Sustaining a Career in Coaching

By Chris Sailer, Head Coach, Princeton University @princetonwlax

As I start my 30th year coaching at Princeton, I realize how fortunate I’ve been to be able to work for most of my adult life in a profession, and at a university, that I love. There are a number of experienced coaches close behind me, who will be celebrating their own 30th year before they know it, but right now I’m one of the few on the leading edge of experience in our sport. Hopefully in my lifetime, having females who’ve been actively coaching the college game for 3-plus decades won’t be an anomaly. Pat Genovese, Sue Stahl, Missy Foote, Cindy Timchal, and others like us are proof that coaching can be a lifelong profession for women, just as it is for males across all sports.

Photo Courtesy of Princeton University Office of Athletic communications
Photo Courtesy of Princeton University Office of Athletic communications

For me, coaching has been an ideal profession, and not just because I get to wear sweats or shorts to work every day. Coaching has brought me joy, fulfillment, challenge and satisfaction. As a head coach, I get to be the CEO of my own program, and build relationships with young women and colleagues who amaze me every day. Being around kids keeps me young and current. I won’t confess to a SnapChat account but I do send the occasional Dubsmash and know that Spotify is the way to go over iTunes. Mostly, I love the opportunity I have as a coach to impact lives every day, by pushing players to be their best and teaching them how to work as a team, to be resilient and tough in the face of adversity, to set and achieve goals, and to give to their team and community. I won’t pretend the job doesn’t also bring its share of stress and anxiety, long days and weeks, and even occasional heartbreak, sleepless nights and feelings of inadequacy, but what job worth doing doesn’t have some downsides?

Full disclosure: I haven’t had to handle the competing responsibilities of raising children while coaching and all the additional complications that presents for women leading their teams along with their families. But over time, I’ve come to believe there are certain factors that are necessary for sustaining a long career in college coaching.

  • Find a Place that Values What You Value. Princeton has been that place for me. I love working at a university where the concept of the “student-athlete” is alive and well, and where the emphasis tips towards the student side of that equation. Where the university ideals of pursuing excellence, balance and inclusiveness mesh with my own values and philosophies and allow me to coach players who are hard-working, smart, determined, high-achieving and supportive of each other. It’s a good fit for me as a person and as a coach, and that has allowed me to thrive in my environment over time.
  • Embrace Change. Let me put it this way. When I started coaching at Princeton, coaches had typewriters, not computers, and Al Gore hadn’t even invented the internet yet. J  There was no email, and we didn’t have car phones let alone cell phones yet. I had a video camera, but no way to easily cut film. There were no club teams, no recruiting tournaments, no stat crew. We recruited high school seniors, many of whom came through regular decision, and made their choices in April. I taught a PE Class every semester (beginning tennis or Nautilus) and coached two sports. There were 6 teams that made the NCAA tournament in women’s lacrosse. The game was played with no boundaries, no restraining lines and no goggles, and only recently had arc and fan lines been drawn on the field. Settled play morphed from the more traditional 6v6 into an 11v11 game as coaches did what they could to make it harder for the attack to score. Suffice it to say, it’s a different world now. Kids are different, parents are different, recruiting is different, expectations of coaches are different, society is different, the game of women’s lacrosse is different, and I am different. Good thing, because you have to be able to adapt to change in order to stay relevant and current at what you do. Which leads me to my next point.
  • Keep Learning. If you want to be successful in any profession, you can’t stay the same when everything is changing around you. You have to continue to learn and grow no matter what age you are, and be willing to try new approaches and experiment with new ideas, while holding on to your values and core beliefs. Watching different lacrosse videos or TED talks, gaining inspiration from coaching colleagues at my school and across the country, from books, articles, consultants, speakers, or sharing sessions at the IWLCA roundtables and dinners, have all helped me become a better coach and bring new concepts to our game, our player development and our team building. I’ve always felt that no matter how long I’ve been coaching, or how many games or titles my teams have won, I always have things to learn from people around me, including from my own players and staff. That’s one of the reasons I have enjoyed working with different assistant coaches over the years. Each brings new ideas and approaches that make me, and our program, better. Each challenges me to relook at how I see and coach the game and continue to build our program.
  • Finding the Balance/Taking the Time to Recharge and Renew. Coaching can be a 24-7-365 job if we let it be. As a rule, coaches are driven. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to excel and feel responsible when our teams don’t perform up to expectations or our players are struggling. We feel like there’s always something more we can do to help our players or get the edge over our competition, so we watch countless hours of film and go to every recruiting event possible. But at times we need to heed our own advice to play smarter, not harder. Just as rest, recovery and a sense of fun and connection are important to our players performing their best, the same is true for us as coaches. Whatever works for you, whether it’s a daily workout or ending the day with a favorite TV show or book, powering down for a while and taking some personal or family time when you can, works wonders. Do you really need that one more camp or that seventh summer tournament where you’ll see the same kids you’ve watched all summer long all over again, or would you and your staff get more out of a few days off to enjoy the holidays or get away for a much needed break? When a recruit asks to come visit during a time in the summer or over the holidays when you’ve shut down the office for a couple weeks, do you drive back in from your vacation to meet with her or tell her that you’re sorry you won’t be able to connect with her that day but hope that she enjoys getting a feel for campus on her own? When you recruit every weekend in June, July, November or January, are you and your assistants also working all 5 days of the work-week every week?  Do you ever come down to the IW Convention a day early to hang by the pool with your staff or take a staff bonding trip to Disney? When you have a full week with no midweek game in season, do you ever give your team off of practice for a day and your staff off from work?  Those little gestures go a long way towards keeping people happy and refreshed, in the off-season and especially in-season, when the demands seem endless. So when you begin to feel like you have no life outside of work, listen to that voice in your head and find a way to take a break – you, your family, your staff and your team will be better for it. And finally;
  • Remember What’s Important. As I coach I find the hardest things to deal with personally are the losses, and the sense of failure they can invoke. Challenging seasons take their toll, just as successful seasons invigorate me and fill me with joy. I’m fortunate that I’ve experienced far more of the latter than the former in my career, but regardless of the particulars of any one game or season, remembering what’s important helps me get through. As coaches, we are judged publically by our wins and losses, but privately by the lives we impact and the lifelong lessons we teach. Remembering that our job is to teach, inspire, challenge and help grow the young women we coach through the game of lacrosse, can keep our focus where it belongs – outward on the impact we have on others rather than inward on our own record or measure of personal success. That can be easier said than done, but really is important to career longevity. Appreciating the day-to-day experience we have with our players, seeing them grow in confidence, leadership, execution, resilience and teamwork over time, is the most rewarding part of coaching.

Coaching demands a lot from coaches, but it gives back ten-fold. My most precious coaching possessions are not the trophies that line the shelf in my office, but the countless pictures I have of smiling Tigers after hard-won victories, those moments preserved in time that were born out of work, love and belief. And the notes I’ve received from former players 1, 5, 10, 15, 20 years out about how their experiences as Princeton Lacrosse players impacted them, strengthened them and prepared them for their post-college lives. Those are the things coaches live for, the reason we do what we do. Coaching is a hard profession and a wonderful profession, and those of us who live it are lucky indeed.

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10 thoughts on “Sustaining a Career in Coaching

  1. Hey Chris,
    Great article. Had a good time reading it.
    But, besides impacting players’ post-college lives, ditto for the parents of your players. You, your teams, and your players remain insipirational for many parents years after our “little girls” have graduated.
    Hope you hang in there for a few more years until our granddaughters are ready!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris,

    You nailed it. Having retired after the 2015 season it’s been a challenge to stay in the wings and let the new staff take your 14 year old program forward…

    Like

  3. Hey there! It’s been many years since I have seen you but you still look the same (I don’t, but…). What a wonderful article you have written and I congratulate you! Keep up the good work and come on up to see Susie one of these days. I’ll even come down from Mass. and join you!

    Like

  4. Loved this article!! Lots of great insight…. and I am proud to say, “I knew you when….”–taking it way back to HHS sports! Congrats on a great career!
    Trish Wittig Huber

    Like

  5. Hello Chris,

    Congratulations!!!
    I only started coaching youth sports ten years ago. I wish that I knew when I was much younger how much fun and fulfillment I would get from coaching even at this beginning level. When the kids move on I always try and plant a seed that coaching is always a way to stay competitive. They can experience nurturing and success not always by wins and losses but like in my case helping boys become young men and gentlemen.

    For me coaching gives me the escape from my daily life. I can’t imagine how you handle the stress all year. It can only be how much you love the sport and love the job.

    It has been fun, for all of your time at Princeton, to say I graduated with you. Continued success.

    Paul

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  6. Chris,

    Congratulations on your 30th year of coaching. You’ve done a great job at Princeton. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts above and agree with you totally. If you don’t change as a coach you will not be coaching much longer. Change is good in most cases as you have mentioned. I can remember mailing letters to each kid in our program at Haverford and the cost involved. It is so much easier to reach people today. Seeing former players come back for a visit or to help coach is one of my highlights of coaching.

    Keep doing a great job my friend! You are good at what you do.

    Best,
    Paul Bogosian

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  7. To your credit, you achieved all of this with great humility. Even in school you sat there, beginning this incredible journey quietly, never bragging…just another student and friend.
    It was great to see you at the occasional Princeton game. I only became aware of all that you had done, or learned about lacrosse, through the tragic loss of my close friend whose son played for the men. I warmed a seat that his father should have been sitting in. Through that I also learned how important a coach like you can be to a student in bad times too. I’m sure you have had many successes in similar situations that mean more than all the wins. Anyway, I am so proud of all that you have done, who you are at the core, and how you have done it!

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  8. Chris,

    I wanted to thank you for this timely and impactful post! After 17 years of coaching high school and youth lacrosse, there are days where I feel like throwing in the towel, so reading your post is like the “golf shot”…the one that brings you back for another round.

    After reading your post several times, I am left wondering; how do we keep our sport from spiraling out of control and losing great coaches/teachers/mentors? Everything you mention with respect to stress, sleepless nights, etc., comes down to the external factors, which create less then desirable teaching conditions.

    • Kids are spending less time (if any) in camps, and it is very apparent from their lack of fundamental skills and field sense.
    • Parents (those who can afford to do so) are spending thousands of dollars for the hope of the imaginary scholarship.
    • Youth and Club Coaches are being pressured to play “better” competition or risk losing players to other programs.
    • High School Coaches are being told that their teams are irrelevant in terms of getting their players recruited to play in college.
    • and most important, is that we are losing players who want to pick up a stick after the age of 9 or 10 because they are either opting out or being selected out of programs who aren’t equipped, or care to support the growth of recreational players. It is often these kids who would grow up to become the next wave of coaches, and or parents, who could very well keep their own kids away from the sport because of their past experience.

    The field is one of the best classrooms every created, and I sincerely hope that we can continue to cultivate and keep great teachers like you, who have the position and platform to honor this great game!

    Thanks for all you do!

    Kevin

    Like

  9. Chris,

    What a beautiful piece…I can only imagine the wonderful and important role you have played in so many young ladies lives…

    Laurie Snyder-Todd

    Like

  10. Chris,
    On my bucket is to attend a Princeton game. I know a handful of very Successful Women that have gone through your camps and then LAX program. The ladies, parents and families speak very highly of you and your work ethic. I would love to see a Princeton Ladies LAX game.
    Successful women like you, coach our future and their work ethic values. You have such a wonderful track record that will live forever.
    May God bless you many times over.
    Linda (Snyder) and Michael McCarthy

    Like

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