A softer touch for tough women

Sports: Switching from men's teams to women's, coaches learn to tailor their tactics.

June 24, 1999|By John Powers | John Powers,BOSTON GLOBE

The coach from Mars is talking about communicating with players from Venus. "There is a different approach," Tony DiCicco says. "You can't be an in-your-face type coach with women. You have to recognize the differences."

The 50-year-old DiCicco, who has directed the U.S. women's soccer team to 93 victories and an Olympic gold medal in five years, has collected enough data -- both empirical and anecdotal -- for a graduate-level seminar on gender subtleties.

Female players take criticism much more personally than males do, DiCicco has observed, even if it's not directed at them individually. Their bonds with each other are decidedly deeper. And they're more concerned about balancing their sport and their personal lives than men are.

And yet, the American women may be on top of the world because they're comfortable playing like Martians on the field. Their practices are relentlessly cutthroat -- cleats going hard into ankles, heads knocking in mid-air, shoulders banging shoulders on the dead run. "One thing we want in practice is intensity," says DiCicco. "We don't want them to be kick-arounds. We don't grow from them."

The desire for victory, the demand for excellence, and the willingness to sacrifice for it, DiCicco says, is gender-blind. He's seen Michelle Akers play on rebuilt knees and fight a daily battle with chronic fatigue syndrome for nearly a decade. He watched Mia Hamm, running on a sprained ankle, set up the goals that beat China at Olympus. He saw Joy Fawcett scrimmaging two weeks after giving birth.

The most significant difference between Mars and Venus, DiCicco will testify, is that Mars doesn't have to nurse in the dressing room between halves.

DiCicco got a tutorial in gender subtleties when he signed on as Dorrance's assistant in 1991. "After we lost a match to China, I mentioned a couple of players' names individually when we were watching the video," he remembers. "Later, it got back to me that they were blaming themselves for the loss."

That was the first in a series of lessons that DiCicco took to heart. "In the men's game, you point something out and it bounces off," he says. "Or they say, yeah, but other guys were screwing up worse than me." When you talk to the entire team, DiCicco says, each woman thinks you're speaking to her. "With men," he says, "you talk to the group and each guy says, yeah, those other guys better get it done."

The bonding among female players, DiCicco says, is profound. "It goes way beyond teammates," he says. "It's about relationships. I'll say, write down your best team for me and invariably they'll put their best friends on the list whether they belong there or not. Men are more objective. They may hate the guy, but if he gets the job done, they want him in the lineup."

And to women, having balance between their on-field and off-field lives is vital. "If they get disconnected," DiCicco says, "you might as well send them home."

So DiCicco, who has talked shop with Ben Smith, who coached the U.S. women's ice hockey team to the gold medal at Nagano, keeps his residency camps short to minimize family frictions. "Train them in short blocks, then get them out of there," he says. DiCicco has also learned to pick his team early. "So they have a chance to bond," he says. "Because they may have lost a friend."

Yet beyond the Mars/Venus nuances, the more delicate challenge for DiCicco has been directing, and revitalizing, a team that was already world champion before he took over.

DiCicco has learned when to push his squad and when to back off. "We're a wacky group with a lot of personality and energy," says Julie Foudy. "But Tony knows when to be intense with us and when to let us be loose."

DiCicco also understands that the pressure on his players is enormous. They're not only supposed to win back the Cup, they're supposed to inspire a generation of American girls and lay the groundwork for a women's professional league. That is the real difference between Mars and Venus when it comes to U.S. soccer, DiCicco's warriors can tell you. Mars was only expected to survive the first round when the Cup was here in 1994. Venus is expected to do it all.

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