Lessons Beyond the Field

Karen Shelton stands in Karen Shelton stadiumIn describing the impact of Karen Shelton, the Hall of Fame coach who steered the Carolina field hockey program for 42 seasons before announcing her retirement in December 2022, there almost aren’t enough superlatives.

Shelton led UNC to 39 NCAA tournament appearances and 10 NCAA championships. With 40 winning seasons and a record of 745-172-9, she retired as the winningest coach in the sport’s history. The Tar Heels went 21-0 in 2022 — the program’s fifth undefeated season — and earned a 10th national championship, the most in Division I field hockey and the fourth in the past five years.

Teams coached by Shelton won more national titles than any other Division I field hockey program has won in its entire history. The 2022 Tar Heel squad ranked among the best to play any sport at Carolina, joining an elite group of 11 women’s teams that have won national championships after undefeated, untied seasons.

On January 31, 2023, UNC-Chapel Hill announced that former Tar Heel field hockey player Erin Matson ’22 would take over as head coach. A three-time team captain and the most decorated player in program history, Matson said that Shelton understood how to motivate and bring the best out of every player. Rather than taking a rigid approach to player development, Shelton would adapt to the needs of the individual.

“She knew I thrived when I was being challenged, so she could be as hard and as harsh as she wanted to on me,” Matson said. “Others might respond more to encouragement or positive reinforcement, so that’s the coaching style she would take with them.”

Shelton and Matson after Spring 2022 Commencement

As Matson takes the reins of the field hockey program, another of Shelton’s ideas that resonates with her is not being constrained by precedent or past accomplishments.

“Never let precedent dictate what you think you can do,” Matson said. “We’ve proven time and time again that we can do things other people cannot. Coach Shelton made sure we understood that in our hearts and were ready to embrace new challenges.”

Karen Shelton Stadium, which opened in 2018, is perhaps the physical embodiment of that healthy disregard for precedent. It is the first UNC athletic playing facility to be named in honor of a woman. It is the only UNC facility named for a female coach, and Shelton became just the second coach in UNC history to coach in a stadium that bears their name.

The 900-seat stadium features LED sport lighting and a video scoreboard, along with sports medicine facilities, a players’ lounge, meeting space and coaches’ offices. In Matson’s words: “It’s the best facility in the country.”

Matson occupies the unique position of both having played and now coaching at Shelton Stadium. When asked what having a high-caliber stadium means to players and coaches, she points to all the ways the facility supports the hard work and the camaraderie that fuel a team’s success: intense film study sessions, impromptu team dance parties with music blaring in the locker room, and joyful family gatherings on the patio after games.

“It helps with recruiting, it helps the players, and it helps the coaches,” Matson said. “I know there were supporters who made building it possible. I want them to know that I’m thankful and that my team understands how remarkable it is that we call this place our home.”

For Shelton, the stadium that bears her name served as the perfect home for her to instill lessons that her players will carry with them through and beyond their time at Carolina.

“The stadium, I think and hope, reflects the work I do on a day-in-and-day-out basis: Training beautiful, strong, powerful women,” Shelton said soon after the new facility opened.

These five field hockey alumnae attribute much of their success to lessons learned on the field. Back row, from left: Leslie Lyness ’90 is a neurosurgeon; Casey (Burns) White ’10 is a lawyer; and Riley (Foster) Gaines ’10 is a nurse anesthetist. Front row, from left: Louise Hines ’87 is a marketing executive; and Ali (Stewart) Cleveland ’03, ’14 (MEd) is a high school principal.

Field hockey alumnae say that playing for Shelton, and being student-athletes during their undergraduate years, carved lasting legacies in their personal and professional lives.

Louise Hines ’87 said there are countless ways in which she benefited from being a collegiate athlete and “playing under a coach who demanded 100 percent at practice and at games.” She said that accountability, which is one aspect of teamwork, has been embedded in her ever since she started playing team sports.

“Accountability now serves me well in life as well as the business world,” said Hines, a marketing executive at MassMutual. “A team’s dynamic works best if every member knows what their role is and how the individual roles contribute to the common good. We’re each a cog in the machine. As an athlete, you learn to show up, be present and focus on the task at hand. Others are depending on you.”

When Hines played for Shelton, Shelton was new to coaching. So growth and change were other lessons she learned from that experience.

“We, as a team, and as individual players, grew in lockstep with her growth as a coach,” Hines said. “We were her first teams early in her career. Our goals were different back then. The program was in its infancy. I know my teammates would agree with me on this: It was fun laying the foundation of the UNC Field Hockey program and has been fun watching it grow over time. Winning was fun, and we improved each year, but at the core, it was the journey that made the experience so fulfilling — being connected to and being a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Back then, the teams didn’t record perfect seasons. Hines said losses on the field helped her learn resilience and perseverance. “I learned early on how to deal with tough situations and adversity,” she said. “In life, we confront all types of challenges — disappointment, illness, job loss, etc. How we respond to these circumstances defines our character. Sports provided me with the toolkit that prepared me for life’s inevitable challenges both personally and professionally.”

One of Shelton’s signature quotes, Hines said, is “Dare to be brilliant.” It means to take risks, exhibit self-confidence, nurture your passions and confront your fears. “I often apply this mantra to life as well as professional career,” Hines said.

Riley (Foster) Gaines ’10 said playing field hockey for Shelton shaped her life as a young woman. “I learned the importance of consistency and hard work, or as Coach [Shelton] always said, ‘keep showing up,’” Gaines said. A four-time All-ACC Academic Team member and two-time NCAA champion, Gaines said that mantra stayed ingrained in her while studying nursing during her undergraduate years, and afterwards in graduate school for nurse anesthesia at Duke.

“Accountability was a pillar of our success as a team,” Gaines said. “Holding myself to a high standard of excellence is how I strive to make a difference in my career and home life as a mother and wife. I am grateful for the impact that field hockey had on my life as a collegiate athlete, now as a mother, and hopefully on my daughters as they grow.”

Gaines is currently a nurse anesthetist in the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology.

Hines (left) and Lyness, circa 1987

Leslie Lyness ’90 remembers three lasting lessons from playing field hockey at Carolina. “When you play for Karen, it was all about preparing and executing, whether it was the skill or the game plan, and then learning from your mistakes,” Lyness said. “I still do that today. I’m a neurosurgeon, so I prepare for surgery. I know what I’m going to do. I’ve got plan A, plan B and plan C.”

The second thing is execution, whether it was in practice or a game. “We’d practice, for example, corner shots. We’d try to execute corners or whichever skill or game plan,” she said. “Now, for you, for me, and all of us in our life, we have to execute whatever plan we’ve put in place, whether we’re running a meeting or taking a brain tumor out. We execute the plan.”

Execution also means doing your job, but not trying to do someone else’s job or everyone’s job. And appreciating others for doing their job. “I’ve tried to take that into my life, and not take anyone for granted,” Lyness said. “In my work, this means I appreciate the nurses for what they do. I appreciate the people who transport the patients and the people who clean the rooms. If there isn’t a clean room, I can’t do the surgery.”

Lyness said playing for Shelton taught her to learn from her mistakes. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “That’s the beauty of playing sports, no matter what level. You have to learn from your mistakes and try not to make the same mistake again.” She remembers Shelton emphasizing that. “I think she stresses it for the entire team. I think probably every single player would tell you that.”

Lyness considers herself fortunate to remain connected to Shelton, the program and the University. “I can see what she’s done for all of these girls, and I’m just so, so proud to be a Tar Heel,” she said.

Shelton’s work as a coach, to foster and develop “beautiful, strong, powerful women” has also served as an inspiration and playbook for all of UNC Athletics. In 2019, Carolina Athletics and The Rams Club launched FORevHER Tar Heels, an initiative with a mission to build and inspire a Carolina community that champions our women student-athletes through financial support of 15 teams, scholarships, facilities and a mentor program.

FORevHER Tar Heels provides Carolina women student-athletes resources for continued academic and athletic excellence. The initiative is one of the first of its kind in the country, building upon Carolina’s legacy as a pioneer in women’s athletics and emphasizing its longtime continued commitment to create and enhance opportunities for female student-athletes.

Through mentorship support, supported professional leadership programming and development opportunities, the FORevHER Tar Heels initiative is continuing Shelton’s legacy of empowering and championing the success of women throughout their careers.

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