DARIEN — There is no gray area with Lisa Lindley, just very distinct shades of black and white. Your stance depends on such variables as where you live, whether you have played for her and if you have an issue with blunt honesty.
Lindley, the fiery, extroverted and somewhat polarizing coach of Darien High School’s girls lacrosse team, is the first to stare down her critics, or at least those whose opinion of her has been formed solely by one of the two things for which she is most famous, or in this case infamous: a picture of her three years ago in which she had her hands on the facemask of, and was demonstratively shouting at, her goaltender, Caylee Waters.
While Lindley regrets the incident, or more accurately the manner in which a dose of motivation was delivered, she said of the negative feedback that followed, “People I think take that out of context and whether you see a sporting event as an arena different than everyday life. I also feel people who have those assumptions are somewhat ignorant because they don’t take the time to do the research or talk to me before they form an opinion.”
Before backtracking again to that May afternoon, it is important to point out what Lindley is most known for — unless you do a Google search — winning and helping players reach their fullest potential. Last month she led the Blue Wave to both their 14th FCIAC and state titles, months after she was inducted into the state’s Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Back to May of 2012: while outsiders saw mistreatment, the Darien players saw an emotional stimulus in its rawest form. They remember a team and a goaltender struggling and a turnaround that led to another FCIAC title.
While Waters regrets the aftermath, her recollection of that game with Greenwich is telling: “She definitely pushed me to be better. Goaltending is a mental game. She held me accountable for the goals that I should have saved, and that made me stronger.”
It should be noted that Waters is now a starting goaltender at the University of North Carolina, which just lost in the national championship.
“She’s loud and she yells, but once you understand that and it’s her coaching style, it’s not so intimidating,” Waters said.
If there is one constant with Lindley’s players, it is their unwavering support of a coach they get to see through a unique prism.
Anna Moorhead, one of the leaders of this year’s team, remembers getting yelled at by Lindley at a camp in the 6th grade because she didn’t cut the way she was instructed and missed a pass.
“It was constructive criticism in a way and that’s what Lisa is known for,” Moorhead said. “She wants to know how far she can push someone to be their best, and that’s what makes her a phenomenal coach. She knows the limits and boundaries. She pushed hard, but it is worth it. I know she will end up being one of my favorite coaches to ever play for.”
Moorhead, like Lindley’s many loyalists, said it is important to ignore the packaging and focus on the package.
“She’s definitely loud, she’s definitely intimidating at times, but the knowledge you receive from her, not just on lacrosse but on life, is so great,” Moorhead said. “If you go in with an open mind and a tough backbone, you will get a lot.”
One senses that most of Lindley’s life is a game, and seeing a player maximize ability is a challenge to be won or lost. She moved to Simsbury in 9th grade, the youngest of five children and the lone female, a family of high achievers. Her brothers were college lacrosse All-Americans, but Lindley never picked up a stick until she got to Northwestern on a field hockey scholarship. She ended up playing on the 1989 World Cup team.
“I definitely was feisty when I played,” the 51-year-old Lindley said. “I don’t want to say I was mean on the field but aggressive. I never liked to lose. One-hundred and 10 percent all the time.”
Lindley may be so driven as a coach because the common thread in her life is success, and she is ill-equipped to handle anything less.
After stints as an assistant coach at Massachusetts and Yale, Lindley was hired by former Darien athletic director Jim Girard 21 years ago. Lindley remembers having a horrible interview because she was overconfident and unprepared, but got the job because Girard said she never boasted about the many accomplishments on her resume.
Lindley quickly started loading the school’s trophy case on an almost annual basis, producing All-Americans and sending them off to the nation’s top lacrosse powers.
“I learned a lot from her, life lessons that I didn’t know were life lessons at the time,” said Kim Pepe, a 2000 graduate who now works in marketing for PepsiCo and is a summer coach for the CT Grizzlies, the club team Lindley founded and owns. “She was pretty intense and had very high expectations of you because she knew what you were capable of and pushed you to those limits.”
Pepe offers one bit of insight that many will find surprising: Lindley has mellowed with time.
“She has,” Pepe affirmed. “She has those expectations but her method is very different. I think our parents didn’t coddle us as much. Parents are now softer and as a result kids are softer. Her favorite quote the first two weeks with us was ‘Get your running shoes on.’ ”
Lindley agreed that she has adapted with the times.
“I don’t coach anywhere near how I used to coach,” Lindley said. “People can form their own opinion about how I coach now, but I am so different. I’ve had to change because kids are different. They can’t handle it. Parents can’t handle it. I’ve had to change my methods how I get things across.”
Lindley sounded as if she longed for the atmosphere when she first came to Darien.
“A lot of people misconstrue what I am trying to do if I say something negative about them,” Lindley said. “How can a kid get better if you can’t be honest with them about what they need to work on? I pick and choose. If a kid asks what they need to do to improve, I’ll tell them.”
The Grizzlies attract many of the area’s best players, which means Lindley is often coaching athletes from towns like New Canaan that are high school rivals. Any irony is lost on her.
“At first people talk about the whole Darien-New Canaan thing,” Lindley said. “But they saw that I don’t care if you wear red nine months of the year. If you are a good lacrosse player I’m going to teach you, going to help you and I’m going to make you better for the next level. I think they respect that.”
Then there is the emotional side, which is on full display after a big win — watch the tape of her jumping into the pile of players after last month’s overtime win against New Canaan in the FCIAC final — or concealed from the public during heartfelt moments.
Moorhead, who is headed to Richmond, was at a camp there when she received a text from Lindley asking how she was doing. It is not an isolated example.
“The fact she remembered I was there and took the time out of her day showed how much she cares,” Moorhead said. “People have the wrong idea about her outside of Darien. Not only is she hard on us but she probably has one of the biggest hearts in this town. She cares for each and every girl in the program. It angers me when people think otherwise. Come in and see the time she spends with us, teaching us and not just lacrosse. She’s an amazing woman.”
Lindley is not one for regrets. She lives life with her foot to the pedal. If there could be one mulligan, it would be the photograph that will live on in cyberspace.
“It definitely wasn’t one of my finest moments,” said Lindley, who was suspended for the state tournament that season by school officials. “Not coaching the rest of the year was hard. It was unfortunate in many, many, many ways.”
After a pause, Lindley added, “The rest of the game (Waters) turned it around. Does the end justify the means? I don’t know, but my intent was not to hurt her or anything like that but to get her to play to the level she is totally capable of.”
As for the court of public opinion, Lindley said the only votes that matter come from her players, whose ballots come back with near unanimous endorsements.
“At the end of the day that’s all I care about,” she said. “You know you are doing something right if 95 percent of the kids who played for you have something positive to say about you or their experience.”