Life Lessons from the Color Guard

Learning discipline, self-confidence and teamwork are one thing. Meeting people who understand you is another.

By Elizabeth Rourk, University of New Haven


The day I found out what color guard was, I put my name on the roster to start the next fall.

Being in the guard meant I could perform with the marching band without having to cross paths with my saxophone-toting brother, plus I got to wear a cuter uniform. But despite how excited I was the day I signed up, I never could’ve imagined that six years later I would still be performing, and I can say confidently that few things in my life have impacted me as much as color guard.

The first time I picked up a flag I felt like I was learning to dance with an extra limb. Trying to stay in step, keep up with the flag work, count and smile completely redefined multitasking, but every time I learned a new move I felt a sense of accomplishment that I had never experienced before. Coaches could demonstrate the moves and talk me through the routines, but when it came down to it, I was the only one holding the flag.

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I quickly learned the responsibility that came along with being on a color guard. As a high school girl, it taught me that my place in life mattered. Any time a show has a hole in it, it’s painfully obvious that someone is missing. Everyone needs to know their work and be in their spot for the show to look right.

It also taught me that there will always be someone better than you, someone that can toss higher, turn faster and pick up an entire show just by watching. Not being the best isn’t an excuse though, because every person on that field has to learn their show. It’s okay not to be the best, as long as you give it your all every time the announcer says your school can take the field.

Learning to roll-step in my high school parking lot while baking in the late August sun was just the beginning of the dedication I would learn in the guard. Now, two years into college band, I have spent almost every Friday evening of the fall semester at practice. While most college kids get up early for homecoming to tailgate and party, I get up at seven in the morning to get to practice and be ready for halftime.

It’s hard to explain color guard to someone who has never seen (or paid attention to) a guard perform. In fact, a friend of mine who I had known for a month at the time thought that when I said I was “on the guard,” that I meant the National Guard. Spinning flags and weapons has become such a huge part of my life I forget that to many, a color guard is just the flags in the marching band.

The general misunderstanding that surrounds the guard is one of the main reasons why members are so tight-knit. The friendships that I’ve made with teammates have lasted the longest and run the deepest of any I’ve had, and it’s because everyone understands the same thing.

We understand why it’s worth it to spend hours at practice just to go home tired and bruised. Why the early mornings, dirty feet and overly hair-sprayed ponytails are just small parts of a larger picture. The feeling of stepping off the field and knowing that you caught every toss, pointed every toe and never let the smile leave your face.

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They’ll be the ones to stay in with you and watch movies on Friday nights before early practices the next day. They’ll be your bus buddies for competitions, share their silver eye shadow when you leave your makeup bag in your room and help you poof your hair before you’ve had your coffee. They’re the ones that understand a part of your life most people never will.

In my undergraduate career I will never tailgate for a college football game. I will never know what it is like to have weekends free of practices and performances. I’ll always have to plan my schedule around guard practice, and there will always be a class that I will wear practice clothes to so I can run to rehearsal right after. My dorm room will always have a designated spot for my equipment and my bathroom floor will always be covered in sparkles.

But six years, seven shows, two schools and a concussion later, I can say with confidence that guard has taught me more than any class I’ve ever sat in.

Guard has given me more than a drawer full of show shirts and team jackets. It’s given me some of my best friends, taught me to never quit, and continuously shown me that anything is possible when you work hard enough.

When I decided to do guard almost seven years ago, I didn’t think I would continue all four years of high school, let alone into college. Every season when I contemplate quitting the next year to have more time to study and look for a job, I always know that I never will.

I have two marching band seasons and two more winter guard seasons left, and I plan to make the most of them. Even though there are not many people that really appreciate what a guard does, it has changed my life more than I ever imagined an extracurricular activity could.

So here’s to everyone that knows rifles aren’t just for shooting and color guard is so much more than a bunch of ‘flag girls.’ For the people that know that graph paper is for drill charts and dut-dut is more than a clicking sound. For those that understand the annoyance of being forced to smile during practice or the incredible feeling during a performance that makes you smile for real.