By Kate Livesay, Head Coach, Middlebury College @MiddAthletics
The purpose of this post is to provide my own personal experience of what it’s like to move from one institution to another. Every summer we, as coaches, see a number of coaching changes as some assistants move up to being a head coach, some coaches take positions at newly formed programs, or coaches move to new schools. When I read these press releases, they never seem to do justice to the complexity and difficulty of a coaching move. As we see the frequency of these moves increase, I felt I wanted to give my own context as to why one might change institutions and what that experience is like. Every coach has their own reasons and their own encounters as they transition between schools, but I do think it’s worth sharing for those coaches that can relate or are pondering a move, as well as the non-coaches, parents and players who see the move from an outside perspective.
I had first-hand experience with this transition two years ago when I left Trinity College to take a position at Middlebury College. To be fair, my move was not as change-ridden as that of many others. I was returning to my alma mater, my hometown, and my family. I knew the school, the town, and joined a program that was very similar to the one I was leaving. Even still, I found the move to be one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do in my professional career.
While we call coaching a job, it’s not really: it’s a life-style. It’s a choice to spend a majority of our weekends during the school year with 18-22 year-olds. It’s a decision to spend those free summer weekends, recruiting the next generation of players. In the end, coaches are left with a handful of weekends to do what normal people do: maybe mow the lawn, see some friends and family, maybe even relax a bit. But we accept this time commitment because we love our job, we love the game and we love our players. It’s all part of coaching collegiate lacrosse.
So when I had the opportunity to change schools, it wasn’t as easy a decision as many would assume. Returning to my hometown and a network of support was of course a “no-brainer” from a personal perspective, but it was a devastating concept to my professional life. How could I leave my players? How could I walk away from them when every day we talk about supporting our teammates and being committed to one another? I lived the idea that our program was special and I gave my heart and soul to that notion. It was torture to consider leaving Trinity. Middlebury was one of our biggest rivals; we played them once every year, and sometimes twice. This was not an easy, “ripping the band-aid off” type of move. This would be a long-term transition that would be a challenge for the next several years. Was it even worth it?
At the time that I was pondering these questions, I was reading Roy Williams’ autobiography, Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court. In it he described how difficult it was for him to make the move from Kansas to the University of North Carolina. I related so closely to what he described as his hesitations: his allegiance to his players, his devotion to his program and his contentment with his current job. He wrote about feeling accountable to the players whom he’d recruited to play at Kansas. He felt so strongly about this responsibility to his players, that he actually passed on the UNC position the first time around. He finally accepted the job a few years later when it opened up again. As I pondered my own dilemma I knew I wouldn’t have another chance to move to Middlebury. This position wasn’t going to come around again (not to mention my family would never talk to me again) if I passed on it, so it was time. My husband and I were ready, and we decided to make the change.
Telling my team was one of the strangest feelings I’ve every experienced. There was a certain amount of relief and a certain degree of anxiety as the words left my mouth and I awaited their response. To this day, while it’s a painful memory, it’s also one of the most heart-warming. I’m not sure what I expected from them, but what I received was certainly above and beyond anything I anticipated. They were happy for me. They understood how meaningful this was for my personal life and were able to congratulate me. I was astounded at how mature, how positive, and how selfless they were in that moment.
No one tells you how to leave a team and a program. There is no blueprint for moving on. This one was hard, as I would have liked to reach out to every player and explain more and say more, but I felt strongly that less was better. They needed to move on, and I needed to let them. I began my new job that fall and let them get on with building their new team. So that was the leaving part…
The starting part is hard, too. When I say it’s not just a job, it’s a life-style, it’s so evident in that first year. It’s impossible to click-in and be at your best from day one. Coaching is based on relationships and those take time. You can’t rush through it and you can’t fake it. You have to be patient, be authentic and be consistent. And over time, you feel it become more natural and more comfortable. I remember feeling very accepted by my new community, but feeling so awkward. I didn’t know all the stories; the history of player dynamics, spring break escapades from previous years, recollections of conditioning tests, stories of near missed morning practices, etc. Over the course of that first year, I learned a lot about the players and who they were as a group and what lacrosse meant to them. While some moments were hard, I look back on that acquaintance process very fondly.
And now, two years into my new “job,” I couldn’t be happier. I made the move based on personal priorities, and I’m happy I let that dictate my decision. Coaches have to have a life outside of our professions, even if our work defines so much of who we are and how we live our lives. We have to build meaningful relationships with our players that make it hard to leave; we wouldn’t be doing them justice if we didn’t. But in the end, what we are really doing is creating connections for life and that can happen anywhere. The records become foggy but our relationship with teammates and coaches is what endures. It’s more than a job, and that’s the best part.
So as the coaching carousel continues to spin at a greater speed every year, I hope those outside of the coaching ranks can appreciate the complexities of these moves and understand the personal nature of it. While very few coaches will be at the same institution from start to finish, there is no doubt we are completely invested in the programs we coach and we want the best for our players. In my opinion, it’s the best job out there!