“Ok Sam, it’s time to think about what you want to say to this coach,” were the words my parents would say about a half hour into driving to visit a college. I had the script memorized by my third trip, yet I was always so uncomfortable as I uttered the carefully crafted words my family had prepared with me. Having started playing lacrosse as a high school freshman, I spent countless hours with coaches and family members trying to improve. In most areas of my life, I typically would not have strived for more than mediocrity without my family demanding more. It seemed that athletics was the only thing I ever truly cared about. It was hard to imagine spending four years on my own when I couldn’t even think of appropriate questions to ask coaches or motivate myself to make my own goals.
Fast forward two years to a day when my alarm clock goes off at 4:45am. I have five minutes to get dressed, eat, and run over to the athletic center. My clothes and books are laid out in the common room, so I don’t have to turn the lights on and wake up my roommate. As I run through campus I check my clock; I know that I need to be in the locker room twenty minutes early so that I can get dressed and be ready to go. I know that I have 20 other women who are making their way to the locker room, 20 other women who count on me to be there on time or we will be doing burpees for a half hour. I get into the locker room and at 5 am and the music is blasting a Celine Dion song. It’s 5 am, the rest of campus is asleep, and here we are dancing on the locker room benches. I’ve been told by my friends at other schools that their coaches don’t come to the lifts, but I know that mine will be there. I know they will be on the elliptical or lifting with us because they know the importance of leading by example. It’s 5:30 am and our coaches meet us in the weight room. We split into groups of two to complete the lift. One of my teammates sees me struggling with an exercise and kneels next to me and cheers me on as my legs shake. I finish the set and move to the next station as she pats me on the back. She’s struggling too, but she refuses to give up on me. We finish the workout and the team goes back to the locker room. It’s 7:15 am and we have class at 8:20 am. The day continues in a string of tasks: eat, class, practice, class, study hall, library, sleep, and repeat. When the end of my freshman year arrives, I have a 3.9 GPA.
I felt pride as I shared my GPA with my parents. What had changed? My family wasn’t there guiding me, and I didn’t magically wake up one day more motivated and successful. Time went on and I helped my team organize community service, received academic achievements, joined a sorority, and became a well-rounded individual. During my senior year I took my coaches’ advice and applied for teaching programs and was accepted into the New York City Teaching Fellows program. Three weeks after graduating, I was in front of a group of students teaching science. Shortly after my career began, I became involved with programs such as the billion-oyster project, RiSC, and earned a Math for America fellowship. It is crazy to think that seven years ago I wasn’t able to come up with a question to ask a college coach and I am now presenting to administrators, the mayor’s office, and organizations such as FEMA and NOAA. While I feel pride in these achievements, they are not the things I cherish the most. The most valuable possessions I hold are the lessons that I learned playing collegiate lacrosse at Quinnipiac. There are many skills that you learn as a student-athlete, but these five lessons have helped me transform into the woman I am today.
It’s ok to make mistakes. Society teaches many young women that “flaws” or “mistakes” are a weakness. These two words, flaws and mistakes, keep so many individuals at a standstill. As a freshman, it is easy to feel the pressure to succeed. You go from being the big fish in a little pond, to being in a pond of all the biggest fish in the world. I stepped onto that field and immediately felt scared. What would others think of me? What happens if I let my teammates down? Here’s the thing though, when you are surrounded by a group of 20-30 other women who walk over and tell you to pick your head up when you make a mistake, you start to realize that the things you are so afraid of don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
My senior year, I was interviewed by the school newspaper. The paper came out a few weeks later, and I eagerly started to read it. I soon realized they did not only interview me, but my coach and a teammate. My coach said that the greatest thing about me as a player was that no matter how many goals I let in, I let it go and played as if it was a new game. It finally clicked that it isn’t the mistakes that define us, but rather the steps we take once the mistake has been made. This is a message I bring into my classroom every day. Often, I hide spelling errors or incorrect information in my lesson. Students see the mistake and feel pride as they raise their hand to point it out. My response is always along the lines of “Oh man, I didn’t even realize but thanks for catching it. Now I know that…” and follow through by explaining what I learned from my mistake. My students know that mistakes mean they are learning.
Leaders come in many shapes and forms. It is easy to recognize the individuals who have mastered a skill or are very vocal. While these are two types of leaders, they are not the only type. For example, as an athlete I prided myself on my positivity. No matter the situation, I did my best to focus on the good and remind my teammates of their successes. This could have been as simple as a pat on the back, and at times it may not be noticed. In order for any team to be successful, you need different types of leaders. Each individual has a unique purpose. That being said teamwork really does make the dream work. Sometimes it isn’t possible to get things done alone, and that’s ok. It is also ok if you aren’t very fond of someone, but you still need to work with them and be respectful. There are a lot of personalities flying around on the field, and sometimes they don’t match up. While it can be frustrating, you learn to work together regardless of differences. Each person is part of a fine knit machine that needs all the pieces functioning to run properly. Learning to cope with different personalities and finding different conflict management strategies is key to “adulting.”
As I entered the work-world, I began working with a diverse group of individuals. Those lessons I learned on the field have prepared me to buckle up and work with every type of parent, student, and colleague. During my second year of teaching, I was asked to be in charge of my grade level science team. I knew I was not necessarily the most qualified, but I knew I was able to communicate with others and use positivity to motivate my colleagues. My experience being a leader and having teambuilding skills allowed me to identify my colleagues’ strengths. While I most certainly was not a master in this field, I was able to lead, giving my colleagues work that exemplified their strengths.
Always give 100% to everything you do. “If you cut corners on the field, you’ll cut corners in life,” was a line my coach used often, especially when we were working out. Often, I felt I was giving everything I had but the results were not always the same as my teammates. How could I be giving everything I had but still not do as well as others? The catch here is that your 100% may not be the same as someone else’s and that is okay. While the easy option is to drag your feet because you aren’t the best at something, you won’t progress until you have pushed yourself to the limit. This is the same principle as when you are weight lifting. You pick a weight where you struggle to get through that last rep. Over time, that weight that was once too heavy and had you shaking is too light and your 100% changes. The only way to get better at something is to push yourself to the limit. While your outcome may be different than others, it is very easy to see the individual who is working their butt off.
Set realistic goals. At the beginning of the season our team sat in the conference room and wrote goals. I remember my coach saying they should be measurable and realistic. It was hard for me to think of goals that fit into this category. As a freshman, I scribbled “save 70% of shots” onto my paper. While this goal was measurable, it wasn’t necessarily realistic. It is important to set small goals for yourself and accomplish one at a time. A more practical goal would have been to save 45% of the shots I faced as a freshman and the next year aim for 50%. This would give me a chance to grow while still being able to celebrate success along the way. As I began teaching, I knew I wanted to start a program to teach science in third world countries. Being a first-year teacher, this was not necessarily a goal I could get to right away. I knew that I needed to start small and work my way up. I began to network, research, get involved with different programs, and now have a much stronger knowledge base to build from.
Time management is everything. There were days where I felt like there was zero chance of me finishing an assignment for school. There were countless bus rides where I zoned everything out and studied for a test I ran to from a field. The first semester of my freshman year, I found myself making excuses to prepare myself for a bad outcome. I would say to myself “well, you didn’t have time to study, so if you don’t get an A on the test it’s fine.” As time went on those moments started to become less frequent. I started to make a routine for myself. I knew there were obligations I had for lacrosse, but I also knew that if school work wasn’t my priority lacrosse would no longer be an option for me. Lacrosse forced me to learn to manage my time and become more organized. If you can juggle the demands of being an athlete and a student, you are ready for any pile of work your future boss hands you.
Here I am, approaching eight years since I sat in that car with my family rehearsing what I would say to the coach. Now I’m in a huddle with a group of tenth graders I have been coaching since they were in fifth grade. I started coaching them at the same time that I became a college athlete. They walk onto that field wearing the same Team 91 travel jersey as I did eight years ago. I often say to them, “play hard, play together, play smart” and on occasion they’ll hear me say “I don’t only care that you’re a good player, but I want you all to be good people.” They can recite my speeches, just as I was able to recite the questions my parents suggested I ask college coaches. They have learned all the right things to say and when to say them. I know that some of them are having the same battles I once had. I stand on the sideline, or in front of a blackboard now, instead of in the crease, and I feel hope; hope that I can be part of their journeys as all of my teachers, coaches, and teammates were over time. I feel hope that one day I will be a part of the stories they tell others about their time as my student or my player.
Samantha Tilts graduated from Quinnipiac University in 2015 and was a 4-year member of the women’s lacrosse team. Tilts majored in health sciences with a minor in psychology and after graduation, entered the NYC Teaching Fellows program and began her career as a science teacher at Middle School 88 in Brooklyn, NY. In 2017, she graduated from Brooklyn College with her masters in middle childhood biology.