Fifteen years ago, an east-coast college coach put a lacrosse stick in Jessica Livingston’s hand—and she never let go. She packed up her passion for the sport when she moved to Arizona after graduation, and set out to build a lacrosse community as coach, player and general LAX evangelist. Jessica talks about the sport that anyone can play, her take on how to coach young women and the life lessons team sports like lacrosse can provide.
Talk about your first experience with lacrosse. When did you begin playing?
I discovered lacrosse kind of as a mistake. When I went to college, I never had seen or really had heard about the sport before. I was a basketball player through and through. Our basketball program wasn’t as strong as what I was looking for, and I wanted a challenge. The lacrosse coach came to me and said, “Hey, you know, I think you would love to play this game.” She put a stick in my hand and I can honestly say I haven’t looked back since.
Why play lacrosse as opposed to any other sport? What does it offer?
Lacrosse is very similar to a lot of sports: basketball, hockey, soccer. It ties a lot of these sports together. Girls from all different levels and abilities can find a position on the field. If they like to run, they can play midfield. If they don’t like to run, maybe they play closer to the goal. If they have great hand-eye coordination, maybe they can play goalie. Lacrosse positions are very much like personalities.
So this is a sport that has a place for anyone, no matter their size, their athletic ability? Anyone can play?
I think you can find a position for every girl. Many girls have come to me and said lacrosse is the first sport that they’ve ever truly enjoyed. And I think there is something special about that that ties people in.
You went from playing in college to a coaching career in Arizona. Talk about the commitment it takes.
Part of being a coach is that your brain never really shuts off. You’re always thinking about the girls, you’re thinking about how you can improve, you’re thinking about how you can help them in life. Many times I’ll sit down and have coffee with a girl who might be struggling in areas outside of lacrosse. I always tell the girls that I hope they can see me as somebody they can go to who really wants to help them succeed in life.
What is your coaching “philosophy”—what is in your bag of tricks for motivating and inspiring team members to learn, grow and excel as athletes?
You learn how to communicate with the players. I’ve never been a fan of yelling. I’ve never been a fan of motivating a player by negative critiquing. You need to learn how to sandwich criticism, so you give a positive, you say something that they can work on, and then you finish with a positive. And I try really hard not to point out mistakes in front of a group. Girls put a lot of pressure on themselves; they don’t want to fail in front of their peers.
How likely would it be for an all-star high school player in Arizona to get a scholarship, say, in a Division 1 school?
There are players getting scholarships now. It really goes to [showing] the hard work from the player. She’s not going to just walk out to the field and have recruiters that are watching in Arizona. They’re not going to come to us. That is part of why we started a travel team, so that we can go to tournaments where there are college recruiters and we can develop some of the better athletes who want to take it to that next step and be seen.
How would you say that the high school girls you coach have benefited from the women athletes who have gone before them?
I think girls now have so many doors open to them. I know even in the work force, when you’re applying for a job, if you can put that you were an athlete, I think that bodes well for you on your resume. You have had to work through challenges on your team, you’ve had to learn how to get along with all the players on your team. It gives you a lot of life lessons. It is seen as a good thing when they go apply for a job.
At the end of the day, what is the most satisfying part of coaching lacrosse?
I would say the most satisfying part is the connection that I have with the kids. To know that I’ve been in the sport about 15 years since my coach handed me my first lacrosse stick! If I can give that stick to another girl and pass on the tradition, then I think that it is something valuable at the end of the day. They’re going to learn teamwork, they’re going to learn how to get along with all 20 of their teammates and I just really love to be able to pass on that passion.
Phoenix multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for Raising Arizona Kids and through her own company, Small Change Productions.