Winning, is it all the same?


Pelham Head Coach Matt Persanis with the Super League trophy won by NYAC.

This past weekend I experienced the rare occurrence of winning two leagues on back-to-back days. On Saturday, I was in Seattle with the New York Athletic Club’s rugby team—I am assistant coach—winning the U.S. Super League Final, which is the national championship. On Sunday, I was back in Pelham as coach of our seventh-eighth grade team as they defeated Ridgewood, NJ, to go undefeated and win the Metropolitan NY Middle School League.

The one thing I noticed was how much these two teams were alike, though they seem different enough. NYAC’s squad is made up of twenty-somethings, many of whom have played rugby professionally or for their national teams—NYAC has five starting Eagles. And Pelham’s seventh-eighth grade team is made up of 13-15 years olds. But they do have a lot of similarities that I think served them well all season and led them to be winners.

Both teams have extremely dedicated players who came to practice and participated with enthusiasm. They didn’t just show up. It can’t be understated the importance of practicing with your teammates on a consistent basis. Both team’s players developed over the course of the season to be friends. Again, this is important. When the chips are down and it seems like the team may lose, it is so important that the players play for themselves, each other and their coaches. Critically, they must want to play hard and do well for their friends. The desire to please/help/impress your friends cannot be overlooked. All season both teams showed this over and over. When a player would make a bad play or make a mistake, there was no yelling or making fun of that player. Teammates would instead rally around them and cover that mistake or encourage the player to move forward.

Lastly, the thing that proved most important was the internal desire to compete and give the best effort. The players on both teams again and again battled back against odds to compete and eventually win. NYAC overcame the loss of  their best player five minutes into the game. Pelham faced down a team that was much bigger. Both squad’s players had to reach down inside and perform not only under pressure but in the face of their own fears. That is something that is very hard to coach. As a coach, all I can do is put the players in a position to win, but it is up to them to carry through. When people ask me before a game, “You going to win?” all I can ever say is, ” I think we can win. Whether we win or not is up to the players.”

Once the game starts, with the exception of tactical substitutions, there is nothing a coach can do on the field to effect play. What a coach can do off the field is lead by example. If the coach is screaming and yelling about the referee or other players, or the coach is yelling at his players, that shows the players that the coach has lost control, or does not believe in his team. By remaining calm, speaking clearly and avoiding yelling, a coach can demonstrate to his players that he believes in them and the game plan.

I was asked today at work “so which one are you prouder of?” My answer? Well, for once, it was not the canned coach’s speak you always hear. I knew which team I was most proud of: Pelham of course! 

While winning a national championship with NYAC is a-once-in-a-lifetime achievement (okay, we have done it four times in the past eight years), having been involved in the maturation and development of the kids from Pelham has been a truly uplifting experience for me. To watch these kids—no, young men—grow up and become a tight-knit group has been a lot of fun. I get a lot of  energy from them. The parents of the players of both teams should be proud, not for the winning, but for the way they win.