time and attention. They really want you to spend time with them and be with them face to face. So I look at my athletes in the same way, younger or older, it’s about the quality time you spend with them and letting them know how much you care.

What has the transition been like for you moving from the US College Coaching Circuit, to the International Circuit such as the Diamond league? 

The transition hasn’t been hard for me and I think that’s in part because I have spent a lot of time on the circuit in other capacities. I have already been to all the meets (although they were Golden League back then and not Diamond League), so I know what to expect when I go to the meets and the cities. Everyone I’ve gone to this year I have already visited, except maybe Marseille, France, which was awesome! Because I have been to all these places, it helps me in telling Syd what to expect.

Also, I travelled a lot when I coached at college. I worked all day long and could only take my own kids to school maybe twice a week and then my husband would pick them up most the time. That was hard on them because by the time everyone is home it’s 6:30/ 7pm, it’s time to eat some food and go to bed! The travelling I do now is further in distance, but it’s not as consuming…college was indoor season, then outdoor season back to back to back. And now I am my own boss, so I can take my kids with me!

This summer I took them on a 12 day trip to Marseille, Paris and Monaco! Not many 6 and 8 year old kids can say they have done that! And they will be coming to Doha with me! They may not understand yet, but I know how fortunate they are and how fortunate I am to do what I love and to be able to include my daughters. So, for me, it’s been a pretty seamless transition. I enjoyed my time as an athlete, as an ambassador and the relationships I cultivated have carried through my life. I love being back and being part of athletics again in this capacity!

I wanted to ask you about the role that Sports agents now play in Track & Field and how you as a coach ensure that they are of benefit to your athletes rather than a hindrance. What type of relationship do you have to have with these agents, and can they be a pain when it comes to you the coach wanting to decided when and where your athlete competes? 

Syd is represented by WME off the track and by Wes Felix on the track.  I think everyone has a plan of what works best for them but what we do is Wes gives me the yearly competition schedule, and I look at what fits my plan for the year.  We have a discussion and we talk through the meets.  As the coach I have the final say but I also respect the business side of the sport so Wes’ thoughts and opinions are also weighed in.  I trust him and from the very beginning he assured me that I have the final say on her competition schedule.  Our relationship works well because we have a mutual respect for one another and both have Syds best interest at heart always. 

There are times when I am told Syd has to do something to fulfill a contract obligation, or there are off the track opportunities.  But depending on what it is, if it interferes with training or competition, I can say no or reschedule for more convenient time.  I appreciate the relationships I have with her agents and sponsors, because they respect that this all started because she is a great athlete, and if we forget that, it can all fall apart.  We make a great team! 

What is it about Sydney that separates her from the rest? 

She is young, which is good, but she is really determined and is a fierce competitor. Whether she is nervous, or doubting herself, when that gun goes off, Syd competes. That is the bottom line. She has tunnel vision that keeps her focused on the goal. I think it also helps that we allow her to be a 20 year old young woman, she is able to focus on track when she needs to, because we don’t beat her over the head with it all the time. She needs an outlet and we give her that and she finds balance. She is a very tough young lady.