This week the Virginia women’s soccer team looks to rebound from a 1-3-1 start to the ACC season when it visits No. 3 North Carolina on Saturday. Virginiasports.com caught up with head coach Steve Swanson to discuss the challenges this season has presented.
Question: Obviously the start to the ACC season hasn’t been what you or the team would have liked. How do you, as a coach, keep the team’s morale high through a period like this?
Swanson: We are all competitors and we certainly don’t like where we are right now in terms of our results. The tough thing for our team is that our performances do not reflect our results, which is often the case in soccer. You end up not only fighting the opponent but the game itself at times. We are finding ways to lose games instead of finding ways to win games. With this, it often becomes more of a psychological issue where players start to feel that perhaps we deserve more then we are getting. But, this is also what makes sport so compelling in that it mirrors life and in life you often do not get everything you want. You have to be able to deal with that and try and make the changes that will put you on the right course. We have a young team overall with so many new faces at the back. We have improved so much over the last two months. We consistently stress to the team all the positive steps we have taken as a team both on and off the field and the beauty of video is that we can show them this. There is no question we are getting better. Yesterday we probably had our best practice of the season. Everybody is sticking together, everyone is focused on the task at hand (which is our next game) and everyone is working hard. The great thing about the quality of teams in our conference is the opportunity to play them. We have plenty of opportunities coming up that will have more influence on our season then any game so far and that is what we are concentrating on.
Question: You mentioned the feeling of fighting the game itself. Can you remember a year in your career when you experienced a similar feeling?
Swanson: My first year as a coach, at Dartmouth was similar in that I felt the team performed consistently well throughout the season but kept coming up short at the end. I think in that year we lost maybe seven or eight games by a goal, but overall I felt the quality of play was much improved from the previous year. Our team this year knows how to compete and more often then not plays some exceptional soccer, but we have not found ways to consistently win games yet. That is something you can never take for granted, at any level. You learn how to compete first, you learn how to win second, and you learn how to win championships third. Our current record shows how we are evolving right now and we have to find ways to win games as we head down the stretch. That is our biggest challenge.
Question: In terms of learning to win with a young team, is it a case where if you could get one big win, it would get the momentum going for a stretch of success?
Swanson: Well, I think that is perhaps what makes this particular year so mentally challenging in that we actually could be undefeated right now if not for one play here or there in some of our matches. We have not been able to get any real momentum going yet and usually that means a significant result against a quality opponent. Momentum is a lot like confidence in that it can come and go depending on a great many factors. We are in a position now over the next three weeks to get some momentum though since we are playing some strong teams and this is where our focus must be. We have to accept responsibility for where we are and work hard to get the results we need to change our momentum. We are confident in this team and their ability to break through. I am proud of the way the team is sticking together though since I have been around teams that would have cracked given some of what has happened this season in terms of our results.
Question: What do you learn about your team from a season like this?
Swanson: We are learning a lot about our team right now that we wouldn’t have learned if we didn’t go through this adversity. We are learning about our mentality, our competitiveness, our leadership, how true we stay to our values … really our foundation as a team, which for some programs they do not have a chance to see until it is too late. To be honest, all very positive things for us right now.
Question: There have been a lot of surprising results around the conference this season. Is that a sign of just how much parity there is in the ACC this year?
Swanson: I think as coaches in the conference, we have all known that there is parity. Over the last few years, everyone has gotten better and that is the way it should be. It is just manifesting itself more this year. You see that around the country too, in both men’s and women’s soccer. The ACC has always been competitive. On any given day, anything can happen, which we have seen this season.
Question: You continue a challenging stretch of conference road games on Saturday at North Carolina. How are you preparing for this upcoming game?
Swanson: Well, the match against UNC this weekend gives us another unique opportunity to get some momentum going. We are preparing for it like any other game and continuing to try and get better in the areas we feel we need the most work. We are also focusing in on our mentality and our effort. UNC plays a different style then most teams that play us (high pressure all over the field) so we have to prepare for that. But I feel right now we are playing some of our most consistent soccer of the season and that is encouraging. We have shown that we can compete with any team this season and our games against UNC have been competitive over the years especially when we have played at UNC. I am confident our team will be ready and will put another strong effort forward.