March is Girls Sports Month. USA TODAY High School Sports has partnered with the Women’s Sports Foundation for a series of pieces in which female athletes share their views on topics such as leadership, mentoring, perseverance and the important role athletics has played in their lives. The Women’s Sports Foundation is dedicated to providing safe and equitable sports opportunities so that all girls receive the significant health, education and leadership benefits sports provide both on and off the field. The WSF shapes public attitude about women’s sports, gets girls active by supporting community organizations with funding and resources, ensures equal opportunities for girls and women, and supports physically and emotionally healthy lifestyles. You can find the WSF on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Visit WomensSportsFoundation.org for inspiring athlete content and resources for parents, coaches and student-athletes. For previous Girls Sports Month coverage, click here.
Kristen Kjellman is one of the greatest women’s lacrosse players of all time. That much is undebatable.
In a four-year career at NCAA juggernaut Northwestern, Kjellman led the Wildcats to a 77-5 record, three consecutive national titles and became the first player, male or female, to win the Teewarton Trophy (the lacrosse Heisman) in back-to-back seasons, not to mention three consecutive National Midfielder of the Year awards. She finished her Wildcat career with 250 goals and 349 points.
In fact, Kjellman was so dominant on the college scene that she is often credited with being the spark that ignited a women’s lacrosse dynasty in Chicago, which isn’t a traditional lacrosse hotbed. After completing her collegiate career, Kjellman — a former Women’s Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year finalist — went on to star for the U.S. women’s national team, where she was an All-World selection following the 2009 World Championship title.
While her career statistics and trophies tell a powerful story about how much sports have meant to Kjellman’s life, it’s what sports have given her off the field that have continued to help her find success at Nike, for which she has worked since graduating from Northwestern.
Now known as Kristen Kjellman-Marshall, she serves as a sales account executive for Nike in New York City. She spoke with USA TODAY High School Sports about how sports are critical in helping girls develop confidence and define who they are.
USA TODAY HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS: Why are sports particularly important for girls today?
KRISTEN KJELLMAN: I think sports provide so much for girls. For myself, it helped me with my confidence, and helped me be a better teammate. A lot of what I learned from sports translated into the classroom and into life in general, being a good teammate to being a good brother or sister. There are so many things that girls can learn, mainly around being on a team, and that translates all the way up.
USATHSS: Teenagers are often self-conscious during their high school years. Did sports help give you self-belief?
KK: I had a great mentor, my coach at Northwestern, Kelly Amonte-Hiller, and she was really confident. I really set off her energy and confidence and leadership. I learned how contagious it was, so I tried to be a more confident player and I think that helped my teammates be more confident as well. I was very lucky to have a great mentor who made me a more confident player.
USATHSS: Was there any one figure — whether a coach, or parent or advisor — who really instilled in you a love of the game, or just a love of competition?
KK: I would say it would probably be my mother and my coach at Northwestern. My mom started and sold two businesses, so she was really committed to working hard and I learned that at a young age. When I got to college I learned more from Kelly (Amonte) about how to push myself beyond what I thought was possible. It helped take my game and my confidence to another level, and that helped me develop as a lacrosse player.
USATHSS: When did you know that you wanted sports to remain a prominent part of your life’s work? What inspired that commitment?
KK: I’ve just always been a very competitive person who loves all sports. I played lacrosse in college and I love being active. I love how it makes me feel. I knew I could give back so I love coaching girls in lacrosse and seeing them develop and playing and being active. I think it’s a combination of my competitive spirit and the feeling that I get being active.
USATHSS: How has social media impacted you and your image?
KK: I’ve learned that what people see and read is how you’ll be perceived. People don’t know the context around the photo, so it’s important to be yourself but also be smart and calculated about what you put out. I tell girls to be smart about social media and only post things that they will be proud of.
Social media can be a huge and powerful tool now for young girls to use. It can give insight into great women athletes that I didn’t have access to.
USATHSS: You’ve continued to be a strong positive influence in lacrosse even as you have moved farther away from the end of your collegiate career. What have you learned from that process?
KK: I tell girls sometimes to manage themselves like they’re a brand. You have to stay true to yourself but make smart decisions when it comes to social media and anything you will tell your friends. I try to manage myself and my brand because I want to be the person in control of my image. They have to make sure that they’re the ones in control as well.
USATHSS: Are there specific challenges in girls sports, whether from team dynamics or other issues?
KK: I think access is the biggest issue. The sport I played, lacrosse, can be pretty expensive. You have to buy all the equipment and if you want to play on a club team it’s expensive. I also think visibility can be an issue. Sometimes girls might not know what’s out there, so they might not know what they could play. You see all the men’s sports both collegiately and professionally, so I think young girls are sometimes unaware of all the things they could be involved in.
USATHSS: Girls lacrosse is a rapidly growing sport, but it still isn’t available everywhere. What advice do you have for girls who want to play but may not have direct access at their own school?
KK: It’s become a lot easier to learn the game, so you can get access to the game even over the Internet. If you can obtain a stick and a ball that’s all you need to get started. If you can find a camp or summer program or the YMCA that might be in your area, you can try to jump on a team somewhere or take private lessons to try and learn the game.
It continues to grow, so hopefully there will be new town leagues or other outlets that will pop up in more areas.
USATHSS: Are great leaders born or made? How are sports involved in that process?
KK: It’s a combination, I think. Some people have that natural leadership ability that is vocal, and some people develop it along the way. Some people develop an ability to lead by example, and that’s something I’ve always tried to do. I was never a super vocal leader, so I think my leadership characteristics were able to develop. I don’t know that I was born with that trait, so I think it’s a combination of the two.
USATHSS: What advice would you give to an aspiring lacrosse player who wants to play at the next level?
KK: I tell girls all the time to keep playing other sports and stay involved in other activities. I’m a big believer that growing up playing basketball and soccer and gymnastics, it helped me develop other skills and become a better athlete and lacrosse player. I think it’s really important to continue playing other sports. I think it helps with defensive skills and speed training and all that.
And you have to keep working on it and can’t ever settle. You can always continue getting better and push your skills to another level.
USATHSS: What else do you think is important for girls and their parents to think about sports today?
KK: This sort of ties back to what I touched on earlier, but when I talk to parents and girls I try to stress how important it is to not specialize in any one thing. If it is a girl who is really driven and wants to pick a lane or a sport, I think it helps to continue to play other sports. On the U.S. National Team, I think everyone on our team had played soccer and basketball throughout high school. That’s what I try to stress to parents and girls that I’m coaching. At my camp I try to stress pushing outside their comfort zone. If we’re catching and throwing with our right hand and haven’t dropped a ball in five passes, then we’re not doing something right, because we should be making mistakes and learning from them.
Also, when I’m at my camps, I try to stress how important it is to use the resources that are out there, like the Women’s Sports Foundation. Whether it’s activities you can do or places you can go to read about your favorite sport. I try to encourage girls to look up that information and get out to watch their favorite athletes and their favorite sports, whether it’s the local high school, college or pro team. It’s important to see as much action as you can.