World Cup champion on creating team bonds
By Greg Bach
The 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team – winners of the World Cup in that unforgettable shootout against China in the Rose Bowl – was mighty special for a lot of reasons.
Besides their talent (there was a lot of that); and their passion (their play captivated a nation and inspired children everywhere); there was an extraordinary team-wide bond that players still rave about 20 years later.
“What was so cool about our team was that even though I didn’t play a lot I still felt 100 percent a part of the team,” says Danielle Fotopoulos, a forward for the Red, White and Blue and the long-time head women’s soccer coach at Division II Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. “That took a lot of work from the starters, and our team as a whole, to make those connections and those bonds. And that’s what I’m always trying to do with the teams that I coach.”
It’s one of those goals that should reside at the top of every youth coach’s to-do list: creating a culture of team-first players who support, encourage and respect their teammates.
“I’m a Division II college coach and I literally just had this talk with my team,” Fotopoulos says. “We have 10 freshmen coming in, so I asked my players when they were freshmen what felt good to them and they said when the seniors went out of the way to be their best friends. So, I told them ‘here are our new players – make them your best friend.’ It comes from the effort of the players.”
And it starts with coaches alerting youngsters to the importance of caring about everyone – not just the team’s best players.
Every player has a role.
Every player is valuable.
And as the coach it is mega important that everyone on the roster genuinely feels appreciated.
When you bring together a group of athletes – with varied personalities, life experiences and skills – getting everyone to work together, accept roles and even get along can be incredibly challenging.
Fotopoulos, one of the greatest players in the history of college soccer, learned all about it while playing for Becky Burleigh at the University of Florida.
“There were certain people who annoyed me on the team,” Fotopoulos explained. “And she said to me, ‘Why don’t you take those two or three people and make them your best friend and see what that does for our team chemistry.’ So I did and you know what? It immediately changed the whole chemistry of our team.”
Did it ever.
Fotopoulos would lead the Gators to the 1998 national championship, delivering the game-winning goal against North Carolina. That team excelled for many reasons, one of those certainly being that everyone felt a part of the process and they played hard for each other on their march to a championship.
These days many young athletes pile unrealistic expectations on themselves to perform mistake-free in games; or they feel crushing pressure from coaches and parents to be perfect.
Fotopoulos has seen it at all levels of play.
And it doesn’t work.
“A lot of people are extremely hard on themselves because they feel like they have to be perfect and that they can’t make a mistake,” she says. “And that is so false. You can make mistakes and you’re going to make mistakes.”
So coaches have to let young athletes know that mistakes are as much a part of soccer as corner kicks and throw-ins.
And that it’s all about helping kids to learn from the miscues and move on from them in a heartbeat so that it doesn’t compromise their ability to execute the remainder of the game.
“In soccer there are so many mistakes that are made at every level,” Fotopoulos says. “Professionally there are tons of mistakes made and that’s why there are only a few goals a game – those are perfections in order for a goal to be scored. So you have to help train players to know that you are going to make mistakes – and that’s ok – and then it’s about how do you recover from those mistakes.”
Part of that recovery process is maintaining positive body language when adversity strikes.
“We’re always talking about and making ourselves aware as a team of what kind of body language we are portraying to each other,” she says. “Most of the time when the body language is negative it’s a player that is just frustrated with herself, but what the teammates get from that body language is they think that player is mad or annoyed or frustrated with them. So, it’s learning as a player to be able to deal with those frustrations and learning how to make that a positive because body language, just like anything, can be negative or positive. So it’s learning to make positive gestures that helps bring yourself and teammates up.”
It’s all part of creating that team culture that is a wonderful part of sports and something young athletes will remember for a lifetime.
Just like the special memories World Cup champion Danielle Fotopoulos has of being on a team where everyone cared about each other.
And achieved greatness in the process.
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