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Game Plan: First Find The Leaders


After inspiring a bottom-ranked team to make six straight NCAA tournament showings, you can't blame Sasho Cirovski for thinking he was on the brink of a national championship. Instead, the 43-year-old head coach of the University of Maryland men's soccer team found himself watching his squad stumble back into decline. In 1999, several prized players were recruited by professional teams, damaging morale and performance. Cliques formed, eroding team chemistry. The next year, a rash of injuries plagued the Terrapins, or "Terps," as they're known to Maryland fans.

As a result, in 2000, the Terps failed to make the tournament at all. They lost all but one of their Atlantic Coast Conference games, ending the season second to last in the ACC. The next year, a wrenching loss to local archrival Loyola College in Maryland, the first in nine years, came shortly after September 11. By midseason, the Terps' record was middling.

Most troubling was the lack of leadership on the field. Although he'd selected his two strongest players as co-captains, Cirovski worried that they relied on him too much and weren't guiding the team out of on-field jams. Without a captain who had team respect on and off the field he knew he couldn't compete at a championship level. "I was recruiting talent," he says. "I wasn't doing a very good job of recruiting leaders."

Cirovski's complaint will sound familiar to managers frustrated with finding the right leaders. Many have a deep roster of talent but struggle to identify who has the critical support of the team. The problem is crucial in soccer, which has no time-outs and relies on dynamics on the field more than coaching from the sidelines.

Flummoxed, Cirovski called his brother, Vancho, then a human resources vice-president for Cardinal Health Inc. (CAH) in Windsor, Ont. He thought Sasho should have his team take an "X-ray." Not the radiological sort, of course. The X-ray Vancho had in mind was a survey similar to one he'd used for organizational development. It asked questions such as "Whom do you rely upon when your team needs unity and motivation?" and "From whom do you seek inputs and opinions before making minor personal decisions?"

The results, Vancho said, would identify off-the-radar leaders. Also called social network analysis, such surveys, the results of which are plotted as a web of interconnecting nodes and lines representing people and relationships, are increasingly popular among corporate managers who want to visualize their informal organizational charts.

Cirovski decided to give it a try. He didn't want to just depend on his gut, and he was curious, too. Armed with an MBA -- Cirovski once thought he'd like to manage a soccer league -- he had long been a fan of bringing business theories to the field, combing the works of gurus such as Tom Peters.

The next day, after the players had taken the survey, Vancho called with the results. "How come Scotty Buete is not your captain?" he asked. "He's off the charts. He's such a big influence." Cirovski was shocked. Buete was a quiet sophomore, a promising local rather than a sought-after recruit. "This was the same kid I had to...convince he was good enough to play at Maryland," he recalls.

The results convinced Cirovski to move quickly. Just hours before a midseason road game, he made Buete the team's third co-captain. "Everyone is looking to you to lead," Cirovski told him.

The team rallied around Buete, who went on to score the winning goal in that game and remained an effective leader until he graduated. "There was this incredible sigh of relief -- sort of like, 'He gets it,"' says Cirovski. "Scotty was the glue, and I didn't see it." Cirovski calls the change a defining moment that helped propel his team to four straight College Cup appearances (soccer's version of the Final Four) and, last year, the national championship.

Cirovski concedes it was no silver bullet, but the survey had a domino effect that prompted winning changes. The results hinted at two other emerging leaders whom Cirovski hadn't yet recognized but who would go on to become influential captains. In an indirect way, it helped attract one of Maryland's best-ever players, Jason Garey. "When I [visited], I saw Scott was captain, but he wasn't the best player," says Garey, who led the nation in scoring last year but wasn't a celebrated recruit when he joined. "That encouraged me."

THE CHEMISTRY OF VICTORY

More broadly, the analysis led Cirovski to renew his focus on building bonds between players. After having relaxed rules about their living arrangements, Cirovski brought players back on campus, requiring that teammates live together in dorms. He even coordinated room assignments to help develop certain relationships. And to get the best personality fits for the team, he shifted recruiting tactics, wading further down the list of star athletes.

Cirovski was so attuned to the ties between players that, not wanting to disturb the chemistry of the team that had made it back to the NCAA tourney in 2001, he did no recruiting in 2002 for the next season. "That is very unusual," says Jerry Yeagley, a veteran soccer coach. "You've got to really believe in yourself not to have a recruiting class."

Winning a national championship has fueled Cirovski's competitive zeal. ("It's like what I said when my first daughter was born," he says: "She's beautiful! I want another!") After losing six top-ranked seniors last year, he plans to hand out the survey three times this season.

This year's results have already helped Cirovski confirm his picks for captain and identify new players who are still turning to former coaches for support. They have also pointed to a looming shortage of leaders. But with plans to repeat the survey every year and a restored belief in the power of team bonds, Cirovski should be well prepared to find them.

By Jena McGregor


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