Though she said she finds value in hard work and resilience, coach Audrey Trowbridge has decided to tailor her approach toward helping each of her athletes land in a comfortable headspace before anything else. Part of that includes playing little games before practices begin.
“We play leapfrog and the kids are cracking up, they’re laughing,” Trowbridge said.
“It’s hilarious, and they’re enjoying themselves and then we can go to practice and get to work. Some people think it’s a waste of time, but I don’t because I want to make sure everybody’s happy and in a good space and that they’re wanting to be there. I’ve turned on the music and we’ve done a line dance at the beginning of practice. It’s not always about grinding; sometimes it’s remembering those fun things that made you fall in love with moving your body.”
Trowbridge, along with other coaches in the district who are alumni of Lawrence Public Schools, have a unique opportunity to relate directly to the kids they serve — because they were once in their shoes.
With the physical demand of sports also comes emotional and mental tolls. As open dialogue about mental health struggles among athletes becomes ever pervasive, former student-athletes in the Lawrence school district who are now coaching at their alma maters reflect on their own childhood experiences and how they are working to improve the culture of youth sports for their athletes today.
‘I know what it’s like to be an athlete in this town’
Anthony Bonner, also known as “Coach AB,” is entering his first season as the freshman boys basketball coach at his alma mater — Lawrence High School.
He graduated from LHS in 2016 and then attended Colorado State University, where he played Division I basketball.
Now he’s back to share the knowledge and wisdom he’s gained.
“I’m finally ready to get back to the game because after my playing career, it was kind of tough for me,” Bonner said. “I battled some identity issues without having the basketball in my hand and a structured schedule every day. Now I’m ready to come back to my alma mater and coach and just be a positive role model in the building — off the court, not just as a basketball coach.”
Kylie Garber played volleyball at Free State High School under head coach Jayme Savage before graduating in 2015.
Now she’s working beside Savage as the C Team, or sophomore team, volleyball coach at her alma mater. She said the ways in which she can directly relate to her players, and vice versa, helps nurture stronger player-coach relationships.
“I vividly remember being in their shoes and trying to balance school, homework [and] social life and just how mentally and physically challenging that can be,” Garber said. “I think the girls can also relate to me because I know exactly the things that they’re involved in during volleyball season. I have so much respect and school spirit for Free State, and I think the girls like seeing that as well.”
Trowbridge, head coach of the Lawrence High track and field team and the Unity Step Team, graduated from Lawrence High in 2003 before becoming an assistant coach in 2007.
As a member of the fourth generation of her family to graduate from LHS, her bond with the school runs deep.
“I think taking pride in your town — that is something no one can give to you,” Trowbridge said. “Looking back you’re like, ‘I wore that jersey. I did some of the same workouts. I know what it’s like to be an athlete in this town.’”
Trowbridge became the first Black woman head coach of the program’s track and field team in 2021. Growing up, she said she never had a coach who was a person of color, besides her dad, until KeKe Blackmon — a Black woman — was her coach in high school. Blackmon is now head coach of the Kansas City Glory women’s football team.
“[Blackmon] was my first coach of color and my only one, so now I’m looking at the young coaches and seeing other Black and brown people that are in coaching positions. That’s a huge, huge difference, and it’s exciting,” Trowbridge said. “I don’t know how many other people [in Lawrence] who can say they had a coach of color, specifically a woman — that’s even more rare. Now I can name the coaches of color in the district rapid-fire.”
There’s power in kids seeing themselves represented among their teachers, coaches and mentors, Trowbridge said.
“In a lot of ways, it’s relatability, too,” she said. “I can understand a kid’s body language or even the words that a kid uses [and] I may understand that some of that is cultural and it’s not a negative. Being on a staff to be able to advocate for the kid who another coach doesn’t quite understand or sees as disrespectful — it’s huge to be able to help that kid navigate that situation so it doesn’t affect playing time and all of that.”
‘You’re much more than just an athlete’
Being an athlete can be demanding and leave many to struggle in silence. Renowned professional athletes, such as Simone Biles, Demar DeRozan, Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps, in recent years have spoken out about their struggles and even temporarily stepped away from their sports to recoup.
Trowbridge said it’s refreshing for young people to see their favorite athletes show vulnerability.
“That would have never happened when I was a kid,” Trowbridge said. “We’re seeing the dark side of athletics — the pressure — and now we’re forced to talk about it.”
Trowbridge said her role as a social worker and a coach at Lawrence High overlap more and more as mental health becomes less taboo in discussion among Lawrence’s sports community. She recalled having to “just tough it out” when a mental block or even a physical injury presented itself.
Garber agreed mental health support for student-athletes was not as prevalent when she was in high school as it is today. She said she and her fellow coaches have prioritized the well-being of their players as “all-around athletes,” checking that they’re doing well in class and personally.
“Volleyball specifically is like the ultimate team sport and it’s really easy to get in your head if you’re not mentally ready to play, so I think that this is one of the most important changes that I’ve seen coaches make in high school sports,” Garber said.
Young athletes in general go through so many mental changes that any day can be different, she said.
“We just have to realize that not everyone’s going to be OK and ready to play every day and we have to respect that, and we have to be open to talk about that as well,” Garber said.
Knowing how to adapt coaching styles to different types of players comes with knowing who the players are and what they need, which helps the success of the team, Bonner said.
“My favorite part of the day is always just hearing about the kids’ day — hearing about how they’re doing and their practices and their sports, what happened at home … just really showing these kids that you’re much more than just an athlete,” Bonner said. “I always tell them, ‘Sports is what connected us, but first and foremost I just want to be a positive role model for you.’”
“You gotta let people know you care about them, and that is not just about how many down-and-backs you can do or how many layups you can make,” he continued. “It’s like, ‘I care about you as a person, so let’s take this hour or hour and a half to two hours of practice or a workout and let’s work hard for each other. Then let’s crack some jokes afterwards and get out of here.’”
‘Be the best version of yourself’
Having the University of Kansas in town sets a high standard of excellence for young athletes in Lawrence who may want to participate in college sports, which is “a gift and a curse,” Trowbridge said.
“KU is right up the road, so when you grow up and you’re constantly looking up to the KU athletes, you just learn really quickly to take pride in the hard work and what’s possible,” Trowbridge said. “I think that that’s something that kids are still tied to because if you talk to high school athletes a lot of us grew up wanting to go D1. But if you don’t make it to that, then you kind of internalize it, like ‘Now what?’ or ‘I’m not good enough.’”
She explained she grew up in a sports culture where there was pressure to be recruited to KU, or to similar Division I schools. Now she wants her athletes to know participating in college sports at any level is an achievement they should be proud of.
“If somebody’s offering to pay for you to come to their school, that is still a big deal,” Trowbridge said. “I want everybody to aspire to the highest level possible, but we’ve watched so many [Lawrence athletes] go on and be successful that started out of junior college.”
Bonner can also relate to the pressure of playing sports in Lawrence, especially as a basketball player in a city referred to as the Cradle of Basketball. He said opportunities can be bleak for basketball players in Lawrence to compete at higher levels and against teams in other areas of the state or country — which he said is vital to collegiate preparation. That’s part of why he started his own basketball and athletic training business.
Through A2B Training, Bonner holds basketball training sessions out of various gyms every day. He also does strength and conditioning workouts and agility training in a setup with workout equipment in his parents’ garage — which he calls “The Dungeon.” Someday, he said, he hopes to own his own gym space for training sessions as well as conversations athletes can have together about what they’re dealing with and what’s going on in the world around them.
Bigger than the sport itself, Bonner said he aims to instill confidence in each of his athletes. This will translate into life skills, he said.
“My base goal and expectation for every kid is to graduate high school [and] hopefully go to college and get a degree, but just be the best version of yourself,” Bonner said. “Whether you’re a basketball player, a violinist, a doctor, a journalist, a teacher … I don’t care. Be the best version you can be, and be yourself unapologetically.”
Garber said through the intensity of being a student-athlete, trying to get recruited — for those with dreams of playing at the next level — and navigating life as a young person, she wants the time her athletes spend with their sport to ultimately be enjoyable.
“I would love to become a head coach someday, and I think it’s really special to coach here in Lawrence because just looking back on my high school experience, moments with my team were some of my favorites,” Garber said. “Something that we all say is that we’re family. We spend a lot of time together, so we want to really enjoy those moments and enjoy being in each other’s presence and treat each other as family.”
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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.
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