You Don't Need A Title To Lead
I walked onto the Connecticut College Women’s Rowing Team, known as CoCoWoRow among the rowers, as a freshman knowing almost nothing about the sport. All I knew was that it was an elite sport that was wrapped in the history of the Ivy League Universities and that it required many hours spent out on the water during early, cold New England mornings. Coming from my background as a competitive figure skater, I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn about what it meant to be on a team sport. Not only did I practice making coxswain calls in my freshman dorm using pillows with the guidance of my novice teammates, but I also found myself observing the senior leaders on the team wanting to soak in their knowledge and leadership.
Unlike most freshman, I respected my role on the team quickly. With a full crush injury to my middle finger on my right hand, I was limited to the amount of time I could be out on the water due to the cold temperatures so I did everything in my power to become the “cheerleader”, the “energy giver” of the team, the individual who brought the endless positivity and spirit to the team. No matter if I was having a good day, I wanted others to have a good day. Without fully recognizing it, I was developing the skills to be a leader – I was the person who my novice teammates could turn to be heard and understood. I was far from being the best on the team, but I was always waiting in the shadows to offer a word of encouragement or to cheer a teammate up.
Fast forward to the spring of my junior year, I arrived back to camp “Conn” after a semester of studying abroad yearning to be on the Thames River and surrounded by my teammates. I knew in my heart this was going to be my time to shine as an upper classman and set myself up to be nominated as a captain. I believed I had put in the work during my time abroad – checking in with the coach, reaching out to the new freshman to introduce myself, and staying up-to-date with the team’s progress throughout the fall season. In my mind I was convinced that the only way senior year on the rowing team was going to look and feel good was if I had the title of captain attached to my name. My big sister on the team my freshman year had been a captain so in a sense it was the only thing I knew. I have a big personality, so I did not change my ways that spring. Instead, I focused on spending time with the freshman, genuinely getting to know them all, and working to build stronger chemistry among my class.
My efforts being recognized, I was nominated to attend the NCAA leadership conference at their headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana as a junior. I was chosen from a highly selective group of Division I, II, III athletes to be among 200 athletes attending this annual NCAA Leadership Conference. My identity was wrapped up in becoming captain and it was consuming my life – a day did not go by where I did not a have a conversation with a family member, a teammate, or a friend about the possibility and my intentions for the role. I had multiple ideas of how I not only wanted to improve our team but also change the trajectory of school spirit among college athletics at Connecticut College.
At the NCAA Leadership conference, I was immersed within the culture of college athletics and found it extremely comforting to learn about the problems we all shared: balancing school work and practice, performing under pressure, dealing with coaches, and forming cohesive bonds with our teammates. Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA brought all 200 of us into a huddle and told us that we will always forever share the bond of being a college athlete; it is a gift that few athletes get and one that millions dream of. I took those words to heart because I knew that they were true. Not that long ago, I had entered college with no expectation of being a college athlete. Additionally, his words resonated with me because I knew the skills that I learned over those four days – the importance of networking, knowing your audience, putting in the work, and collaboration would never leave me. I left the NCAA Leadership surer than ever that I was going to be a great captain.
Six weeks later, I would be sitting on a couch in the common room of a Tabor Academy dorm checking my email surrounded by my fellow counselors who had been listening to me talk about rowing non-stop all summer. In that moment I found out that despite my teammates’ suggestions and all that I had learned in June, my coach decided to elect two captains and neither of them were me. I went silent and excused myself from the room and immediately knew that I had a tough decision to make. Was I going to remain on the team despite not having a leadership role – one that I rightfully thought I had earned and deserved? I had not coxed a single race in college, but I endured a serious injury, spent countless hours outside of practice running and working out with teammates to push them, and most importantly, I had never wavered from the team. Rowing was my family, my heart, my soul, and I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in sport psychology because of this experience.
Ultimately, I left, believing that I could not be the best teammate and version of myself without the title of captain. Truly in an identity crisis, I did not even want to come back to Connecticut College my senior year because I did not know where I was going to fit in. With some nudging from teammates and college friends, I entered senior year with the mindset of freedom. However, I’d be lying if I said that mantra was easy to follow; it took two full months in the fall to get over the hump of not waking up for 6 am practices on Saturday mornings. I missed my team. I missed doing jumpies. I missed hitting the garage door on the boathouse after a team run. I missed our Go-Conn-Go chat.
I would have been lost without my internship at Pine Point School working with the school psychologist, learning specialist, and speech pathologist. Through that internship, I slowly began to realize what rowing gave me and that I didn’t need the title of captain to be a leader. That year, I lived on an all-girls floor for the first time, and found myself mentoring and advising the girls around me. Two of them were sophomores on the sailing team who I will always share a special bond with. Additionally, I reached out to teammates and reconnected with them by sharing my story and my decision to leave. It was eye-opening because not a single person blamed me; my close friends on the team knew I was doing what was best for me as an individual.
It was interning at Pine Point School and connecting with an incredible organization, ZGiRLS, which promotes confidence in young female athletes, I was beginning to see the bigger picture. My strengths of helping people, organizing and executing plans, and listening to people could be applied to the other areas of my life. I saw that I didn’t need the word captain in front of my name to use those strengths. Another big lesson for me was learning that my teammates who were truly my friends understood and respected my decision. Because they wanted what was best for me, I was able to maintain my friendships with them.
I also made it a priority to meet with my coach in the spring of my senior year for closure. I was open and honest with her and told her the sport of rowing would always have a special place in my heart. I learned the value of being a teammate and working hard towards a common goal, and that year I had grown as a person. I discovered the confidence within me to collaborate with others, seek advice, and make decisions without a title. I am currently working towards chasing my dream of becoming a sport psychologist who specializes in working with elite youth athletes. I may not have gotten the title of captain, but I know that Connecticut College gave me the tools to lead and create my own success no matter where my path takes me.