“Where did September go?” That is a question quite a few of us college coaches will have asked our staff over the past week. It seems only yesterday that we were looking forward to preseason with exciting plans and fresh hopes for our squads. The reality of the college season is that it is over very quickly. No sooner have your players grasped a hold of formations, patterns, and set pieces, that the last few games of the season creep up. October brings with it the excitement of vital conference and regional games that will decide our season. We have spent nine months planning for this moment. “Crunch time” for an athlete can be a split second in a game where they must produce that bit of magic. For a coach however, “crunch time” is that period by which the games arrive thick and fast and you have to get your team physically and mentally ready. That time is now upon us, and the longer it lasts the better!
As always, I believe our progress lies on the practice field. This is where we develop those habits that we can take into games and produce under pressure. Two words that are used over and over again in our team huddles are ‘commitment’ and ‘standards’. George Zalucki defined commitment as doing what you said you’d do long after the mood you said it has gone. Mr Zalucki must have been a college sports fan because that sums up exactly where we find ourselves at this time of the year. Everyone can commit themselves in preseason where legs and minds are fresh and you are just at the beginning of the journey. The real test of commitment comes when minds and bodies are both tired and seem to want us to do less rather than more. A player who can keep their enthusiasm levels high when they are pushing themselves every day is a player who will take you to the top. Get the majority of your players sharing that kind of mindset and you are in business. Standards is the other key word because this is the time of the year that they tend to drop. Fatigue, injuries and people accepting that they can not control their performance are all examples of “Standard Zappers.” Once a player lets go of their standards, they accept that their play will not be affected by junk food, their muscles can handle a warm-up being cut five minutes short, and a simple pass becomes a 50-50 ball. The result is a poor performance. However, used the right way, and standards can take you to the promised land. The player who lifts their standards and asks more of themselves, can see a rise in confidence and produce a performance when it is needed most. This is the player that will stay behind practice for thirty minutes to hone a skill and can lift their team mates just by the way she steps on the practice field, or approaches a setback. With the sleeves rolled up, a quick clap of the hands, and unwavering focus. These are the players who can will take you over the finish line. And drag everyone else with them.
Our work has not just been limited to the soccer field. A group of our players attended a recent workshop for Wingate University athletes by Jeff Janssen, who has worked with a host of NCAA teams to develop team chemistry and mental toughness necessary to win championships. Jeff met with athletes and coaches in separate meetings and then urged us to get together with our players and discuss what we had learned. Coach Rahko and myself enjoyed listening to the players insight on how they felt the team was gelling and it was great to share ideas and ways to keep working on getting our group even tighter. Team building is a process and is something that is not just done in preseason. We are still working on ours! With results going our way in recent games, we have momentum and confidence in ourselves and our ability. It is vital we use that the right way and not get complacent. Results are a by-product of performances and hard work – it is not a secret. That mentality must be set by coaches, captains, and leaders in everything we do.
As the temperatures cool down and people dig out their warm clothes, we will make sure our commitment levels and standards get even higher. Our attitude will be our energy booster! Practices will be sharp, loud, and energetic. The music will be turned up that little bit higher in the locker room. The team will enter the field to with an extra skip in their step. Every tackle and header won, successful dribble, and chance created will be greeted with the same amount of enthusiasm on the sidelines as it is in the stands. We will keep doing the same things, only a little bit better, and see where it takes us. October is always a fun month to be a Lady Bulldog. Long may it continue!