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Resources Apr 20, 2012

Drake uses “leadership council” to build winning culture among GMU women’s squad

By Dr. Wendy Lebolt

[Editor’s note: This is the debut of our new column from Dr. Wendy Lebolt, a longtime coach and physiologist who is the founder of Fit2Finish, a Northern Virginia-based training, fitness and rehabilitation company which works with teams and individual players to maximize health and performance. We’re excited to welcome Wendy to The Soccer Wire and look forward to presenting her learned perspectives on the mental, physical and psychological aspects of the beautiful game. Learn more about her background here.]

Diane Drake is in her 10th year as head women’s soccer coach at George Mason University. Earlier this year she graciously granted me a slot in her busy schedule, but the world of women’s collegiate soccer won’t leave her alone. It’s always recruiting season, she says. Even sitting behind her desk, she is in constant motion. She’s got everything she needs at hand: phone – both desk and cell versions – computer, team list. And when she doesn’t know for sure, she shouts across the hall, where the voice of one of her assistant coaches confirms the answer.

Division I head coach and mom to two active elementary aged kids is not quite enough. She also works with local club teams, exercises daily and is even planning a “century-plus” bike ride this spring. The woman is a competitor, even when it’s her against herself.

A sign on a table in her office reads, “The willingness to win is nothing without the willingness to prepare.”

A coach’s mantra, for sure, but there’s more to it than this. Plenty of teams put in the hours with not much to show for it, but Drake’s teams have made winning a tradition. They’ve finished in the top third of the very tough Colonial Athletic Association conference the last three years, and are aiming higher.

A quick check of the website archives tells you things haven’t always been this way. In 2006, the Patriots went 8-9-2. In 2008, 5-13-1.  In 2009 this was reversed as the GMU women made the biggest one-year improvement in the entire NCAA to run up a 14-4-2 mark.  The overall record in the last three years is 33-17-9.  She’s got the team moving forward in the win column. But it’s a battle out there, with so many tight games and such keen competition for recruiting in the Mid-Atlantic region. How, I ask, do you make competitors of the women who come to you?  How do you help them dig out those wins?

Drake tells me about recruiting classes and strong transfer athletes who have changed the dynamic on her team.  “The team is close,” she says.

But you don’t need to take her word for it. Go to the online media guide to listen to the players telling it in their own words. They tell you, “We’re close on the field and off.”

I checked this out with Mary Kate Lowry, a junior Kinesiology major.

“I LOVE my teammates!” she wrote in an email. “We are very close off the field, which I think correlates with what happens on the field. In past teams, I’ve had ‘teammates,’ but on this team I have ‘friends.’”

So how do you coach girls to compete on the field, yet be friends off of it? It just seems to go contrary to the female nature.

“They’re very competitive in practice,” Drake says. “We do a camping trip as a team builder pre-season. The girls were nearly killing each other playing a game to pop balloons.” All it takes is one or two girls to start the trend. Once you have “that competitive athlete that turns the tide,” they all ante up. These hyper-competitive players change the culture.

“You become that culture,” she explains.

But what about the teamwork: how do you kill each other and walk away as friends? Drake instituted a leadership council four years ago, when the team was at a low ebb in the win column.

She adapted the council idea from coaching legend Anson Dorrance and his staff at longtime women’s soccer powerhouse North Carolina. Drake appoints players to serve on the council, picking players she sees as good leaders – girls who “make good decisions,” she says, “that don’t just take the easy way out” of the hard stuff.

Lowry speaks candidly about the council. “We deal with things like team problems off and on the field, future plans [team trips/team get-togethers] and team improvement – what it’s going to take for our team to perform at our highest level on any given day.

“We meet about once a month. We decide as a group, and we usually decide the same way. We all have similar ideas about the team, and each person on the council brings a subtle, but very critical difference in perspective.”

I figure this is a gathering of the upperclassmen, putting the newcomers through their paces, but I am wrong. Lowry stresses the necessity of a mix of ages, including all class years. If it were just upperclassmen, the struggles freshmen are having would be missed, for example.

“The coaches organize the council and lead all council meetings,” Lowry says. “They also decide what the meeting is about. They will give the council various tasks and at times leave them to complete missions outside of their direct coaching observation. Whatever the subject may be, the coaches ask each for our individual opinions, and we talk about the topic.”

Does Coach Drake ever oppose a council decision? Yes, but it’s rare – maybe once every other year.

“Sometimes there are situations that require us to override their vote or not ask for their voice,” she acknowledges. “We have a mutual respect in this area and work hard to make sure the council understands and trusts we are keeping consistency and the team and individual player’s interests at heart.”

Drake runs or sometimes just attends the meetings to hear feedback from players on soccer and life topics, but she lets the girls tackle the issues. The council has introduced player-to-player accountability, and it has made them better.

For instance, if there is an issue of playing time, it’s completely different when they can say to each other, ‘you’re not playing because you’re not getting the ball off your foot well today. You have the skills, but you’re slowing down our speed of play.’ Honest conversation like this establishes internal accountability, with the best intentions for the team in mind.

Drake has created and defined an environment where the cooperation natural to women plays host to internal accountability. This makes the team stronger and allows them to compete fully, not just as teammates but as friends. And real friends are not afraid of helping you get better, even if it makes you stronger than they are – for now.

Coach Drake takes the long view. She’s preparing these girls for more than soccer. She’s stepping back so they can step up, and they haven’t let her down.

[ +Click here for more information about GMU Women’s soccer ]

[ +Learn more about Drake Soccer Camps here ]