When I look back on my playing career in high school and at Northwestern University, and my coaching career at Northwestern and The University of Colorado, I appreciate how much playing and coaching lacrosse has taught me about life, and shaped who I am today and how I approach every decision and challenge in my life, both on and off the field. So when asked to share a few lessons I’ve learned from lacrosse, there is a seemingly endless array of material with which to work.
First off, I think it’s really important for me to remember my foundations since I was blessed to have a family that enjoyed sports. My parents and coaches alike, encouraged me to follow my heart and pursue my dreams, but also bought into the concept that participation, and competing, in team sports like lacrosse provides a distinct opportunity and environment for learning important lessons: teamwork and how to work hard, pay attention to detail, take responsibility, recognize and address problems and, along the way, develop self-confidence while staying teachable. While the importance of schoolwork and the classroom were never dismissed, I know my parents and coaches always recognized sports as a clear pathway to building character, and no one more firmly believes that now than me. Whatever character I now display is intimately intertwined with my experiences in lacrosse and the coaches I have played for. While all my coaches were great teachers of the game, and always supportive, none of them ever made excuses for me or was afraid to confront and tell me when I made a mistake or when they felt there was something I needed to learn or improve. Whether labeled as “constructive criticism,” or as a “teachable moment,” I was taught that we ALL make mistakes and that our growth and character is sometimes best measured by how we deal with adversity, more so than by our success. While I’m not sure I ever truly recognized it while I was a player, now that I am a coach, I appreciate that WE ARE IN THE CHARACTER-BUILDING BUSINESS. The lessons we learn and teach through sports really aren’t about the game at all but more about life, who we are and want to be, relationships, and how we will handle life’s many challenges and success.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned along the way is the importance of trusting in yourself and your values. I have been asked many times over the last five years about the best advice Kelly Amonte-Hiller ever gave me. I could name a hundred things but the one that has shaped everything I do as a head coach is “trust yourself.” It seems so simple on the outside, but as we all know it is a challenge every day. In today’s world we are constantly surrounded by the opinions and judgments of others. So are our players. It’s just so easy to second-guess ourselves and our beliefs when we are faced with having to make decisions which pit an immediate short-term objective or goal, like winning a game or not overly-disciplining a player or group of players, against the values we are trying to instill in our players and program. All of us have likely faced, or will face, this type of situation at some point, and as a coach we may think the choice is easy… pick our values of course! But it almost goes without saying that the lines can get blurred and our decisions can get tougher to make. While the situations which involve major issues generally lend themselves to the easiest decisions, I’ve found that it’s often the little stuff that causes us trouble and can have the biggest effect down the road. More often than not, these issues ultimately involve questions of “culture,” which I learned firsthand is the most important element in building a program, and “culture,” particularly in a new program, can be fragile if not safeguarded. In my first year of coaching I had many sleepless nights obsessing over every little thing we did or didn’t do because once a culture is built it is difficult to change. The toughest part is that it is the littlest things that can either destroy or create a culture. So, in these situations, I always go back to the advice I received while an eager assistant at Northwestern… if you trust yourself and your values, things will work out fine in the long run. Admittedly, we can sometimes find ourselves feeling overwhelmed when having to sort through the varying considerations which oftentimes are at play in trying to make the right decision. That’s why I try to remind myself to trust in, and remain true to, the values we are trying to instill in our players when those values might otherwise be called into question. Culture relies on consistency and predictability and, while our players may not always like the decisions we make as coaches, my experience is that they will understand them so long as they are consistent with and rooted in our values.
The other lesson I wanted to share is the importance of surrounding yourself with a staff who can both challenge and complement you. This is something I never appreciated until I was a head coach. As an assistant at Northwestern, we spent a lot of time being asked questions, meeting, and going through everything from A-Z, but I have to confess that, at the time, I didn’t really understand why we were meeting so long and discussing everything. I often thought my job was simply to grind, do the legwork and let the head coach, “coach.” I thought “here is the scouting report…”now you decide from there because you know best. It wasn’t until I became a head coach that I understood that meetings with my assistants are the key to everything. It almost makes me laugh because it is what we tell our players every day… compete, push each other, and communicate, because it will make you better, and it will make us better. As a coach it is no different… it just took me an inordinately long time to understand that. My best piece of advice to assistants, is to not get so immersed in the weeds that you forget to think and share your opinions… you have to do both… and as a head coach, I tell myself everyday to ask questions of my assistants and to listen to them. If you’re like me, your mind goes in ten directions at once. I think A LOT, and I have pretty strong opinions, just ask my assistants. As a result, it can take me a while to process things, and I often have to slow myself down when communicating because my brain is sometimes operating at Warp-5 speed and ready to explode in every direction. I guess I’m trying to say that I now appreciate how important it is for a head coach to have an ongoing dialogue with their assistants and allow for the opportunity to challenge each other and discuss ideas. This is my favorite time in the office, and although it can be a little all consuming, it is crucial to the process.
Those are the most important lessons I’ve learned over my brief coaching career. I write this all knowing that I am 32 years old and maybe shouldn’t be offering anyone advice. I will be the first to admit that there’s A LOT I still need to learn. I learn something new every day about myself and being a coach.
I wrote earlier that I believe the lessons we learn from sports really aren’t about the game at all, but about building character and about life. Once again it took me a little longer than it maybe should have to put this all together but eventually it all came full circle and has impacted how I view myself and my job every day. In 2010, I was in my second year coaching at Northwestern when my brother had a rock climbing accident and was hospitalized in critical condition. We were nearing the end of the regular season when the accident occurred and I had to take a leave of absence to go be with my brother and our family at the hospital. This was a life or death situation and the biggest emotional challenge I had ever been faced with in my life. Unfortunately, after a week without ever regaining consciousness, my brother passed away. That week felt like the longest week in my life. From a young age, I looked up to my brother and tried to emulate him, especially when it came to sports. I was 25 years old, my brother 27, and I truly did not understand why this happened or how to deal with any of it. Among the hundred or so conversations I seemingly had that week with family and friends, a conversation with Scott Hiller, Kelly Amonte-Hiller’s husband, stood out and has stuck with me every day since. He took the time to remind me that, in the end, lacrosse is just a game and that, as coaches, our real job is to help prepare those we coach for the challenges they’ll face in life and to teach them to be strong, to fight, to never give up, to support others, and to allow those close to us to support us. That conversation has stuck with ever since. It reminded me that while this was a different type of challenge, I had faced challenges before and I was strong enough to get through this with my family. During these couple of weeks hundreds of people told me it would get easier in time. I understand this is a normal thing to say to someone in a time where nothing is normal, but I also know that time doesn’t magically make things easier. We choose to deal with things, to face the challenges and deal with our emotions, and eventually in doing that it becomes easier. It reminded me of when someone says after losing a game that the loss will make us better. We don’t get better by losing, we get better because of how we react to losing. We get better because we choose to look at ourselves honestly, admit and learn from our mistakes and work harder. The advice Scott gave me was simple but at that particular time in my life it was the first time I truly understood the true impact sports and coaches have on our lives. As coaches, we are in the character-building business and hopefully the lessons learned on our watch will help form the foundations of those who we are blessed with the opportunity to coach.
I am truly grateful to all of you who came before me in this profession. Lacrosse to me is bigger than a game. It has taught me to trust myself, challenge myself, and always remember that together we can get through anything.