The Art of Listening

By Rachel Hickey, Assistant Coach, Wesleyan University @wesleyan_wlax

“Are you listening?” is a question I am sure every one of you have heard for as long as you can remember. Coaches broadcast this inquiry to their teams way too often and most teachers ask their classes this more than they would like. Although this idea of “listening” is something we continuously hear about, how often do we truly sit down to think about its importance? How often is this topic elaborated on rather than simply stated? What if we took listening more seriously? The whole concept of “listening” is something that has caught my attention recently and thus I feel inspired to write about what I have learned from this ever-evolving skill I am trying to master as a coach, friend, wife, sister, etc.

Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics.

As a twenty-two-year-old student-athlete coming out of Rutgers University I did not initially know coaching was going to be my career path. However, when I thought about losing the sport, like many others who are probably reading this, I could not fathom my life without it. After having a brief phone call with the head coach from King’s College, Laura Patton, I knew King’s was where I wanted to be. Laura explained how the program struggled with numbers and how recruiting was going to be a big part of the job. She also mentioned that many of the players on the team had never touched sticks prior to playing at King’s. I felt motivated to help young women learn the game that was taught to me by so many amazing coaches. Coming from a high school that was consistently ranked nationally and a Division I collegiate program, I wanted to share my knowledge of the game and help the sport grow. I went there believing I was the one who was going to teach, but in turn I left King’s having personally learned so much. I continuously watched Laura Patton, who is now the head coach at Piedmont College, keep her office door open for players who needed guidance. She simply sat and listened. Time and time again she let players detail their highs and lows, without judgment. She showed that as easy as it may be to chime in and give advice, sometimes the most beneficial thing you can do is listen. I watched individuals leave her office feeling as though Laura had given them a plethora of knowledge when all she really did was tune into their words. She showed me that players and friends sometimes just want to be heard. I am forever grateful for Laura’s open ears because I myself was often the person in need sitting across from her in that same office. She laid a foundation for me by exhibiting how much power listening can have.

In our current society, there is an immense focus on speaking out. We see it every day through social media posts that are readily available to each one of us where we can brag to the world about what we did over the weekend. Academically, I enrolled in two classes during college strictly for public speaking but never once remember having the opportunity to learn about the other side. As convenient as it may be to speak, we must realize that speaking’s counterpart is listening. Most people I know, including myself, find it easier to relate to others by chiming in on a conversation and stating something about ourselves to feel connected. But when I look back, I realize that some of the individuals I respect most are ones that simply sat and listened when others needed it. The ones that may have not said anything for minutes on end but were physically and mentally present. The distractions our society offers with a cell phone that is incessantly attached to us allows us to lose sight of the fact that we need to engage with individuals sitting directly in front of us. I regularly find myself typing away at my computer as players stop in to chat. I consistently remind myself how misguided this is. When someone is in front of me they are more important than any email, even if it is from our top recruit. If I continue to look at my computer and not at my players I could be missing out on details from their story or subtleties like their body language. There is so much information to be gained from a person’s mannerisms or facial gestures. These exchanges almost always provide me with more information than any interaction through a device. I also feel that listening can allow us to be more careful with our words. I think it is amazing that each one of us as individuals are given a platform to express who we are. But, what if we were more attentive to what everyone was truly saying. Would we be more cautious with our words? If we were more conscious, I believe it would help eliminate the hate, violence or prejudice being voiced. Our observations could fuel us to not speak in the same negative fashion. I am challenging myself on a daily basis to pick my head up, keep my ears open, and speak by evaluating and forming my own thoughtful opinions.

As I have gotten older, I recognize the stories I tell and lessons I teach often come from what I have learned from others in my life. My Mom was a part of the first national championship field hockey team at Bloomsburg University. Her University has won thirteen national championships, more than any other Division II field hockey program in the country. Ever since I can remember my Mom has told me stories about her college head coach, Jan Hutchinson. She would describe to me how she and her teammates played to never disappoint Jan because Jan treated each player with such kindness. I find myself wanting to be that same coach after observing the deep impact Jan had on my Mom. My Dad is one of nine children and his actions, more often than words, are something I am quick to pay attention to. He and his siblings’ stories of selflessness are such a relatable topic to teams. My brother, who is now a cop and was previously a Marine, was deployed for a majority of my collegiate career, and my husband is a Lieutenant in the Navy’s submarine force. Hearing the two of them speak of their service often inspires me to illustrate their sacrifices to our players. Our staff is constantly reminding our players that we are very lucky to have the freedom to play this game. My current boss and friend at Wesleyan University, Kimberly Williams, is one of the most competitive humans I have ever come across. When I hear her talk about the will to work and compete, I know I want to dictate the same words to my future athletes. Looking back on some of the stories and conversations these individuals have shared with me, I recognize if I had I not been listening I may not have this plethora of knowledge that makes up a foundation for many of the words I communicate today.

The goal for this article was to get everyone thinking about something we have been engaging in for our entire lives, listening. The following is what I have observed about this topic: First, if we seriously participate in listening we can impact our players and others around us more than we realize. Second, we should acknowledge the importance of listening and not be so engulfed in ourselves and all the other distractions around us. If we are more attentive to what others are saying and not so distracted, maybe we will be more thoughtful when it comes time to speak. Finally, if each one of us thinks about who we are to our core, it is evident that listening played a large role in our sense of self. With that being said, I am trying to pay attention, engage, and be present on a daily basis, and when I say “try,” it means I am still working on it. By focusing on my listening, I am hoping it will allow me to speak with grace, consideration and motivation to not only my players but all others that surround me.

“When you listen, it’s amazing what you can learn. When you act on what you’ve learned, it’s amazing what you can change.” –  Audrey McLaughlin

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