Behind the Whistle: How Coaching Saved My Life

Haverford College assistant coach Julie D'Esposito says her life was spiraling when lacrosse gave her a renewed sense of purpose.

This story initially appeared on Behind the Whistle, the official blog of the IWLCA, and is being republished with permission from the organization. Julie D'Esposito is the assistant coach at Haverford College.

Eight months ago, my life came crashing down. I lost one thing after the next, all within months. The pandemic this past year was obviously challenging for everyone in many different ways. While I was fortunate enough to keep my job, working from home and not being around people was more of a struggle than I initially realized.

One day a week, I started walking with a friend at a park to help bring me back to life. I thought I had it together and was starting to feel “normal” when the first string of bad news hit. At Haverford College, assistant coaches couldn’t return to campus for fall ball due to COVID restrictions. Little did I know, this was just the tip of the iceberg, and in the blink of an eye my whole world fell apart.

After going through multiple major personal life changes, including a separation, moving, grieving multiple losses including a best friend, saying goodbye to family and friends, now I also had to leave my favorite club team that I have ever had the honor of coaching. It was surreal. I am still in shock.

Fast-forward through the worst couple months of my life. At Haverford, the Centennial Conference decided they would play but our college opted out. On top of that, assistant coaches still could not come to campus. I remember a few weeks in the middle of winter, a pandemic, and my rock bottom — I didn’t know what I was going to do.

Call it what you will, but finally we got some good news and we were allowed on campus in March. I still have goosebumps thinking about when I first pulled into our parking lot again. Walking to the field, I legitimately laid down and did snow angels on the turf. It was unbearable being away from the girls for so long, not competing and meeting our freshmen for the first time. But our girls are the definition of resilience and they showed up just like it was a normal year.

Per tradition, every year we ask our players to pick a word for the season. One by one, they share the meaning behind it each day at practice. This year was no different. Some picked words like Heart, Resilience and Hustle. Others picked words like Be, Smile and Flow. As coaches, we all decide on a word as well and share it after all the players have gone through theirs. This year my word was Fill. It came from seeing this story:

You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and bumps into you or shakes your arm, making you spill your coffee everywhere. Why did you spill the coffee? "Because someone bumped into me!" Wrong answer. You spilled the coffee because there was coffee in your cup. Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea. Whatever is inside the cup is what will spill out.

Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you (which WILL happen), whatever is inside you will come out. It's easy to fake it, until you get rattled. So we have to ask ourselves, “What's in my cup?” When life gets tough, what spills over? Life provides the cup; YOU choose how to fill it.

Now, I remember reading this and thinking, “Wow, what am I filled with?” There were multiple times this year when I felt like I was filled with nothing, and I had no one to keep me going. What was the point? There came a night when I hit my rock bottom and I needed help from my family and friends. I didn’t know how I was going to push on and truly felt like no one would miss me if I was gone.

I know that sounds dark, but it’s honest. And if there is one thing I have learned this year, it's that being honest and vulnerable makes you a stronger and better person. I hold myself accountable to that every day now, even when it's scary.

A few days after I hit bottom, I got an email from a parent of a player I used to coach asking if I would do private lessons because her daughter really missed me and wanted to get better as an athlete. Then I got another email from a different parent saying the same thing. Then another. These emails started to make my day.

Slowly but surely, I was forming small group trainings, individual lessons and strength/conditioning practices for multiple different age groups. I’ve always loved coaching and loved the sport of lacrosse but always questioned and doubted myself. This was a common theme for me not only as an athlete but also as a person, always wondering if I was good enough and getting in my own head. I have constantly questioned myself for the past five years coaching.

I wasn’t the best player on the field. How could I be a good coach? Was I what these young lacrosse-loving women needed to grow into amazing athletes? Ultimately, I would question if the sport and the girls loved me back. But now, for the first time, I truly felt the love and felt meaning to my life — the number of young women that looked up to me and needed me to push through my pain and show up for them. Between several sixth-graders, eighth-graders and both high school and college athletes, I had to be there. They needed me, but I didn’t realize how much I needed them.

My life did have meaning. I had a reason to get out of bed each day and get to practice. I had a reason to go meet so many of them and spend one-on-one time with them. I had a reason to be a role model. I had a reason to put one foot in front of the other. I got my routine back. I got my health back. I got my smile back. I got me back. Maybe not all of me. Maybe not the old me. But a version of me that could keep going and take it one day at a time. And most importantly, I got my love for the sport back. 

Sometimes you must hit your lowest to figure out what truly brings you happiness in life and find your purpose. When I transferred after sophomore year of college, I was dealing with a lot of things mentally and couldn’t figure out who I wanted to be. But I definitely thought lacrosse was out of my life, and then I transferred with the intention of never playing again.

Within months, I realized how much I missed it and how much it made me who I was, so I joined the club team at my college. Then I graduated in 2014 and I thought the lacrosse world was done for me. I didn’t think I was good enough to be a coach. I started working in the corporate world and realized everyone starts somewhere, so why couldn’t I start coaching? So, I did.

This year has challenged me as a woman, person, daughter, sister, friend and coach to be stronger than I ever could have imagined. I learned to dig deep and find out what and who makes you happy, and then fill your life with it.

The past few months, I have completely filled my life with lacrosse, watched myself grow as a coach and surrounded myself with my lacrosse family. But there are a few shoutouts that are necessary to give.

First and foremost, I have to thank Haverford women’s lacrosse head coach Katie Zichelli. If we had a season, she should be Coach of the Year. She is by far the best mentor, role model, coach and aspiration to me. She thinks through every decision and always goes above and beyond. She spent countless hours over the past year putting together numerous team-building activities through Zoom, like Fords Family Feud and book club, and hired an athletic mental health coach. She has done so much for me, more than she will ever know, and I can’t thank her enough for allowing me to be a part of such an amazing program.

I also want to give a shoutout to Germantown Academy, Mary Dean, Julia Galantich, Colleen Magarity and HHH Club Lacrosse, who welcomed me with open arms this spring.

Lastly, thank you to my amazing NXT families and players that I work with individually. Words can’t express how incredibly grateful I am for all of you and your love and respect for the game. I would not be here today without my family, friends, adorable dog Wally and most importantly, my lacrosse family. 

Although my coaching journey has just begun, I know I will continue to trust my gut and fill my life with what makes me happy. I encourage anyone reading this to do the same.

I hope my story helps at least one person, player, parent, child, collegiate athlete or coach. The sport of lacrosse changed my life, but coaching saved my life.

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