Learning From Your Players

By Carissa Medeiros, Head Coach, UMass Lowell @RiverHawkWLax

It was a rare weekend off from summer recruiting and I was spending some time with family when I felt my phone buzz. My mind immediately raced through a dozen different scenarios as to why my Junior captain would be calling me, out of the blue, in the middle of the summer. Maybe someone was thinking about transferring, or maybe a teammate was having difficulties at home. Perhaps an incoming freshman was making poor social media decisions or a someone got mono? I’ll be honest and say that I was not at all prepared, AT ALL, for what I heard that day: a frantic and fragmented story of how not one, but two of my players were involved in a serious accident, and how their outlooks were both severe and unclear.

  Photo courtesy of UMass Lowell Athletics

Collecting my emotions, I called the families to check on the facts. What was clear first and foremost was that our 2 America-East All-Rookie selections had both suffered serious leg injuries. What was also acknowledged immediately was that our second leading scorer had, in fact, lost her leg at the scene. Looking back now, I know I heard the words, but I don’t think I really understood them. For a short time, my brain registered it as a broken leg or an ACL tear, you know, like she’ll be out for a bit, but with some surgery and rehab she’ll be good to go. It really didn’t sink in until I saw her in the hospital the next day- hair down instead of her trademark athletic bun, woozy and slurred with intravenous meds, and an empty space where her lower left leg used to be.

The remainder of the story has been recounted in numerous interviews, articles and videos up to this point, but what I haven’t really shared, is just how lost I was as a coach, as an adult, and as a human. Not only were these young women integral parts of our young teams’ culture but they were also two of our most effective athletes on-the-field. How were they going to battle back physically, emotionally? How were the psychological consequences of such a trauma going to affect their lives? How do I manage the team’s distress and assure them that everything is going to be ok? I wasn’t even sure of that myself. Was the team going to be able to compete without them? Are we going to make it through this? Am I going to make it through this?

We had just completed our second year as a program, registering our first (and only) win since the program’s inception. My assistant coaches had both resigned earlier in the summer, so I was a one-woman coaching show. I hit the recruiting trails HARD, ran our annual over-night camp ALONE, and was in full throttle interview mode for two new assistant coaches. My brain was working overtime figuring out how we were going to bounce back from this. How was I going to bounce back from this?

The truth is, I had no idea what the future held for any of us, but as Noelle and Kelly started their recovery process I took my cues from them. They both made it clear that they weren’t going to let the accident define who they were and who they wanted to be. As they both embarked on a long, painful and treacherous physical recovery, they did everything they could to be around the team as much as their therapy schedules would allow, and I was astounded by their spirit, mental strength and overall motivation to prove people wrong and get back to “business as usual.” They left me no choice but to follow their lead and to continuing coaching the team “as-if” everything was normal. They helped me resurface what it was I loved about coaching in the first place: the forging of relationships and the life-lessons taught through sport that prepare us to become stronger, healthier and more successful women.

This entire experience has reminded me that the opportunity to play, and coach, collegiate sports is still an extremely rewarding experience: one that most closely resembles and prepares us for the trials and tribulations of real life. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how fortunate we are to be in the business of leading and mentoring 25-30 young women, and it is often overlooked how THEY can impact YOUR life, just as you do theirs.  Kelly and Noelle have inspired me to be a better coach, stronger leader, and a more resilient woman, and for that I will be forever grateful.

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