With Wildcats soccer in turnaround mode, the coach is making playoff plans.
By Andy Steiner
AFTER A ROOTLESS EARLY CHILDHOOD SPENT wandering the globe, Chris Citowicki was convinced of the importance of family and stability by the time he became St. Catherine’s head soccer coach in 2011. He had also gained a better understanding of how to motivate female soccer players.
Under his leadership, Wildcats soccer has experienced a significant turnaround. The team moved from a disappointing 1–17 record in 2011 to an encouraging 9–8 in 2012, and it tied first in the nation for most improved Division III women’s soccer team in that time period. Citowicki believes the best is yet to come.
“If we keep working and playing the way we’ve been over the last two years,” he says, “I predict we’ll be in the playoffs by 2015.”
Citowicki spoke with SCAN about his other hopes and dreams — and how he intends to achieve them.
How do you explain the sudden boost in your team’s record?
If you looked only at our record in 2011, you would’ve said, “That must’ve been awful.” But we had a new recruit play in every single game. This year, we had 13 first-year students on the team, and they gave their very best effort in every single game. They also refused to be negative. That’s why we had such a quick turnaround.
From the start, we tell each individual player that we are going to help her improve in three ways: academically, athletically and socially.
Our team GPA went from 2.9 to 3.4 in one year. Athletically, we expect our players to come in and compete right away. And socially, I expect my players to be above-average family members. This team is a family, and I tell them, “You are going to treat one another the way you treat your family at home.”
Why is that sense of family so important to you?
My family fled communism in Poland for an Italian refugee camp when I was very young. When I lived in Italy, I was not Italian. When we went to South Africa to live with my aunt, I was not South African. Then we moved to Australia, but I was not Australian. And I’m not really from here, either. I never had the Thanksgiving or Christmas that you see on TV. My perspective is: “How can I provide that experience for other people? How can I inspire and impact other people’s lives?” The team’s Friday “family dinners” come from that.
Your master’s thesis was titled “Leadership Qualities of Women’s Soccer Coaches.” What did you learn?
A lot of people say that you don’t necessarily coach men and women the same way. I wanted to know why. One example is how you gain acceptance into a group. Boys need to perform and prove themselves first before being accepted by others on the team. Girls, on the other hand, need to feel accepted and welcomed before they can perform at their very best. That’s why we do a lot of team building in the preseason, to make sure that the new players feel accepted and welcomed before we begin our season.
Why did you focus your studies on women rather than men?
When I was working on my thesis, I was the graduate assistant coach for the Bemidji State women’s soccer team. I wanted to help the program by focusing my research on the team. The fact is, I have always been interested in finding ways to push people out of their comfort zone and help them achieve things they never thought were possible. In order to help my athletes achieve, I need to understand what makes them tick.
You had a promising soccer career. What inspired you to become a coach?
My college coach kept urging me to “come out and coach.” But I kept saying no, until one day when I realized that coaching was a way to help a group of people be better people and better players.
How do you feel about working at a woman-focused institution?
Other coaches ask me, “How do you sell that place to recruits? It’s all girls.” Well, that’s easy. I say, “You guys don’t have anything that I have. I’ve got the perfect environment for a female who wants to be successful.”
What do you look for in potential players?
I’m looking for athletes who can play the way I see our program playing one day. I’m looking for the ultra-competitive players.
As interim dean, you've had less time to teach and conduct research. What do you miss most about that part of your work?
I really enjoy being in the classroom, working with students. I teach statistics in the Day program and in the MAOL program. It's both my favorite and most frustrating class. A lot of students come in who are terrified of taking a statistics class. People have told them they're going to have a hard time doing math — and that fear is more pronounced the older the student is. It is incredibly rewarding to watch students grow in class and get to the point where they can do it.
Your recruiting materials talk about creating an “optimal life experience.” What is that?
We’re developing winners — young women who understand my concept of “Dream, Work, Achieve,” or DWA. If you have a dream, you must work for it so, one day, you can achieve it. When our student-athletes graduate, they will become leaders who will impact other people. And that’s how St. Kate’s will affect the world.
Are you trying to change players’ attitudes?
Why be mediocre when you can be great? Coaches usually focus on winning playoffs and championships. We focus on helping individuals become the best they can be because we know that by doing so, the results will follow. Personally, I believe there is greatness in all of us, but sometimes you need guidance, motivation and inspiration to find it.
Have you refined your practices, drills or off-season fitness regimen?
Our season and year is based on a periodization model that we created over the past winter. Periodization is a relatively new concept in soccer. Few programs attempt to lay out a four-year, one-year, semester, monthly, weekly plan in order to help their athletes peak at the right times. We focus on the individual, helping her achieve and improve day after day, week after week and year after year. We look to help all of our players grow in all areas, such as speed, agility, power, juggling, technique, tactics and psychology.
What are your hopes for the current season?
The results will be similar to last season, but the progress we’ll make will be absolutely huge. A lot of our behind-the-scenes work this fall will kick in next year, and people will say, “Wow. An overnight success.” But it’s not an overnight success. It will have taken us four years to get to where we are supposed to be.
Andy Steiner is senior writer of SCAN.