Lessons from a Lacrosse Team

For nearly as many years that I taught Social Studies at Rutland High School, I also coached the girls’ lacrosse team.  The teams over these six years had girls from all of the sending towns to Rutland High School, from all socio-economic strata, and from many different family constellations.  Each year, the players came together to form a cohesive group that was working towards a common goal – of collective greatness.

We worked together towards this common, intangible goal by talking about the concrete – of “winning the ‘ship” and becoming state champions.  Greatness was the ‘ship of course, but it was also the moment when the ball flowed from one girl to the next without a drop or the moment the double team closed with precision. This goal bound us together.

Coaching a sport has a particular grind to it.  In lacrosse, I find this most early on in the season. The team is still coming together, not everyone is on the same page, and the weather is invariably awful. And yet, we always come through this hardest part of the season and are better for it.  The best parts of coaching girls’ lacrosse come after the grind but are the result of it.

Rutland lax

I have coached many teams in a number of sports. Yet, the RHS girls’ lacrosse team stands out among them.  This is not because of the state championship, but because of the girls themselves.  Some were lacrosse players from an early age; some were just learning in high school. Some were natural athletes; some were not.  They all made it through the grind of the early season as well as their own nadir in the season because of the team.

The team provided the girls a chance to be their best selves.  

A captain, L, was a force on the field and a natural playmaker… until she tore her knee and quad so badly she needed surgery. This did not stop her, as she continued to lead the team from the bench, never missing a game nor remaining quiet despite the injury. She became more important to the team off the field than on it, a 13th player, cheering and inspiring the whole bench to join in with her.

A new goalie, J sorted her way through the early part of the season by sheer guts and her laid back attitude.  At a game playing Burr and Burton, she came off during a time out and said “I’m just not feeling it tonight.” We promptly sent her back out to sort through the game. That game allowed her the chance to choose in a very real way – was she going to play for the team or just play when she wanted to.  She chose the team, always ready for the next shot, and helping us laugh at that stressful moment later on.

As a quiet, Goth freshman, C was the last person to make the J.V. team. She did not have any friends on the team and had a shaky skill set.  Through dogged determination and practice over 4 years, she found her signature shot, found her voice, and found a team of girls who supported her. Her peers chose her to be a captain, recognizing her dedication to the team and its goal.

It is easy to remember many stories about each girl on the team and recall how their particular energy and skill fit together with others.  Surely, this happens on all teams to one extent or another.  However, I have coached other teams and other sports, but I still find this Rutland crew remarkable.

Perhaps most remarkable is who they have become and what they have been able to do.  Of all the girls on the varsity teams over six years, every single one has gone to college and all have completed or are about to finish college. Team alumna include the youngest alderwoman in Rutland’s history and the Rutland’s first alderwoman of color.  They are in far flung countries and nearby towns, and all are working to positively impact their community – most typically through their jobs but also through their volunteering.

I am so fortunate to still be in touch with so many of the girls – now women.  Every time I hear of some new exploit or milestone, I wonder what made these six years of teams so special.  The girls were not just from families who could afford for them to play a sport: some worked part-time jobs after practice.  They were not just girls in the “honors track” or strong students: some truly struggled in their classes.  They were not just from families who supported their playing: some didn’t have family members come to their senior game.

So, what was it?

Did these strong girls self-select into girls lacrosse? Possibly, but I don’t think self-selection can account for all of their success on and off the field.

More likely, I think, was that the team itself created the conditions that allowed all of the girls to thrive.  The team allowed them a place to try new things, to be daring, to fall short but still be loved and encouraged enough to try again. It allowed them to connect deeply with their peers around a shared goal and experience. It meant they needed to get through the grind and low points to reach the day they made the winning goal, intercepted a crazy pass, or stood on their head in goal.

It also gave them a few parent-like adults who were steady presences in their lives – making sure they were getting their homework done, going to bed on time, making safe choices, eating well, had friends, and understood what hard work physically, mentally, and emotionally felt like.

I think of this team and wonder how we can foster these conditions for all students in our schools today.  I wonder most of all for the students who are the most quiet, the most withdrawn, the most defiant, the most hard to reach. How can we, together, create new avenues that allow students to connect with peers and caring adults around a common, challenging, complex goal?

Searching for the many answers to this question keeps me awake at night… and it pushes me each day to create systems of support and avenues for enrichment for all students.

 

Jen
A 2012 Rowland fellow, Jen taught Social Studies for many years in Rutland High School and Hopkins School in CT.  She is now principal at Cornwall School, where she gets to read, garden, play, and work with students and teachers. She also can be found running, skiing, and walking around with her two girls, two dogs, and husband in Middlebury, VT.
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