If one really presses UMBC women's soccer head coach Vanessa Mann, she'll talk soccer. But she prefers to go in a different direction first.
Instead of discussing strategy, performance, goals and formations, Mann tends to steer the conversation toward topics such as character, academics and developing well-rounded young women. The rest, she says, will take care of itself.
"We've broken the process down into three areas -- school, soccer and social," said the former William & Mary assistant, who was hired Jan. 19. "School comes first. We want to take care of that and make sure we are developing good student-athletes where the professors know their names and faces and can point to them and say, ‘Those are women's soccer athletes,' and want the rest of the class to perform like them. We want to make sure they are going to their mentoring program and excelling on midterms and finals. If that is happening, it will start to manifest itself in other parts of their lives."
Mann believes the habits her players develop in the classroom will translate directly into the soccer culture and their social lives, and those values also will help them develop stronger relationships with their friends and families.
It all adds up to developing character, which Mann feels equates to success on the field.
"If we are giving them what they need to develop into really good people, the soccer stuff will take care of itself," she said.
While most college coaches talk about creating a good student-athlete experience and developing their student-athletes into well-rounded people, that mission can get lost at the Division I level. Mann feels that it all works hand in hand.
"We had a good 12 to 16 weeks together," she said of her team's spring. "The most important thing for the spring was to just get to know everyone and to start establishing the culture I wanted to build while developing the relationships with the players and staff that I wanted. It really wasn't too much about the X's and O's."
That approach paid off during UMBC's spring schedule. Mann kept it simple, giving each player an equal role and a "job description."
"I told the team we were going to need anyone and everyone to contribute," she said. "We were not in the shape we needed to be, so they were going to share the load in the spring and get equal playing time. I asked them to be good at what they are already good at instead of pigeonholing the team into any type of systems. Each one of them was asked to adhere to the job description and told that she was a piece to the puzzle. We asked them to be the best they could be in the game that day, and they did it. I think it surprised them how well they did."
The results, according to Mann, were overwhelmingly positive. She said the Retrievers scored "16 or 17 goals" in the four contests while allowing only two scores -- one on a set piece and another during field play.
Mann, who played at the University of Nevada and served as an assistant there and at Oklahoma before heading to William & Mary, said her on-field approach won't change much once the season begins.
"I was a more creative player," she said, "so I like to let players bring their individual style and flair to the field. That's something that makes the game great."
Mann's approach in assembling her staff was similar. In hiring assistants Sam Kirschenbaum and Jen Mavis, she looked for coaches with different strengths who she can turn loose to do what they do best.
"I've tried to surround myself with very good people who are great at what they do," she said. "One of my assistants is a great at scouting. The second is very good at teaching and instructing. Our athletic training and strength and conditioning staff is great. Everybody is a piece in the puzzle, which is important for us if we are going to do well."
For Mann, doing well means qualifying for the America East Tournament annually. She inherits a team that was 4-10-3 overall (2-6 in the America East) and has not qualified for the conference tournament since 2015. She has eight recruits coming to campus in August and can't wait to get started.
"I thought it was important to have each family on campus, so I could meet them and they could meet me," Mann said. "We walked the campus and had good conversations. We have some really talented women coming in who are fantastic in the classroom and on the field. We have a great balance of talent in our 2018 class, and it was fun getting to know them. I'm excited to be able to work with them and to get started in August."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of William & Mary Athletic Communications
Issue 245: June/July 2018