The Power of Vulnerability

By Kara Mupo, Assistant Coach, Stanford University  @StanfordWLax

Perception is reality. A common quote my first boss used frequently, now serves as the phrase that has inspired my coaching career indefinitely. While I always knew this to be true, it never truly resonated with me until my first end of year meetings as a collegiate coach. A player of mine expressed her intuitive struggle of understanding the intention behind my coaching, until I had faced and shared a time of immense vulnerability.

       Photo courtesy of Stanford Athletics.

In this field of work, day-in and day-out we are surrounded by a group of individuals that for about 8-months of every year we are with more than our own families. As a group we experience the highest of highs, and lowest of lows emotionally, mentally, and physically. I have been fortunate enough to be on the other side, and face similar experiences as a player, which has given me a multitude of experiences to draw from in the moments of joy, and the moments of pain. These moments I have garnered as a player, and now a coach, have helped me understand the true meaning and power of pulling from our own personal experiences, and using them to connect and empower our players through the sport of lacrosse.

Roughly 2 ½ years ago I tore my ACL in the UWLX Semi-Final game. As expected, it was a devastating experience. I realized that for the past decade, I had been living in a world that was comprised of one thing: lacrosse. My purpose, my identity, my pain, my joy, was all derived from a single entity, and in a heartbeat, that entity was taken from me. To feel as if I had lost an entire piece of who I was, was extremely overwhelming. Trying to figure out who I would feel most comfortable with for my surgery, trying to wrap my head around how I was going to balance the rehab with the workload of being a Division I assistant coach and wondering how I was going to be able to balance the emotional roller coaster of what I had heard the return to play rehab process was like. For the first time ever, I had felt an unparalleled sense of self-doubt. Not only because of the inability to relate to something like this before, but now being a position where I felt like I was going to go through this alone opposed to with thirty or so other teammates. It was the first time in my life that I had questioned my confidence, my purpose and honestly, my mental, emotional, and physical strength. It got to a point where the thought of, “I can’t do this anymore,” became almost a daily thought process. While the daunting moments of negativity and self-doubt seemed to be never ending, it turned out that these couple of months of rehab were where I learned how powerful vulnerability could truly be.  These were the most transformative months of my life thus far.

“I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, because I mean it in the best way possible, but it wasn’t until these last couple months, where we as a team watched you rehab in the training room and grow everyday through your experience with your knee, that we truly felt like we got to know you as more than just our assistant coach. We felt like we got to know you as a person. While I never would wish something like that upon anyone, I just wanted you to know it really helped us understand the reasons why you coach us the way you do and that you truly do care for us.”

I will never forget those words above. It put so much into perspective for me not only as a coach, but as a person. I had never realized the power of others’ perceptions until this moment. From the way I was raised, to the way I was coached; put your head down, work your hardest in everything you do, and tough love is the sincerest kind of love. My whole life, those ideals were all I knew. Both in my athletic and personal relationships, that kind of love became the only language I understood, and the only language I spoke. It was not until those words from a 19-year old freshman, that I realized the importance of perception. It was evident from my player’s end of the year meeting comment, that prior to my injury, the lens in which my players viewed me, and how I was perceived by them was not necessarily how I wanted to be viewed. While my coaching style to this day still tends to lean more towards that side of the spectrum, I never took into consideration that my players, in my first-year coaching, truly may not have understood my intent behind pushing them in the ways that I did.

While it is never easy to be vulnerable, especially in a position where you are being perceived as a central pillar of strength and steadiness in a well-oiled machine, I soon learned the importance of vulnerability and the power that lies within. I truly believe that these are the qualities that connect us as humans, allowing us to generate more inherent power and will in an individual’s heart more than any dumbbell or wall-ball session can.

With vulnerability comes growing pains, but with growing pains comes growth. Sounds familiar, right? It is a concept that we all, in some way or another, preach to our players throughout the four years they spend at their respective institutions. Both academically and athletically that is the nature of our job, to shape young women to be successful in every facet during their tenure, but also to set them up to be powerful figures and role models in their future endeavors. Mastering the art of being comfortable being uncomfortable is something I have tried to carry with me every day. Letting those around you understand the way in which we perceive things, along with the experiences that have shaped us into the individuals we are today can help us relate to our players, as well as cultivate an environment where everyone feels they can reach optimal success.

With the start of the 2019 season just kicking off for some of us, and those who are beginning on January 19, best of luck! I hope within these next couple months you, your staff, and your players can find the beauty in the great amount of courage, strength, bravery and uncertainty that comes with the vulnerability of every new opponent you put yourselves up against this season. Remember, perception is reality.


3 thoughts on “The Power of Vulnerability

  1. Thanks Kara! As a parent observing female lax players, I can attest to how the tough love style can be interpreted in many different ways by these young women. Some ways are motivating, but taken to extreme it can stifle greatness. The balance between positive praise and constructive criticism is key for any leader. Withholding either risks leaving potential on the table, which is a loss for the whole team.


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