WILDCAT WEDNESDAY – I’ve spent a few days this week in Austin, Texas, with my good friend and college roommate Shannon Small, who overcame a year of riding the pine to become an All-American. While at Northwestern, I tagged along with the field hockey team on an optional off-season running workout, and it was the hardest run of my life. The field hockey players were by far the hardest-working individuals and team of all teams, which would help explain why they were one of the top teams in the nation every year.
While visiting with Shannon and her husband, Tony, we chatted about Shannon’s career as a top-performing field hockey goalie, and star student-athlete who was a finalist for the 1994 NCAA Woman of the Year. We also talked about her experience as a student at the Yale School of Management and as a performance coach, as well as how hard it was to battle cancer at 29 years old.
A native of Fallbrook, CA, Shannon said that her parents played a significant role in her development as an athlete and student. Shannon’s father was a NCAA golf champion, short-time PGA Tour player, Vietnam War veteran, and lifetime entrepreneur. Shannon’s mother was a homemaker who was—and still is—very committed to the community.
MO: How many sports did you and your sister play growing up?
SS: We played soccer, softball, basketball, field hockey. We ran track and we skied. Playing all of these sports prevented burnout for me. I didn’t play field hockey until freshman year in high school. I chose to try out because our babysitters played, and the team seemed fun. They wore costumes, and always had a high degree of spirit. Plus they had a great coach. Skill-wise, there also seemed to be a lot of overlap with soccer.
MO: What role did your parents play?
Both of my parents are very active and competitive. They led by example. My mom played soccer well into her 60s. They initially encouraged us to play soccer because they wanted us to meet people and have friends before the first day of school. There were only three girls on my first team.
Both parents also cheered loudly at nearly every game. My dad cares deeply and has had more red cards than I have had for sure – every ref in the country knew him in college, which wasn’t always the best for me. My maternal granny used to fly across the country in her 70s to watch our games and ride the team bus.
My parents only wanted me to play if I was having fun. Their mindset was, “We don’t care what you do, but when you commit to it, you do your best.” I was already internally driven, so by default, it set a really high bar. Doing your best all the time is a lot of work. They always reminded me that playing field hockey meant I wasn’t going to be a pro athlete and needed to create options for myself. My sister now tells her daughters the same thing. It’s all about options.
MO: When did you transition to full-time goalie?
SS: Field hockey was so popular at our school that they had far too many players trying out for the team each year. Goalies would find out in advance if they made the team, three days ahead of the rest of the team. I thought, “Oh, I could try out for goalie and then change my mind.” I made the team and was picked as goalie. I played half the game on right wing, scoring goals, and half the game in goal. The one year I spent playing offense and defense was the best because of how much I learned about each position. Then I never came out of the goal cage again.
MO: When did you start to garner more attention and awards?
SS: I was All-Conference in high school, and then I was asked to play with a team that traveled to Australia and New Zealand, where I met friend and former NU teammate, Kristen Logan.
MO: Did NU offer you a full scholarship?
SS: Yes, and I felt very fortunate as it was not my goal. Kristen introduced me to NU and sold me on the high academic and athletic combination after she had signed. I had never seen a winter before. We don’t have them in San Diego County.
MO: What was your first impression of the FH experience at NU?
SS: The coach who recruited me to NU left and went to UCONN (and has won many national championships since). I was traumatized and felt abandoned. For the first practice, we had no sticks. We just ran. Multiple people were puking and several tweaked or tore their hamstring. I called home and said I don’t know if I made the right choice.
MO: How did you adjust?
SS: I think I just re-grouped and I said, “This is what I’ve worked for. This is the next level in every way.” Our team had gone to the Final Four the year before, and everyone had returned except the goalie. Our first game of the year was against Old Dominion, a team that had won the national championship nine times. It was my first college game. My first game on Astro Turf. We ended in a 0-0 tie. I had what felt like a million saves, every one of them was out of fear—fear of letting my amazing teammates down. We were predicted in the pre-season to go to the national championship game. We won the Big 10 Championship, but lost in the NCAA playoffs. The goalie always partially blames herself. Good teammates don’t blame you, but I do think people are hard on you as a freshman where the thinking was, if she had one more year, she would have stopped it. As the only freshman, I felt like I’d let people down despite having something like a 96 percent save rate. I learned all of my college stats from a date from match.com many years ago. He researched me and found all of this info on me, which I didn’t know for sure, and he told me on our date.
MO: How would you describe dorm life your first year at NU?
SS: I grew up in a rural farm town listening to crickets. My family grows avocados. Being at Elder Hall was the loudest thing I’d ever experienced. I could not sleep for the first six months. I heard everything.
MO: Do you remember when we met?
SS: Of course! The day I met you, I remember unpacking my bag, and you came in all sweaty and you said, something like “Are you the All-American I’ve been hearing about?” I had no idea what you were talking about.
MO: Yes, I did because your roommate, Moira [my teammate] wasn’t there, and I had to make small talk, literally. My coaches had told me that you were a really talented freshman who would easily be an All-American, and I thought that was impressive. What did you say in response?
SS: I think I was paralyzed. I thought, well, that sounds good, but not that I know of.
MO: How we were different from others on the floor?
SS: We were scary to people. We were The Soul Sisters of Seriousness. We were intimidating because we were very focused and we still are. We were the sleep police for each other. We covered for each other so we made sure the other person could get enough sleep during their season and perform at the highest level. You and I both were there to do well athletically and academically.
MO: How did you do academically?
SS: I did well for a girl from a big public high school, I graduated cum laude. My major was education and social policy, organizational studies. I was basically making a business major for myself by piecing together AP credits and things I was interested in.
MO: So it looks like after knowing you for 20-plus years, I just put together that you were an Academic and an Athletic All-American, graduated cum laude with a 3.6 GPA and you were a member of the Chi Omega sorority. And you were one of 10 women who were finalists for the NCAA Woman of the Year award based on academic and athletic performance, leadership and community service.
MO: It sounds like it was an easy path, when the truth is I know there was a major threat to all of your accomplishments not happening, and that threat hit your junior year, after you’d established yourself as a leader.
SS: Yes, that was a tough period athletically.
MO: What happened?
SS: After winning the Big 10 Championship, my sophomore year was a re-building year because we graduated eight players, so half our starting team had graduated. We brought in a huge class of freshman. It was also the first recruiting class for the new coach who wanted to prove herself and develop the class she recruited, which did not include me. Despite my strong performance, my starting position was taken away. I had never been on the bench for more than part of a game in eight years, and now I’m on the bench permanently. I felt helpless. Watching my team lose while I was on the bench was a really hard thing to do when you are a competitive athlete. If you are out there, you believe you can help. All I could do is cheer and help develop the younger goalkeepers. My role changed from having practice to get prepared for a game, to pushing someone else to be ready to excel during the game. If I wasn’t going to play, I wanted to help my teammates get better.
MO: That is really a remarkable attitude that most people in that situation would not have adopted. How did it unfold?
SS: I started 2-3 games my junior year, then I was benched. Then I started for the final game against Penn State. We lost 1-0, but I broke the Big Ten record for saves in a game (33) coming off of the bench. Parents from the opposing team asked why they hadn’t been playing me. I was speechless.
MO: You went on to become an All-American your senior year. Then what’s really notable to me is that your teammate, Donna, the goalie you helped develop during your bench time your junior year, also went on to be an All-American.
SS: Yes. They went to the Final Four one year after I left and one year before I joined. How annoying is that? I’m really happy for them, but still…
MO: So you reached All-American status without having gone to the Final Four.
MO: That’s much harder to do.
SS: Yes, it is.
MO: What did you learn from that experience?
SS: I’m grateful for my year riding the pine because it helped me deepen my understanding of what it means to be a teammate and build resilience. I use that resilience as an executive coach. Resilience is one of the most important attributes a leader can develop. Getting benched, injured, coming back stronger is how leaders succeed in companies now. Everyone has bad things happen at work, it’s how you rebound. It also helped when I had cancer.
MO: At 29, you were diagnosed with breast cancer. You were bald for your 30th birthday. How did it humble you?
SS: Cancer helped remind me that no matter how hard you work, you are not in control. You can’t control what happens to you, but you work to control how you respond to it. I say that line every day at work.
During challenging times, you’re building capacity. I focus on building the capacity to hold what happens, and building capability to respond to what happens in a constructive way. I work on this myself and help clients do the same.
MO: How did you become an executive coach?
SS: After NU, I worked in pension plan investing and operations management. Then, I went to business school at Yale and focused on strategy and leadership. I worked in strategy and human capital consulting for several years before breaking off to do leadership coaching. My clients can range from millennials who are taking on larger roles in fast-growing start-ups, to high-level execs in larger companies. I’ve now coached more than 1,000 individuals. Starting working for myself was a new experience and I was very broke. Thankfully I have grown my revenue exponentially in the past 13 years.
MO: What are you most grateful for?
Oh, so many things. I’m very grateful for my health because you don’t control it. I am also grateful for having a strong support network – it’s family, friends, extended family. I have lived in eight cities in my life having most of my family in California. I’m proud to say I learned to build and love a strong group of friends and family. I like to use the term “framily.”
Shannon can be reached at smallvictories.org and nextsteppartners.com.