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Setting the Standard: Lindsey LeMay, Northern Michigan University

In October, The Hidden Opponent asked its community of over 60,000 social media followers--many of which are athletes--to nominate coaches that they felt set the standard for promoting student-athlete wellbeing and mental health. Athletes from across the country submitted nominations, and Coach Lindsey LeMay of Northern Michigan University was one of the honored coaches. 

In the 2023 season, LeMay earned the GLIAC Coach of the Year award, leading the Wildcats to a program-high 11 wins with an overall record of 11-7, along with earning a program-first GLIAC Tournament win and a GLIAC Championship appearance. LeMay herself was a Division I athlete who competed at the University of Oregon and Oregon State. 

“Lindsey is incredibly passionate about both lacrosse and her athletes. She has a talent for connecting with her players on and off the field. She is empathetic to every situation and has a knack for problem solving. The players respond well to her because she makes an effort to know them and pushes them to be better humans, students, and athletes,” Breann Wallrapp, one of LeMay’s former colleagues, stated. 

“I have played for Coach LeMay for almost 5 years now, [and] her support and belief in me have been a crucial part of my success both as an athlete and a person. [...] She truly sees us as people and not just numbers, she invests in our personal development outside of our sport and encourages us to follow our passions and pursue our interests that make us who we are. She believes in us wholeheartedly and we know that she'll always be in our corner,” one of LeMay’s athletes, Minnie Bittell, stated. 

Social Media Manager Kai McClelland met with LeMay to ask her a few questions about her career and coaching philosophy. A transcript of the conversation is included below: 

Kai: How did you get into coaching?

I went to the University of Oregon for two years, and I was on their women's lacrosse team. And then I transferred and went to Oregon State, and I was on the women's rowing team. So I was an athlete, but my experience as a college athlete didn’t necessarily lead me to be a coach. I wasn't a very good college athlete. Stepping away from athletics after my time in college and reentering athletics through coaching at the high school level helped me fall back in love with lacrosse, which was my first sport. And through that, I kind of wanted to make a significant life change and give into that newfound passion. 

Kai: What was your experience like as an athlete? 

I think now that I'm old enough and I'm far away enough from being an athlete, I can look back on it effectively instead of blaming circumstances, coaches, teammates, or whatever else was thrown at me. Ultimately, I went into college athletics and failed hard. And sure, it was at a point in my life where there were hardships happening, but why I'm so passionate about mental health and the athlete experience now as a coach is that when I was an athlete, I just kind of curled up into a ball and didn't do anything correctly.

Looking back, I recognize the relationships that I could have and should have formed to make my experience better. I was choosing to not put myself out there and ask for help, and I was basically living in a cocoon of sadness. Realizing that I was responsible for my own failure as a student athlete has made me a better coach. 

Kai: Now, as a coach, is it easier for you to identify athletes that might be struggling in similar ways? 

I think I might be even a little hypersensitive to it. For example, when I see freshmen that aren't connecting well with the rest of the team, choosing to go home a lot, or FaceTiming home all the time, I try to have our older leadership branch out to try and connect with them. I really try to make our freshmen feel involved from the start so they can get out of their comfort zones and don't have the option to do what I did in college.

Kai: What are some of your main goals for your team? 

Obviously, one of them is that we want to win. We want to be a successful program. When I got the job here over four years ago, it was a new program, so we hadn't won very much. We’re just trying to build the program and build stepping stones in that way. 

But ultimately, a big goal is just to build a team culture where the athletes that come here want to be here. We want them to enjoy the things that make Northern Michigan special. It’s really important for them to be able to thrive as people here and feel comfortable. Where we're located is kind of an oasis for crunchy people that like hiking, biking, and winter sports, and we want to recruit people that enjoy that. 

So basically, we want to create a culture for winning, but through people who enjoy being here, because then as a team, they're going to want to be out in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan together doing things. What’s going to make them successful is that they thrive in the environment that we have here. 

Kai: Why is mental health important in sports? 

Everything that our athletes have faced in the last couple years has added so much stress to their lives. It becomes more and more important every year to break the stigma surrounding mental health. The only way you're going to get the best performance out of an athlete is if they feel supported in talking about what’s going on in their lives. 

If you tripped and broke your ankle, we would want you to go to the athletic trainer. It's the same thing with mental health struggles. We need to identify resources, refer people to help, and make sure that we’re all talking about it and we’re all on the same page. Our coaching staff wants to understand the full wellbeing picture of our athletes, not just the physical wellbeing picture. 

Kai: What are some of the aspects of coaching that are difficult that athletes may not always get a glimpse of? 

As a head coach, no matter how much I care about an athletes’ mental health, I recognize that I hold power over the thing that athletes value the most, which is playing time. Playing time is very important to athletes and can impact their mental health.

As a coach, I have to make decisions that are based on who is going to help our team succeed. That becomes really difficult when an athlete’s identity is performance-based. I've been there when I was a student athlete and I performed poorly. I lived in a constant state of bitterness towards my coaches and the people who held power over those decisions. 

It's frustrating as a coach because I want these athletes to know that even if they aren’t playing as much as they want, it doesn't mean that I don't value them as a person. It doesn't mean that they don't add value to the team. It's just that we need to put people on the field to compete and win, because that's my job. That's what I have to do. 

I think a lot of young coaches struggle with that and sometimes end up overcorrecting and playing too evenly, and then you aren’t winning and no one’s happy. It can be a struggle. 

Kai: I've heard coaches say that the head coach has to be the bad guy a lot of the time, and the assistant coach can be the good guy. 

Yes! That’s something I had a really hard time with when I went from being an assistant coach to a head coach. I wasn’t ready to be the bad guy. But now that I’m more of an adult, I’m willing to make those decisions, even if they’re hard. 

Kai: What is something that people can do to make coaches’ lives easier? 

First of all, coaches do have the best job ever. It’s important to recognize that. We get to work in a profession that's uniquely our passion. 

But it’s also a very unique pressure to serve in so many different roles at all hours of the day. My best advice is to just be patient. There’s 1000 things going on in our heads at any given moment. Things will inevitably fall through the cracks, which is why it’s helpful to get, for example, an extra reminder if an athlete is missing practice for a doctor’s appointment. 

Congratulations to Coach Lindsey LeMay for receiving this honor!

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