The Kent State Women’s Golf team was just outside of Charlotte, NC, on their way back from a tournament, when Head Coach Lisa Strom got the call from the university’s Sports Administrator telling the coach to come home as soon as possible. The NCAA had made the decision to cancel winter and spring sports championships, along with the rest of the 2020 collegiate sports season, due to health and safety concerns stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak, which at the time of this writing has led to over 370,000 cases and 16,000 deaths worldwide. While college sports are a small blip on the global radar, it is the impacts that hit close to home that hurt the most.
“I was looking at two kids who were supposed to be going to Augusta National, and the face of a kid that’s in the middle of her first year of college golf, and another kid who had made this whole new dedication to her game over the winter break, and another who has seen so much improvement and who was making a huge impact on the run we were having,” Lisa Strom described, heartbroken to be the one to break the news to her team. “But the champions that they are, they took the news in stride.”
Lisa would be the first to admit that her team’s calm was most likely due to shock, but in spite of the range of emotions that inevitably fired over the days as they packed up dorm rooms to return back home, she is most proud of the fact that they handled it all with grace.
“None of them lashed out on social media. None of them begged for another year of eligibility . . . I know they were thinking it, but I know at the end of the day, they all say this sport can’t dictate your ups and downs and neither can the outside world.”
- Lisa Strom (right) with the Kent State Women’s Golf Team
Their behavior can be directly linked to Lisa’s caring approach to coaching. This is the third coaching job for Lisa, a former LPGA Tour player and collegiate athlete herself. She previously worked for Ohio State as Assistant Golf Coach, and then Head Golf Coach at Texas State a few months after suddenly losing her father. Her time at Kent State began less than a year ago, but her dedication to her student-athletes earned her Coach of the Year, an annual award from the LPGA Professionals that recognizes excellence in golf coaching.
“I look to serve. I look to love. I look to care about other people, and I think that easily gets overshadowed when you’re winning a ton of tournaments,” Lisa said. “I think that our job as college golf coaches goes far beyond teaching the game. Of course, we’re competitive and want to succeed and win tournaments, but at the end of the day we also want to have young women who are ready to go out into the world and conquer whatever is next for them.”
And that is what makes Lisa’s job as a college coach just as difficult now, if not more so, than when her team was actively competing. She feels the sting of a season cut short just as much as her student-athletes, having poured time and emotional energy into the handful of tournaments they were able to play. The experience has made her realize, once again, that nothing is guaranteed; that anything can be taken away in an instant.
“It’s a hard lesson to learn if you haven’t already,” Lisa said. “This is the first major obstacle many of these kids have had to face. And the fear of the unknown is huge. I think that this is where coaching can really help kids.”
Lisa’s days look a lot different now than they did just two weeks ago. She, like her students, has left campus to try to make her typical day-to-day routine now work at home. She focuses on her other work to keep busy. She sits on the Women’s Golf Coach Association board and awards’ committee, where she helps decide if there has been enough data collected from tournaments this year to give awards to players and coaches.
The kids have left campus. All the athletic facilities have shut down. There is no more hands-on instruction going on. But the coaching does not stop just because Lisa cannot be on the greens with her students. She checks in with them as often as she can.
- Lisa Strom coaching a student-athlete
“For a lot of people, the coaching just began,” Lisa explained.
She encourages them with the idea to focus on what they can do rather than on what they can’t do, whether it is mental training, or putting on the carpet, or looking up lesson videos online, or any other way to pivot their practice routines to still remain ahead of the curve—or at least feel like they are not falling too far behind it.
“We don’t lack resources,” she said. “But sometimes we lack resourcefulness. There are still a lot of things an athlete can do. Right now, just take care of what you can control.”
She draws a lot of her perspective from her experiences with losing her father four years ago. She knows each day presents a different wave of emotions for her, her student-athletes, and everyone who has had events postponed and lifestyles upended by the pandemic. Anxiety can take hold easily but Lisa believes the key to getting through a tough time is to find ways to be grateful about what we still have.
“Your mind can’t worry and be grateful at the same time,” she explained. “If you think to yourself that the shot on the last hole was just luck and that there’s no way you can do it again, then that negative self-talk that you feed your brain fuels more of the same stuff. My guess is most golfers would say the game is more mental than physical. When you’re a college player, what sets you apart from another player is going to end up being a lot of mental toughness, yet how much do people practice it? How much do people coach it? How much do instructors teach it?”
Lisa, like so many who have dedicated their lives to golf, believes that the game is a great way to prepare for life. Golf is, by its very nature, unpredictable. Bad shots happen. Injuries disrupt careers. Even the greatest players lose opportunities they worked hard for. As a coach, Lisa helps her student-athletes use golf to help them through life’s challenges rather than letting the sport, or anything else, define their worth.
“A lot of people ask me how I can stay so positive. Well, what’s the choice?” Lisa asked. “The only guarantee in life is that you’re going to have stuff thrown at you that you’re not ready for. This season is a harsh reminder that something can be taken from you without much notice, but it makes you really appreciate the things that you do have. In twenty years, my student-athletes aren’t going to remember that their championship season got canceled. Instead, they will remember how we persevered and how we came back from it.”