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Film Room #2: The Slide Under Pressure

” When you slide back into old patterns, your overdone strengths become your weaknesses. As I discovered during the first half of the 2012 season, it’s easy to slide back. ”  Victor Santa Cruz, head coach Azusa Pacific University

When Azusa Pacific University (APU) took the leap from NAIA to NCAA Division II, coach Santa Cruz, his staff and his team felt prepared for continued success. After all, they’d spent the last few seasons building a winning program. Why shouldn’t success continue?

(Read the previous installment for our Film Room series for a background on APU’s move from NAIA to NCAA D-II.)

“Looking back, we probably jumped a couple of steps,” coach says. “We thought we could operate as we’d done for the last few years without making major adjustments. We didn’t pay attention to the fact that our roster was relatively new.”

Still, even after losing their first two games by more than fifty points combined, coach and his team remained confident in themselves and their potential. With their home opener coming against Dixie State—a team that hadn’t won on the road in nearly two full years—they felt primed to bust into the win column.

“All we needed was one win under our belts, and more would follow,” coach Santa Cruz says.

For the first three-and-a-half quarters of the Dixie State game, it looked like APU was on its way. The score had gone back and forth, but APU was controlling the clock. With just over five minutes to play, they led by ten points. Then things went off script. At the five-minute mark, Dixie State scored to cut the lead to four. A minute later, they recovered and returned an APU fumble for a touchdown, giving them the lead. APU drove one last time into Dixie State territory, but missed a long field goal to seal the defeat.

Old patterns

 At his core, coach Santa Cruz values results, achievement, progress, and strategic decision-making. When he didn’t see these on display, he reverted to a type of command-and-control mentality with which he once sought to lead.  “I wanted to grab control around things and get us back to winning,” coach says. “I felt we let this one slip away, some of which had to do with fluke plays happening against us. And my attempts to control things came out in dysfunctional ways.”

While coach Santa Cruz’s reactions were driven by a desire to win—to get back to the script he and others anticipated the season would follow—they were out of step with the type of emotionally resilient leader he’d worked hard to become.

Maybe others thought I was just being a ‘classic coach,’ he says. “That’s not what I want. I want my team to perform their best, but not out of fear.

In reacting harshly to the fact that his team was now 0-3, coach Santa Cruz inadvertently undermined much of the goodwill, loyalty and trust he’d spent time cultivating. His negative reactions—directed at players and his staff alike—actually created an exponentially negative ripple that reverberated throughout the locker room.

“I’ve discovered that my biggest failures as a leader come not from making wrong technical decisions, but from misplaced social and interpersonal decisions,” he says. “During and after week three, I just wanted to power us through—literally grab the bull, turn it, and get us on the road to success as quickly as possible.”

Coach’s reactions proved to be out of step both with the true makeup of his roster, and with the program’s larger vision.

“It would still be a little while before I completely accepted just how new our team was,” he says. “I’d been assuming we’d play a certain way because of our recent history, and the culture we’d built. What I’d failed to do was to tune in to how things really were.  At the same time, the heart of APU’s mission is to build champions while pursuing championships. I was only looking at the championship part. I had to go back to building champions.”

After another loss in week four, coach Santa Cruz finally started to re-examine the bigger picture.

“I realized that if we were going to change course, it had to start with me,” he says. “I started consciously working on all of my words and actions, and focused on connecting with the hope and positive emotions of my team and coaching staff. None of us liked being in last place. I had to be the one to initiate the change.”

Instant results?

 “We couldn’t fix things over night,” coach Santa Cruz says. “Rebuilding trust is a slow process.”

[Stay tuned for our next Film Room installment to see how coach Santa Cruz and the APU Cougars worked their way back together.]

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