The dictionary defines a leader as, “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.” If you’ve ever played a team-oriented sport, you know that there is much more to be said about what, and who a leader is. I used to think that a leader was someone who needed no direction and could fix their own mistakes without the help or guidance of others. After graduating from Quinnipiac University in May of 2017, I began working for Harlem Lacrosse in September of 2017. Since then, the kids that I’ve coached have taught me a lot more than I knew, about who and what a true leader is.
As a former collegiate lacrosse player, I always defined a leader as someone who took directions perfectly, held authority, and always knew what to do in times of triumph. To me, this person was my coach. Whether it was on the field or off the field, I felt as though she always knew what to do. I didn’t realize how impactful the role she had played in my life was until after I had graduated. I also realized, had I not played lacrosse, our paths would have never crossed. As a student-athlete in college, I never had the best grades, or was the most outstanding athlete. My coach knew this, but for some reason, she made me feel like I was a genius after getting a B on a test that I had been studying for weeks in advance. She made me feel like I was the “Mia Hamm of lacrosse” after simply sprinting to try and get a clear from the goalie and failing. When I would make a mistake, she made sure I understood what I had done wrong, but she also made sure that I saw the positive side to it. Why would she make me feel so great about myself? What is this doing to benefit her? I asked myself these questions numerous times. It wasn’t until I began working for Harlem Lacrosse that I found my answers, which were quite simple. My coach had taken the time to get to know each and every one of her players individually. She made it her job to know who we were as students, as athletes, and more importantly, as people. She knew how each and everyone one of her players acted when they were frustrated, how to motivate each of us, and she knew when we were giving our absolute best, athletically and academically. She didn’t care if it benefitted her, as long as it benefited us. Our success was her success, and she made sure to let us know that in our victories, small or large, that it was us, not her who had won.
When I asked one of my 6th grade students, Adam, who a leader was, she responded, “A person who shows their own way, and it leads to somewhere great.” A leader dances to the beat of their own drum, but also isn’t afraid to dance to someone else’s. They want what’s best for everyone around them and know that their success will come by the success of others. At Harlem Lacrosse, I’ve come to realize that no matter how successful a coach or former player may have been in the past, they are only as successful as their players. It is never about me, and always about them, and that is why we’re successful. Our success comes from who we are, not what we have or what we have had. Our practices are typically held on a concrete handball court, and most of, if not all, of our gear is donated. The circumstances that we play under do not limit us, nor do they change our love for the game. When we are at practice, our location doesn’t matter. What matters is how we perceive where we are, who we are with, and what we have. A true leader, will always find the silver lining. The kids are motivated and excited to practice anywhere at any time, with any stick. They will play with anyone who asks, and they’ll be sure to have fun with them. Lacrosse is a privilege. It is something that they have earned. Their positive mindsets and attitudes remind me to always see the good in things, and to remind others to see the good in them as well. Surrounding myself with them has made me a better leader, mentor, and coach. Harlem Lacrosse maintains a culture of success, a culture that I am proud to be a part of. I don’t go to work every day because I have to, I go because I want to go.
But what good is it is if only I know who a leader is?
During a study hall, in mid-October my sixth-grade kids and I did an activity. We spread out our lacrosse sticks, cones, and goggles down a hallway. I then had them match up with random partners and choose one to be blindfolded. They then lined up and had to lead their blindfolded partner through the minefield using only their voice. At first, frustrations arose as blindfolded girls bumped into objects and had to start over. To watch my sixth-grade students walk blindfolded through random sticks, goggles, and cones, was in short, hysterical. After all, we play to have fun. As a few of my kids looked over, they saw me laughing, smiling, and cheering them on. Suddenly one of the girls, Awa, began to laugh too. Her partner who was blind-folded and quite frustrated at the time heard the laughter, and then, she too began to laugh. Pretty soon, all 20 girls were laughing, smiling, and without even realizing, succeeding. They stopped worrying so much about getting through the minefield themselves, and began focusing on the positives of the activity, and the benefits of having a partner who wasn’t blindfolded. Suddenly, the girls began to comfortably communicate with their partners, until each girl had finished through the minefield. When the first pair of girls had finished, they didn’t care that they were first. Immediately, they began to cheer on their teammates, giving the girls who had finished yet, the confidence to do so. Awa stepped out of her comfort zone that day, and she led her team to success. She stopped caring about how she was doing. She started focusing on how her partner was doing, and what her partner needed from her in order to be successful. She was fearless in following me by laughing, and by stepping out of her comfort zone. She stepped up, and made it okay for her teammates to laugh, smile, and forget their frustrations. More importantly, she helped her teammates realize that a leader doesn’t focus on bettering themselves, they focus on bettering others.