Written By: Alicia Cardie
Since the earliest I can remember, I’ve known I wanted to be a coach. I never knew how it was going to happen, but at the same time, I never had any doubts that it would happen. I had the privilege of swimming under some incredible female coaches for the vast majority of my career, and as I grew older, every piece of evidence only seemed to point in the direction that I was on my way to becoming one of them. While I’ll be the first to point out that my experience is still severely limited and that I definitely still have a lot to learn before I earn any label like “incredible,” I appreciate this opportunity to reflect on and share some of my story, because in the same way I was inspired and guided by the examples set before me, I hope that my story might serve to inspire and guide some of the soon-to-be coaches right behind me.
In an effort to encourage those on a similar journey as me, and maybe even offer different perspective to those further along in the journey or on a different journey altogether, I want to share the most universally recognizable aspects of my experience, the driving factors in the story of my transition from collegiate athlete to collegiate coach. As I reflect on the last several years of my life, there are four that stand out to me: passion, intentionality, opportunity, and a love of learning.
Even though I’ve always known I wanted to coach, it wasn’t until I went through my own coach-guided growth experience that I felt a true passion ignite. As I entered high school, I found myself stuck in a plateau, and if it weren’t for my club coach at the time, I probably would have quit. But she saw me, and she stayed with me where I was until I could move forward. She taught me how to move from Point A to Point B—not necessarily as an athlete, but as a person. When she helped guide me to become the person I wanted to be, the athlete followed naturally.
By the time I was entering college, I had transformed. When I got the chance to thank her later on, she told me I’d get the chance to pay it forward with kids like me. Ever since, I’ve carried that burning fire in my heart, the passion to teach others not just how to become the athlete they want to be, but how to become the person they want to be. It’s that passion that gets me out of the bed in the morning, motivates me to be the best I can be every day, pushes me out of my comfort zone, and allows me to truly love what I do.
With that passion fueling me onwards, I spent much of my college career intentionally viewing everything through two lenses: that of an athlete and that of a coach. I joked that the most important classroom I had access to in college was the pool deck, but in a lot of ways, it was true. I paid attention to how my coaches interacted with each other and with us, the athletes. I watched how they resolved conflicts. I listened to how they spoke as they led practices, prepared the team for meets, and encouraged individuals after races. I picked up on the way they reacted to feedback and used it to make changes in themselves and their coaching. I took note of their efforts to shape the team culture.
As I observed all of this, I tried to measure it against my own leadership style and personality, too. Would I handle the situation the same way? What might I do differently? Athletes are encouraged to visualize their races to set themselves up for success, and I took that principle and ran with it as I visualized everything I possibly could about coaching with the same intentionality I had learned was important to any great athlete.
In the end, though, passion and intentionality could only take me so far. Without opportunities—or more specifically, without saying yes to opportunities—I never would have ended up in the position I’m in today. I think it’s important to point out that opportunities are not always comfortable and you don’t always feel ready or qualified for them, but if they truly lie in the direction you want to go, you cannot be the one to say “no.” Let someone else do that, if it comes to that. I came across several opportunities during my transition, and while some were “yes” and some were “no,” I always let someone or something else be the one to tell me no.
I had the opportunity to coach my own college team after graduating; “life” ended up telling me no on that one. I had the opportunity to interview for a high school head coaching position; they didn’t hire me. I had the opportunity to volunteer coach at Xavier University, and just like the times before, I jumped on it; this time, no one stopped me. After that, I continued (and still continue) to seize opportunity after opportunity that our head coach has given me within this position, no matter how ready or qualified I felt.
If I had said “no” to opportunities every time I felt like I wasn’t yet qualified…well, I might still just be holding a stopwatch and calling out times, rather than developing training plans, writing and running practices, and sharing my thoughts and implementing ideas regularly with the team. I recognize that not everyone gets the same opportunities at the same points in their journey, and of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with starting out and staying diligent in the little responsibilities, but my point is that being willing to say yes to things I didn’t feel quite ready for is what allowed me to maximize my experience and growth as I’ve transitioned from athlete to coach.
There is a lot of strength to be found in passion, direction to be found in intentionality, and progress to be found in opportunity. However, there have been times during the transitional phases of my life when I have found one or all of those things missing, and suddenly, it becomes hard to move forward. A perfect example of this was back in March, when quarantine first began and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to coach for a while. I struggled with that, a lot. What helped to keep me grounded—albeit not all the time—was my love of learning.
In that time of having nothing else, I turned to books, podcasts, articles, and conversations, using them to evaluate and refine my thinking. It kept me tethered to who I was, even when I didn’t have the chance to do what I felt I was meant to do. But whether in a trying time or a fulfilling time, that need to learn has been constant in my life for a long time; it leads me along a path of challenges and growth, and it allows me to lead others along that same path, regardless of how much experience I do or do not have.
I know that when it comes to life—not just a transition from athlete to coach, but life in general—everyone follows a unique path and has a unique experience. Everyone faces different challenges, and everyone faces some kind of discouragement. What I know from my experience, though, is that living with passion is incredibly powerful. I know that being intentional pays off. I know that I should never shut a door I want to walk through just because it looks too important for me. And I know that fostering a love of learning will carry me both for a long time and through hard times. Maybe you identify with some of those, or maybe you see a different set of driving forces in your life and your journey, but either way, my encouragement is the same: in humble confidence, never stop moving forward—whatever “forward” looks like for you.
A native of Houston, Texas, Alicia Cardie graduated from Liberty University in the spring of 2019, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and swam all four years, qualifying for the NCAA DI National Championships and Olympic Trials along the way. She now lives with her husband in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she has been an assistant coach with Xavier University Men’s and Women’s Swimming since the fall of 2019. She also works with collegiate coaches and athletes as a full time representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In everything she does, she seeks to empower coaches and athletes to live life whole: experiencing joy in all things and serving others well.