Before taking charge of the Cornell men’s soccer team, new head coach John Smith said he knew that developing the program was going to be a challenge.
“I inherited a program that was in disarray,” he said. “There were different factions within the team, guys not particularly liking each other, guys falling out of love with the sport.”
For a coach that places a tremendous amount of emphasis on the power of positive psychology, such a diagnosis could not be much worse. But, in taking on his new role, Smith said he gave every player a “blank slate.”
“My main aim was to get them to enjoy playing again and get them to believe that this is what they wanted to be doing,” Smith said emphatically.
This season has proved to be a test of willpower for the players as well as for Smith himself. So far, the team has only won one game and generally has played a high volume of difficult opponents in a short period of time. The Red has faced Syracuse, American University, UVA and UConn — who are all known as consistent powerhouses.
Freshman George Pedlow, one of the leading scorers for the Red this season, emphasizes that while the team’s record of 1-11-2 is frustrating, it fails to reflect how hard they have worked and the ways in which they have overcome adversity.
“Although we haven’t won a game this season, we’ve played some really hard teams and actually come out really strong against some top teams like Syracuse — we scored first, we were up at halftime,” Pedlow said before the team’s first win against Colgate.
For a team going through such a difficult transition, the focus is on the process of training and developing an identity as a team, rather than the end result.
“Currently I’m having to deal with things in a completely different way,” Smith explained. “[I] set smaller goals.”
The coach has repeatedly emphasized that there are thousands of individual wins a coach can find in any game. Any success that a player or team has is something to build on, and he has seen countless wins this season that show the depth of passion on the team.
“I think everybody’s pretty much bought in,” Smith said. “They love training. They recognize they’re being coached and I think that’s been fun for them.”
“I think I’d be the first to recognize not every training session is a bed of roses, but they’ve enjoyed it, they’ve bought in,” he continued. “It’s not yet translated into [many] wins, but a lot of that comes into other factors.”
This sentiment is echoed by his players. Freshman forward Brady Dickens describes how even in his first-year, the change from last year has been substantial.
“Talking to the upperclassmen, they’ve all just said the whole way that the coach goes about soccer [is different],” Dickens said. “Everything from practice to film sessions to motivational speeches, it’s just been such a step up this year.”
His classmate — midfielder Christophe Gerlach — agrees that Smith has changed the dynamic of practices and said there is a noticeable gap in his life when he is not with the team.
“It’s a new thing that we’re actually looking forward to going to practices,” Gerlach said. “We’re not looking forward to the days off and we’re all enjoying the soccer a lot.”
This kind of feedback shows how truly successful Smith has been, despite having run the program for less than a year. In such a short time, he has been able to rally the team around an incredibly supportive staff.
“They realize there’s a staff here that cares about them, that will absolutely go to bat for them,” Smith said. “I’ve probably had team talks with them that they absolutely didn’t expect because they probably expected getting royally grilled.”
The staff’s resilient positivity motivates the players in completely new ways. When discussing the team’s 4-0 loss against Harvard, Pedlow said he was frustrated that he and his teammates gave their coach a reason to be disappointed.
“I think he’s a lot different from the old coach, who puts fear into the kids a little bit more,” Pedlow said. “If they don’t press, if they don’t play hard, there’s gonna be repercussions. [Coach Smith] didn’t want to do that. He wanted us to be honest players and work for it ourselves. We kind of let him down.”
Setting aside the difficulties of their current season, Smith said he is looking forward to using the imminent off-season to take a big step forward in training.
“The functional training in this sport is not done enough,” Smith said. “You can’t expect a guy [to] be a great goal-scorer if he’s not practiced shooting enough. That’s something that only comes from that functional individual training.”
As a former striker himself, Smith said he knows that improving his players’ technical skills is going to take time and hopes to help each and every one of his returners improve as individuals. This includes developing highly individualized training plans for the off-season.
“It’s one thing to say you’ve got to get better with your left foot,” Smith added. “That’s a blanket statement. You’ve got to show them how. While you’re doing that ultimately you’re helping them come back as better individuals which will help this team improve.”
The team will also take a step forward with the incoming class, a talented group of 10 promising high school seniors.
“There’s a list of 10 guys up here that can all play, and they’re all coming in 2017,” he said with confidence, gesturing to his whiteboard.
“[Coach Smith] seems really positive about them in terms of raising the level of the team,” Pedlow said of the class of 2021.
The Red continues to strive for more wins this season to truly prove the team’s strength, but the most confidence resonates in discussion of the years ahead. The goal is to become a nationally ranked team within the next couple of years.
“This will be a program that like two or three years down the road will be recognized on a national level,” said Dickens assuredly.
The program will have to take a huge step up to achieve this kind of success, but with a little over two months of true training, the team culture has undergone a complete transformation. Smith is confident that the team has the character and the work ethic to reach the national level.
“They might not realize they’re sitting at the beginning of what could be an incredible chapter in their careers, but they really are,” Smith said.