Every year, as I begin a new season with a new team, I’m faced with a familiar predicament. On the one hand, I have a slew of lacrosse to teach. We want to implement our fundamental systems, from this year’s chosen default defensive set to a solid slow break formation, and everything in between. There are skills to rep, and concepts to shell out. There is an entire on-field vocabulary to review and contextualize… not to mention the many offensive tactics we have to implement, rehearse, and perfect. Honestly, the teaching possibilities in the world of women’s lacrosse are infinite. The rulebook continues to evolve, the game expands geographically every year, and the pace of it all seems to gain more and more momentum with each season. I’m fully aware that I’m biased… but I believe women’s lacrosse is the most exciting sport in the country right now.
Well, that sounds awesome. So what predicament could I possibly be speaking of?
In college, at this sport’s most elite level, we are pushing young women to their physical, psychological, and emotional limits on a daily basis. In turn, we, as coaches, are pushed to our own limits. So then, where exactly does the playbook end and humanity begin? Or is it the other way around?
With all the pressure to win, to teach the sport effectively and responsibly, and to develop the most elite players in the college game – there is the ever-present internal pressure I cannot quiet – to create an experience that prioritizes our value as people… for players and coaches alike. I’ve recently been criticized for wanting my players to like me, more than I want to win. While that comment offended me initially, it also reinforced my self-belief. So, yes, I want to please. Is that really so awful in a career defined by service? Is wanting a team’s respect to stem from love, rather than fear or obligation, a bad thing? When you’re pushed to your physical, psychological, and emotional limits – trust is everything. In my experience, real trust only lasts if it’s rooted in love.
If you’re a coach, none of this is news to you. We’re each in the middle of a crazy balancing act… trying to be a teacher, a mentor, a disciplinarian, a counselor, a friend, a parent… all in the span of a 12-hour day. I don’t want to be redundant, and tell you things you already know. But I do want to encourage those of you that have the inclination to lead with love, trust, and vulnerability to not be afraid to do so. I especially want to send this message to the young females in the room. Twelve years ago, when I starting coaching, I didn’t have a real mentor. I had my parents, whose value system shaped mine, and that was probably the closest thing to it.
Coming off of four incredible playing years on the club lacrosse team at UCLA, I had to create my own version of a mentor. I read the coaching philosophies of John Wooden (whom I idolize to this day), Coach K, Phil Jackson, and Pat Summit. I talked to some of the greatest coaches in the country at UCLA, and did my best to reach out to others in California that I looked up to. Most importantly, I spent six years just doing it. With a great friend and co-coach by my side, and the incredible environment of the UCLA campus, I coached that club for six years. We didn’t have the institutional support of a varsity program, but we were managing people, teaching and mentoring every single day, and competing at the highest level we could in the WCLA. I learned to handle the college coach’s balancing act, or at least took a step towards understanding it; truth be told, I was forced to grow up. I know I wasn’t always successful, but I absolutely did the best I was capable of at the time.
When I began working full time for my first NCAA program in 2012, my coaching style became more about developing optimism than sustaining it, and I felt my ability to be human with my team diminish a bit. I needed to be strong, stable, and consistent. There was no room for error, bad judgment, or emotional reactions. Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast, and loved each and every team I had the privilege of coaching at this institution. However, I occasionally found myself drowning in the aforementioned balancing act. I wanted so badly to be all the right things, all the time. And in the process, I lost my ability to be vulnerable, until something happened that left me no choice.
My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late February 2017, just as we had begun a brand new season of lacrosse. Although I had to take an entire week off for the first time in my coaching career, and rely on others to run the show, I still didn’t open up to my team. Even though I cared about them so much, and knew they also cared about me, I reverted back to my coach role in front of them, and found myself hiding behind the strength I felt that I was expected to project. The cancer progressed quickly, and my family was devastated when he passed away that same summer. My dad, my hero, my mentor, was gone, and it became tougher and tougher to maintain that suit of confidence I so badly wanted to wear as a coach.
This past fall, I found myself in a new city, with a new job, new expectations, and a new understanding of strength. I sat in a room with my new team, and started a familiar discussion. I told them that often times, being vulnerable and honest, is the key to building real connections, and developing trust. We watched two beautiful examples of emotional honesty – the first, a video of Kelly Clarkson performing a heartbreaking song entitled, “Piece By Piece.” The second was an interview in which Robyn Roberts discussed her experience with more than one life-threatening disease. In this interview, Robyn says, “Success leaves clues. Talk to people and find out how they got through it… got through their something.” This led us to our free-write prompt of the day: “What is your something, and how did you get through it?”
For 12 years, I’ve led these discussions, dished out these prompts, and asked my players to open up about their lives, where they’re from, and who they are today. And for 12 years, 99% of the time, I’ve thought the best course of action was to not share my own stories in those moments. I felt it was narcissistic, and took away from the intended focus – the team.
After the tragic events of the year prior, however, I started to realize I couldn’t fake that unbreakable exterior anymore. These days, my emails had typos (cue laughter if you know me), and my pre-practice speeches included an occasional stutter. This time, instead of covering it up, I embraced it. And I’m learning to fall in love with this coaching thing all over again, with a new perspective on what it really means to be strong.
That day, after giving that free-write prompt, I shared, and asked my assistant coach to do the same. I told the team about my dad, and I was honest about the fact that I had yet to “get through it;” coping, managing, and grieving are still such big pieces of who I am. Contrary to popular belief, being vulnerable doesn’t give your team permission to walk all over you. It gives them the chance to respect you, not just as a coach, but also as a human.
I realize, I might be preaching to the choir. Maybe even, I’m late to the party, and everyone already knows all this. But if there’s even one young coach reading this, who possibly, like me, started on this crazy journey without a working mentor… maybe, we can continue to work towards a more emotionally honest, fuller, more humane coaching philosophy together. We tell our players day in and day out – mistakes are inevitable; embrace your imperfections. If we are to be truly successful, we have to remember to take our own advice.
Lacrosse is, after all, just a little rubber ball, a big patch of fake grass, and some painted pipes. The power to influence doesn’t lie in the game itself, but in the people who are willing to invest in the connections that the game creates.
We all have our something. What’s yours? And how did you get through it?