Recasting Victory

January 29, 2015
In developing a new vision statement, this NCAA Division III athletic department decided to measure success in a unique way.
By Diana Cutaia

Diana Cutaia has been Director of Athletics at Wheelock College since 2005. Her teams have earned 17 league sportsmanship awards and a Jostens community service award. The former Head Women's Basketball Coach at Curry College, she can be reached at: [email protected].

When I became Director of Athletics at Wheelock College seven years ago, I was given a chance to nurture a very small athletic program. At that time, Wheelock only had five sports, all for women, but was looking to expand, including adding men's teams to ensure gender equity.

While this move required hiring coaches, finding more facility space, and everything else that accompanies growth, it also provided an opportunity to redefine the department's philosophy. To do this, like most schools, we looked at the mission of our institution and of our sports governing body, NCAA Division III. But the philosophy we came up with was different than most schools.

Our mission is to complement and enhance the academic experience and measure our success not by the outcomes of games but by the goals set by players and teams. The first part of that statement is pretty standard, but the second part takes us into new territory. While we strive to win, it is not an overriding goal. Winning percentage is not how we determine a team's success or how we evaluate our coaches.

We have stuck with our philosophy through thick and thin. That hasn't always been easy, but it has been worth it. We are developing student-athletes into amazing young professionals who graduate ready to take the world by storm. And we are proving that focusing on the educational mission of athletics can lead to a strong program--six of our teams have recently participated in conference's postseason play.

Developing The Vision
In constructing our program vision, we looked at the NCAA Division III philosophy, which places priority on "the overall quality of the educational experience and on the successful completion of all students' academic programs." Division III also seeks to foster an environment in which athletics plays a part in the educational experience.

We then examined the mission of the institution, which is to "improve the lives of children and families." While this speaks to the school's academic focus on developing teachers and those who work in social services, it also relates to what professors and administrators strive for daily. We have a 125-year history of advocating for programs, policies, and laws that enhance the quality of life for families. Students come here because they have a strong passion to impact communities through servant leadership.

Constructing the athletics mission also required me to take a step back and give thought to my own experiences as an athlete and coach. As I began to think about my playing days, I looked at newspaper clippings about my teams. Stats from my high school volleyball team revealed we went 36-2 over two seasons and won the league championship three years in a row. Surprisingly, I can not remember one of those wins. Not even the championships. But here is what I do remember:

- My coach had two sayings she drilled into us: "You are only as strong as the weakest link," and "It's not enough to believe in yourself, you have to believe in those around you."

- Sometimes you can make a save at the last second with just one hand, falling out of bounds if you give yourself one last push. Learning about perseverance has been critical for me.

- The best way to deal with a ball being spiked at you is to absorb the hit and then use its energy to push it away from you. Taking negative energy and turning it into something positive has helped me through many tough situations.

With those ideas in mind, we constructed a mission for Wheelock athletics that focuses on the learning experience. Here are some highlights: The goal of Wheelock College's Department of Athletics is to create an environment that fosters athletic success, enhances the academic experience, and empowers our athletes to strive for excellence in all they do ... Our coaches are dedicated, enthusiastic, and well-qualified professionals who focus on teaching the skills of the game and instilling in our students the core values of our department: respect, commitment, balance, teamwork, integrity, and communication.

Behind The Words
The current model of collegiate sports makes the outcome of a contest the headline and the process and experience of the athlete the back-story. But at Wheelock, our student-athletes understand that the process is why we play and the meaning is found in the experience. Their goal is to continually improve in their athletic endeavors without a defined end point.

When we say that we don't measure success by wins and losses we get odd stares at first. People ask why we can't have both goals--to win and have a great experience. I've found that some coaches who focus on the outcome of a contest forget about the process and the experience of the student-athletes. They may make decisions that have a negative effect on their athletes, in the hopes it has a positive effect on the final score. We don't want our coaches having to choose between those two, sometimes competing, mandates.

We tie our sport programs to our educational systems in this country for a reason. We believe there is an inherent educational value in participation. Some argue that collegiate sports have moved away from that core value and I agree. Our vision at Wheelock is unique because we are staying absolutely true to the Division III philosophy and the value that fields and courts are additional classrooms that help foster personal growth and development.

Our teams still want to win. But I believe no athletes are better off because they scored more points than the other. They are made better by the lessons they learned in their pursuit. Our teams strive for excellence, but they don't let losing be anything more than another tool they use to improve.

Into Action
Following a unique philosophy takes some extra work. It requires asking coaches, athletes, and fans to do things differently than other schools, along with discussion. Here are some of the specific things we've done to make the ideas behind our program philosophy come alive:

Make actions complement words: Several years ago the NCAA sent banners for our gyms with the following phrase: Be Loud Be Proud Be Positive. When we received them, my staff and I talked about how we would ensure this was something we adhered to at games. The culture of collegiate sports is so much about cheering against opposing players and officials that asking fans to "be positive" seemed almost impossible. But we felt it was important, so we worked hard to teach our students how to cheer as a way to motivate our own team and not to intimidate or degrade the other teams.

Motivate athletes in a positive manner: We have an expectation that our coaches will not motivate by fear and punishment. We want our athletes to be inspired--to be so excited about what they learned in practice that they want to work hard. Yes, it's harder that way. I coached for more than 15 years and there were days that making a team get on the line and run was a much simpler way of getting them to perform as I wished. But what I realized was that they didn't sufficiently learn the skill--they only learned it enough to not get punished. We want coaches to create an environment where athletes are developing their own internal drive, as well as learning the value of teamwork and accountability.

Make connections: We believe that community service is something more than a photo opportunity. We want our student-athletes to have a connection and a relationship to their service. We recently had athletes take part in a three-year commitment to the relief efforts in Haiti, during which they were able to raise enough funds to purchase critical medical equipment for a pediatric hospital in Port Au Prince. Throughout the work, they learned that service is not something we give, but it is something that helps us grow and learn.

Four mottos: It often helps people to follow a philosophy by having some key phrases in front of them. Here are four we use:

- Develop core values and live by them.
- Integrate the mission of the college into the department.
- Don't be afraid to go against the grain if it's best for your athletes.
- Don't just talk the talk; make your actions complement your words.

Today at Wheelock we have more than 120 student-athletes and offer 11 total sports for men and women. Our athletes have an average GPA of 3.24 and we have had more than 100 academic all-conference members. In the last five years our men's basketball, women's soccer, swimming, cross country, field hockey, and tennis teams have advanced to postseason conference play with three earning top seeds. Our de-emphasis on the outcome has improved the process, and if you're still keeping score the old fashioned way, we've also been winning more.

A look at Wheelock's full mission can be found here:

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