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Champion athletes turn communication skills into leadership roles

Team celebrating on the fieldWhile School of Communication graduates are poised to take on any number of different challenges, some alumni are using their communication skills to motivate other young people across the country to victory.

Northwestern’s highly successful women’s lacrosse team is the perfect example. An article in the Chicago Tribune recently called out Northwestern women’s lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller as the root of a “coaching tree” across the nation. Led by Hiller, the Wildcats have won seven women’s lacrosse NCAA titles in the last eight years–and now former players figure prominently among more than a dozen head and assistant coaches at Division I schools.

Among them are several School of Communication alumni, like Angela McMahon (C04), head women’s lacrosse coach at the University of Massachusetts, who says communication alumni are poised to change the face of women’s sports.

“My experience studying communication studies at Northwestern certainly plays a role in my career as a coach,” said McMahon, a former player on Northwestern’s women’s lacrosse team. “In any given year [on my team] there are 30 different personalities …[and I] have the task of finding a way for them to work together… The wide range of classes and theories I studied in the communication studies program definitely helped prepared me on how to deal with such issues.”

Katrina Dowd

Ann Elliott

Caitlin Jackson

Angela McMahon

Other School of Communication/Wildcat lacrosse alumnae have fanned out across the country: Lindsey Munday (C06) heads the women’s lacrosse team at the University of Southern California; Ann Elliott (C07) is head coach at the University of Colorado. Christy Finch (C08) is an assistant coach at Ohio State University. Caitlin Jackson (C09) is the assistant coach at Iona College in New York. Katrina Dowd (C10) is an assistant coach at University of North Carolina. Brooke Matthews (C11) is an assistant coach at Penn State.

Brooke Matthews

Christy Finch

Lindsey Munday

McMahon said that before she pursued coaching, she spent a year and a half in the corporate world. Even though the company was a leading manufacturer of sporting goods and apparel, the fit wasn’t right.

“Each day behind the desk made me want to get back on the field and pursue my passion, so that’s what I did,– she said.

McMahon said she feels lucky to count former coach Hiller as a mentor.

“Her ability to motivate and challenge her players every day to be the best versions of themselves, and the success and self–confidence that comes along with that is inspiring,” McMahon said.

Hiller, who came to Northwestern in 2000, was given the daunting task of rebuilding the varsity women’s lacrosse team from the ground up in order to meet the standards of Title IX – the landmark 1972 legislation that required colleges to give equal consideration to women’s athletics. She did that and more, and in 2005 led her team to an amazing record of 21–0, earning them a NCAA woman’s championship, becoming the first team outside the Northeastern corridor to do so. Hiller went on to build a championship dynasty, and helped fuel popularity of the sport across the country.

Elliott, one of Hiller’s former players and former assistant coaches, hopes to follow in her mentor’s footsteps. She left Northwestern last year to build a women’s lacrosse program at the University of Colorado. Elliott who contributed to six NCAA championships (three as a player and three on the coaching staff) leapt at the challenge to start a new program.

“It is so exciting to have your hands in creating every aspect of a program and really build it the way you dreamed,” she said. “The most important part… is building a strong foundation and recruiting the right student–athletes who believe in your vision and are excited about the opportunity to be part of history.” And with Elliott‘s radio/television/film degree, she finds she uses many of those skills daily during recruiting sessions.

“My major has definitely been an asset for me in coaching,” Elliott said. “We do so much video work when scouting our opponents or self–scouting that it really has helped. Not to mention, in the School of Communication, I was constantly working in groups and on projects together, and that experience has been extremely beneficial in coaching.”

Dowd said she also found that her communication degree helps her in her day–to–day duties as an assistant coach for the women’s lacrosse team at the University of North Carolina.

“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes as a coach like recruiting players from high school, which involves convincing them to join your program,” Dowd said. “You have to be very tactful with the arguments you present and the way you present your school, and all that requires being a skilled communicator, which I learned with my major. It has been a great thing to have that as my background.”

Story by Cara Lockwood