On the morning of Oct. 23, Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak received a text message from one of her soccer players, Kristin Carden. The Rams were hours from their biggest match of the season, a contest against 18th-ranked and once-beaten William & Mary, and the senior goalkeeper had a point to make.
Carden had been inspired by a YouTube video called “212: The Extra Degree”. The decidedly low-tech video begins by stating that at 211 degrees, water is hot, but at 212 degrees it boils. It continues, “And with boiling water comes steam. And steam can power a locomotive.” Similar motivational anecdotes follow, but the message remains the same: The margin of victory can be minute, so a little extra effort can be the difference between winning and losing. It’s all in the details.
Carden received permission to play the video for the team prior to the game, and the Rams responded by stunning the Tribe 1-0 to vault into second place in the Colonial Athletic Association. The win also clinched a CAA Tournament berth, VCU’s first since 2007, and punctuated the Rams’ dramatic turnaround.
The Rams are 7-7-4 as they head into Friday’s Senior Day contest with James Madison at SportsBackers Stadium and are unbeaten in eight-matches. VCU’s last loss was a 1-0 defeat at Hofstra on Sept. 25. They’ve managed to string together so much success by stressing the details. They’re sweating the small stuff, if you will. Now, for the first time in years, the Rams are a contender for the CAA crown.
“Almost every game we’ve played this year, the margin of victory was so small, a lot of times it comes down to mentality,” says Roberts Sahaydak’s husband and co-head coach, Tim Sahaydak. “I can recall games that we won and lost this year that have come down to the closing minutes of the game and it’s come down to effort and perseverance more than individual technical ability or a tactical understanding of the game.”
“WE JUST NEEDED A REMINDER”
Roberts Sahaydak had been searching for answers. VCU was mired in a disappointing 2-7-1 start after consecutive losses to Northeastern and Hofstra. The Rams appeared headed for another season of frustration. Little did Roberts Sahaydak know that the key to unlocking VCU’s success was literally within arm’s reach.
Months earlier, Tim had given his wife a copy of the book Soup, which aims to build success through stronger, more positive relationships. It’s the type of material coaches love, the kind that produces numerous motivational quotes and tactics and helps them to organize their thoughts more constructively.
But Tiffany was busy. It was the middle of soccer season, not to mention that the couple is raising two young children. She hadn’t even opened the book, but that night she read all 164 pages. When she awoke the next day, she felt refreshed.
“It’s so simple, but we just needed a reminder,” Roberts Sahaydak said.
As fate would have it, rain and lightning wiped out practice that day. When you’ve only got two wins in 10 games, many would argue that the last thing you need is to miss practice, but Roberts Sahaydak didn’t see it that way. This was an opportunity for a mental reboot.
Tiffany spoke to the team for 30 minutes, stressing, amongst other things, the importance of being a positive teammate, inspiring others with your actions, personal excellence and personal accountability.
Instead of questioning their system or their players, Sahaydak and Roberts Sahaydak emphasized the little things. The team wasn’t missing the big picture. The talent was there, the team worked hard in practice, they were creating chances in games and they were sound defensively. What the Rams were missing was small and intangible, but significant.
“We each focused on reminding everyone to stay focused on the little details,” said senior co-captain Meaghan Dullea. “You never realize how true it is until you lose every game by a goal.”
All seven of VCU’s losses this season has come by a single goal.
Before their recent turnaround, the Rams were 14-27-6 since the beginning of the 2009 season. Although both Tim and Tiffany have enjoyed success on some of soccer’s grandest stages, losing was wearing on them. There were times where they fought off self doubt.
But the Rams’ recent 6-0-2 stretch has soothed their fears and helped to validate their stewardship of the VCU program.
“It’s natural for someone that’s not winning to make a ton of adjustments,” Tiffany said. “They keep trying new things and it ends up being way more complicated.
“When you talk to world champions or people that have been very successful, they’ve actually stuck to what they really believe in. Even if they fail, they believe in what they do and they stay at it. Tim and I trust so much what we’re doing.”
The Rams haven’t lost in over a month and the victory over William & Mary is still fresh in their minds. Confidence has surged to an all-time high. For the coaching staff, the focus has shifted from building confidence to harnessing it.
“We’re proud because the team has positioned itself to be successful,” Roberts Sahaydak said. “We’re in a great position now. We’re not celebrating because we haven’t accomplished what we set out to accomplish, but we’re proud that we’re in a very good position.”
“We’re making sure to keep each other in check, but we’re also confident,” said Dullea. “We know we’re a good team.”
At practice earlier this week, Carden, who seems to have a knack for motivational tactics, served up a cake decorated as an actual, literal, humble pie.
It looks like the Rams still have a taste for success.