Serena Barr’s Servant Leadership Sets Her Apart
By Alan Good, Liberty Field Hockey Assistant Coach
Many sports coaches will tell you that team selection is one of the hardest parts of the job, but it's arguably much tougher on the players. Blood, sweat and tears have been shed, sacrifices made, time and effort expended. For some, it ends with bad news and a crushing sense of disappointment.
It's easy in those moments to feel sorry for yourself and, perhaps, feel envy and negativity towards those who made the cut. But that isn't how Serena Barr rolls.
The Lurgan, Northern Ireland, native had a glittering career at Liberty from 2013-16, where she was a two-time NorPac champion, an All-American in 2016 and a Top 9 Honoree for the 2017 NCAA Woman of the Year award. She is now a member of the Ireland women's national team alongside twin sister Bethany, another highly decorated LUFH alum.
Ireland has made waves in international field hockey in recent years, winning a World Cup silver medal in 2018 as the second lowest ranked side in the tournament, before qualifying for the Olympics for the first time last November.
It's therefore a highly competitive, cut-throat environment as a squad of 30-plus players gets whittled down to 16 or 18 for major tournaments. As a relative newcomer, Serena has experienced her fair share of selection disappointments, but it's how she handles them that sets her apart.
"Selection is obviously a huge part of being involved with the Irish national team," Serena explained. "I've gone through times where I haven't been selected and others in my position have, but I always text them to say congratulations.
"I also try to spend more time off the pitch with girls I'm in competition with for my position. It's hard to want them to do well if they get selected over you if you don't have a relationship with them, and the only time you spend together is on the pitch. It can lead to difficulty in your own heart in terms of letting go of your disappointment if you don't. It's easier to serve my teammates with a happy heart and be pleased for them when they do well.
"I like to message the girls who get selected before big games, even if I'm not on the trip myself. I want to wish them luck and tell them I'm rooting for them. When someone gets injured, you might make them a goodie bag and be there for them. People always give you support at the time of the injury, but being there for them throughout the whole process is huge, not just at the beginning."
Servant leadership is one of many ways the Barr twins say they have learned to use field hockey as an act of worship. Serena credits her time at Liberty as being transformative in this regard.
"Before going to Liberty we just saw hockey as a hobby. We never saw it as a platform where we can serve God," she explained. "It was only going to Liberty and getting to experience being part of a Christian team, where the girls above us taught us that this was an act of worship, that we started to understand how that could be done.
"It's so easy for hockey to become an idol in our lives. We are all competitive, we all love sport, we all want to win, and it can take a foothold. But it's about trying to put things in place to keep it where it should be in our hearts."
For the Barrs, this means drawing crosses and writing AO1 – audience of one – on their arms before big games, to serve as visual reminders that winning is always the point but never the purpose. It doesn't dampen their competitiveness or drive to succeed, though. They have made plenty of sacrifices to get this far.
During the summer of their junior year, the Barrs quietly attended tryouts for the Irish team. Both felt they'd played well, but the message from the coaches was clear – you aren't ready yet.
"That hit us hard," admitted Bethany. "But we sat down and chatted about what else we could do to give ourselves a chance of making it. That was three years before we eventually got selected."
They returned for their senior year "fitter than we have ever been", and the following spring confided their international hockey ambitions in Liberty strength and conditioning coach Karyl Wiese, who helped them get physically ready for the hard road ahead. Both pursued postgraduate studies upon their return to Europe, Bethany in Dublin, Ireland, Serena across the Irish Sea in Leeds, England, which complicated matters.
"Persistence is so important, and it takes sacrifice," Serena told the LUFH team leadership council recently. "We're all human, and sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. If you want to focus 100% on field hockey, you'll have to make sacrifices in other areas.
"While I lived in Leeds, I had to fly back to Ireland every weekend for national team training in Dublin, which was a huge sacrifice socially. During the week, I was on a placement from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and then I drove two hours to the south of England, where the nearest premier league hockey club was, for training. I usually wouldn't get home until midnight. So I'd have to ensure I had everything for my nutrition and hydration ready for the day before I left home in the morning.
"On the days I didn't have hockey, I'd pack a bag and go to the gym on the way home from placement because I knew I wouldn't go if I got home! I had to plan everything because if I didn't, I knew I would fail. It's about putting things in motion to help you succeed."
Putting in the grind while staying kind to their teammates and true to their purpose have come to define the Barrs. It's little surprise then that their leadership philosophy leans more on actions than words, as Bethany summarized: "Great leaders don't tell you what to do – they show you how it's done."