On December 8, 2000 The University of Connecticut men’s soccer team played in their second consecutive NCAA College Cup, the Final Four of college soccer. One year ago the team lost a heartbreaking 4 overtime match to Santa Clara. This year they were back to try to erase the painful memories of the past. I have been working closely with the team ever since Ray Reid took over the program 4 years ago as head coach. I was there last year in Charlotte when the team came so tantalizingly close to making a dream come true. I was also back with the Huskies this year and the following is my account of how the bitterness of defeat provides the fertile soil for the sweetness of victory.
ANATOMY OF A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “Anything you set your heart and mind to, you can accomplish!”
ANATOMY OF A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
When the game finally and suddenly ended, I was too stunned to react. There was a surreal quality to the fact that it was all over. I knew sudden death meant the game is over when the first score happens yet I still felt like, “Just wait a minute, there must be some mistake here! The game can’t possibly be over.” A number of the fans around me were crying. Others were staring silently forward in the same state of shock that I now felt. When I looked back to the field, many of the players were collapsed on the turf, overcome by exhaustion and emotion, completely and utterly drained. In the middle of this crushing defeat, Santa Clara players ran around the field in wild celebration. This was truly the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, side by side and UConn was on the wrong side!
I felt this sick feeling building up in the pit of my stomach that kept me company for weeks and months afterwards, whenever I thought about that Friday night. After the game I talked to the team. I felt like I was giving a eulogy at a funeral. I guess I was in a way. The guys had poured their hearts and souls into this season. They had played their hearts out in this game. They had physically gone through hell to get here and now it was all over. Both teams played well. Someone had to lose. Someone always has to lose. That’s the sad part of any great competition, especially when the losers played like winners. It seems a shame that they then have to leave the field feeling like losers, which in fact they weren’t. That’s just simply the nature of competition. You win someone loses. Unfortunately, it was our time.
“Losing STINKS,” I thought to myself. No doubt about it!! It feels just awful. Yet, within the loss and the painful feelings that accompanied it, a national championship was born. I hoped that the guys could use this experience as a source of motivation. I hoped that they would remember these terrible feelings whenever they trained and faced hardship, frustration and setbacks. Remembering how bad it felt can only propel you to go harder, to push beyond your limits, to get more out of each and every practice. It’s never how much time you put into practice that’s important. It’s always what you put into that time that’s really important. It’s the quality of your practices that count and keeping a goal in mind while simultaneously remembering the pain of coming up short will dramatically increase the quality of your training.
That’s the thing about failure. If you’re smart about it and you use it wisely it can motivate you to even greater heights. Being smart about it means that you don’t use your failures as an emotional whip to beat yourself up. Instead, you want to learn whatever you can from the experience, figure out what your weak points were, what you could have done differently, and then move on and begin to work on these.
Coach Reid had the team sit and watch the Championship game two days later, a bitter, yet important pill to have to swallow after coming so close. The guys hated this. It was incredibly agonizing to sit there and think that this is where you could’ve and should’ve been, “if only.” Success is ALWAYS built on your failures. Frequently the more painful and bigger the failure, the more motivation and opportunity you’ll get from it to power you ON to later success. To do this, however, you must pick yourself up off the ground, dust yourself off and begin again. The only true failure is when you stop trying to go for it.
In the Spring the team met to discuss the mission for the year. It was a “no brainer.” Everyone wanted to get back to Charlotte to finish what they had started last year, to win the National Championship. We talked about what it would take, the sacrifices, the commitments, the physical and mental hardships of training, a summer spent on campus taking courses and getting ready. We looked at what went wrong, both team and individual weaknesses, and what was necessary to make the dream come true this year. In August, after the freshman had joined the team, the guys developed a mission statement, the goals that THEY wanted to accomplish and what kind of team standards that had to be followed in order to successfully complete the mission. Each player signed a mission-commitment sheet agreeing to abide by the team rules in order to successfully reach their goals. A signed copy was framed and put up in the locker room as a daily reminder of where THEY wanted to go and what THEY had committed to.
If you want to accomplish something, I mean REALLY want to accomplish something. then you have to get very clear about exactly what your mission is. You have to spell out in detail, your goal and what you need to do to get yourself there. What’s it going to take? What weaknesses are between you and making that goal a reality? How much will you need to practice? How hard will you have to work? How uncomfortable will you have to make yourself? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to get there? The clearer you can get on your mission and the steps necessary to accomplish it, the better chance you have of seeing it happen. Understand that it’s always much easier to say that you want something. Talk is cheap! It’s much more difficult to follow those words up with action! Bottom line is this: How hard you work is how much you want that goal, not now much you say you want it!
Pre-season started and the reality of the grind set in. Soon it became clear who would get most of the playing time and who would be a “role player.” Role players worked their tails off in training, pushing the starters to their limits, yet rarely saw any action. Role players have the very hardest job on any team. They work, sacrifice, suffer and push themselves and yet they never or rarely share any of the limelight. Playing the game is what’s fun. Role players don’t often get to experience this. However, you can’t win a championship without a total team effort and without committed and dedicated role players. You can’t have committed role players unless the starters AND coaches respect and appreciate each and every one of the non-starters.
It would be untrue of me to say that every role player on the team was happy about the contribution that they were allowed to make to the team. I don’t know any serious athlete who likes sitting on the bench. There’s nothing enjoyable about it. However, unless YOU and your mates are willing to put “we” in front of “me”, a team can’t be successful. Remember, the whole is ALWAYS greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the team that wins the game and makes the season successful, not individual superstars!
Slowly, over the course of the season and despite periodic grumbling, this began to happen with the Huskies. As the team approached the championship part of the season, there was more of an acceptance among all the players as to how they were going to best contribute to the team’s mission. There was more of an understanding that the only way to accomplish this goal was for EVERYONE to come together. After all, it’s never the best team that wins. It is instead the team that plays best TOGETHER!UConn won the regular season Big East Championship and then, unexpectedly was upset in the semi-finals of the Big East Tournament. The loss dropped the team out of the national seeding for the NCAA tournament and eliminated any home field advantage. It was a tough reality check, but a blessing in disguise. Despite the fact that winning Big East was one of the team’s preseason goals, the guys knew that they had a much bigger prize in mind. The loss mobilized and refocused them. They beat Dartmouth 3-0 in the NCAA opener at home. In the round before the quarters they had to travel down to South Carolina to play Clemson at home, a team UConn had never before defeated. UConn let in a soft goal early in the game and dominated play for the remainder of the action. Unfortunately, they still trailed 1-0 the entire game.
Just because you’ve lost to a certain opponent every other time that you’ve played them, doesn’t mean that this game/match will end in the same manner. All too often, athletes and teams talk themselves out of playing to their potential by focusing on the history. Believe it or not, what’s happened in the past is totally irrelevant to this match as long as you can keep yourself focused in the NOW, on what’s happening in front of you. The past is, very simply gone and that’s where you want to leave it. Thinking “this always happens”, “we can never beat them” is nothing more than a set-up to underachieve.
With 3 minutes and a few seconds left in the game, and their season and dream slowly slipping away, the Huskies continued to maintain their composure and focus. They didn’t let themselves get sidetracked by the pressure and rapidly disappearing time. They kept their heads in the game, created a scoring opportunity and capitalized on it, sending the game into overtime. There was an understanding on the field and the Husky bench that the game was now theirs. Clemson seemed to be barely holding on to their lead as the final minutes of regulation slipped away. They hadn’t been able to mount an offensive for most of the second half.
What is mental toughness? Can you keep your head on straight when your back’s to the wall and the negative thinking and self-doubts are threatening to overwhelm you? Can you keep your concentration on the task at hand as the clock is inexorably robbing you of a chance to reach your ultimate goal? Can you stay relaxed under pressure and avoid the trap of pressing or trying too hard? Can you block out the home crowd who delights in everything that goes against you? Mental toughness is all about staying focused and relaxed under pressure.
This is exactly what the UConn players did. They gave a clinic in mental toughness. Playing probably the gutsiest and best game of their season, they pulled out a win in the first overtime period on an unbelievable bicycle kick by one of the freshman. This win gave the Huskies a quarterfinal game against a very physical Brown team at home the following weekend, the winner earning that coveted trip to the Final Four. The team entered the Brown game with pumped with confidence and beat them in a hard fought game, 1-0 setting the stage for a return to Charlotte and another shot at the National Championship.
I spoke with the team the day before their semi-final game and had the eerie, wonderful feeling that they were going to go all the way. They were relaxed and composed. They were focused and determined. They knew what they had to do and were unfazed that this was the Final Four. The key to peak performance under pressure is both simple to understand yet sometimes very difficult to achieve. You have to stay relaxed and focused. In the big games all kinds of elements conspire to prevent you from accomplishing these two critically important tasks. Stay loose and focused. Yet here I was with these guys and this is exactly what I was picking up from them. They were ready. I had the urge to write down, then and there, that I knew they were going to win the national Championship. However, being an athlete and as superstitious as the best of them, I didn’t want to offend the Gods of big game competition. I kept my thoughts to myself.
In the semi-finals against Southern Methodist University, the #1 goal scoring team in the country, UConn erased the pain of the previous semi-finals by playing a virtually perfect game. They completely shut down the much talked about SMU offense and won 2-0. Interestingly enough enough, one of the Huskies’ important goals at the beginning of the season was to turn themselves into one of the best defensive teams in the country. Their shutout of SMU was pretty clear evidence that they had accomplished that goal.
Now UConn was one game away from that dream that had started one year ago to the day when they lost to Santa Clara. One game away from a National Championship! The weird feeling that they were going to win was stronger than ever inside of me. I knew that the National Championship was inevitable. Talking with the players on the Saturday before the game only reinforced what I felt. They were loose and relaxed. They were confident. They were focused on themselves and the task at hand. They were not caught up in the hype, the media circus which is the final four, the prowess of the opponent. The players knew to keep their focus away from “uncontrollables.” They knew that there were many elements completely out of their control. They also knew that focusing on uncontrollables will only get you uptight, kill your confidence and make it impossible for you to play to the very best of your ability. Their mission was even clearer now then it had ever been. The end result seemed inevitable.
Sunday, game day was unseasonably cold in Charlotte. It seemed like forever before the 1:00 pm start time. What was my problem? I wasn’t even playing? UConn’s final opponent, Creighton had beaten twice defending National Champion Indiana in their semifinal match-up. Creighton played the wide open game style favored by the Huskies. The game was predictable. The defense shut down Crieghton’s offensive power and midway through the first half UConn, got a penalty kick opportunity which they converted. The first half ended with a 1-0 lead. With less than 10 minutes to go in the game UConn scored again to ice the game and secure the National Championship. It had happened! That weird feeling I had had in my gut was right on!
As I watched the players celebrating on the field I couldn’t help but think for a moment to the heartbreak of the previous year. There is no question that your successes are ALWAYS built on top of your failures.
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
“Anything that you set your heart and mind to you can accomplish”
It’s funny how dramatically life can change and how a chance, seemingly insignificant event can set into motion a chain reaction of things that will change you forever, things that before this event you could never, ever have anticipated. Billy thought about this on that fateful night when he was too upset to sleep.
Billy had had a very tough life. Growing up with an alcoholic mother and an emotionally abusive and distant father doesn’t exactly give you a leg up on this game of life. But everyone has their own personal dragons that they need to confront and slay. Sooner or later the tough times come and the measure of a man/woman is how he/she chooses to handle these. Unfortunately for Billy and his brother, it’s a bit too much to ask young children to deal with a father who has nothing better to do in his life than continually put his kids down. A mean spirited and bitter man, Billy’s dad made the boy constantly feel like he wasn’t good enough for anything, that he was a total loser. Perhaps that’s why Billy was afraid to tackle anything new, why he stayed away from sports and refused to join any of the extracurricular activities at school. Why open yourself up to more humiliation when you get all you can handle at home?
How could Billy have possibly anticipated that forgetting a homework assignment and being asked by a teacher to stay late just to make it up that one day in 3rd grade was going to change his life forever. Actually you could say getting into trouble with this teacher saved his life because it was on that day that he found soccer. Truth be told, you could say that soccer actually found him. He had been walking home past the athletic fields when he saw his favorite teacher of all time, Mr. Josephson with a group of kids who were running around kicking a soccer ball.
Now everyone, sooner or later meets one individual who really makes a difference in their life, an individual who cares, who believes in you, who encourages you to go against all that you thought was impossible. Mr. J was one of those people and had been Billy’s math teacher in second grade and had been the very first adult who had made him feel special about himself, who made him feel like he was worthwhile. Billy had been so sad when 2nd grade had ended and he had to say goodbye to Mr. J. He would’ve given anything to be with him another year. He would’ve flunked math on purpose just to take it all over again if he could have gotten away with that with Mr. J. Heck, he even would’ve taken square dancing if Mr. J. was teaching it, and lord knew how much he had hated square dancing back then!
So Billy had stopped for a minute to watch. When Mr. J saw him there he came right over and told him he was organizing a third grade soccer team and invited him to join. Billy’s first reaction had been to panic. He had always thought of himself as kind of a klutz and uncoordinated. At least that’s what his father had always told him and he was so sure that he would look stupid and make a fool of himself in front of those other kids. Mr. J. had sensed the boy’s fear and repeated those familiar words that Billy had heard over and over again in second grade and all through the years: TRUST YOURSELF. BELIEVE IN YOU! YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH WHEN YOU SET YOUR HEART AND MIND TO SOMETHING.” It was funny how all those years later he’d hear Mr. J’s words.
So against his better judgment and ignoring his fears Billy had joined the other boys on the field. Within a few minutes he had started having fun and even as he thought back on this experience that fateful night of his senior year before the State Final game, he remembered how surprised he had been that he was having fun and that he was actually good at it. He never forgot Mr. J’s words after the practice, words that he had desperately grabbed a hold of like a drowning man does a life preserver: “You’ve got some talent here Billy. If you work at this you could be great!” The kid hadn’t been able to sleep that night. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about soccer and Mr. J’s words, repeating them over and over again in his head…from that day on, Billy had never looked back. Soccer had become the most important thing in his life. He was so grateful to Mr. J that at the end of that third grade season he had bought him a little plastic trophy cup with “World’s Greatest Coach” written on it. He was so delighted and proud to see the little trophy sitting on Mr. J’s desk in full view.
His father could take away a lot of things from him, but NOT soccer. It was his. It was precious. It was who he was. It didn’t seem to matter anymore how nasty the old man was to him. The meaner he got, the more it drove Billy to practice harder. And Mr. J’s door was always open to him. He couldn’t change what was going on at home, but Mr. J had listened and reassured him. He was understanding and so Billy didn’t feel as quite alone. Mr. J’s words were always a comfort, “Believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter what others say about you. It only matters what you believe. Trust yourself and know that anything you set your heart and mind to you can accomplish.”
As he remembered all these things Billy couldn’t believe that it had all come down to this awful night. He had never felt so angry before. Even his old man hadn’t ever gotten him this enraged. Life just wasn’t fair! He wanted to scream. He just felt so helpless.
Billy had played for Mr. J’s soccer teams right through middle school. He’d gotten to be one of the best players in the area when Mr. J encouraged him to try out for the State ODP team. At first, Billy had been filled with self-doubts and nervousness. But Mr. J. wouldn’t let him stay there. He had reminded him, “You have the ability to make this happen. Trust yourself and go out there and play with heart. Ignore your fears, HAVE FUN and just go for it!” So he had! His tryout was great. He was asked back for another and when the call came notifying him that he had been chosen for the team, Mr. J was the first person he’s called. It almost didn’t matter that his father hadn’t asked him once about it! Mr. J had been ecstatic about Billy’s selection and told him to remember the lesson here, “Anything you SET your heart and mind to you can accomplish.”
It’s funny how all those things were coming back to him now as he sat nervously there on the edge of his seat….Why did that PHONE have to ring?
By the time he had reached high school Billy has developed into one of the better forwards in the state for his age. He had a winner’s attitude and unbelievable work ethic. College scouts had even started to show up for some of his games. It had been tough for him to say goodbye to Mr. J when he moved to high school and varsity. The high school coach was OK but he was no Mr. J. Billy continued to periodically run into his old coach, but between schoolwork and everything else their contacts became less and less. At night, in bed he would frequently replay some of Mr. J’s words in his head, You’ve got great talent. Trust yourself! Believe in YOU!” They were such a comfort to him.
When Billy showed up for the first meeting of junior year try-outs he was surprised and delighted to see Mr. J there with their regular coach. He hadn’t seen his friend in so long. When their coach made the unexpected announcement that he would have to retire immediately because of his health, and that Mr. J was taking over, Billy wanted to jump up and scream for joy. Of course he was sad that the old coach was leaving, but he was thrilled that he was back playing for his mentor. Junior year turned out to be unbelievable. The team had a winning record, qualified for post season play and got to the quarterfinals before losing a close game to the eventual State Champions.
Senior year rolled around full of promise. Three colleges were competing for Billy, each offering a full ride. Who could have anticipated the lousy chance event that had him sitting here, mind racing, emotions running wild?
As team captain, he and coach had planned how the team was going to make a run for an unprecedented State Championship. The season had gone brilliantly. Billy and his teammates had played with confidence and passion. Billy had come of age. He was strong, skilled and focused, understanding one of Mr. J’s critical lessons, IF YOU WANT TO PLAY WELL, YOU’VE GOT TO STAY LOOSE AND HAVE FUN! IT’S ALL ABOUT ENJOYING YOURSELF.
As he sat alone in the coach’s office the day before the State semi-finals, he looked around at all those familiar plaques and pictures. He saw his little plastic trophy cup sitting on a shelf, the one he had given to Mr. J after that first year so long ago now. He thought about his start in the sport. His father and how Mr. J had changed his life. How he had gotten him to believe in himself and pursue his dreams. To PLAY WITH HEART…he became emotional as he thought about how much the man meant to him. How do you ever find the words to thank someone who has done so much for you? How do you really thank someone who so positively changed your life? Mr. J had been a much better father than his own. He felt so grateful. Spontaneously Mr. J’s words popped into his head, TRUST YOURSELF. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF….ANYTHING YOU SET YOUR HEART AND MIND TO YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH.
Billy’s team won their semi-final game in a hard fought, emotional double overtime thriller. Finals was to be played the following Friday afternoon. The phone call came in the night before. There had been a bad accident. Mr. J. was very badly hurt. Some drunk had run a red light and hit him broadside on the driver’s side. He was in intensive care and things didn’t look good….Billy was totally devastated. Why did this have to happen? Why Mr. J? Why couldn’t it have happened to his no good for nothing father instead? Someone like Mr. J didn’t deserve this. Life just wasn’t fair. In a daze he went to the hospital. . Even though he couldn’t see Mr. J he just sat downstairs in the waiting area, staring off into space, his mind racing over every experience he’d ever had with his beloved teacher/coach. The tears flowed freely and he didn’t try to stop them.
He just didn’t care anymore. Nothing seemed to matter, soccer, school, his troubled relationship with his parents. If Mr. J died he felt like he’d be losing a part of himself. He felt totally lost. Eventually he walked home alone, went straight up to his room and got down on his knees and prayed for the very first time in his life. The tears wouldn’t stop. Finally, emotionally exhausted, he fell asleep. He dreamed that he saw Mr. J walking towards him and smiling. Then Mr. J began to speak. “Billy, I’m OK my friend. I am fine. Don’t ever forget how very special you are and that your team needs you TOMORROW. Trust yourself. You’re a winner. Play with your heart tomorrow and remember believe in yourself.” And like that the image was gone. Billy awoke with a start and couldn’t get back to bed the rest of the night.
One hour before the game started, Billy and his teammates were in the locker room trying to get ready for a game that no one wanted to play. Billy had told his teammates about the dream, but even he was too shaken up by events to really believe it.
They were just about to leave the locker room when the assistant coach’s cell phone rang…Everyone froze. Suddenly everyone fell silent. After the coach said hello, all he did was respond with one word, short answers, “yes”…”no” “I understand”…”yes” “OK”…as tears streamed down his face. Seeing this and fearing the inevitable, Billy and his teammates began to tear. Finally the coach said “OK…I’ll tell everyone…please take care of yourself.” After he hung up and composed himself the assistant coach said….
“That was Mr. J on the phone….he’s going to be OK. He said he’s real sorry that he can’t make the game, but he had some things that he wanted me to tell you guys.
He said ”You guys are ready for this. You’ve done everything you could possibly do to prepare. No one has worked harder or wants this as much as you. You guys have a championship game inside of you. Just go out there and have fun. Believe in yourself. Believe in each other because lord knows I sure believe in you. Play with your heart. Play for each other and know I’ll be there in spirit”
More tears filled the room along with an emotional energy that was overwhelming. Billy and his teammates went out and upset the defending champions, playing focused, inspired soccer. They totally controlled every facet of the game against a stronger, bigger opponent. Billy scored two goals and assisted on a third. As you can imagine the team dedicated the game and their victory to Mr. J…
It’s ten years later and Billy went on to have a very successful college career, even helping his team to a Division I National Championship. Mr. J is retiring and Billy has gathered with all his mentor’s former players to honor a coach who had built a soccer dynasty in their state. Mr. J got up to speak and was very brief, thanking his boys for all the fond memories and good times. “I may not have been the best soccer coach in the State”, he said, “but no one had more fun coaching than I did. I treasure all the time we had together.” He then proceeded to hand each former player a plaque engraved with the following words, “TRUST YOURSELF, BELIEVE IN YOU. YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH WHEN YOU SET YOUR HEART AND MIND TO SOMETHING.”
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