The following is part of an article entitled Ready or Not by Laura Ulrich, a writer for Athletic Management magazine. It is the cover story for the April/May 2010 issue. To read the entire article, visit HERE.
CREATING A CULTURE
After the well-publicized ponytail pull by a University of New Mexico women's soccer player during a match last fall, upgrading sportsmanship in the sport has been on a lot of athletic directors' minds. The Neumann University women's soccer squad provides a great example of how to do it right.
For two years running, the team has won the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Gold Team Ethics Award, given to teams that don't receive any yellow or red cards during the entire season. In 2009, only nine teams across all three NCAA divisions earned this distinction, and even more impressive, the Neumann team went card-free while posting its best win-loss record ever.
Head Coach Jeremy Brodovsky believes the award is the result of an overall emphasis on creating the right team culture. "I have three guiding principles for our team: respect, responsibility, and integrity," he says. "We start talking about these at the beginning of the season and they shape everything we do."
"Respect" is the key word Brodovsky uses when he talks to his team about interacting with officials. "I teach them to respect the referee's position, whether or not they think the referee is doing a good job," he says. "I coach them to speak very respectfully to the officials, if they need to talk to them at all."
Brodovsky also prepares his players to handle a call that doesn't go their way by talking about it before it happens. "I tell them to think of the referees like any other aspect of the game they can't control," he says. "I ask them, 'Is it raining? Is the field narrow? Is it cold? These are things you have no influence over, and officiating is the same. Don't waste your energy getting angry about calls you don't like. Accept it and move on.'"
He also coaches his athletes on responding to clashes with opposing players, whether it's a hard foul or a nasty comment. "I tell them never to retaliate," Brodovsky says. "It's part of having integrity, but it's practical, too. The player who retaliates is the one who's going to end up with a card, not the player who initiated the problem."
There is also a strict team rule on swearing--it is not allowed. "This might seem unrelated to sportsmanship, but it's an important part of establishing our team culture," Brodovsky says. "A player's language is something she can control and it requires using the self-discipline we're trying to achieve. It means they have to think before they act."
Players are then reminded about sportsmanship during pregame talks. "We make it one of our goals each game not to get any red or yellow cards," Brodovsky says. "We don't talk specifically about the award. We just focus on not getting any cards that day."
Such admonishments will do little good, however, if the coach doesn't set the right example. "I tell them I don't gauge our success by whether we win or lose," he says. "As long as they play to their capability, and strive a little beyond that, I am happy. Knowing that helps them keep their cool when things aren't going well."
As Neumann's 2009 season illustrated, playing with class doesn't mean giving anything up competitively. According to Brodovsky, that's because the skills required to play with sportsmanship are the same ones needed to win games.
"I tell my players that sportsmanship is about self-discipline and being in control of your responses, and no athlete is successful without those two attributes," he says. "I remind them that the best coaches and athletes in the world know how to control themselves and their reactions. There is no reason we can't be a team that wins games and ethics awards at the same time."
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