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The Gold Medal game in the 1996 Olympics between the United States and China is, to my mind, the greatest women's soccer game ever played. It was a battle of equals, with everyone playing at the highest possible level. China was more effective than we were in the midfield and we outshone them on defense and in the attack. As a result, it was not unlike a high caliber chess match and, as the game progressed, we were very close to a stalemate. When we got the ball, China couldn't get it. When China got the ball, we couldn't get it. Quite simply, this was an amazing game to watch and even more amazing to be a part of as coach of the Women's Olympic Team.
In the first half we had a wonderful passing combination that started when our goalkeeper, Briana Scurry, distributed the ball up the right flank and it came through Michelle Akers in the midfield. Then we changed the point of the attack to the left flank, to Kristine Lilly, who bent in a terrific cross that Mia Hamm, who was one of the early sequence passers, ran onto and, with the outside of her foot, perfectly placed her volley on goal. Gao Hong, the Chinese goalkeeper, made a great save that hit and ricocheted off the post onto the field. Then Shannon MacMillan opportunistically finished it off, scoring the first goal of the Gold Medal match. It was not only a great passing sequence but also a great finish that included a terrific save by the Chinese goalkeeper.
But China wasn't about to lie down and play dead. Not long afterward, Sun Wen, the scoring phenomenon of the Chinese team, received a long pass over the top that beat our defense. And as Briana Scurry was sprinting out to her, Sun Wen chipped it over her head, but Brandi Chastain, sprinting back, couldn't quite clear it off the goal line. So it was 1-1 going into halftime, and despite the fact that it was a tie, I was still loving the game because everyone was playing so incredibly well.
I had very little to say to the team in the locker room because we were doing so many things well. After the normal tactical adjustments I told the players that they had been a great group to coach over the last year and that now it was up to them. They had forty-five minutes to fulfill their dream of winning the first ever Olympic Gold Medal for women's soccer, and although we'd played well, we needed to play better to defeat this worthy opponent. In fact, I was so excited and so eager for the second half to begin that after only a few minutes I left the locker room and went back onto the field. After a moment or two of standing alone in front of our bench, in front of thousands of fans, I began to feel a little exposed, suddenly realizing that here I was the head coach but my team was still in the locker room.
When the team returned for the second half, I was not disappointed by the quality of play, which had all the drama you would expect from two great teams. Once again we had a great passing sequence with Mia Hamm passing to Joy Fawcett, who was coming out of defense. We must have completed twenty passes in a row, trying to build our attack through the left flank, bringing it back and trying the right flank. China stole the ball-they got it for perhaps one pass-and then we stole it back again, and while they were expanding players out of their defense, we sneaked in on them. Joy Fawcett, with perfect timing and tremendous speed, beat the last defender and slid the ball across the face of the goal to Tiffeny Milbrett, who scored the go-ahead goal, making it 2-1.
After Tiffeny scored the goal, I took her out of the game and, as a defensive move, put in Tiffany Roberts. There were about twenty minutes to go in the match and in these kinds of games the last twenty minutes are hell. The other team is sending everything it has forward and your team's back is up against the wall. But in this instance we took the game over by maintaining possession of the ball so that the Chinese team had to keep chasing it and us. By the last five or ten minutes, in my mind at least, the game was over. In fact, I made a substitution, a gesture of respect, by putting in Carin Gabarra, one of the great stars of women's soccer and a Hall of Famer, to give her the opportunity to play in the Olympic final. She deserved to be in the game, but under normal conditions a coach would not have substituted an offensive player at that point in the match. For me, however, the maneuver showed the high level of confidence I had in our team. I knew there was nothing to stop us. That Gold Medal contest was the epitome of the game of soccer, and our team played like a perfectly scripted dream. I remember sitting on the bench and marveling at what was happening on the field. Every pass I thought we should be making, we made. Every shot we should have been taking, we took. There was a connection I had with the team and the way they played that was really an enactment of how I thought they should play. We were a team on our competitive edge, playing at an extremely high level of skill tactically, physically and mentally. For ninety minutes we played the game just about as well as it could be played. How were we able to reach that level of play, and how were we able to maintain excellence over such a long period of time? There are no simple answers, of course. And to understand the significance of our dominating play and win in 1996, we have to look back to 1992, my second year as a member of the coaching staff and the year after our first World Cup win. We played only two games that year, and none of our World Championship team members competed except Mary Harvey and Mia Hamm. In 1993 the team was beaten three times, twice by Germany and once by Norway. And then we lost in the World University games to China, 2-1. So the telltale markings were there-we were no longer the best team in the world, and yet, technically speaking, we were still reigning World Champions.
A pretty good year for us was 1994, when we won a domestic tournament, beating Germany 2-1, China 1-0 and Norway 4-1. But the truth is, in that 4-1 game against Norway, the score could easily have been reversed. For the first forty minutes we were totally dominated by the Norwegians, although they didn't score. Just before halftime I substituted Michelle Akers, and she turned the game around. With Michelle in the game we managed to sneak in a goal and then another one at the start of the second half. In effect, we "stole the game" from them. Despite winning that tournament, I could see there was something lacking in our play. Without domestic leagues, without the players having the luxury of training on a regular basis, we were losing ground to the rest of the world.
When I took over as coach of the women's team in the summer of 1994, I knew we weren't the best team in the world. One of the roadblocks we had always faced was that we would meet as a team for only a week or ten days during a tournament or spend numerous days in training but then play just one match. That changed in February of 1995, when we finally became a residential team and moved our training camp to Florida. Even more important than establishing our own facility, I felt, was the need to strengthen our mental skills. When I was a player, I was a goalkeeper, a position that is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. As a result of my experiences playing that position, I've always believed that when you reach a certain level in athletics, the difference between success or failure is determined by mental skill. That's the trump card because by that time players are technically proficient, and they understand the tactics of the game and are physically prepared.
I wanted to hire a sport psychologist to address our mental skills before the World Cup in June. We brought in two or three different people to address the team. Then, in May, about six weeks before the World Cup, we had a trip out west to play Brazil, in Tacoma and in Portland. While we were there we had a chance to have Dr. Colleen Hacker work with the team. I already knew Colleen by her national reputation as an authority on the psychology of peak performance and team building and from working with her at the National Soccer Coaches Association. Colleen also had soccer expertise from having been a coach at Pacific Lutheran University, where her teams won numerous conference, district and regional championships as well as three national women's collegiate soccer titles between 1988 and 1991. I was aware that she taught and trained teams to use psychological skills effectively-to use imagery, set goals, manage stress, build concentration and focus, and control distractions. By implementing creative and appropriate risk-taking situations, she could foster absolute trust among players and nurture their cohesion as a team. Colleen joined us in Oregon and Washington and conducted a team-building and mental skills training session. When I heard her speak, I could see that she had a special connection with the team, a way of dealing with the players that they responded to immediately.
When we got home, I spoke to officials at the United States Soccer Federation: "I'd like to bring a mental skills coach to Sweden with us for the World Championship and I'd like it to be Colleen Hacker." The idea was immediately shot down. I was told it wasn't in the budget and, besides, it was relatively late in the preparation period. But there was still more than a month to go and I thought Colleen could definitely give us an edge.
As it turned out, we lost a very close game in the semifinals. We were not assertive in that game, at least in the first half. We had a couple of young players who were not in the right place mentally. I had tried to get them there, but I wasn't completely successful. When we lost that tournament and came away with the Bronze Medal, I was even more convinced that if we were to regain our status as the best team in the world by the 1996 Olympics, we needed to secure a sport psychologist.
The officials at U.S. Soccer still didn't approve the hiring of Colleen, but fortunately, because the United States Olympic Committee wanted to do whatever it could to give the top American teams an edge, it created a program called Home Team Grants, designed especially for teams that had a chance to medal. So when they came to me and asked what I needed, my answer was simple: "I need a video editing system and I need a sport psychologist," and that meant Colleen Hacker. Eventually they agreed to both requests, and Colleen joined the team about six months before the Olympic Games started.
In one of our first conversations Colleen said to me, "I'm going to offer individual meetings to all the players, but I want it to be completely voluntary." Her hope was that players would want to commit to mental skills and training and not feel as though they had to in order to please her or the coaching staff.
"I know who the last player will be to take you up on an individual meeting," I said.
"It's Mia Hamm. She's a very private person, she's shy and I know it isn't something she will jump on. Some of the other players want to talk everything out, but Mia holds a lot of it in. She's got to really feel bonded to a person, and she's got to really feel a trust before she's going to open up."
About a month later we were at the Olympic Training Center, and Colleen, who had been training with us on a regular basis, had already set up a number of individual player meetings. She was winning over the players wonderfully, but she still hadn't met with Mia. One day I noticed that Mia was talking privately to Colleen on the sidelines. They weren't actually having a meeting, but I could tell this was the groundwork for setting one up. Later that day I approached Colleen and said, "I saw you talking with Mia today and I think that's great!"
What Colleen created was a safe place for the players to speak about me, the team, the training, their performance, the grind of being away from husbands and families and whatever else had the potential for negative impact on their performance. Colleen became that safe and trusted place and as a result she became very, very valuable in every aspect of mentally preparing our team to win. I was preparing them physically and technically, teaching them tactics to be used in the game, but Colleen was preparing them psychologically. Without Colleen it was as if we were a chair with only three legs-wobbly and unreliable. But with four legs, and Colleen providing the fourth leg, we were steady and held our own weight. After Colleen implemented the mental skills training program, we went into the Olympics a different team, a more prepared team, a better team. And when we came out we were Gold Medalists and the best team in the world.
The missing piece Colleen added to our team in 1996 was the thing that made us so special. We couldn't have played at that higher level a year earlier because we didn't have the mental edge. And it wasn't just the mental skills: It was the preparation, the confidence, the psychology of long-range commitment and peak performance training-and a willingness to be successful. Colleen was able to find the pulse of our team which allowed her to identify the key in each player that facilitated her understanding that she had more to give than she knew. This process allowed them to release some incredibly powerful, but hidden energies that each one possessed.
In order to help the reader take advantage of Colleen's expertise, at the end of each chapter we've included exercises she used with the Women's National Team to foster a sense of cooperation and to strengthen necessary skills that are important in creating a successful team. Each exercise is keyed to the particular chapter. The lessons we learned throughout our journey can, I believe, be applied not only to the elite players I coached, but also to female players whether six, thirteen or twenty-four.
We've also included a series of Chalk Talks that cover topics ranging from dribbling to heading to passing to shooting and scoring. These Chalk Talks are not designed to provide A to Z answers for coaches, but rather to stimulate and inspire them to come up with their own creative ideas on how to best prepare their team for the season. The aim of this book is to teach coaches, parents and the players themselves the winning techniques that have worked for us. We hope that by using and understanding these techniques, parents can help their daughters attain their goals. We also want to show the girls that it's all right to compete and that they can do so at the highest levels and succeed.
During the years I've coached women I've learned a lot about myself, and with the help of my players, my family and especially my wife, Diane, and Colleen Hacker, I think I've evolved into a better coach, one who knows that there's more to the game of soccer, to any sport for that matter, than simply x's and o's. It's about competing. It's about winning. But perhaps most of all, it's about having fun and enjoying the journey along the way.
My Coaching Philosophy
The objective in any team sport is to transform the group from a mere collection of talented individuals into a highly cohesive unit so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Even before stepping onto the field for tryouts or the first day of the season, you should know, as a coach, how you are going to approach the game. Think of it as a game plan on a larger scale, a blueprint for the kind of coach you want to be. Over the years I've been asked many times what my coaching philosophy is, so I've tried to sum it up here as succinctly as possible, breaking it into ten rather simple principles. Taken together these principles show how I approach teaching and coaching.
1. Know Your Limitations and Use Them as Strengths
Whatever you do, do it to the best of your best ability. This sounds obvious and maybe even a little simplistic, but its very important corollary is that you must understand what your best abilities are and then work with them. In other words, in order to perform at the highest level, you have to know your limitations and at the same time use your strengths. Being aware of your limitations allows you to enhance your performance by surrounding yourself with the best people, which is what I've always done. Frankly, I've seen a lot of people do the opposite. People who are afraid their abilities will be undermined are threatened by the talents of others. And I have to admit that at times, I've felt that way too. It can be pretty scary to be surrounded by people more talented in some areas than you are, but in the end I've always tried to appreciate my own abilities and those of my coaching colleagues to allow us to do what was best for the team to help us win.
Surround yourself with talented people who understand their role in the larger scheme of things. If you have a tremendous talent with a big ego who goes behind your back or works behind the scenes to try to undermine what you're doing with the team, that person is undermining the team. I've always brought in talent who understood the role they'd be playing. Sometimes I brought in people who had different opinions about the game or what should be done in certain circumstances so I could learn from them and, in turn, they could learn from me. I've always tried to be the kind of leader who brings in other leaders. At the same time, I have to be sure they're loyal, that they keep the team as their number-one focus so that together we can achieve success. In my experience, whenever I've enjoyed success it wasn't just my success but also that of Colleen Hacker, Jay Hoffman, Lauren Gregg and April Heinrichs, all of whom were an integral part of my coaching staff. And in the end this is why we won: Each of them brought to the table unique talents that complemented my skills.
If you're coaching at a the nonprofessional level or the equivalent of a youth soccer team, you're probably not going to have the luxury of surrounding yourself with experts. In that case, the best thing you can do is learn as much about the game as possible. In terms of tactics, there are a number of books or videotapes that can help prepare you for the season. It's also a good idea to watch as much soccer, both at the professional and amateur level, as you can.
2. Play Hard, Play to Win, Have Fun
You must teach your team to play hard, no matter who the opponents are, because you're setting your own standards, playing toward goals you want the team and each player to achieve. Your players must learn that the best respect they can give opponents is to play to win, to show them their best.
When I look back, one of the things I'm proudest of is not the record of our team-103 wins, 8 losses and 8 ties over a five-year period-but that we had a winning record against every opponent and that no team beat us that shouldn't have beaten us. To me that's unique because at times it's easy to play down to your opponent's level, to leave some of the key ingredients that make you special out of your play.
Playing to win doesn't mean that winning is the end-all, but it's an important component of success. And yet the game is still just that, a game. You need to keep things in perspective and communicate that approach to the players. We're not conducting open-heart surgery or flying a plane with only one engine or performing heroic acts the way firefighters, police officers and our military personnel do every day. But in the heat of the moment of the Big Game, winning is certainly very important. If you're coaching or playing in a Gold Medal game, it will be one of your most important accomplishments. Even then it's still a game, and no one's going to live or die because of it. All too often, coaches and parents take the fun out of the game, and when that happens you might as well have your team play with a weight on one foot, because you're making it that much harder to achieve and enjoy success.
Remember, most of the players you're coaching are not going to go on to the highest level of competition or even to the collegiate level. If you create an environment of fun in which your players appreciate physical activity and learn the game and teamwork and strategy, you will teach them discipline, team chemistry and confidence-building skills that will translate into other areas of their lives.
3. Less Is More
The phrase "less is more" was something we said during the Olympic and 1999 World Cup buildup. Ours was an incredibly fit and mentally focused team, a team trained to peak performance that resulted in winning games. What we learned from many Olympic athletes and some of the Olympic and National team coaches, however, was that at some point they did too much, and as a result they didn't achieve the success they might have otherwise. When asked what they would have done differently, athletes who underachieved often said, "I would probably not have overtrained in the last month."
So when you're at the final stages of preparation for the big tournament or game, back off from the physical training a bit and spend more time fine tuning, making sure everyone is confident. If you've prepared properly, you'll actually get more out of it.
4. The Relay Paradigm
There have been studies that show that exceptional swimmers are actually faster when they swim 100 meters as part of a relay team than when they are in an individual race. It seems that as part of a team an athlete gathers support from the other team members, which makes the individual better. In other words, as a part of the whole, performances are raised, and that's the relay paradigm, as Colleen refers to it. The effective coach nurtures these performance-enhancing team relationships so that the team's performance is better than the sum of its players' talent and coach's leadership.
5. Vulnerable, Humble Leadership
There are many successful leadership models, but some of them are now outdated. For me these would include the methods used by coaches such as Bobby Knight, Mike Ditka or the former Ohio State football coach, Woody Hayes. These are leadership models that in large part traffic in intimidation tactics. Many of their players loved these coaches, obviously, so there was certainly a side of them that was very positive, but they also had the presence of demigods, and that clearly won't work when coaching girls or women. My leadership style is very different: I believe it's important to show players that I'm not perfect, that I make mistakes.
Showing my vulnerability, I believe, allows me to inspire players and doesn't separate them from me. It's important that players know you understand some of the insecurities and challenges they're going through, and you can do this only if they see your own vulnerability. So when you make a mistake, and we all do, ask yourself if you can admit that you made that mistake. Or are you caught in that place where you say, "I am a leader and I can never question myself or put myself in a position where I can be challenged in my leadership"?
To my way of thinking, being an infallible coach is far less effective than admitting your vulnerabilities and leading through your humanity. This is not a new leadership style: John Wooden and Phil Jackson exemplify this model.
6. Validate Their Feelings
Validating a person's feelings is something I learned while working with women. It is a method of interaction that optimizes listening skills. For example, when somebody comes to you and says, "I've had a terrible day. I went to a meeting and found I was an hour late." They don't want to hear you say, "Well, you know, I have a great pocket notebook that works for me, and it's really kept me organized." What they want is for you to say, "You must feel terrible about that. You probably feel like you let people down. I'm sure they're going forgive you though, because they know what type of person you are." This way, you're validating and sharing those feelings or, as Colleen might say, "wearing" those feelings with them.
Let me give you an example of something that happened with Mia Hamm when I took over the team in 1995. We were playing in a tournament in France and, admittedly, I was overcoaching from the sideline. I was trying to tell the team, and specifically a certain player, the runs and tactics from the sidelines that I felt should be made. At one point Mia, who's a lot like me in that we're both fiery people, came over and said, "Tony, just let her play."
I thought Mia was really displaying a lack of respect and I said a couple of not-so-nice things to her, and then when she made a bad play I yelled out to her and kind of dug in the knife a bit. At halftime Mia was visibly upset with me, and I wasn't about to change the way I was feeling either. I was ready to take her out of the game, but when we got back on the field, Carla Overbeck, our captain and a tremendous leader, came up to me and said, "I know you're really upset with her, but let's keep her in the game. This is how we're going to get her back." I thought a moment and then said, "All right, Carla, let's give your idea a try." My agreement with Carla not only empowered her and helped our relationship, but it also avoided a rift between Mia and me that could ultimately affect the whole team.
I always have individual meetings with players on tournament game days. I knew that Mia would probably be dreading coming in to meet with me for our one-on-one time before the next game. And the truth was, I was dreading seeing her. But in the interim I was able to think about how she felt and the effect of my actions. And as hard as I tried not to, I kept coming up with the inescapable conclusion that Mia was right: I was overcoaching. I hated to believe that, but it was true.
So when she came in for our meeting, I said, "You know, Mia, we have to talk about the other day."
"I know. I know," she said.
"Look, I've given it a lot of thought and I think there are a couple of things we have to talk about, but the bottom line is, and I need to tell you this, I think you were right. I did overcoach." The look on her face was as if I'd said, "Mia, here's a thousand dollars." And that's because what I did was validate what she felt, and what she saw. The next few moments were filled with apologies back and forth: "I overreacted, I shouldn't have said what I said." "Well, you know, I did the same thing."
Mia left and in our game that night she put on quite a show, scoring a hat trick. We destroyed Canada. Afterward the staff wanted to know what I had said to her. I remember the team doctor coming up to me, looking for some gem and asking, "How did you get her to play like that?"
"Well, I sat her down and said, 'You know, Mia, I think you're right.'" He just loved that because he recognized it as coming from a place of strength, showing that I could be vulnerable, that I could validate Mia's feelings, and that I had taken the time to really evaluate the whole situation and be objective about it. I know that for Mia and for me, instead of forcing us apart, the incident actually improved our relationship.
In effect, what I did was to try to put myself in Mia's place, to validate her feelings, which then empowered her.
from Catch Them Being Good by Tony DiCiccio and Colleen Hacker, Ph.D., Copyright © September 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission