Megan Lipski realized a long time ago that she wanted to be a coach. Did she think she would ever be coaching at a national tournament?
Maybe, in those moments we all have when our dreams take flight. But no amount of daydreaming could dull the elation she felt when she heard she’d be one of the coaches of New Jersey’s softball team at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle in July. Nor how proud she is that the team came home with the bronze medal.
Trying to keep up with Lipski’s sports resume can be a little daunting. She’s played (and still plays) all kinds of sports and has been a youth sports coach for two decades. From 2001 to 2011 she coached in the recreational Ewing Girls Soccer Association and then moved onto the varsity girls’ soccer team at Stuart Country Day school—a program she started, by the way—and the varsity girls volleyball team.
For a few years Lipski also coached soccer and softball for Incarnation-St. James Elementary School. She got involved with Special Olympics in 2011, and it’s been the most rewarding experience in sports that she’s had, she said.
That’s a little different from how she expected to feel after she first volunteered. Lipski was at Stuart and a friend asked her to help with a Special Olympics soccer event in Ewing. Leading up to her first event, she muttered something to herself that a lot of people mutter when they take on a whole new experience: “Oh my gosh, what’d I get myself into?”
In a 2015 interview with ESPN, Lipski said, “I will be honest: I was a little nervous, having never worked with athletes with intellectual disabilities.”
Clearly, it worked out in her favor. In fact, she said, “After two weeks I was hooked.”
But those original nerves are worth a slightly deeper dive, if only to show the difference between worrying about trying something new and doing something you find deeply rewarding. And it wasn’t so much a fear of the developmentally disabled, it was having to rewire her own thinking about how to approach sports.
The thing is, Lipski has always been an athlete. It started when she was growing up in Ewing, playing softball, basketball, volleyball… pretty much whatever sport came her way. It continued at Notre Dame High School and then into Albright College and later The College of New Jersey. While getting her bachelor’s in communications, she played Division III volleyball in college; she still plays rec league sports.
All that is to say that sports and the mechanics thereof have always come easy to Lipski. So when she walked into her first day as a Special Olympics soccer coach, she found out in a hurry that communicating those ingrained athletic biomechanics to people who were not actually able to understand what it means to dribble a soccer ball, she had to adapt on the fly.
At first, Lipski was a little worried about how she would break down something so fundamental. The answer was penguins.
“After about two weeks,” she said, “one of my athletes was struggling with dribbling. I said ‘Walk like a penguin.’”
And voila! The girl understood what it meant to dribble a soccer ball between her feet. It’s an approach Lipski has used often since, this “let’s break it down to the very basics” methods, she said. It forces her to rethink the way sports are played and learned on an almost molecular level, which she said has been rewarding in its own right.
In her non-athletic life, Lipski is a quality assurance officer at New Jersey Manufactuers in Ewing. She’s been there for 14 years and said that NJM is a big supporter of Special Olympics, from sponsorship to setting up trips to Trenton Thunder games.
That suits her well, as does being a Special Olympics volunteer. Lipski does the program every weekend, in Ewing or nearby most of the time, and she now works on a couple levels of sports teams. There’s the developmental league, where penguin analogies and visual aids figure (literally) into play; and there’s the more adult, rec-level teams who often play competitively.
‘The scoreboard doesn’t tell you the whole story. I couldn’t even tell you the score.’
The competitiveness is another avenue Lipski has had to rethink a bit. Being a lifelong athlete, she has a natural sports competitiveness that translates well into coaching. But there are two things to keep in mind. One, she’s the coach and not on the field, and two, mental challenges or not, nobody likes to lose.
The first part of that has to do with something people often suspect about kid-sports coaches—that the coaches are failed athletes living vicariously through the kids. Lipski will have none of that.
“You need to always keep in mind that you can’t live out your failures through the kids,” she said. “Then it becomes an obligation.”
That said, yes, she’s really happy with that bronze medal.
As for that second part, well, Lipski’s athletes even on the weekends can carry just as much competitive fire as any other athlete. Her older athletes are more prone to this, the ones who play in competitive games, with a scoreboard. Not all of them take kindly to being on the short end of the score.
“I have one athlete who just melts every time he sees the scoreboard,” she said. She has others who lose and will blame themselves for having lost the ball or for letting the other team score.
But herein lies the beauty of the teaching moment, Lipski said. The games are not about the score. First off, the idea that one bad play costs the whole game is a myth. No game of any kind, in history, has ever been a flawless match between two rivals that went asunder because one team slipped up a little.
No. Lipski is much more concerned with, and will teach her athletes all about, a different set of goals, namely growth. The better question, in other words, is not whether we won this particular game, it’s whether someone has been able to reach goals they’ve set for themselves—have they better mastered skills? Are they progressing? Are they having fun?
That all might sound like something from kids’ sports movies that go out of their way to emphasize the first three letters of “fundamentals,” but it’s no less true. Competitive games or not, Special Olympics, Lipski said, is about personal growth and friendship.
So what about the parents? As popular as the stereotype about the coach living out his failures through the kids, there’s the one about sideline parents being absolutely awful.
Well, apparently, the awful parents must stick to other leagues and activities, because the parents of Lipski’s athletes. “I love the parents,” she said. “They’re so appreciative that you’re taking the time with [their kids].”
Patience has a whole lot to do with this. That’s the other great intangible Lipski said she has gotten from being a Special Olympics volunteer. Just like having to distill the sports she’s always played into manageable pieces for her athletes, she’s had to learn to be patient about getting the message through. She’s reminded constantly that her athletes might process learning differently, but they’re still people, meaning they get frustrated and moody when things aren’t going their way.
The remedy, she said, is patience. It’s allowing for the blips and the frustrations and the misfires and setting up something much more encompassing, which can actually be boiled down to just being kind, and to being there for people.
To be sure, it’s hard for Lipski to talk about her athletes (and their parents) without having trouble putting into words what being a Special Olympics volunteer really means to her. So perhaps an anecdote will help convey why she loves what she does.
She’d been coaching kids’ basketball for about two years with Special Olympics. The kids were mostly doing well. Then there was 9-year-old Robbie, who just couldn’t make a bucket no matter how hard he tried. The day he did, Lipski said, the game came to a complete halt.
“You would have thought we won the championship,” she said. “Robbie ran over and hugged his parents. There wasn’t a single dry eye in the gym.”
Did Robbie’s team win? If that’s you’re question, you missed the point.
“The scoreboard doesn’t tell you the whole story,” Lipski said. “I couldn’t even tell you the score.”