Ask a Coach Tara Zollinger, Head Coach, Shippensburg University

Tara Zollinger just finished her second season as the head coach at Shippensburg University. In her two seasons at Ship she has won just as many NCAA Division II National Championships and just as many NFHCA Division II National Coaching Staff of the Year honors. Prior to taking the helm at Shippensburg, Tara was an assistant coach at Syracuse University, where she was an integral part of the staff that led the Orange to the 2015 NCAA Division I National Championship. Tara was a two-time NCAA Division I National Champion as a player at the University of Maryland.

Tara sat down to answer your questions — received through the National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) social media platforms — about coaching, professional development and recruiting.

Question: What is the most important quality you look for in a prospective student-athlete?

Answer: There are many important qualities we look for in prospective student-athletes. One of the most important ones is adaptability. We are looking for student-athletes who can adapt to a new environment and be flexible to meet the team needs and work with the changes that a student undergoes in their four years.

Q: How do you design your practices?

A: We design our practices based on what we need to implement that week for the game ahead. After we identify those areas we need to work on, we create drills and games that will help our athletes grow in those areas. In all of our practices we include some element of competition and small games.

Q: Did you ever think you'd be a collegiate coach?

A: Yes, it was my goal to be a collegiate coach. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to coach with a club in Maryland as well as with USA Field Hockey. The amazing experiences I had coaching there further solidified my desire to pursue this profession.

Q: How do you get your team ready for a game?

A: We prepare our student-athletes by showing them video of both our upcoming opponent and recent video of themselves. We then have a full scouting report and discuss the areas we can be successful. We also have a competition day right before we play. This is a great way for our athletes to relax, have fun and just compete!

Q: What advice would you give young coaches?

A: Find your confidence and find a good mentor! There are so many nuances to this profession that you only learn from experience. So, having a good mentor will help expedite that process and will also give you support, valuable advice and knowledge.

Q: What do you do for professional development?

A: I love to listen to podcasts, read leadership books and chat with my colleagues. These are great ways to pick up on little bits and pieces here and there of great ideas and advice.

Q: What advice would you give a student-athlete who is considering coaching?

A: Start coaching now! There are so many opportunities to coach while being a student-athlete. You will gain awesome experience and will get a good feel for your authentic coaching and leadership style. When I was in college, I would coach five to seven camps each summer. This gave me exposure to a lot of different coaches from across the country and helped me network and connect with many coaches.

Q: What gave you the courage to become a head coach?

A: I was strategic in advancing my career from the beginning. I started out as a young coach in college working at the club level and with the USA Field Hockey Futures program. In addition, I gained international coaching experience at a variety of camps and clubs when I was studying abroad. Each experience gave me more confidence in my abilities so when I completed my fourth year as an assistant college coach I felt ready to make the next step in becoming a head coach. I was eager to experience the challenges and triumphs of being a head coach and was fortunate to find a university where I could be successful.

Q: How do you find balance in your life between being a successful coach and a normal person?

A: Two things, the first is setting boundaries. For example, I set boundaries around when I am and am not available for work calls. Doing this helps me decompress when I am off the clock and also sets clear expectations for colleagues and student-athletes. The second thing is having a consistent year-long self-care routine. This gets difficult to commit to during season but taking that time for my health and well-being really allows me to stay fresh and sharp, and to be at my best for my student-athletes!

Thanks to everyone who submitted a question, and to Tara for taking the time to give such thoughtful answers!

Next month, Trinity College's assistant coach, Katie Kloeckener, will be answering your questions. Follow along on FacebookInstagram and Twitter for your next opportunity to submit questions. And if you just can't wait, click the button below to submit a question now.

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