On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Aliceann Wilber, the first and only head coach of the women’s soccer team at William Smith College. She is the first woman in collegiate soccer history to earn 600 career wins, and her 612 wins put her in first place on the NCAA Division III Women’s Soccer all-time list and second among coaches in all divisions of women’s soccer.
On this episode of Bring It In season two, Aliceann sat down with Sam and discussed changing your perspectives generationally, coaching with substance, and the fear of failure.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Wilber shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: To kind of start, I want to ask, and I don’t want to lead with the hard stuff, but what does it take to coach? What does it take to be a great coach?
Aliceann: I think that’s a complicated answer, right? You have to love teaching. I really believe that. And teaching has to be a good fit for you, and so the other part of the teaching is you have to love the people you’re teaching, that you’re working with.
So I think for me to be effective, and I know I spent my early years in coaching where I was so focused on just the soccer aspects, the technical, tactical, all that. And I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out. You wouldn’t be able to really manage people. That’s where it’s at. So, that’s distilled down into a nutshell, I would say. I think to be a great coach, you need to be inclusive. You need to embrace other ideas. You need to embrace the people around you. Validate them, make them a big part of the equation. And I think in the same way, I do think this is important to your question so I’m “blah, blah, blah”, but I expect a ton for my players.
I coach with my senses for a long time, people can do more than they think they can. Or you just have to look back at some of the incredible feats of a man through history and how adaptable we are and how we can survive against incredible odds. History is full of it. And so we can do a lot more than we think we can. And if we don’t expect that you won’t get that. So I believe in creating a lot of expectations for the people that I work with.
Sam: That’s tough. Right? I mean, even in my business, people try to wiggle out of standards and expectations. I’d be interested to hear how you have changed as a coach, as maybe some of your players have changed generationally.
Aliceann: You’re right. I’ve had to change. I’ve had to change as the generations have changed. And sometimes I think my players caught me changing in ways that necessarily weren’t in their best interests where they used to call me at one period ‘old ironsides’, which I thought was really funny, because I was for John, we got this, you know, the iron lady sort of thing. And I think it was a year after we’d won our first national championship and I was like, oh boy, maybe I gotta lay off, I can’t just go back harder than the year before where we found their campaign.
And so I pulled back a little bit and, and they came to me and they just said, ‘we want the old Aliceann back’, like don’t let up on us. And so there have been instances where I think I have maybe been too sympathetic, too empathetically. There’s a term I learned at some point called ‘ruin is empathy’, and it’s one of my favorite terms because I find I could run into that, on my own volition.
So there is that kind of backstepping that I’ve done. But now I think working with this generation, I do a lot of trying to shift the perspective so it’s not from their more singular vision. I think I’ve consciously made an effort to say, ‘if you were me, how would you approach this? If you were X, how would you approach that?’ And I’ve gotten pretty, I think good results from shifting perspective.
I’ll tell you COVID right now, and working through this period of COVID with young athletes, and we’re not in a division one situation where they’ve been able to play games. We’ve been able to train, but have no competition. And I do think there was going to be some major residual damage from this isolation of pulling inward that COVID has exacted on all of us, especially when you’re working in a team setting, like the silos have gone higher and higher, the individual silos, the walls have gotten thicker and I get it.
I get why that’s happened because COVID has forced us to isolate, pull in, think about ourselves. And now when we’re going to try to apply to a team situation, we gotta move that ‘me’ to ‘we’ and it’s going to take some time. So I’m thinking a lot about that presently as my team comes back and we’ll be hopefully meeting together next week. How do I move us out of those silos?
Sam: Sure. There’s a great book, have you read The Talent Code, are you familiar? And when you’re talking, it makes me think of it because the way I interpreted the book, it’s a lot of the discussion around deep practice versus shallow practice. Obviously, the story of Futsal is at the center of the book. And I want to ask you about how you approach practice because even at this moment, it sounds like you’re going to have to accelerate your girls back to full speed, faster with maybe there’s a lack of experience that the last year has created. You said residue. How do you think about approaching practice?
Aliceann: In a normal year? We know like from sports psychology that you have to be in the same training zone that you are in a game zone mentally. So if we’re not training in that high-intensity specific focus mentality, and even physical exertion, we will not manifest that well in a game situation. So we have to match our training to the game specificity, I would say.
And I like practices that are like this, that once we get people’s concentration and focus, we don’t lose it. So there’s not a lot of breaks and relax and go have a drink and talk and chat and then come back slowly. It’s pretty regimented in that way. I’m not wanting to lose concentration too hard to get back. And so we believe in the deep training theory. Kids need to put themselves on the edge where it’s not comfortable or we’re not really going to make the games. I think with the population that I work in, there’s gotta be places where it feels fun to them and not just work, but I, my personal view of fun is when it’s a good challenge and you’re really locked in. That’s fun for me. So, I got to hope that some people are like me and less are not like me, I think.
Sam: Sure. I look at how many wins that you’ve accumulated over the years, and obviously it probably impacted a lot of athletes. On the coach’s side, so many business owners are struggling at developing the next manager, the next leader. How do you turn a top performer into a coach in the workforce? Is there anything that you’ve learned around coaching development, specifically on how you develop better coaches today?
Aliceann: Yeah, I think better coaches have more substance. I think I’ve detected in a number of, sometimes with assistants that I work in, that they’re so focused on just spitting out, getting things checked off, that a lot of their responses, whether it’s with recruits that we’re working with, or they’re current players, I feel are just too shallow and not thoughtful enough.
So, I’m really looking to help people grow their awareness of taking time to be more substantial, to give a little more depth, to give a little more thought, as opposed to just get it checked off where it does come across to me as pretty shallow, pretty breezy, slick, whatever the adjective you want to apply to it, is going to certainly going to be more conducive to growing good relationships with the people that you’re working with.
I work a lot with, we need to be pretty honest. Now, some people can handle honesty to a certain point and others can be downright honest, but I think being able to talk to anyone that you’re working with in a way where you get to that honest level to really have a meaningful exchange of ideas of information that leaves people in a place when they exit that conversation, that discussion, to be more productive, to be more effective because we’ve cut out the bullshit that covers some of the things. So I think that the capacity to figure out how to have an honest conversation, it might be uncomfortable, but it’s clear that you care enough about the topic, the person to go to that extent, I think is very important.
Sam: It’s like, we’re so wired to, I see it with young interns we hire where you’re trained, you’re maybe even in college or in high school to just follow the directions and just get to completion. And the problem is in the real world or on the soccer field, when you see things sometimes that you gotta react to, you have to be able to have more substance. You have to be able to be more prepared. But so many people are just so wired to just check the box, like you said, I think that’s so relevant.
Aliceann: Yeah. I think it’s very relevant now. And so a lot of times in this current generation, in this current time, people are multitasking all the time. And I think that’s conducive to these flat, shallow perfunctory responses that, what are they really eliciting in the end?
Sam: How do you keep a player’s focus on the fields? And that’s tough, right? It’s tough for me to keep employees in, and you mentioned the zoom world. The hardest thing on zoom now is that you can tell when someone’s checking an email and texting over here and doing all of this while they’re maybe engaged. What advice do you have for keeping players present?
Aliceann: So some of it is, I think, in the culture that you have created around whatever your organization is, we’re struggling right now with our culture, with this siloing effect that I talked about. But generally, I think we have a culture where we have created a pretty graphic vision that everybody has bought into, and that’s our north star that we’re hitching ourselves to. We’re all embarked on that climb to that vision, and people are just all in the same boat.
Now, if you’re not locked and loaded for a vision that resonates with everybody, that’s a different story, But I think that part with the concentration hasn’t been as difficult for me. I think the kids I work with in general, they want to please. And I, and I would say this is probably true for this young generation, they want to please, but they also say, ‘tell me how to do it. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’. And that’s as far as it goes, right. Just tell me and to the point where I’m like, I am not your Google, I’m not your cell phone, figure it out.
And I really believe figuring it out is so important now. Because that’s what the shallowness that I’m talking about is coming from. I think you don’t have to get down to figure things out.
Sam: Is it, you think, the fear of failure? You see a lot of kids who maybe, mommy and daddy were… I have a four-year-old daughter now, so I joke with my team. I go there are parents in the playground too, and I don’t understand it cause there’s mulch, there’s rubber, everything is injury-proof yet they’re six inches away from their kid for the whole 30 minutes that they’re in the playground. And, my wife played college soccer, and I played football, so we’re both very much, just, ‘figure it out’. But I mean, do you think the fear of failure, what is the reason for this?
Aliceann: I think it’s two things. I think that they want to please, they’re wired now to not fail. And this idea of perfection is all around them in social media. Like what goes on social media? Nothing that is subpar. It’s all up high in the sky, whether it’s an image or you tell me it’s happy words, but there’s not a lot out there unless you’re really trolling down. We won’t go there. But that doesn’t, I think converge on this thing of perfect, perfect, perfect, success, success, success. And so it’s gotten combined with the ease of how you can get answers without thinking is just Google.
Sam: We have a sign in the office here. It says, ‘do the hard shit’. That’s just, that’s become our thing, we try to tie it back to everything. I’m sure you’ve had so many mantras over the years, themes that you rally your team around, but that’s a big one for us right now.
Sam: We see it in the workforce where so many companies are trying to invest in equity programs by checking a box, almost like back to what you just said a minute ago. It’s a workshop and that’s it. It’s a seminar and that’s it. It’s a one day trainer and that’s it. And it’s just a lot more complicated and you don’t have to know the answer to it. And I’ve sat through some of these seminars where folks might be on pins and needles, because you might not know what to say and that’s, and I think the important thing is we’re talking about it, and I don’t know what the next steps are. I’m not an expert in that either. But I look at companies who are making an attempt to just be aware. So I think about sports as being a driver of this right now in so many ways.
Aliceann: And I think that we’re in a place where people who feel that they are in minority situations or are not treated systemically fairly, are now empowered to be able to bring that out in front of everybody and draw more attention to it. And I have found that more of my thoughtfulness around this has come from some of the documentaries that I’ve watched.
Netflix had done a thing. Steve McQueen produced it on Small Axe, which was a number of series based on true episodes around the Mangrove Nine in London in the seventies, look at the Chicago Seven, that movie that’s out. There was another documentary on a men’s crew out of Chicago that were the first all black rowing group. That was fascinating. Just to hear them talk about taking a uniform off of police and seeing them without that uniform completely transformed how they saw that person. And I was like, whoa, I don’t know that. So I’ve learned more by watching and by listening than by honestly going to all those checks.
I had my diversity training and I do worry that some of that is just perfunctory and where are we going with it?
Sam: Sure. I have one final question. I want to ask you because there are so many student-athletes that are at home and are trying to stay ready or at all levels of sports and they’re struggling without practice and play. What would you tell them to do during this time?
Aliceann: I think they really have to find the opportunities. And this is a hard thing, especially when you’re young, but do some serious thinking about where the opportunities are. Because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this whole COVID thing, because I see how it’s affecting our kids. Like our college kids for example, are so restricted as are the kids you say are being at home. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. And it feels like the walls are just crashing in on people. And I start thinking about the power of choice. And so if it’s my choice that I don’t break this COVID protocol, that’s empowering. I chose that.
So what’s the power of choice? I can choose my attitude. And I think a lot of it has to start there. I choose my attitude. That attitude is a choice, and so I choose to come out of this very challenging, claustrophobic experience, frightening in some ways, uncertain in others, as a stronger person. And now how am I going to make that happen? Maybe I watch more sports because that’s accessible to me. I don’t think in my world soccer, for example, I don’t think our kids watch enough in this country as compared to if you grow up in Brazil, it’s all around you. It’s in your blood. If you’re in Europe, it’s all around you, it’s in your blood.
And I generally find, again, in my soccer world that the kids we have who come from abroad have a higher soccer IQ, because they’re just exposed on more levels. So that would be one way I think that’s possible where you execute a choice. I choose to watch more because I can learn through that vehicle when I can’t be doing as much. I do think that there are ways to improve your flexibility, where you don’t need space. There’s tons of stuff with yoga now and I think increased flexibility makes anybody a better athlete. So, not necessarily focused on the things that are normal that I can’t do for my sport, but how to pull from other things that are gonna make me a better athlete when I can do my sport.
Sam: Sure. I had a coach that used to say, turn your biggest weakness into a strength. And if right now the challenge is space, or like you mentioned, whether it’s flexibility or watching, control what you can control. Right?
Aliceann: And that goes back to my ‘that’s a choice,’ you know? And so I think if we can be more cognizant of exacting choices constantly, I make that choice, I make this choice, we’re less victimized. We do have some control. That’s a powerful adult lesson. So if these kids have a chance of getting a little bit of that at a young age, they’ll be further ahead when they’re adults.
Sam: Coach. That was great. I appreciate you taking time today.
Topics Discussed: Leadership, Business, Competition, Coaching, Practice, NCAA