Oct 6, 2017
Better Practices

The University of North Alabama softball team won its first national title in 2016, winning the NCAA Division II Women’s College World Series, while compiling a 60-7 record on the year. Key to the team’s success is Head Coach Ashley Cozart’s ability to create a team culture that seamlessly blends winning and having fun.

She does this by fostering a sense of camaraderie and confidence at every practice, focusing on the positives over the negatives. “I think we put too much pressure on athletes today, and as a result, they’re scared of making a mistake,” Cozart says. “I don’t want to be a coach that my players are afraid of. I’ll be critical of them when it’s called for, but I don’t focus on negatives, because I want them to remain confident. I’ll tell them where we need to improve, and the next day, I’m going to be in a great mood and supportive.”

She also works hard to make practices dynamic and meaningful. This past year, she came up with a unique formula for different practice days, which motivated the players in new ways. She offers details in the following Q&A:

Why did you come up with a formula for your practices?

Early in the season, our practices weren’t going well. The players weren’t excited to be there, and they dragged. Even though we were winning games, I knew something had to change if we wanted the team to get better. So we came up with the idea of themed practices, where each day of the week focused on something different.

What were the themes?

Mondays were “Mend it Mondays,” a light work day focused on getting everyone mentally and physically recovered from the weekend’s games. On “Team Tuesdays,” we’d split the squad into two groups and have them compete against each other in things like a home run derby or hitting a target with a batted ball.

We also had “Work it Out Wednesdays,” where the focus was on something we felt the team struggled with during the most recent games — one week, for example, it was bunt coverage. “Feel Good Fridays” were when the girls could relax and just have some fun hitting or pitching without a specific goal in mind. Sometimes, we’d combine these days with other activities. We’d play music during practice, or have a “Sun’s Out, Guns Out” day, where the girls could wear T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up.

But the best days were “Thankful Thursdays.” As part of those practices, we passed out cards to each player that had a teammate’s name written across the top. Each person would write down something about that player they were thankful for. Then, about an hour before the next game, we’d go around and have each player read what they’d written to the entire team. Sometimes it was an inside joke between the players. Other times, it was a personality trait that they respected.

Each week, the girls were given a new teammate to write about. The effect on team camaraderie was amazing. One senior cried every time, because it was so emotional. They told me it made them feel like they were part of a family, and like each of them had an equal role in our success, regardless of how much they played. Best of all, the practices improved, in large part because the players looked forward to each one.

How did your players react to that approach?

They loved it. I think female athletes especially thrive when they’re loose and having fun. We really want our players to enjoy the game and have a good time when they’re out there.

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