Rachel Simmons teaches Smith athletes to fail well


Madeline Hubbard ‘19 | Sports Editor

This fall, Rachel Simmons worked with coaches in the athletic department retreat at the beginning of the semester. Kristin Hughes said, “I thought some of her messages, especially as they related to failing, could be really powerful for our student-athletes as well.” Hughes added: “Handling failure is as much a part of the athletic experience as is winning. So, building skills and a mentality that allow you to grow from it and not be stopped by it is really significant. And Rachel is a former athlete and has a great delivery and connection with students.” Simmons was eager to take on a project at Smith and had been looking to collaborate with different departments. She thought that a team dynamic would be a perfect way to work regularly with Smith students and pitched her idea for the “Failing Well” series to the athletic director and the coaches.

Field Hockey Head Coach Jaime Ginsberg jumped at the opportunity to have Simmons work with her team. Citing the need for the series, she said: “Athletes not only need to be physically gifted but also mentally flexible. An intrinsic part of being a coach is to develop athletes holistically: physically, psychologically and socially.” When Simmons met with Ginsberg, they discussed “the outcome/topics [she] hoped to have [Simmons] delve into with the team. After [the] discussions, topics like risk (high and low), imposter syndrome and navigating internal dialogues rose to the top.” In an interview with Simmons, she outlined her vision for the series. She wanted to apply her teachings, “primarily leadership skills,” to an “athletic context.” She hoped to teach resilience, confidence and the ability to take risks.

This is Simmons’ first time teaching in the athletic department after a decade of working at Smith. Her hope for the team was that they bought into the series and put in the work necessary to get the most out of it. Simmons said, “Athletes are really a unique group because they come together to do this job every day and have a really strong investment in their success.” She then went on to say that they have a built-in motivation to invest and buy into the series. Simmons also believes that sports are like a professional work environment and that, much like the office, the field contains a group of hard-working individuals motivated towards the same goals.

The field hockey team focused on taking small risks to work up to larger ones, beating imposter syndrome, controlling internal critical thoughts, overthinking, asking learner questions and setting achievable goals. At the end of the sessions, junior captain Sammie Pavlov ’20 commented: “I think Rachel created a space for our team that SCFH hadn’t seen much before — one where we could be vulnerable with one other and talk about the strengths and insecurities that we have on the field. This helped us better understand ourselves and take more individual risks, while also learning how to help our teammates take their [own risks].” In feedback about the series from the team, many players cited the season’s success in communication and connection as well as a positive team environment that allowed them to open up to each other.

Commenting on the series, Ginsberg said: “To have an expert navigate these topics with the team was exceptional and will resonate with each of them on and off the field. I am grateful for the commitment and genuine investment Rachel gave to the Field Hockey team.” Ginsberg also added: “It was great to work with Rachel this fall. The value that she added to [the] team was impactful. The work being done by the team and Rachel mostly works within the umbrella of group dynamics and interpersonal development.” Hughes commented that “having [Simmons] work with our teams is directly contributing to their success.” In the interview with Simmons, she hoped that the team took away an understanding that, like the physical game of field hockey, the “mental game” requires dedicated practice, support, commitment and mentoring. She hopes that these sessions will help the team continue to set goals, take risks and control their inner critic.

When asked about how she resets during and after a bad day, Simmons named many of the same techniques from the series, including self-compassion, meditation, breathing, reaching out to friends for support and, of course, winding down with some Netflix. On failing well, she suggests gaining confidence by setting small risks and failing small before working up to big risks with higher stakes. By finding success with small risks, the boost in self-esteem will help carry you through bigger risks and, in turn, promote personal growth.

Simmons is working with the Smith Lacrosse team this spring and hopes to continue the program next year. In the meantime, her advice to graduating seniors is that the transition from undergraduate school to the next steps in life is complicated, and there is no clear path to take. Your first job may not be the perfect fit for you, much like dating, and Simmons encourages students to keep looking and not to get discouraged. She especially stresses that everyone’s path will be different and that there are endless choices and unexpected opportunities out there.

SportsSophian Smith