Q&A with Head Field Hockey Coach Leila “Avery” Safford ’12

Shipley's head field hockey coach Leila “Avery” Safford ’12 was a standout student-athlete while she was at Shipley. With Katie Whelan as coach, the Gators earned the Friends Schools League Championship Title all four years that Safford played on the varsity squad. She was named All-Friends League First Team (3x), All-Main Line First Team (2x), and All-Philadelphia All-Star Team (2x). In 2012 she received the White Blazer Award. 

Coach Safford continued her field hockey career at the University of Richmond, where she graduated Cum Laude in 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Elementary Education. She was named an A-10 Conference All-Academic Team member, National Field Hockey Coaches Academic All American, and advanced to Atlantic 10 Conference Championships all four years on the team, winning in 2014.

This year, Safford led the Gators to another Friends Schools League championship title in field hockey—the team's eighth since joining the league in 2005. In addition to coaching, Safford works closely with Shipley's student support team. Safford is currently studying community and trauma counseling at Thomas Jefferson University and working towards her LPC to become a licensed professional counselor. Learn more about Coach Safford and what it's like to coach at her high school alma mater in this Q&A.

What led to the team’s success this season?

We all had the same goal for the season. We wanted to win the Friends League, but we also wanted to create an inclusive environment for players to feel safe and supported. During games we focused on what was going well, and how we could use each player’s strengths to our advantage on the field. After games we gave players the opportunity to shout-out their teammates, and we talked about things we needed to focus on for the next practice.

Skills-wise, what made us successful on the field was the time and energy we put into passing. Our passing focused on speed and accuracy, and it led us to be able to pass around opponents with precision. Other coaches commented on this part of our play.
What team traditions have you continued from your time as a Shipley student-athlete?
One of the traditions when I was a student athlete was called “Big Sister, Little Sister.” It allows teammates from each grade to get to know each other as people rather than players, and it creates a more inclusive and close-knit team. We don’t necessarily call it Big Sister, Little Sister anymore, but we continue this tradition to create a cohesive unit. These “siblings” bring each other small treats before games, give them words of encouragement during practice, and are support systems for each other.
Other than winning, what are your goals as a coach?
My goal as a coach is to create an environment where players enjoy coming to practice each day. Everyone has an incredible amount of responsibilities on their plate, and coming to practice should not add to that, but give players reprieve from that stress. At Shipley, we talk about “flow” and the benefits of losing track of time doing something you love. That is what I want for my players and something that my coaches and I work towards each practice and each game.

What made you come back to Shipley and what’s that like?
The short answer to this question is Katie Whelan. The environment and team culture she created when I was a player at Shipley impacted not only my athletic career, but also my entire high school experience. As a coach, I am reminded how much being on a team can impact an individual’s life, both positively and negatively. People don’t necessarily remember how many games or championships they won in high school, but they do remember how they were treated and the memories they made with their teammates, classmates, and friends.
What’s it like to coach alongside fellow Shipley alumnae?
Coaching with past teammates, coaches, and players has been an incredible experience. All of us have the same passion to see Shipley field hockey succeed each season, and we each have a love for competition. Throughout the years there have been many alumnae that have come back to help coach in one way or another, which speaks volumes about this program!
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.