Ask a Coach Karen Shelton, Head Coach, University of North Carolina

There aren’t many coaches — in any sport — that have the staying power and success of Karen Shelton.

Karen has been the head field hockey coach at the University of North Carolina for 38 years and her current winning record sits at 669-164-9. She has led seven NCAA National Championship teams and was inducted into the National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) Hall of Fame in 2008. This year, she and her staff were awarded the 2018 Spiideo/NFHCA Coaching Staff of the Year Award recognizing their contributions to UNC’s undefeated 2018 season.

Karen sat down to answer your questions — received through the NFHCA social media platforms — about coaching, recharging and adapting to changes in the sport.

Question: How are you planning to adjust to quarters in terms of strategy and fitness?

Answer: It’s a little too soon to say how it will really affect the college game. I think it’s likely that it’s going to increase the stoppages we already have — with video referral and the clock stopping for penalty corners — and all of that disrupts the flow of the game With more opportunities to rest during the game, coaches will keep their best players in the game longer, so fewer players will actually play.

I believe the action in the game will be faster with more end-to-end action during play. We will probably adjust our training to include more speed work in blocks of six to eight minutes — sprint repeatability will be a key. The extra coaching opportunities (two minutes between quarters) can affect tactics and strategies in the course of the half.

Q: What do you do to recharge?

A: I play golf with my husband and friends. I enjoy gardening and yard work, more tomatoes and vegetables than flowers. I have recently picked up Pickleball, and I enjoy workouts at Orange Theory. I love spending time with my granddaughter, Poppy, who was born on March 29.

Q: Reflecting on your legendary coaching career, what advice would you give your younger self?

A: I am the luckiest girl in the world. I have had an amazing career at an incredible university. To experience almost 40 years of changes in the development of women’s sports and to be part of the transformation of our program from competing in the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) on a state level to now being seven-time NCAA Champions has been my honor. The hundreds of fantastic students who have come through our program have developed life skills such as mental and physical toughness, resilience, problem-solving abilities, accountability, confidence and composure under pressure. They have benefited from the experience and have enriched my life so much.

I think I’d tell my younger self to keep doing what you’re doing and trust yourself! Certainly, there were times early on when we were competing with Old Dominion [University] and other traditional powers and we weren’t on that level yet, and that was frustrating. But it fueled my desire to keep working hard and making sure my players are having a great collegiate experience. Eventually the wins came and I’m glad I continued to trust the process.

Q: What do you think is the biggest contributing factor to your success at UNC?

A: Besides the University of North Carolina itself attracting outstanding student-athletes, I believe the biggest success factor is maximizing use of time. Every coach makes decisions about where you spend the time you have allotted. With only so much time to work with, I choose between fundamental skill development, skill acquisition, press/outlet, tactics, strategy, opposition preparation, film review, game debrief, sports psychology, team building exercises, strength and conditioning, etc. I believe recognizing what is most important at the moment and choosing the appropriate mix is what separates the good from the great.

Q: How would you describe yourself as a coach?

A: I believe I am a players’ coach. I am honest and I call ’em as I see ’em. I believe in everyone playing defense and that defense wins championships. I believe in the power of solid fundamental skills. I believe in passing the ball! I believe in hard work. I love the creativity in the game and empowering our teams to think for themselves. I believe I am a motivator that pushes players to do more than they think they can. I love to train winning habits.

Q: What kind of attributes do you look for in future Tar Heels?

A: I look for students who love the game and exhibit passion and a will to win. If you truly love the game, training is fun and it’s an investment. I look for athleticism and speed. That’s the case for scholarship players, but also what we’re looking for in the “diamonds in the rough” — we have a strong history of developing players who were unsung coming out of high school. We’ve had players like Jesse Gey, Jackie Kintzer Briggs, Caitlin Van Sickle and Lauren Moyer who have come to Chapel Hill as non-scholarship players and gone on to become national team members and Olympians. These women loved the game and were willing to do the work. That’s what we want to see in a future Tar Heel.

Q: What is the biggest difference between college field hockey now and at the beginning of your career — what do you wish hadn’t changed?

A: I have to say the game has changed a lot and as coaches we need to be adaptable. That said, one of the biggest changes is in recruiting and it has not been a positive change. In the 1980s, high school students usually made their decisions and commitments after the National Hockey Festival over Thanksgiving weekend in the fall of their senior year of high school. Since then it’s crept earlier and earlier to the point that I think kids are making an important life decision before they’re truly ready. I am a proponent of tightening the recruiting rules and closing the loopholes so that the recruiting process begins in a student-athlete’s junior year.

What I wish hadn’t changed is the prevalence of multisport student-athletes. Everyone specializes now and I think it’s a shame. I believe cross-training in sports is good for the soul and good for the body!

Thank you, Karen! And thanks to everyone who submitted a question!

Want more answers? Catch some adivce from Trinity College assistant coach, Katie Kloeckener, and Shippensburg University head coach, Tara Zollinger!

Next month we’ll be giving you another opportunity to “Ask a Coach,” so follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for your chance to ask your coaching questions.

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