Lindsay Burnell felt like she knew lacrosse, and that was enough.
She started playing when she was eight and was a pioneer of sorts in her sport in Forsyth County, a place she’s lived for 20 years. She was a part of the county’s first youth girls lacrosse program, and during her time playing at South Forsyth from 2008 to 2011, she was a four-year letter winner, earning all-county honors in all of her seasons.
But in spite of all that experience and success in her sport, when she was introduced to her players as the first-ever head coach of Denmark’s girls lacrosse team, all she could see as she scanned the room were the faces of skepticism. At the ripe age of 25, Burnell wasn’t that much older than the sophomores and juniors she was about to lead, and could probably pass off as one of them.
“It was kind of this (look) of ‘She's coaching? Is she five?’” Burnell said. “I kept my smile on, I shook their hands. They asked a lot about my experience as a player and I had to explain that to them. I think now I just have to remember in my mind, there's no reason to explain myself.”
Burnell is just one of a few Forsyth natives around the county in their mid-20s that are launching their head coaching careers in the county that also schooled them. Their youth can be an advantage, but they also face a number of challenges that older coaches don’t.
Burnell’s itch to coach came from an unusual place – a loss of desire. Four concussions and major back damage prevented her from playing on a collegiate program on a scholarship, but she played on a club team during her time at Georgia Southern, where a coach made her contemplate quitting the sport she’d played for years. After some advice from one of her old travel coaches, she got into youth coaching, where she rediscovered her love for lacrosse.
“I have this desire to make sure the girls don't hate the game like I did,” she said. “There was a period of my life when a coach just made lacrosse the worst thing that was ever invented, and I hated it for a good two years. There was never anyone building us up. There was never anyone telling us that it was OK to fail.”
And for an inexperienced, senior-less team like the Danes, that might be a necessary lesson. Denmark boys soccer coach Brett Godwin, 26, might be one of the best messengers for that. He helped start Lambert’s program as a player in 2009 and was a team captain with the Longhorns, helping to set the foundation for a program that’s now one of the best in the state. After a three-year stint as the head coach at Mill Creek, he hopes to do the same thing at Denmark.
“I feel like I'm able to relate to a lot of what these guys are going through because I went through it so recently,” he said. “I remember being emotional, struggling with losses and dealing with things that don't go your way. I remember situations where we struggled to find our identity. I see them go through that now and I'm able to use those and help them benefit.”
Youth has its downsides, though. Pinecrest Academy girls lacrosse coach Alex Abbey, who just turned 24, entered her first year with the Paladins with lots of on-field experience from her time at Lambert and Shorter University. But with responsibilities like scheduling games and holding film sessions, she’s had to grow in to her role.
“I definitely had to learn the more administrative side of coaching that most people don't really think about,” Abbey said. “I certainly didn't when I was a player.”
Forsyth County regional athletic director Nathan Turner has seen the trend of schools getting younger at head coaching positions beginning in the 1990s and early 2000s. From what he’s seen, retirements and a lack of coaching slots have contributed to the rise of younger candidates. Seeing an opportunity to advance in-county coaches, he and West Forsyth athletic director Brett Phipps began Impact Leadership, a program for aspiring head coaches.
It focuses on the administrative side of the job: Dealing with parents and booster clubs, GHSA rules and recruiting, among other topics. Ten coaches took part in the program at West last year, with five becoming head coaches. They’ve since expended it county-wide, and 17 take part in it now.
“There’s so much more out there than X’s and O’s,” Turner said. “There’s a whole other layer, and that’s what we’re (covering) with Impact Leadership.”
Burnell, despite all the injuries that have plagued her past, makes sure to take an active role in practices. She’s on the field with her players and doesn’t stand on the sidelines. If they need an extra defender, she’s there. After seeing her expectations on the field, the Danes began to gain even more respect for their young leader they had silently doubted so early on.
“I think for the girls, that was their turning point,” Burnell said. “They know that I hold them to a high standard, and they know that anything that I tell them to do, I expect them to (do it) because I know I can do it. And if I can do it, they can do it.”