Building a Championship Culture
By Brian Logue
On Friday night of the 2016 US Lacrosse Convention, Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala explained how building a family was essential to the success of the Blue Jays’ program.
One of the game’s greatest players, the all-time winningest coach at one of the nation’s most storied programs, says that family is the key. Got it, check.
On Saturday morning, Gettysburg men’s lacrosse coach Hank Janczyk said that he hears coaches talk about making their team into a family, and he doesn’t understand it. He joked about a family wedding he was going to the next weekend, and some of the carousing relatives he would see. He loved his family, but he said, “I wouldn’t want them on my team.”
So, Janczyk, one of the most respected coaches in the game and proud owner of more than 400 victories, says that family isn’t the key.
Understandably you could be, but Pietramala summed up one of the most important things about building a championship culture for your team in his presentation.
“Your approach has to fit your program, and it has to fit your personality,” said Pietramala.
For Janczyk, that meant getting a little tougher. After back-to-back 9-6 seasons, subpar by Gettysburg’s standards, Janczyk led a full evaluation of his program that included hard discussions with his assistant coaches, team captains and his players.
“We had some brutally tough conversations,” said Janczyk, but he took the messages to heart. “When the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of change, you change.”
Gettysburg made a number of changes that weren’t always popular in an effort to make everyone accountable. He posted a weekly depth chart, ranking players 1 through the bottom at each position, so that everyone knew exactly where they stood. They created a travel team, where players had to earn their spot to make the roster for road trips. The results were dramatic – Gettysburg won its first 20 games in 2015 before falling to Lynchburg in the NCAA semifinals.
Pietramala’s family approach helped Johns Hopkins weather a tragedy last season. Freshman Jeremy Huber died unexpectedly last January.
Before each season, the team agrees on five words they will rally behind all season. Last year’s words were 59 (for the number of people in the locker room on game days), trust, fearless, passionate and grit.
“What do you say to a group of guys when they lose a game, when they’ve lost a friend?” said Pietramala. “Our commitment to each of these things helped us get through a really challenging time.”
After opening the season with a 4-6 record, Hopkins rallied to win the Big Ten championship and reach the NCAA semifinals. Its Big Ten championship rings had each of the five words and Huber’s uniform number 19 etched on the rings.
Sometimes two coaches can do the exact same thing, but the way they do it can be completely different.
Each fall, the Hopkins men’s team holds a “Turkey Bowl” football game. Pietramala created the tradition, and the players love it. He has a love-hate relationship with it. He loves how much the guys love it, and how it brings them closer together. But the guys take it very competitively and he watches in fear that one of his players will get hurt.
Just down the road a bit, University of Maryland women’s coach Cathy Reese’s team also participates in non-lacrosse activities in the offseason. One day of fall ball each week is devoted to “Terp Olympics.” They play all kinds of different sports, and it’s meant to be a change of pace and something fun for the team. Reese doesn’t stress over it; that’s not her nature.
“We have the ability to have a positive environment teaching something we love,” said Reese. “I want my players to love the sport. I want them to love their teammates. I want them to make memories that will last.”
Pietramala and Reese have completely different personalities, but both are incredibly successful coaches. Pietramala will top 200 career wins this season and has won two national championships. Reese topped 200 wins last season and has won three national titles.
Ultimately perhaps, the most important thing to creating your team’s culture is to be authentic to who you are.