Lessons Learned in Coaching

By Emily Fisher, Head Coach, University of Mount Union  @purpleraiders

My approach to coaching and empowering young women shifted this past year as our family faced new hardships and adversity. The experience naturally brought about deep reflection and evaluation of what we do and why we do it.

This fall my brother was diagnosed with cancer.

Courtesy of University of Mount Union Athletics

My brother is a fighter – he was born with cerebral palsy and was told by doctors that he would never hold a pencil correctly, let alone participate in sport. Growing up, I remember going to physical therapy and every single day watching him fight for things so many of us take for granted – a “normal” left leg and left hand. Despite all odds, my brother fought and the kid who “would never hold a pencil correctly,” made one of the top high school basketball programs in the state. My brother may not have a “normal” left hand or left leg, but what he lacked in physical ability, he made up for in heart and character. He is carrying this same remarkable approach into his current battle.

A few weeks after my brother’s cancer diagnosis, my dad made a comment to me – a simple yet authentic remark – one that I think about every day since he said it. He told me, “Emily, I am so grateful you and your brother had the opportunity to participate in sport because it teaches you so many life lessons and to stay tough and stick together in difficult times.”

Boy is he right.

My decisions, actions, and attitude in my everyday life are largely due to the experiences – both good and bad – I’ve acquired through sport. I’ve always been a big preacher about the value the sport and the life lessons learned through this game, and today, more than ever, I hold this belief near and dear to my heart.

Now that I am a coach, I recognize and appreciate the great privilege and opportunity I have to make a positive impact on the young women I coach – to teach them as much as I can about the game of lacrosse but, most importantly, LIFE.

I have been at Mount Union for nearly eight years now being the first and only coach in Mount Union’s short history. There are so many lessons I’ve learned over the brief time period here – and even more lessons I have yet to learn – but here are some of the key takeaways I’ve gathered through my experiences coaching at the collegiate level.

1) The value of a great mentor.

When I was originally hired at Mount Union, I came directly from coaching high school to starting a brand new collegiate lacrosse program – talk about LEARNING CURVE.

Without a doubt, I would not have survived that first year without the help and great mentoring from others. To begin, I am lucky to have such a supportive husband, parents, and family. My dad was a former college basketball coach and he taught me everything he knows about coaching.

One of the major “learning curve” areas transitioning to college coaching is recruiting, and my dad taught me everything I know about this. One thing he told me early on is that recruiting is an emotional rollercoaster and you must keep an even keel – there will be girls that you think are for sure coming to your school and end up going elsewhere, and vice-versa, but if you work hard and stay the course, everything will work out.

And I can tell any young coaches out there who are just starting out – work hard and it will work out.

Another key lesson my dad taught me in recruiting is to never compromise the type of student-athlete you are recruiting – what he meant by this was character. Yes – talent is important, but just one player with poor character, morals, and values can destroy a team. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, great leaders can produce teams that excel beyond what may seem capable. To this day, I will never waiver on that principle – I always recruit women of great integrity.

I could go on and on about the great mentoring from my dad and the immense gratitude I have for him, my family, and special recognition to my husband, Kenny – who has always supported, believed in me, and is the greatest husband, friend, and father to our son – but I do want to talk about another important aspect in mentoring and that is mentoring found in your actual work place.

During my time here at Mount Union, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with and be mentored by Mount Union Athletic Director, Larry Kehres. Larry is an outstanding coach, but I can tell you he is an even better mentor and, if you read his full biography, I can tell you that is saying A LOT.

Larry is someone who genuinely cares about his coaches and their families – in fact, the majority of our talks aren’t necessarily about lacrosse, they are centered around family or stories with an important moral or lesson that can be applied to coaching and/or life. Larry taught me that great leaders take ownership for everything – even when it’s not their fault. He taught me that leadership is also not necessarily about being “liked” or “loved” all the time – but to do everything always WITH love: holding people accountable and giving praise when praise is earned. Leadership is also doing what is right and not necessarily what is popular. He has always supported me and has a fierce passion for our school and athletic programs and motivates coaches to be their best.

I will tell you this: there is no price tag you can put on a great work mentor and a supportive working environment.

The final area of mentoring I want to discuss is that which occurs within the lacrosse community. To all the young coaches out there – there are SO MANY incredible coaches and people in the lacrosse community and they will help you if you ever ask for help – don’t ever be afraid to ask!

A perfect example of this is Hamilton women’s lacrosse coach, Patty Kloidt. I’ve had the great opportunity to serve on the NCAA Women’s Lacrosse National committee over the past few years and have met some extraordinary people, including Coach Kloidt. To be honest, when I first met Patty, I was star struck – I’ve always looked up to her as one of the great coaches of our time. In the little time getting to know her, it was obvious why young women love playing for her – she is the most down to earth person you will ever meet and is a great relationship-builder.

Last year, I had some questions about what type of offense to run against a specific zone defense and so I decided to reach out to Patty. Within minutes, Patty got back to me and thoroughly went through the best offense to run against that specific zone and like magic, it ran beautifully when I installed it with my own team.

I do not know everything about the game of lacrosse, nor will I ever know. Any opportunity to grow and learn from others – seek out those opportunities, always stay humble, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

2) The importance of “balance.”

When I first started at Mount Union, I did what most young professionals these days seem to do, especially when the job is something you have an extreme passion for: give every minute of every day and all of my energy to work, even if it meant sacrificing my own health and well-being.

   Photo courtesy of the author

I experienced this same challenge a couple years ago trying to navigate life as new mom when Kenny and I welcomed the greatest joy to our life – our son, Theodore.

Young coaches and new moms – remember it is about BALANCE.

It was tough initially to find balance but I now realize that setting aside at least an hour of my day to work out, be in nature, and/or do something I enjoy is so very important not just to my physical health but to my mental health and well-being – believe me, you and your family will thank you for it.

Also, sometimes balance means blending work and home life. For example, I’ll bring Theo with me to practice on occasion where he will warmup with the players and enjoy watching them play (and, on occasion, try to escape practice to explore campus); and Theo and Kenny will be at every lacrosse game they can possibly make – decked out in purple, smiling and waving to mom from the press box, with Theo charging the field after the game.

Anytime you can blend home and work together it becomes more meaningful and enjoyable on both fronts.

3) Embrace new ideas and empower others.

As head coaches we have an obligation to be a mentor to the young women we coach and also to our assistant coaches – any chance I have to share something I know or experience I’ve had that may help them grow, I want to share that knowledge and experience with them. But being a good mentor does not simply mean sharing your knowledge, it is about relationships and giving voice to those under your wing – we all can learn something from one another.

An example of this would be my current assistant coach, Molly Wood. Molly played for Ohio State and is the program record-holder for draw controls. Any opportunity I have to learn from Molly about the draw or for her to work with my draw specialists, I am absolutely going to give her that opportunity. As a leader and head coach, you can never feel threated by others’ knowledge – that is a mistake. Being a leader means embracing each other’s knowledge, talents, and ideas and giving credit and voice to those people. Not just in this context, but in every area and decision in coaching, I am constantly asking myself this question: what is in the best interest of the team? Again, never get caught up in your own ego especially if it’s something that will benefit your team. As the head coach, it is not about you – it never has been, it never will be – it’s about the TEAM.

In the same respect, the young women I coach also know that they always have a voice and that I welcome new ideas. Our job as a head coach is to provide opportunities for our student athletes to share their voice, and then evaluate whether a new idea or thought will further the team and/or fit the personnel. Often you may decide that an idea does not fit what you are looking to accomplish, but varying perspectives are important and the conversations and thought-provoking discussions that come from this process will either solidify what you are currently doing or spark new thoughts and ideas that may benefit the team. In addition, giving voice to your assistant(s) and team demonstrates that you value them and their ideas.

4) Keeping it in perspective.

My dad – like other great mentors in my life – is a big storyteller. One of his stories, a true story, comes from an experience in an airport several years ago:

A young man was on a work trip and his flight was delayed. Trying to kill time, he spotted a shoe shining station and decided to stop. The shoe shiner asked the man, “how is your day going?” The man responded, “Well, it’s been kind of a rough day, my flight was delayed, and now I’m not sure if I’ll be making my connecting flight…” The shoe shiner stops the man in the middle of his sentence, looks up at him and says, “Always remember, every day you wake up and have your family, your health, and air in your lungs is a great day. There are only bad moments and bad moments are temporary – they will pass. So today, you are just having a bad moment in a great day.”

There will be difficult moments in coaching but always remember they are temporary, they will pass, and to keep everything in perspective.

Enjoy the process, enjoy coaching, and never take a day for granted.

Approach the journey like my brother – full of heart, a sense of humor, and an unwavering positive attitude. Place trust in your support network, listen and consider new ideas, maintain balance, and use our platform to have a positive impact and empower the young women we have the privilege to work with everyday.

2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned in Coaching

  1. Thank you for sharing. Your brother’s experience is particularly powerful. I coach my 12 year old’s travel team and am passionate about teaching the girls the women’s lax game. I still have a tremendous amount to learn. After reading your Lessons Learned I realized I lack a mentor. My thoughts and prayers to your fighter of a brother! – Mike


  2. Wow! What a thoughtful, insightful, and incredibly accurate article! Thank you for sharing your story- loved reading this! Your players are very lucky to have you!!


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