“Catch Them Being Good”

Hi, it’s been awhile. I just haven’t had much to say and I’m trying to get away from talking about grad school or personal development because it’s just overwhelming and I’d like a break. But I’m back! Today I wanted to talk about the book Catch Them Being Good, by Tony DiCicco. We all know that he passed away last year, but I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was to the world of American soccer until after I read this book.

What a guy. What a book. It was a book on how to coach female athletes, mostly pertaining to soccer, of course. If you don’t know, he was the coach of the USWNT for a very long time. He started as a keeper coach, but eventually led the team to a 1996 Olympic gold, and were 1999 World Cup Champions — yes, THAT team. With Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly…we seriously have them to thank for the status of women’s soccer in the States today. And he had help from Dr. Colleen Hacker, the sports psychology consultant he hired (it took a lot of convincing but he got the USA’s Olympic committee to do it).

His ability to be honest about himself in his failures and his successes stuck out to me. He gave so many examples, and somehow remembered some of the smallest incidents with his players, which shows just how much he cares. Anyway, I think acknowledging both failures and successes are important because it’s important to celebrate the things you did well — it’s not arrogant, it’s necessary because it creates a balance in your life. It’s also important to recognize the failures and use those to do better.

That was the premise of his book. While I don’t think I will ever coach a high level of girls soccer (and I probably won’t have time to coach any level of girls soccer), it was extremely helpful to learn everything he said. I can definitely use it if I become a professor or have to educate athletic training students (in the way that I communicate), I found it so helpful in understanding how to treat myself. How to encourage myself, how to give myself the best possible opportunities to achieve, how to set goals. All those wonderful things. He talked about how to be a good leader, being humble and vulnerable, validating feelings, challenging people, individualism, and avoiding perfectionism. He gave examples of the times he did things well, times his players did well, and the times he failed his team.

This was exactly what I needed at this time. In my grad school interviews, I’ll hopefully be able to talk a lot about personal growth and how I’ve worked on it, and this book really tied it all together for me. I took notes on the book, as I’ve done with most self-help/coaching/science books I’ve been reading lately (recently, I went through the notebook and it was hilarious because some of the stuff is so random — I have no idea what I was trying to say half the time), and I took down a few quotes that to me, said everything about how to be a professional, and how to be good at what you do. His job as a coach was to make the players and the team the best that they could be, and isn’t that what we all want?

So here are some quotes, ideas or pieces of advice that really stuck out to me.

  1. “Make sure you err on the big side rather than the little side because you’ll never achieve greatness if you aim small”. I like this, because I like to think this is what I’ve been doing. I always had goals of working in professional sports, but that desire has gotten so much stronger over time. I’ve talked about this before, but I think people are often scared to speak their goals out loud, just in case they don’t achieve them. Because how embarrassing would it be if someone knew you tried…then failed? Tony talked about that a bit, saying that one of the players tried not to put too much pressure on the team by avoiding talking about going for the gold. But eventually she learned, and she began speaking at press conferences and such about winning everything — she was bold, the whole team was bold, and that’s how they did it. You NEED to set those big goals. You need to believe it’s going to happen, and it will make the journey so much better.
  2. “Catch them being good”. This basically meant to emphasize the positives. Sure, it’s very easy to zero in on all the failures and mistakes that were made, but finding fault in everything is a poor motivator and leads to disaster. Although you can’t fully ignore the negatives, you need to communicate well to keep their confidence while also urging them to improve. That’s the sandwich theory that everyone talks about…giving compliments, mentioning something to work on, and ending it with another piece of praise. It’s so important to do this. And besides, as a coach of higher level sports, most of the time you’re working with someone you want to keep — they have the talent. But they’re human, they’re going to mess up, so give them motivation, catch them in the good times. But also be honest. Don’t tell someone they had a good game if they didn’t really — maybe overall it wasn’t good, but there are definitely good, specific things you can point out (he gave this example with Mia Hamm a lot. I love hearing stories like this about the great athletes — even they struggle with perfection).
  3. “Park it”. This was something Dr. Hacker would say to get people back in the game after a failure/disappointment. She meant that you should leave the failure in the paring lot — get back to it later, but right now, park it and focus on the task at hand (most times, that means focusing back on the game). Basically, that failure usually doesn’t determine your worth and instead of obsessing over it, just know that you can go back to it later. Tony emphasized the fact that making physical errors is a huge blow to one’s confidence (as opposed to mental) — most athletes are very movement-oriented, so making a costly physical mistake can be really difficult to deal with. That’s why he didn’t instantly make a substitution for a physical mistake — he understood that his players were human, and doing that could cost someone’s confidence for the rest of the tournament.
  4. “Failure is fertilizer”. Failure is how we grow. Most of the time, you can’t get better unless you do things wrong first. Whenever you’re trying something for the first time, it’s possible you’ll fail. But if you let that potential failure stop you from trying something that has equal (or maybe less, at times) potential to work out and make you better, then you won’t get anywhere. Boy, do I wish I had understood this a few years ago. I would have done so much more in my clinical rotations. Tried so much more, asked more questions, and boldly and confidently evaluated injuries, even if I felt unsure at the time— I would eventually find out the right way to do things because someone would teach me, correct me, and make me better. Don’t actively try to fail, of course, but know what to do when it happens.
  5. The “Twenty-four hour rule”. I really liked this idea. Basically, you have 24 hours to sulk and feel absolutely horrible about the failure you made. But right after that? You better be making a plan on how to improve. I think it’s inhuman to expect that you’ll instantly be able to learn from a mistake and never feel bad about it. I’m a strong believer in having a clear head when you’re assessing a situation — if you’re angry, sad, frustrated or anything that clouds your mind, you’re going to incorrectly judge the situation. And you will either hate yourself or someone else for what happened. Rather, give yourself the time to feel, and then go at it. Sometimes this isn’t feasible, but when it is, give yourself some grace.
  6. “You’re not a professional unless you’re willing to take risk to the point of failure, or unless you know how to productively use failures when it happens”. This is how I want to live my life.
  7. “Act as if you’re the player you want to be” (or whatever it is that you want to be). Your attitude when you approach a situation can make such a big difference. Once you “buy in” to a goal, it changes everything. It’s sort of like that cheesy quote “She believed she could, so she did”. Some might see it as cocky, but I see it as one of the greatest things you can do for yourself. I have a lot of goals, and I’m finally realizing that I’m not afraid to speak them out loud (but I’m going to keep them in a personal file because this doesn’t seem the place to share your deepest desires), and I need to be confident in myself while also being honest. I think that’s the best way to truly humble yourself — humbling yourself isn’t constantly bashing your abilities and being “modest”, it’s acknowledging that you are not yet there. You have more to learn, but you have also done some great things.
  8. “The Power of One”. Figure out your influence on the team, the game, the environment, whatever you’re around. Know that you are worth something. I mean, you’re a part of the team or staff for a reason right? And once you know that, maybe you can figure out some more specifics. Tony also mentioned that it means to take responsibility for yourself, and that when you use your skills as part of the team, everything you do should be purposeful and well thought out. Everyone is unique and there for a reason — figure it out and use what makes you special.

He kept emphasizing that you need to take responsibility for your setbacks, failures, and actions, but that you need to take action to change. He always said to extract the lessons, and discard the rest — meaning the bad emotions. Owning up to your mistakes is such a humbling, uncomfortable experience, but you will make yourself better every time you do it.

I’ve been craving words like these for awhile…just to know that someone else understands exactly what I was trying to say. And getting these real world examples from such a well-respected coach and incredible athletes sealed the deal for me. Most of the time, he talked about instilling confidence in his athletes and ways to develop players to be their best, but it’s so applicable to yourself and the way you should treat other people.

I made a note that to be a good coach, you have to allow for freedom in style of play — although this is way more applicable to soccer and sports that move constantly on a bigger playing field. But anyway, you also have to treat people individually and communicate differently with everyone. You can’t micromanage as a coach or you’ll get nowhere, because you have to show that you have confidence in your players. And that is precisely what I aim to do in my future as a team player, a preceptor, or a teacher. No matter what I’m doing, I should still be patient with people. I should treat people the way I’d want to be treated — I’d want some grace, I’d want the room to make errors, and I’d want to be appreciated and trusted.

I’m not sure where I’ll be in about six months. I have no clue of the leadership, teaching or teamwork opportunities I’ll get, but I’m really excited to see how I adapt to these roles and I’m interested in the failures I’ll encounter on the way.

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Jen Xu

Jen Xu

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Athletic trainer, PhD student, coffee lover. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.