October 25, 2013

30 in 30: Christopher Newport Playing Without Fear

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

"It was big because there were a couple of games when things weren't going right and the coaches were getting on us about mistakes. Then it started to change and they started reinforcing the positive things instead of going over what we did wrong," said senior midfielder Adam Abbate (above) about the Christopher Newport's new approach to coaching starting in 2012.
© Ryan Keely

It wasn't working.

Todd Boward could tell his Christopher Newport team was not maximizing its potential under the current system. A member of the CNU staff since its second year of existence in 2007 and the head coach for the Captains since the middle of the '10 campaign, Boward was both fully invested in the program and somewhat frustrated by the team's inability to reach the .500 level. Especially since that mark was necessary to keep them in the hunt for an independent bid to the NCAA tournament.

In the back of his mind, Boward had a sense of what might be the problem. A retired major in the U.S. Army, Boward's profession was based on running a tight unit where everyone had a job to do and if they couldn't cut it, there were repercussions. That tact is nothing new to the world of sports, but sometimes it takes a slightly different approach to tap into the potential of college-aged athletes.

"I looked over my notes back when I got the head coaching job in July of 2010 when I sat down and drafted out some things I wanted to accomplish," Boward said. "A lot of that stuff didn't really go right. Pieces didn't fall into place until we got Mikey Thompson."

Thompson, a two-time All-American and a captain at Virginia during his senior season in '10, joined the CNU staff in the fall of 2011 and immediately introduced some new concepts to Boward's core philosophy.

"He and I would sit down and spend hours together," said Boward of his confabs with Thompson. "We read a lot of books. The Talent Code. We read Pete Carroll's book. We read Anson Dorrance's book. We put together a road map on how we wanted to get better."

The changes weren't small. Essentially, Boward altered his entire approach to motivating his players.

"We wanted to change from being – and I hate to say fear-based – but we were kind of fear-based," admitted Boward. "Kids were performing because they didn't want to get yelled at by the coaching staff. We changed into a competition-based team. We began to measure everything. We changed our strength and conditioning testing where there weren't maximums and minimums, but rather, 'Do the best you can do and we're going to compare you to everyone else at your position.' All of sudden, kids started getting faster and stronger and bigger. We started asking the kids, 'How good do you want to be and what are willing to do to get there?' We developed the plan, but we put it on the kids to get better."

The new stratagem wasn't a subtle alternation.

"We definitely noticed it," said senior midfielder Adam Abbate. "It was big because there were a couple of games when things weren't going right and the coaches were getting on us about mistakes. Then it started to change and they started reinforcing the positive things instead of going over what we did wrong. We were watching film and we were watching our goals scored instead of our missed shots. That was huge for us and really boosted our confidence."

"If you didn't make your weight room requirements, you couldn't start," added senior long pole Teddy Pekalski. "If you didn't make your running time, you had to do extra running. It went from fear-driven to goal-driven, where you were encouraged to make it. In film, we stopped watching all of our mistakes and we started watching our good slides. Everyone was encouraging everyone to succeed."

The staff's latest tactic shouldn't be confused with a softening of expectations. There were was a significant attrition rate – "We went through some kids doing this," Boward said – because players no longer had to keep up with coach's expectation, but rather match the motivational goals of their peers.

"Since we've been here, the NCAA tournament was always a goal, but we had never reached that goal," said senior pole Teddy Pekalski (above). "I think last year validated all of the hard work we've been doing since my freshman year. It proved we're only on the upswing."
© Ryan Keely

"I don't think it was easy to embrace," Abbate said. "It definitely isn't for everybody."

"It took a little while to get used to because they asked more out of us," Pekalski said. "We were doing more running and more lifting, but it was on the basis of the team succeeding and it will help us out in the long run. Everyone was doing it together and it was more of a camaraderie thing. There were some kids who weren't able to buy in along the way and they've been weeded out. But I'd say 90 percent of the team loved the change and have embraced it ten-fold."

Faced with a directive from the administration to tame an unsavory retention rate, Boward has also revisited his recruiting policies. With Thompson helping CNU break into the Virginia prep school ranks and other parts of the country through his MLL connections while Boward taps into the Maryland and Long Island markets, the Captains are far more targeted in their decision-making.

"In years past, we've retained about half of the freshman classes," Abbate said. "Now, pretty much everyone is returning."

Everything paid off for Christopher Newport last spring. While they were just barely eligible with a .500 record, the Captains were awarded a bid to the national tournament. It was an affirmation for the coaches who were willing to change their stripes for the betterment of the team as well as for the players, who saw their diligence through the leaner times pay off.

"It was important, particularly for our seniors," said Boward of the tourney bid. "Our seniors had been freshmen in 2010 when we lost a coach in the middle of the season and the program kind of hit rock bottom. For us to turn it around and bring it back so those kids were able to go to the NCAA tournament was phenomenal. And the taste it left in the mouths of the returners has carried over until now. That's what they talk about."

"Since we've been here, the NCAA tournament was always a goal, but we had never reached that goal," Pekalski said. "I think last year validated all of the hard work we've been doing since my freshman year. It proved we're only on the upswing."

Not surprisingly, the Captains' tournament game against eventual national champions Stevenson in the first round didn't go well. The Mustangs hung an 18-6 loss on CNU, ending the season. The setback has been a useful one, however. With Christopher Newport joining the Capital Athletic Conference – the one-time home of Stevenson – as a full-time member this spring, they won't be intimidated playing the likes of NCAA participants Salisbury and St. Mary's.

"That was the biggest game we've ever played. We all walked out with the music playing and everyone was looking at the crowd," Abbate said. "Now when we play these other teams, it will be like, 'We've done this. We've been here before. There's no reason to be shocked. Let's just go play.'"

Can Christopher Newport realistically compete for the CAC crown in their first go around? They certainly believe they can. Maybe that's naiveté, or maybe it's part of eradicating the fear-based system that once held this program down. Either way, the Captains are a confident bunch, which probably should make others feel somewhat skittish.

"We're now at a point where we play fast, we don't reward being mediocre and everything counts and everything matters," Boward said. "I think you're seeing the results of that."


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