Angelina Ramos

Agnes Mansaray arrived on the UNLV campus in September 2018 as a highly touted transfer from Iowa Central Community College, where she had been a dominant force in cross country and track. First-year UNLV coach Angelina Ramos quickly saw why. A native of Sierra Leone, Agnes crushed every workout Ramos threw at her, bolstering the team’s prospects for the season ahead.

Then it all went sideways. Agnes began to develop severe pain in her lower back. The problem came and went, but when it came it really came, to the point of stopping Agnes in her tracks, and with each passing day the issue worsened. Before long she was suffering migraines in addition to blinding back pain. Things came to a head at the Mountain West Conference Championships in San Diego, where Agnes collapsed at 800 meters, grabbing her back and howling piteously, and was rushed to the hospital.

Long story short: Agnes had a bunch of tumors growing on and around her kidney. Don’t worry, she’s fine now—a new mother, in fact. But before we get to the happy ending, let me tell you about how Angelina Ramos coached Agnes through the experience. “Coaching the exception” is my term for the playbook coaches use to help athletes facing unique challenges for which there is no playbook. In a recent phone conversation, Ramos shared ten rules she has for coaching the exception:

Do research.
Ramos had no earthly idea what was wrong with Agnes initially. But instead of passively waiting for the mystery to solve itself, she read up and consulted experts about her struggling athlete’s symptoms, proactively seeking answers.

Always be learning.
Coaches are less likely to be caught unprepared by unique problems in athletes when they are continuously engaged in learning, and also when they learn from each unique problem itself. Ramos came away from her experience with Agnes—whose family in Sierra Leone suggested that her tumors were the result of a curse, in response to which Ramos took her to see a shaman—with a new appreciation for the importance of understanding and validating the athlete’s own perspective on their problem. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the coach believes,” she told me.

Review/question the basics.
When a coach is presented with a weird problem, it is tempting to assume a weird cause. But it’s entirely possible for a weird problem to be caused by something fundamental, such as poor sleep or a dietary gap. In Agnes’s case, Ramos took a close look at biomechanics, core strength, and hydration. As it turned out, Agnes’s dehydration was related to her kidney tumors, but the changes Ramos made to her core strength program and biomechanics were not a waste of time, as they aided her running both before and after the real problem was discovered and addressed.

Revisit past decisions and outcomes.
Coaches must also not be too quick to rule out the possibility that something they did created the problem their athlete is now dealing with. Taking this possibility seriously requires that the coach review their history with the athlete, reevaluating key decisions and the outcomes of these decisions. Because Ramos had a very limited history with Agnes, this particular rule for coaching the exception didn’t really apply in her case, but Ramos is not afraid to own her bad decisions, nor should any coach be, in her view.

Ask what changed/what’s new.
Not always, but quite often, new problems are the result of new stressors. For this reason, it’s helpful for coaches to scrutinize an athlete’s recent history with special rigor. In some cases, this requires that the coach quiz the athlete about things like life stress that are not under their direct observation. Agnes’s recent transfer, and all that came with it, was the most salient change to focus on in her case, but of course it had nothing to do with her symptoms, which were all tumor-related.

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy.
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced a theory of human motivations whose centerpiece was his now-famous hierarchy of human needs. Maslow argued that humans have distinct categories of needs that exist in a clear order of relative priority. Of the five categories of needs he identified, physiological needs are the first priority, followed by safety needs, love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. Athletes have the same needs as other humans, and when an individual athlete is struggling in some way, it’s important for coaches to assess which of their needs, if any, aren’t being met, and what can be done about it. In Agnes’s case, Ramos went out of her way to make her feel safe, for example by accompanying her to all of her doctor’s appointments.

Consult your brain trust.
No coach knows everything or is expert in every subject. Even mediocre coaches know this, but mediocre coaches lack the humility to confess their limitations to others by asking for help in helping a struggling athlete. Angelina Ramos is not a mediocre coach, so she maintains a “brain trust” of other coaches and experts she consults in situations like the one she faced with Agnes Mansaray. You should too (if you’re a coach).

Identify patterns, look for discrepancies between self-reports and data.
While it’s important to seek input from athletes, coaches should not have blind faith in the information they get from them. Discrepancies may exist between an athlete’s perceptions and objective measurements. For example, an athlete might say they feel strong and energetic in their training but the data tell a different story. In the case of Agnes, her toughness and her desire not to let down her team, the university, and even the country (the U.S. had granted Agnes asylum under very difficult circumstances when she was still in high school) cued Ramos to be on guard for signs that her pain was even more severe or constant than she communicated. Athletes seldom deliberately mislead their coaches, but even when they don’t, their self-reports can’t always be relied on in isolation in the search for solutions to weird problems.

Ask if you’re actually using what you know.
Coaches should also question whether they are making proper use of their own knowledge in situations like Agnes’s. It’s easy for coaches to take their knowledge for granted, assuming, for example, that because they know a lot about training, no athlete of theirs could possibly be overtrained. When a problem an athlete’s experiencing remains unresolved, coaches must consider the possibility that something they already know but aren’t using might help. In a sense, Ramos was doing this when she realized she was assuming that, because Agnes looked very strong in the core, she must be strong, which might not actually be true. Sure enough, testing revealed that the strength Agnes demonstrated in the gym did not fully translate to her running, a discovery that led to changes resulting in greater functional core strength.

Assess the athlete’s mindset, coax them toward a hopeful outlook.
As you can well imagine, the experience Agnes went through with her tumors was extremely traumatic, and I haven’t even told you the half of it. There’s much more to the story, including unsuccessful surgeries and a typically Kafkaesque struggle with America’s health insurance system. Ramos was at Agnes’s side through all of it, doing everything she could not only to get her healthy again but also to keep her spirits up and give her hope for a good future. At one of her lowest moments, as Agnes lay in a hospital bed, Ramos vowed to her, “I will put you on the podium at Conference.”

The “Conference” she was referring to was the Mountain West Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships, which took place seven weeks after Agnes was cleared to resume running. At that meet, Agnes ran the 800 meters, and she made the podium, finishing second in 2:08.31, a new national record for Sierra Leone.

Figuring It Out
It was during the seven weeks between Agnes’s first post-surgery run and her fulfillment of her coach’s promise that Ramos really showed what it means to coach the exception. She is a running coach after all, and although she had a vital role to play with respect to Agnes’s medical situation, it was indeed a medical situation, hence largely outside her purview. There exists no codified set of rules for training athletes in Agnes’s precise circumstances, so instead of looking up the perfect formula in a book and applying it wholesale, Ramos created it on the fly.

Among they decisions the coach made were basing all of Agnes’s runs on time rather than distance, having her do key workouts apart from the team so she would become demoralized by comparisons, explaining her training strategy to Agnes so she would buy in to it, and building her confidence by putting her into the B heat of a meet preceding the conference championship, which she won.

This has turned into a rather lengthy blog post, so let me get to the key point I want to make: All athletes are exceptions to some degree, and every situation is unique, at least nominally. Coaches therefore should bring the same mindset to coaching athletes facing common challenges as they do to coaching athletes facing novel or mysterious problems. This requires that coaches be taught how to operate as creative problem solvers rather than as competent practitioners of rote procedures.

Toward the end of her tumor ordeal, when things were looking a little brighter, Agnes (for whom English is her fourth language) said to Ramos one day, “Coach, why are you so extra?” I love that line. If you want to be the kind of coach who is perceived as “extra” by your athletes, then learn to coach the exception! To learn more about our coaching certification, follow this link. We hope to inspire, teach, and build a community of coaches of all kinds.

In 2018, Bernadette Brady of Western Sydney University got together with a few colleagues and designed a study to determine to what degree, if any, implicit ethnic bias negatively impacted physiotherapy care among Australian ethnic minorities. Forty-eight patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain who identified as Mandaean, Assyrian, or Vietnamese participated in the trial. Half of the subjects were assigned to a standard physiotherapy treatment program while the other half were assigned to a culturally adapted treatment program that was identical in substance but was delivered in a culturally sensitive manner.

The results were striking. Only 58 percent of subjects in the standard treatment program completed it, compared to 96 percent in the culturally adapted program. Attendance and adherence were also significantly greater among patients in the culturally adapted program, who reported less pain-related suffering. Again, the actual treatments administered were the same; only their presentation differed.

This study highlights a fundamental truth, which is that people tend to get better outcomes from helping professionals when they are able to connect with those professionals on a cultural level. Students are more likely to excel under teachers they can relate to culturally, soldiers are more likely to reup and climb the ranks when they can relate to their commanding officer culturally, and yes, athletes tend to improve more when they share a cultural connection with their coach.

Not only that, but athletes are more likely to choose a particular sport in the first place if they see people who look and talk like them participating in and coaching that sport. As I write this, five of the ten highest-ranked American women professional tennis players are Black. This wouldn’t be the case if not for the influence of the Williams sisters. Nothing like the “Williams Effect” has yet happened in endurance coaching, but I would like to see it.

Why? Two main reasons. The first is that I know what endurance sports can do for people. Being an endurance athlete has changed my life for the better. It has helped me learn more about myself and grow as a person, it has given me some of the most intense experiences of my life, and it has taken me all over the world and brought great friends into my life. I want these types of experiences to be accessible to everyone, and right now they’re not. In theory they might be, but the numbers tell the true story. My wife, Nataki, who is Black, grew up in East Oakland, where she still has family and where I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 26 years. It’s difficult to envision a viable path from that neighborhood to a triathlon start line. The existence of more nonwhite endurance coaches would help change that.

The second reason I would like to see more people of color working as endurance coaches is that diversity enriches the endurance sports experience for everyone, including white guys like me. I remember traveling to Boston in April 1983 to watch the world’s oldest and greatest marathon, 98 percent of whose participants were male. It was a really cool event despite the extreme gender imbalance, but there’s no denying that the Boston Marathon is infinitely cooler today with a 50/50 gender split. Studies have shown that diverse work teams are more productive than homogenous work teams. But that’s not quite what I’m talking about here. The benefits of diversity in sport are less tangible than increased work productivity but no less real, more akin to how diverse parties are more fun and memorable than parties where everyone looks the same.

Instead of passively hoping endurance sports become more diverse, I’ve decided to do something about it. That something is the Coaches of Color Initiative, a program that operates under the aegis of the 80/20 Endurance Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of 80/20 Endurance. COCI will award apprenticeship grants to people of color who aspire to successful careers are endurance coaches. The first grant will be awarded through a selection process hosted on the 80/20 Endurance Foundation website (, where candidates will complete a brief application and submit a personal statement in either written or video format. The application window is from October 21 to November 18 and a winner will be named December 1.

The apprenticeship itself will last for one year. During this period, the grant recipient will receive a monthly stipend of $1,000 and will undergo a comprehensive apprenticeship experience with 80/20 Endurance. The program will include free training and certification as an 80/20 Endurance coach, one-on-one mentoring sessions with experienced coaches of color, and opportunities to create training content and gain valuable coaching experience through the 80/20 Endurance platform.

Funding for the Coaches of Color Initiative comes primarily from our company, which automatically donates 1 percent of gross monthly revenues to the Foundation. Future apprenticeship grant opportunities will become available as funding permits, so the more support we get from the endurance community and potential corporate backers, the more coaches we can help lift up.

COCI is not a one-man show, thank goodness. My colleagues at 80/20 Endurance, David Warden and Hanna Hunstad, have worked their butts off alongside me to make this dream a reality. Additionally, we’ve brought on running community leader and 80/20 Endurance ambassador Bertrand Newson to codirect the program, and we’ve put together a diverse advisory board to offer perspective and guidance on all of our important decisions. Its members are RaceMob founder Kevin Chang; running coach, podcaster, and online influencer India Cook; and Ball State University Women’s Cross Country and Track Coach Angelina Ramos.

I know the above sounds rather press release-y, and I will go ahead and admit that the last few paragraphs of this post were lifted from the press release I wrote to announce the launch of COCI. But we’re talking about real human beings here, not some bandwagon PR move. It won’t be long before an actual person with a name and a face and a voice is awarded the first apprenticeship grant, and you will get to watch this person grow and flourish within the program. Then a second real person will get the same opportunity, and so on.

I can’t wait to get started on this journey, and I hope you’ll make it with me in some capacity.

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