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Mental Health & Coaching with Maureen Fitzgerald

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Maureen Fitzgerald. Maureen is a former NCAA Division 1 and National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) soccer player, teacher, mentor, and problem solver.

 

Maureen was heavily involved in athletics growing up, playing everything from basketball, to tennis, to pole vault. As time progressed she pursued soccer more competitively, resulting in her recruitment by top universities. She played for Boise State University and the University of Oregon during her collegiate career, and ended up earning a spot on the NWSL’s Portland Thorns. In 2018, she captained the US National Futsal team at the World Cup in Catalonia.


Maureen is candid about her struggles with mental health during her collegiate career. Even before she enrolled at Boise State her freshman year there was a feeling of pressure, and some fear that it might not be the right place for her. “By the time I got to Boise State I knew deep down that it was not going to be a good fit. But you know, you’re committed.” She feared that if she turned down her scholarship at Boise State, she might not get one elsewhere.


The culture surrounding the team at Boise State was far from ideal. Maureen cited emotional abuse, ‘old-school’ coaching, and an extreme drinking culture as contributors to the toxic culture of the program. The squad performed well on the field, topping their conference for the first time. She performed individually as well, starting every game as a freshman and leading the team in assists. However, Maureen was constantly fatigued and increasingly unhappy. “It was so miserable. Our coach was going through a tough situation, but at the end of the day this is about the impact you have on young women.” She would end up leaving the school at the semester, along with seven others who left the team.


Because of her on-field success her freshman year, Maureen started getting looks from big-time schools in the PAC-12 Conference & beyond. She decided to head to the University of Oregon to continue her studies & athletic career. Maureen again enjoyed on-field success and although she found herself in a more supportive environment, her struggles with mental health continued. She noted the pressure of playing at a big school, where results are imperative, “It’s not about the wellbeing of the players, it’s about the wins and losses on paper.” Despite her struggles, she did not want to give up. “This was the thing that I loved, the thing that brought me so much joy in life. Identity, and friendships, and community. And I didn’t want someone else to ruin it for me.” Seeking the help of the sport psychologist at the university, she attended therapy throughout her Junior and Senior years, and finished her collegiate career.


Fast forward a few years, between working as a teacher and playing professionally, Maureen is now in a different position; coaching. At the heart of Maureen’s coaching style is the mental health of her players. Part of the reason that she coaches is that she does not want any of her players to experience what she went through. “If I can give players a good environment to thrive, they’ll remember that forever. I can develop that relationship so that if they do get into a toxic environment at least they have me and they can call me. They can remember back to what it’s supposed to feel like, how that relationship with your coach should be.”


So, what does a positive coach-player relationship look like? First, Maureen stressed how important it is for coaches to see their athletes as whole people, stating “They’re walking in with their own set of baggage, and complex lives.” She also mentioned the importance of prioritizing development of people first, and cultivating a love for the game. Finally, she emphasized having high standards toward the things that players can control, which she says are effort and attitude.


Positive communication is a cornerstone of Maureen’s coaching. She says that athletes need to be involved in the conversation. “At halftime, I always ask my players ‘what went well?,’ and they say all of the things that I was going to say... By inviting players into the conversation, coaches let their players be in charge of their own learning.” And after the game? Maureen doesn’t talk about the game. Instead, she lets players engage in appreciation for their teammates. “We’re not going to remember what I said after the game. What we’re going to remember is how we made each other feel. It’s about building camaraderie and good people.”


Through Maureen’s experience as an athlete and a coach, one thing has stood out to her; “Love is abundant. We need to make our decisions out of love and not out of scarcity.” As coaches, what is the most loving, fitting, and kind thing that we can do for our players? How can we be successful as players, coaches, and people? “Operate out of love, and not out of fear.”


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