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Coaching teams: how girls become winners

With fall's youth soccer season starting up, Tony DiCicco and Colleen Hacker have two words of advice for coaches of female players:

Play nice.

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"You have to ease them into it," DiCicco says of grade-school girls. "They may not be ready to mix it up on the field. You have to make it OK for them to compete and dominate."

DiCicco and Hacker know a thing or two about getting female soccer players to perform. DiCicco coached the U.S. Women's National Team that won the 1996 Olympic gold medal and 1999 World Cup and now serves as commissioner of the WUSA, the women's professional soccer league. Hacker, an assistant dean at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., was a sports psychology consultant to the team.

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Together, they've written a book about coaching girls, Catch Them Being Good (Penguin Books, $14) released last week in paperback. In recent telephone interviews, they talked about how their gentler philosophy of coaching can succeed at every level and in every sport.

How Is Coaching Girls Different From Boys?

DiCicco: You're going to get to the same place, but you may need to bring them along differently. Often, girls aren't as comfortable in competitive environments. The best take on this I've heard was from [U.S. soccer star] Mia Hamm. In response to a reporter's question, she said, "Coach us like men, but treat us like women." She meant: Don't hold back. Train us like you would any elite player. But don't get in our face. Don't belittle us.

How important is gender then?

Hacker: Not that important. Studies show that between-gender differences are much less pronounced than within-gender differences. In other words, within any group of 20 girls and 20 boys you're going to have some who approximate your preconceived notions of the gender. There'll also be some within each group who are natural-born competitors and some who'll be reduced to a marshmallow by a harsh word.

The important thing is to have positive but also realistically high expectations for girls as much as boys. They can achieve and succeed and love the experience.

In your chapter on youth sports, you recommend against regimentation, making girls run laps or drill lines. Why?

DiCicco: I tell first-time coaches they'll be measured not by their training sessions but by what happens between training sessions. If the kids want to practice when they get home, you've done your job. The best coaching is the coaching that makes it fun. If it's fun at practice, you'll want to do it at home.

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How does your approach with girls work?

Hacker: It highlights the importance of celebrating and motivating excellence by focusing on people's strengths -- their strengths of performance, their teamwork. It's the guiding principal. You expect to find the positive, not wondering whether it's there. Some people's strength is their effort or it might be their off-field contributions to the team. There are many ways to catch someone being good.

It sounds like a lot of praise is involved.

DiCicco: You'll find that young players lack confidence. It's a new experience. You're in an environment that you're not sure about. Whether it's the youngest girls or gold-medal champions, it's the same thing -- create a challenge then guide them to success. You want to build self-esteem and self-confidence.

Could the same technique work with boys?

Hacker: Absolutely. This isn't about an absence of standards. It's not about ignoring errors. It's about finding the good and praising it. When there's a problem, it's about giving them the tools and strategy to make improvement. It's not about finger-pointing or fault-finding.

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What's your perception of girls sports in general these days?

Hacker: I'm thrilled. But there's also a lot of work to do. How do we improve participation rates that tend to drop off by age 14 or 15? We need more leadership roles for women -- and a greater variety of participation opportunities from recreational to Olympic so there's something for every child.

Are girls better prepared to play today?

DiCicco: Yes. It's changing. You know what we've always valued in men? They are dominant and aggressive and competitive. We valued women for being compassionate and nurturing. Now, I'm seeing those things in both genders. I see men who cry when a teammate is injured. The women I coach are very competitive and aggressive. We're seeing a meshing of those qualities that were once separated by gender.

Has the success of the U.S. national team made a difference?

DiCicco: They are unbelievable role models on and off the field.

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Excerpt

"Another essential rule is that both as coaches and as parents we should not yell at our players. We can encourage them, but should not chastise them because they've failed. I've always told parents that if they want to understand how difficult it is to play the game of soccer, they should bring a pair of cleats to one of our practices and get out there on the field. When they do, they'll see that the ball just doesn't always do what you expect or want it to."

-- From Catch Them Being Good by Tony DiCicco and Colleen Hacker with Charles Salzberg (Penguin Books, 2003, $14)


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