Senior Shea Walsh is one of the key returning players for the Robbinsville High School field hockey team. (File photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

As the Robbinsville High School field hockey teams prepares for preseason training camp after coming within one game of a sectional championship last fall, the players are certain of one thing: they will be getting a lot to think about from coach Jenna Marie Colicchia that has little to do with stickwork and penalty corners.

After never playing field hockey in high school or college, Colicchia’s teams have complied a 54-13-4 record in her four seasons at the helm. Last year’s squad went 15-5 and lost to Seneca in the Central Jersey Group II final and, despite some big personnel losses, should have a strong enough nucleus to remain a top Colonial Valley Conference team.

Key senior returnees are forward Shea Walsh (31 goals, 11 assists), midfielder Amanda Allen (10 G, 13 A), defender Hannah James and goalie Olivia Moser.

It’s a group that has come to appreciate the thought-provoking ways of their head coach, a voracious reader who brings inspiration from her books and watches as her players buy into it.

“Basically, I’ll pick a quote or a theme of the week and just make everything kind of revolve around it,” Colicchia said. “We’ll start practice talking about it a little bit.”

It’s all part of keeping athletics from overwhelming the athlete.

“Sometimes we spend too much time focusing on the tactical stuff and game play and fixing errors,” Colicchia said. “A lot of times we forget to realize some of the most important things are when kids build relationships, and that’s when it transfers on the field. I just like to give them little things that they can feed off of. At some points of the season it’s hard to push yourself through. Right before postseason, kids start to drift off a little bit.”

In the middle of discussing her tactics, Colicchia will suddenly stop herself and say, “Wow, I sound like such a nerd!” And while many of the underclassmen feel that way when they first hear her quotes, they soon understand their importance.

James admitted she didn’t give them much thought when she first arrived. But after the top-seeded Ravens were beaten in the first round of the Mercer County Tournament last year, Colicchia referred to the New York marathon and how people usually gave up at the 20th mile. She told her team this was their 20th mile, and asked what they would do in the home stretch. Robbinsville responded with a tremendous state tournament run.

“She sat us down in the locker room and she said something about the last mile,” James said. “We all just sat there and really thought about that and took that with us for the rest of the season. It was different last year after she said that. Every practice we came out as a team, we really worked hard and it made us all realize she went home every night and she brought these quotes in, and they weren’t just words on a paper. Every practice we would think about what she said and use it to push ourselves past our limits and reach our full potential.”

Walsh, a softball and field hockey superstar who has played sports all her life, has never encountered a cerebral mentor like Colicchia.

“She’s a very unique coach,” Walsh said. “She’s very into the motivation and just the mental strength of the game. I think her focus on that really drives the team and it lets us see sports are not just dependent on talent, but very dependent on a person’s ability to balance their mental strength and build that up throughout the season. She really helps teach us that and I think it really contributes to our success.”

Walsh added that rather than a complete quotation, sometimes it’s just a single word that Colicchia uses. They include teamwork, passion, perseverance, love and heart, among others.

“These are some of the words she’s always mentioned during practice, or during games,” Walsh said. “Even in school, when we see each other, she’s always mentioning these words and picking us up.”

Colicchia realizes that some players might playfully mock her for such motivational tactics, but they usually come to understand their significance in the end. Walsh is living proof.

“As freshmen, she left all these little messages and, to be honest, we kind of took it like a joke,” Walsh said. “We’re like ‘Oh look at this, she sent another message.’ She’ll send group messages out like the quote of the day or a message before the game. As a freshman I overlooked it, didn’t give it much value. I think most of my other peers could agree with that. But over the years as I started getting used to her way of coaching, you start to value that more, and now I use these to help strengthen my game.”

Which is exactly what Colicchia wants to see. She is quick to point out that she wants no credit for the result of these quote, and that she is just the messenger.

“This is in no way about me, it’s really what they make out of it,” the coach said. “They could ignore me and it could go in one ear or out the other, or they could take something from it. It’s really what they take from it that makes the impact; not that I’m a big nerd. I can give them the information, but if they use it, if they try to build relationships on their own, that’s what matters. Most of it will happen when I’m not looking. It won’t happen when I’m there. I just have the ideas, but the really powerful stuff is what kids say to each other.”

Quotes and words are only part of the arsenal. At the end of each season, Colicchia has all the underclassmen write letters—on stationary, not emails—to the seniors and the coaches. It’s a way to allow the girls to express themselves to their mentors and be able to reveal some things they might not otherwise have said during the course of a season together.

“It’s really nice, it brings you that connection,” James said. “At the end of the season, when we write these letters, I personally try to recall all the memories I had with them, how to thank them. I ask them ‘Oh come back, visit us, we really appreciated you.’ I’m really excited to get mine. I’m trying to form bonds with the younger kids because I know what it’s like when you’re brand new.”

Walsh noted that since it will be her turn to receive letters, she wants to make sure they are good ones.

“Now that I’m going to be a senior and these are going to be written to me this year, it kind of makes me more conscious of the model and the teammate I want to become,” she said. “It kind of makes me realize how I want the underclassmen to view me and how I want to leave a mark on them.”

In essence, it is another device that helps provide cohesiveness on the field. Colicchia already has her quote ready for the first day of training camp on Aug. 13: “Often the most dangerous thing we face is the people we’re climbing with.”

“I want that to be the start of it,” the coach said. “It’s pretty much saying the people you’re climbing with; the people you’re with all the time, are invested like you are and you get to know them. Those are the people you want climbing with you. If you have weak links or people who don’t understand the players you’re with, that’s when it’s gonna be a tough ride.”

When that quote is delivered, there will be no more snickering by the players, at least not the ones who are used to it. Colicchia says she doesn’t mind being the butt of jokes, as long as her messages get through.

Walsh assured that they do.

“Each person values those quotes in a different way,” she said. “It’s the way that you take it and apply it to your game. I think that’s what really creates a good player. Whether it’s positive or negative, she always has something to say and I think those constant refreshers always open our eyes to the bigger picture and allows us to see what’s most important.”

James added that, “Some of the quotes, you can connect your life to. We practice six days a week and everything is going on in our own lives and sometimes she brings it to a different level. So, when you’re at practice, it’s almost like she gives us a getaway from our daily lives or daily problems, whatever we’re dealing with. Sometimes it’s nice to go there and focus on something else. Those quotes really help that.”

Sounds like the self-proclaimed nerd, is actually a masterful motivator.