Padecky: Surrendering cell phones for the good of the team

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

It’s a rhythm all coaches seek, that sweet but rare harmony when their players rub each other the right way as they all settle into the same greased groove, playing without friction.

So, time to give up that cell phone.

That’s what SSU women’s soccer coach Emiria Salzmann Dunn tells her players before they board the team vans for a road trip. They could be going to San Francisco or San Diego or Eureka. They could be on the road for six, seven or eight hours. Whatever.

Seize the moment, girls. Look at each other in the eye. All talk, no text.

“Modern technology has de-sensitized us,” said Salzmann Dunn, who has a master’s in sports psychology. “People get brave when they text and don’t have to look at someone in the eye. I love technology like everyone else, but we are raising children who are having an increasingly harder time to communicate face-to-face. I want honest, sincere, natural, spontaneous communication. You can’t do that with technology.”

So every time SSU begins a road trip, the players give their coach their cell phones. Sit next to a stranger for six hours on a bus or a van and at the end of the trip the person next you will no longer be a stranger. If it’s a teammate, it will now be a teammate with only a first name, who now has a family and a history and a story or two about soccer and a favorite TV show and … you get the picture.

“We don’t get to choose who we share a hotel room with,” said forward Elena Catania, “and I don’t care. I look forward to whoever is my roommate.”

Now, before you imagine this is a Girls Scouts campfire cookout instead of NCAA Division II soccer, imagine something a bit more real and to the point about their shared experience: Suffering. That would be the memory the players have of Oct.30, 2011.

That would be Chico State beating SSU, 2-1. A win or tie would have sent SSU to the conference playoffs.

“And we lost the game in the last four minutes,” said defender Sara Studer. “I was so mad, so angry, so hurt. That memory has been seared into my mind. I think about it all the time.”

“Mine, too,” said Salzmann Dunn.

The players who were there that day have talked about that game to the players who weren’t there, who have joined the team since, who on those long roads with no cell phones have learned about the Chico game and the pain that hasn’t left. In a van, in the relative isolation and free from their coach, they learn about each other and, just as importantly, their place in Salzmann Dunn’s universe.

“When I recruit a kid,” Salzmann Dunn said, “I tell her one of my core values is no whining. I ask her if that works for her.”

That produces the desired result.

“We never have any drama,” Catania said.

Even last weekend, when previously undefeated SSU lost to Cal State Stanislaus, 4-1. The Seawolves were ranked second in the nation; they are now 20th.

Forward Cara Curtin was so frustrated, she shed a tear or two afterward. But drama? Finger-pointing? Name-calling? Griping about playing time? Zip. SSU, 7-1, should and did concentrate on more important things.

“We don’t ever want to have that feeling again,” Catania said.
“It surprised us,” Studer said. “It opened our eyes.”

An 18-match season is long. They haven’t even reached the halfway point.
There will be bumps and bruises and they should know their coach thinks they are good enough to handle all of it.

“The sky is the limit for them,” Salzmann Dunn said. “I believe they can have it all. But a lot of factors enter into it. It comes down to desire.”

So, do they have it?

Put it this way: They gave up their cell phones. They gave up texting. They gave up e-mail. They gave up the internet, for criminey sakes.

If that isn’t commitment, I don’t know what is.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.