Having been involved in athletics for most of her life, Abi Jackson well understands the potentially powerful impact of being a coach. Beyond just helping players with skill development and game understanding, a coach can leave a lasting imprint on a young person’s life, extending far beyond the field of play. 

It’s both a privilege, and a responsibility. 

Now in her 17th year as a women’s lacrosse head coach, including her 11th season at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., Jackson relishes the calling. It’s a responsibility she gladly accepts. 

“It’s more than ‘what can I teach you?’,” said Jackson, who ranks second in Union’s history with 76 coaching victories. “It’s about how can I help to shape you to become the best person possible. The goal is to help produce good citizens who will push society forward.”

That holistic approach to coaching was forged by Jackson’s own experiences. As a three-sport athlete throughout high school and college, she recalls the life-changing influence of many of her own coaches, including legendary Chris Mason at Williams College, a member of the Western Massachusetts Lacrosse Hall of Fame. 

“I had really great coaches that provided me with an amazing experience, on and off the field,” Jackson said. “I always knew I was cared for, and that’s what I want for my players. I want to re-create for my players the experience that my coaches provided to me.”

The fact that Jackson is Black and most of her players are white does not change the equation. If anything, that dynamic may have provided better opportunities with her student-athletes over the past year.

“As a team, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking outside of the box, and we’ve been focused on many of the social justice issues currently being discussed in our country,” Jackson said. “Our kids are hungry to use the extra time that we’ve had in a productive way.”

Led by the players, team Zoom discussions have ranged from environmental racism to inequality in public schools. 

“These sessions gave us a chance to talk about things that are going on in the world, and also to learn more about each other,” said senior midfielder Courtney Cronin. “We get to know each other on a deeper level, more than just what’s on the surface.”

Jackson notes that the key to being an impactful coach is in building relationships. It’s done very intentionally, and it’s not limited to just games and practices. Office drop-ins and chats over coffee are all purposeful.

“She doesn’t shy away from asking questions about things that are happening outside of lacrosse,” said senior Lindsay Gerrato. “Her knowledge and intelligence about so many broader issues can’t be overstated. That’s why we feel comfortable having these discussions with her.”

Jackson understands that breaking down barriers helps to build a more cohesive team. Creating a family atmosphere, similar to what she enjoyed during her own playing career, is a primary goal.

"She wants us to enjoy being with each other as teammates as much as we enjoy just playing lacrosse," Gerrato said. 

Jackson knows that the time spent with her players off-the-field is an invaluable investment.

“It’s important for me to help my players get to know who I am,” Jackson said. “Once we do that, they begin to see that the cultural differences between my upbringing and theirs is not really that different.”

Growing up in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, Jackson attended all-girls Winsor School. She played lacrosse for the first time in 7th grade and moved onto the varsity the following year because the team needed a goalie. Having also been a soccer goalie, she had some transferable skills. 

“I stuck with it and never went back to midfield,” Jackson said. “Playing goalie agreed with me.”

After finishing at Winsor, Jackson continued her three-sport (lacrosse, soccer, basketball) athletic career at Williams, graduating in 2003. Despite always being one of the few players of color on her teams, Jackson says that racial differences were rarely part of her mindset.

“Truthfully, being a Black player never crossed my mind during games,” she said. “The way I got respect was to be one of the best athletes. I never saw my role as being the spokesperson for Black people.”

After graduation, Jackson spent one year as an assistant at her alma mater, coaching both the women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse teams. From there, she moved on to Trinity College as a graduate assistant for two years before becoming a collegiate head coach for the first time in 2006 at Plymouth State. She was 25 years old. 

Through the years, her coaching philosophy has evolved, often times shaped by the talent and personality of her team. Her approach to practice, her approach to games, and her motivational strategies are all adjustable. Making those refinements has become easier with experience.

Similarly, Jackson has also become more comfortable in using her voice to support issues that are important to her, including race. 

She currently serves as a member of the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association (IWLCA) Racial Equity Task Force, and she was one of the organizers for the IWLCA’s Students of Color Coaching Symposium last month.  The goal was to expose participants to the coaching profession in hopes of further diversifying the collegiate coaching ranks.

“I have never wanted to simply be the Black representative on committees,” Jackson said. “More importantly, I want to be a part of efforts that I care about, where I can have a more direct affect in furthering a cause.”

Through that lens, she sees Black History Month as a valuable opportunity for all people to gain broader understanding on topics they may not know about.

“It’s important to keep learning about the things and people that have come before us and to appreciate that history,” Jackson said. “It just gives us a wider breath of perspective.”
 

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