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Cathy Reese on Core Values, Culture & Team Success

Cathy Reese on Core Values, Culture & Team Success

On this episode Melissa is joined by Cathy Reese, the head coach of University of Maryland’s women’s lacrosse team to discuss how core values and culture can yield success.

Melissa: Welcome to the cultur(ED) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior, your host. On this podcast we have conversations with top culturemakers in the world today from varied industries and backgrounds to unpack the visible and not so visible forces that make up culture, an often overlooked superpower of organizations. I’m intrigued to learn from elite athletes and top coaches about their philosophy on organizational culture. As well as learn some strategies and tactics for building and sustaining winning cultures.

On this episode we’re joined by Cathy Reese, the head coach of University of Maryland’s women’s lacrosse team.


Melissa: Cathy, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Cathy: Oh, of course. It should be fun.

Melissa: Well, if you’re not from the Northeast or the Mid Atlantic region of the country you may not be aware that lacrosse is a big deal here, and the Lady Terrapin team is the biggest deal across lacrosse. I’ve just started myself to get into lacrosse because my 9-year-old daughter picked up a stick last winter, and has not put it down since. This past May the University of Maryland’s women’s lacrosse team won the NCAA championship, the team’s fifth since Cathy became head coach in 2007, and the program’s 15th NCAA championship overall.


I have to imagine that culture of the team is one of the driving forces behind the success.

I read recently a quote from Jen Adams, she’s Loyola’s coach, and Cathy, I think one of your former teammates and assistants and she said—which, I think Is a really telling quote and a great set up for our discussion on culture—she said “they are great players so they win”—except it doesn’t work that way. Because If that’s the way it worked then lots of teams would have lots of national championships.”

There’s something special going on at the University of Maryland, and I think it has to do with the people that are in charge and are leading. So that’s a pretty powerful quote. And I am excited to talk to you, and congratulations on all of your successes.

Cathy: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, Jen’s a special person, one of my favorite people, for sure, that I’ve had the pleasure to play with at Maryland. I was a senior when she was a freshman, and then we were assistant coaches together.


I coached her for 3 years and then we were assistants at Maryland together, and then we both went out—

Melissa: Oh, cool.

Cathy: —to Denver and back to Maryland, so we have a lot of history there, for sure, but she’s a special person, that’s for sure.

Melissa: Oh, that’s awesome. Well, I love the idea that it isn’t just about having a team of great players that makes you so successful. So tell us, what can you share in terms of your thinking behind the culture and the values you’ve established for your team, and how much do your core values and culture play into the individual players and the overall team success?

Cathy: Well, it’s interesting ‘cause I think I’ve learned a lot about this as I’ve grown over the years. You know, when I was—in 1995 when I was a freshman at Maryland and played for Cindy Timchal, who’s now the current head coach at the Naval Academy, I kind of walked out of a high school state championship program into Maryland, and we were right there competing for national championships.


And through our four years there, we won each year. And so you don’t really…you don’t really think about any of that until, you know, you’re now in the coaching position, and you’re moving on, and you’re like gosh, why…what makes these teams different than other teams out there. And they do, they’ve got great players, but I think it’s, you know, it’s the people that really matter.

It’s that everyone is totally bought in, selfless, and really believes that they’re fighting for something, you know, bigger than themselves, you know, that they’re all in, willing to do whatever it takes for the good of the team, to put themselves kind of to the side and recognize that even though we’ve got a group of 30 some players, every one role is important, everyone’s role is powerful, and we need everybody to be all on the same page if we’re gonna be successful.

So I think there’s a lot of these pieces that as a coach you learn over time, and you learn how valuable and important, you know, each of these lessons you’ve learned along the way has been. And ultimately, you know, here we are now, and having won the championship this past season.


We’ve got a really special group of people, and it, you know, everybody is just that, they’re all bought in, they believe in each other, and they’re ready to compete every day.

Melissa: So you mentioned totally bought in a couple of times, and getting everyone on the same page, which I could not agree more. Even in a business setting I think that’s a huge part of success. What… how do you do that?

Cathy: Well, I think a lot of it is, it’s…this is…this the way it is. For example, this year we have 12 freshmen that just came into our program. You know, we recruited them and, you know, watched them over the years. They’ve gotten to know our staff and the players on the team into our program.

And now they come in and they’re looking to what’s the norm, you know, what’s the norm for our organization, and what’s the norm for Maryland lacrosse, and how are the seniors and the juniors, who have been a part of this group for a couple years, how are they paving the way, how are they setting the way. And we have had years, our years that have been the most successful are the years when my leadership is the most powerful, you know.


And by powerful I don’t mean powerful as in bossing people around or doing this, but I mean leading the way, setting the tone, you know, letting people know what we’re all about and what we’re working towards. And so that’s been…that’s been something, you know, that’s, again, we’ve been the most successful when we’ve had the strong leadership. And I think it’s really important for me as their coach and leader of the program to really engage, engage the leadership aspect of all of our players and try to really build and develop them, because that sure trickles down and…and is a big part of our culture.

Melissa: That’s cool. So do you view yourself as the owner of the Maryland lacrosse women’s culture?

Cathy: Well, no I—oh, gosh, the owner? No.

Melissa: [Laughs.]

Cathy: But I will—so this year, for example, is really different than where we were last year. So we had a very strong senior class last year, strong in a couple ways. I had a lot of people that played a lot of time on the field, you know, at game in. But I also had ten strong personalities that were very different but complemented each other well.


And so when I as a coach can work with those leaders to really let people shine in the areas where their strengths are, they’re able to bring the people along with them, you know, that are younger. And now for this year, for example, we graduated a lot of…a lot of seniors, and so my team’s a lot younger this year.

And so I think for our staff as coaches, we need to take a bigger role in that leadership piece, you know, and spending time and working with our upperclassmen and working with who will be our leaders this season, and just becoming a little more active, you know. A lot of times it’s been nice to kind of hand that over to the players, and now, with this year, when we have more of a younger team, our coaching staff needs to be more…more present and more involved in all of it.

Melissa: Oh, I have so many questions, I can’t wait to dig in. [Laughs.] So, you know, I love this idea of how you’re talking about your leaders. How do you identify who those leaders might be? What do you look for?


Cathy: Well, so the way that we’ve run it here is we’ll go through our fall season, which for us is about a 6 week season where we’re on the field doing stuff, and then the rest of the time outside of that 6 week window the girls are just lifting and conditioning and, you know, doing that sort of stuff. At the end of our fall segment we meet with each player individually and just kind of ask them a couple questions of who do they see as leaders on the team. I want to hear from them. You know, I want to hear who our players believe should be their captain, you know, of the team and why.

And so I have them vote for players. I have them rank them in order. And then we as a staff go through and kind of calculate and analyze everybody’s votes and see where it puts us. And then some years I’ve had, gosh, 2 captains, some years we’ve had 4 captains, some years I’ve had a leadership council because we have a variety of players who were named, you know, in those meetings, and so we want to make sure that we’re including everybody because if we’re talking about them they have something to bring to the table. You know, they’ve got something to add if there’s a player on the team that looks up to them in a leadership position.


Every year’s different, but I like to get through part of the fall so we can see, and the freshmen can see, who’s really stepping up, who’s kind of taking over, who’s taking the other players under their wings and who’s moving forward with it.

Melissa: One of the other things that I admire about you is not only, you know, have you created this winning team, but—and you identify clearly leaders on your own team from year to year—but you’ve also been creating a generation of strong female leaders. So I read about some of your protégés having moved into coaching at all levels—you know, high school, club, collegiate. You know, Kathy Rudkin at Severn, Meg Taylor at Navy—

Cathy: Oh, yeah.

Melissa: Colleen Dawson, head coach at my alma mater, William & Mary. So tell me about how you…what are your views on developing leaders?


Cathy: Well, I think this could even go back to when Cindy coached at Maryland and I had the opportunity to play under her. And there’s so many Maryland alumni that are out there in coaching, whatever age, whether it’s, again, high school, youth club, college. And I think, you know, when people would ask how is it that Cindy did that, and I think a lot of it was because we were really passionate about what we did. We were passionate about our program. We loved what we did. We loved the competition. We loved being a part of it. And you want to continue that when you enjoy…when you enjoy doing something like that.

And so, you know, when I took my first coaching job I actually graduated, and Cindy brought me on staff at Maryland. And I hadn’t even thought about college coaching. You know, I didn’t even…that wasn’t even something that was like a career, you know, a picture of that for me when I started out college. But because the opportunity was there, and I loved my experience at Maryland, it was a no-brainer. You know, look at this. I can learn from the best, I can be around such great players playing a game that I love, working with awesome athletes. And so it just kind of was one of these things I think still transitions till today.


You know, these guys graduate from playing for me, and playing here, and I want them to be passionate about what they do, whatever it is that they choose, you know. If you love what you do you want to do the best you can at it. And, you know, these guys love the sport of lacrosse. They love competition. They love their teammates. They love being part of a group that they believe in. And so I think, you know, when you are passionate about that, you know, it’s something you want to continue.

I think these guys, too, when we’re in college we talk about the importance of relationships. You know, if it’s not just about wins and losses. And lacrosse is such a small piece of everything that we do. But the relationships that you make are what’s important. You know, these are what’s gonna last forever. The people are important.

And so when you enjoy being in a profession like I am right now, where I get to work with people in and out, coaching a sport that I love, watching, for me, these women come in as 18-year-olds who have no idea what’s going on, to go through college and not only, yes, win championships, but just grow into these totally awesome women that get to continue to go on and do amazing things, whether it’s coaching or whatever career path they choose.


And then to build families. It’s so rewarding. And so I think that’s something that’s really cool, when you can be passionate about people, and have a respect for the game and your teammates. It’s something people want to continue in.

Melissa: You know, I think what, isn’t there a saying that if you’re passionate about what you do then you never have to work a day of—

Cathy: Yeah.

Melissa: —you never work a day in your life or something like that. It sounds like—

Cathy: Something like that, yep.

Melissa: Yeah. So I recently had the opportunity in one of my last podcasts to ask Anson Dorrance, who’s the UNC women’s soccer coach if he thought leaders are made or born. And I’m curious what you think.

Cathy: Huh, good question. You know, I think…I think it’s… probably say there’s a little of both. And that’s just looking at my own family with that.

A lot of these players that I get in here, I can tell when they come in their freshman year, how they carry themselves, how they interact with their team, their passion, their commitment, their dedication, their drive to what they’re doing, and I can say you know what, she’s gonna be a great leader, you know, as she goes through her college career, and she’ll be a captain when she’s a senior, ‘cause you can tell that that’s how their personality…how they kind of command themselves and respect from their teammates and stuff.


But I don’t know. From my own kids I would say it’s probably I’ve seen…I’ve seen both and I’ve seen them both kind of continue to grow and develop.

Melissa: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, I was reflecting on this question myself, knowing I was gonna ask it of you, and I actually came up with a very similar answer. And I do think it is a little of both. It’s like some people have the natural inclination, but you also, I think, have to help define and develop those inclinations. So I agree. I think it is a little bit of both.

So tell me a little bit—tell me about your recruiting process. I’m curious to how you recruit and whether or not do you just assess for technical skills, do you look for cultural fit as well? How does culture fit into your recruiting process, if at all?

Cathy: So well, for us, lacrosse recruiting, you know, our rules have changed over the past couple years, so the process has changed a little bit. But regardless, you know, we spend time evaluating talent, you know, talking to coaches, learning…learning about players before we’re even able to talk to them.


And then the opportunity opens for us to speak with them and get to know them, and we’ll spend some time with them, whether it’s, you know, phone conversations, campus visits, having them and showing them around, getting to know them and getting to know their family. And for me, you know, just really telling people what we’re all about. Here’s how we operate, this is what we do, this is…this is how I see our program, this is where we see you fitting in.

You know, I’m not gonna ever sit here and tell you you’re gonna be a superstar, but we’re gonna work for this and, you know, go through kind of our values and our beliefs as a team when we meet. And there’s sometimes we could end up, you know, with conversations and we leave and we’re like wow, this…this kid is the perfect fit for Maryland lacrosse and there’s others where we’re like maybe this isn’t the right fit, you know. And so I think it’s more, it’s a process. It’s definitely a process. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s a journey from the day you start evaluating talent to the day you kind of close…close the deal.


And even then when you have a player that says hey, I’m gonna come play for you, I want to be at Maryland, the relationship still continues to grow, you know. So over those next months, before they even get here, they are continuing to feel connected to the program, learning about the way the team works, and getting to know other players on the team, and their future teammates, and all that good stuff, which really can kind of include them and welcome them into the program. So from the time and then they step on the campus, and they are, they’re already a part of it, you know, ‘cause they’ve been around it for so long.

So it’s definitely a journey and a process, you know, it’s not something that the real quick decision’s made. But as they say, for every sport in college and when all of, you know, the kids choose the colleges they want to go to, you want to find the right fit for you, and somewhere where you’re, maybe your culture, cultural values and beliefs and everything that you kind of stand for align, you know, for the…with the program that you’re choosing, ‘cause that’s an important piece of it.

Melissa: Mm-hmm. So how formalized is your culture? You talked about those core values and making sure they’re…people find what they’re aligned. How formalized is it at Maryland?


Cathy: Well, formalized…I don’t…you know, that’s kind of a tough word with it. But I will say that, you know, when I played here from ’95 to ’98 I didn’t know any different, you know? And then you just kind of kept going, ‘cause this is the way things were done, this is who we were, this is what we were all about. And…and then I went on to be an assistant coach. And then I took a chance and took a head coaching position at the University of Denver, where it was starting point for me.

You know, I was really trying to build a program out there. And things that I had assumed were the norm are not. And so that was a real eye-opening experience that okay, you know, there’s different whatever it may be, you know, different things that we just…we just did at Maryland that we needed to kind of build into it, you know, and develop, and really work on these relationships and examples, and setting the tone, and setting our expectations and our goals and where we are.


And then when I had the chance to come back to Maryland some things had changed, and I could see it ‘cause it was more glaring, you know, than when you can come back to something and—

Melissa: Oh, yeah. You can—I know what you mean, yeah.

Cathy: —and there were some changes that I wanted…wanted to make, and so we had a lot of team meetings in that first year of just saying all right, this isn’t…this isn’t how we’re gonna do things, you know. We’re gonna come back to recognizing who we are and recognizing that, you know, we’re all in here for the same goal. We’re not, for example—I can give you an example.

Melissa: Okay.

Cathy: Have division by classes. I’m not big on that. I don’t have freshmen carry balls, and freshmen move goals. And I know that’s a standard in a lot of programs, but for me it’s not. Like we’re all coming in here, we’re all competing to be the best that we can be, and frankly, I don’t care what year you are, you know? And so this is…this was something for us that we needed to just…to just get back to who we were and remember that, remember what our goals are, remember that it’s not all about you, you know, it’s about a whole team of people and what can we do to be as successful as we can be.


So I wouldn’t say…I think it defined, it’s more of a part of who we are, you know, something you practice every day, something that you’re…you’re determining who you are by your actions, and what you’re doing, and how…where kind of the mental state of everybody in the team is as far as something that’s really formal and written down on paper. You know, we do go over, in the beginning of the year, just to bring everybody together this is what we’re all about.

You know, we’re Maryland lacrosse, and we can bullet point some things and say, you know, your…our teammates…our teammates are important, you know, and we’re gonna make sure that we’re communicating with each other, we’re looking out for each other, we’re believing each other, we’re representing our program well, we’re speaking, you know, about our teammates, and support staff, and coaches in the right way, and, you know, different things like that that I guess could be called a little more on the formal side. But I do think it’s more of the tone is set every day when you’re around it, and, you know, you’re a part of something every day.

Melissa: Yeah, I hear you. I think…I definitely am a big believer that in order to set a culture you have to be very intentional about it, and if you’re not intentional about it, it will still happen, but it will happen around you. And it may not be—


Cathy: Right. And I—

Melissa: Yeah, go ahead.

Cathy: Yeah, and I think that’s part of what I really learned, you know. And I don’t…I don’t think I knew that as far—till I took my own head coaching job and went to a different place. Because this is what I was around for nine years. You know, I was around things being done a certain way and everything. And then I went to a different, you know, different institution and that was not at the same level as Maryland as far as, you know, level of competition, but things were done differently, you know.

Then I learned, okay, I’ve got to create some of these things. I’ve got to make sure that we’re stating it, we’re talking about it, we’re addressing things when they happen so we can make those changes. ‘Cause you can’t really assume, you know, assume that anything is gonna be a certain way without stepping in and addressing it.

Melissa: Mm-hmm. And I’ve read that family is also an element of your culture, and it’s one I can actually relate to. It’s one of our core values here at Eagle Hill. And at Eagle Hill I actually work with my mother and my father, so the core value—


Cathy: Oh, wow.

Melissa: [Laughs.] —is something that’s really a natural extension of what’s already happening. But I’m curious, like why do you think having a familial culture is so important to an organization and what advice might you have to an organization that actually doesn’t work with their family members like I do to cultivate this type of culture?

Cathy: Well, I guess when I think of the word family, I mean, they’re the people I care about more than anyone else in the world, right? Like these are the people who, you know, you would, you’d just do anything more—anything for.

And I think that at the end of the day it’s people that matter, you know. It’s people that matter. It’s the people that you…you are with every day, you work for, that you get to work with, that you’re surrounded by. And, you know, for me in my job, I…my assistant coaches are not only great assistant coaches, they’re good friends. You know, we work together well. I respect them and, you know, I think they’re part of my family.


And when you can really care about the people around you I just think the environment that you’re in, and that you’re creating is one that’s like living proof of respect and just caring and loving and doing anything for each other, and being willing to do whatever it takes to help the people around you be successful.

And that’s, you know, how I think about—I have four kids, so between my husband and my kids and, you know, they’re the people that, again, mean the most to me. And if we can have an environment there where we care so much about the people around us then you know you’re working for something that’s worth it.

Melissa: That’s awesome. I love that.

Melissa: And I think if you can find that balance with your people who you work with, too, it’s an amazing—it’s a secret sauce, I think.

Cathy: Yep. For sure.

Melissa: So just changing tacks for a second, in the business world we often feel that companies sometimes struggle when they have a great culture and they hire somebody that turns out to be what we call a brilliant jerk.


Cathy: Mm-hmm.

Melissa: So in other words they can do their job. They are fantastic at it many times. But they’re really not very fun to work with. Have you dealt with kind of the sports version of a brilliant jerk, and what have you done about it in the past?

Cathy: Yeah, well, we try to hopefully hit all of that stuff in the recruiting process—

Melissa: Agreed.

Cathy: —because it’s important that you…you—well, at least for me to remember that no one’s better than our culture that we have here. You know, no one is that good, you know, that they can kind of supersede or go above who we are, you know? And so I think as we go through the recruiting process, when we can be just upfront and honest about how we do things and how we go, we’ve—some people who maybe we’re not right for as well can see that, and they opt to go a different direction, which is…which is great.


You know, as we go through I think the big piece when you’re a part of a team—and I have 39 athletes on our team—is, you know, the leaders really, and the culture and the way that the team operates daily sets the tone for it all. And so the other people are either in or they’re not. And if it’s not right for them, you know, unfortunately in college athletics there’s people transfer.

I don’t know if it’s fortunate or not fortunate, you know. People leave and find another program that maybe their values align better with. And that’s one of the things where it is what it is, but it’s the best thing that needs to happen because if, for example, Maryland is not right for you then I don’t want you to be here either, you know.

Melissa: Mm-hmm.

Cathy: ‘Cause there needs to be a better fit where you’re happy, and you’re getting what you want out of your experience, too. So I think a lot of that is kind of defined by the leadership, by the people on the team, you know, by just how we’re setting the tone, and work ethic, and everything, and the way that we recruit, and the way that we have conversations that could be pretty tough through the recruiting process. And then kids that want in are bought in, and they’re all in, and if they find out once they’re here it’s not right for them, you know, they’ll…we’ll talk about different possibilities and options for them to kind of go check out a different route.


Melissa: Cool. And I’ve also read that when you’re not coaching you run a development—you run development programs. And I read that one mistake you think a player can make is to focus too much on competing and not enough time on continually developing their skills, learning, and improving. So tell us about this and why you think it’s so important.

Cathy: Well, I think…so and I’m going through this with my own…my own children, you know, and there’s just so many sports now that want your attention year-round. And I just think it’s so valuable for kids to be able to play multiple sports and for… They’re just that, they’re kids, you know. That I want, for my own kids I want them to be able to play three sports and, you know, try…you know, my daughter’s trying, you know, playing middle school field hockey this year too in addition to soccer and lacrosse.


And, you know, just to do these things to let them gain that experience and explore all of those options. Where a lot of sports these days are trying to get you to commit to doing one thing all the time year round. And so—

Melissa: I know, from the age of like five, many times. [Laughs.]

Cathy: —and a lot of the club programs, too. Emphasis on like competition. And there’s so many tournaments, and there’s so many games out there, but yet when are they learning the sport and when are they getting better? You know, just kind of making sure you’re finding that balance between you’re continuing to grow as a player, you know, and learn that, but still have the thrill of competition, because everyone loves to play games. And so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

But I find it tough as a parent who’s involved in this profession to find that balance for my own kids. I can’t imagine what it’s like for parents that aren’t involved, you know, and have kind of the insight that I have to some of these things to feel like they’re getting pulled in all these different directions. I just…it’s a lot to think about, and it’s tough. It’s tough for these kids to be able to find ways to manage it all.


Melissa: So a question that we ask all of our guests, what is the one word that comes to mind when you think culture?

Cathy: Oh, my.

Melissa: [Laughs.]

Cathy: That…I guess… Success.

Melissa: Ooh, I love that.

Cathy: I mean, I think… I’ll go with that, you know, I think because, you know, culture can…and not if you’re looking at success as a…like a, I don’t know, like a national championship or not in my sport, but yet when I think of our culture, if our team is all on the same page, believing and acting, you know, doing the things that we want to do the right way, then I think we’re a successful program.

Melissa: And this is a question we ask all of our new hires. This is a fun, kind of silly question, but if you could have a single superpower, what would it be?

Cathy: I would 100% heal people.

Melissa: Oh, that’s a good one. It’s hard to argue with that one. [Laughs.]


Cathy: Yeah, my oldest son has Type 1 diabetes, and I just watch the struggles, you know, that these kids with all these different things go through. And my god, if I could take any of that away from them, that would be my superhero power in a second.

Melissa: That would be amazing. Well, Cathy, thank you so much for your insight. And I’ve heard later this year you’ll be inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. It is clearly well deserved.

Cathy: Thank you.

Melissa: And I hope you can truly savor the moment. You’ve really done some really amazing and impressive things.

Cathy: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Yes, it’s a lot of fun. And thanks for taking the time to talk today. It was great.

Melissa: Yes, likewise. You have a great day.

Cathy: You too. Bye-bye.

Melissa: Take care.

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