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Consultant helps UMD coaches assess team 'culture'

University of Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski talks up the team during a game last September.
University of Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski talks up the team during a game last September. (University of Maryland)

College teams, like many businesses, are accustomed to coping with turnover, but the task awaiting Sasho Cirovski was daunting, even for a two-time national champion coach entering his 23rd University of Maryland men's soccer season.

A large senior class had departed before last season, and a few top players, including the starting goalkeeper, left early to sign pro contracts. Facing the biggest roster overhaul of his career, Cirovski needed more than intuition to help him successfully blend 13 new players into the mix, essentially rebuilding his team on the fly.

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Like an increasing number of major-college coaches, Cirovski turned to a consultant to help him better understand his reconfigured team. The organizational development firm, which also works with businesses and other sports teams, prepared a series of diagrams — they look like maps of the constellations — charting how each player seemed to relate to the others.

Three players were identified in the accompanying narrative as the "strongest leaders and potential captains," one was found to be "surprisingly lacking in influence" and another, it said, needed to "reach out" more to teammates.

"It's an MRI of what your team dynamic looks like," Cirovski said. "Sometimes it conforms with exactly what you think. Sometimes it gives you a major wake-up call."

College and professional coaches have long understood the importance of what is popularly called "team chemistry" or "team culture." These days, the science of gauging the dynamics of a team has become increasingly sophisticated and the practice of hiring consultants more common.

The consultants' work with teams has roots in the sorts of analyses that firms have provided to businesses for years.

"I definitely see parallels," said Sharon Glazer, an organizational psychology professor and chair of the University of Baltimore's Division of Applied Behavioral Sciences.

Sports teams are not unique in terms of dealing with turnover, Glazer said. "Look at airlines. Whenever you fly, each crew is a new team, but they have to act as a team. So the No. 1 priority in all cases is: Do the flight attendants and pilots and grounds crew all agree and understand what their goal is? Everyone has to be on the same page. When I do organizational development consulting work, almost all of the issues come down to a clear understanding of roles and goals."

At The Singer Group in Reisterstown, strategists might take a few months to gauge and chronicle the culture of a midsize firm or public sector department.

"When we look at a culture, we look at a variety of factors in addition to leadership," said CEO Paula M. Singer. "What the teamwork is like, what kind of feedback they're getting, what are the working conditions, what are the communications patterns."

At Maryland, the sports teams are smaller than many businesses, and their budgets are sized accordingly. But the goal is the same: to uncover emerging leaders and potential problem areas in a relatively short time.

A number of Maryland's teams, including men's soccer, men's basketball, women's soccer and wrestling, have used Windsor, Ontario-based Peak Consulting. The firm is run by Vancho Cirovski, Sasho's brother, who is also a human resources executive for Cimpress, a Canadian digital printing company.

To begin the process, team members log in to an online site and answer seven questions about themselves.

"From whom do you seek input and opinions before making personal decisions?" says one question.

"Whom do you rely upon when your team needs unity and motivation?" asks another.

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The responses are analyzed and charted using a proprietary computer program. The process might last only several days, although it is often extended.

"I send a final report," Vancho Cirovski said. "But it's not really final because then the coach can come back. He might say, 'What happens if I switch my lineup?'"

A consulting firm's fee for such services can range from $1,500 a day to $2,500 a day. (Cirovski said he discounts his services to his brother's school.)

Sasho Cirovski said the team assessment helped him determine that one of the 13 newcomers was quickly becoming influential among his teammates in the preseason. The player was given an expanded role, and "He became the glue of our team late in the year," said the coach, who said privacy issues prevented him from identifying specific players in the report.

The team advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament before losing in December.

Mark Turgeon, Maryland's men's basketball coach, also used Vancho Cirovski's services several years ago, saying it helped him learn how to accelerate the process of turning his players into a cohesive unit.

After coaching at four colleges in his career, Turgeon said he has learned various ways to induce team chemistry, and one of them is making sure the team has enough road trips.

"Getting on the road really brings you together," he said.

Turgeon isn't using a consultant so far this season, and his team, notwithstanding a late-season slump, is having its best season in years. Cirovski said Turgeon is adept at spotting positive and negative influences among his players.

"Mark is almost a student of this stuff," the consultant said.

The consulting trend has been popularized by University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who has regularly retained the Pacific Institute, a leadership development firm that's worked with more than half of the current Fortune 1,000 companies as well as with governments, educational institutions and teams.

The Crimson Tide has won four national championships in the past seven years. The Seattle-based institute also has a history of working with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, formerly the University of Southern California coach.

"Many coaches are asking the question — Nick and Pete have been so successful, and what are they doing? They are building culture," said Jack Fitterer, the institute's executive adviser.

At Alabama, an institute representative would show the team one of 12 eight-minute videos and then discuss the theme.

One such video focuses on overcoming scotomas, or blind spots.

"If a quarterback doesn't understand how to read a defense, that's a huge scotoma — that's one of sight," Fitterer said. "Or it could be, how do you scotoma out the sound of a large crowd in a stadium?"

At Maryland, even the coach of an individual sport sees value in expert analysis.

"It's an individual sport, but you need each other to motivate and grow," said wrestling coach Kerry McCoy, who has used Peak Consulting the past several years. "Everything is about information. The more information you can get about the people you're working with, the better."

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