Virginia’s 2011 NCAA championship team lost more regular season games than any team that had ever won the title thanks largely to the leadership of players like Bray Malphrus (second from left) and Steele Stanwick (first to left of Starsia).

Starsia: Things Players Say and the Language of Leadership

This is the fourth article in a series on leadership written by National Lacrosse Hall of Fame coach Dom Starsia. Previous articles included “10 Principles of Coaching and Leadership,” “Key Leadership Qualities for Players” and “How to Identify and Develop Leaders on Your Team.”

In previous articles on leadership, I wrote about the language of coaches and the lasting effect our comments can have on athletes. The young people in our charge are much more likely to respond in a productive manner to consistently mindful and positive dialogue. In fact, I felt one of my primary responsibilities as a coach was to say something meaningful every day.  One of the great joys of this profession is to have a former athlete repeat something you said at an earlier moment as an example of a lesson in his or her life.

It recently occurred to me that the flip side of this principle also is true. I have had athletes say things to me that have had a profound effect on my coaching and in my own life. In most instances it was not a calculated statement, more a spontaneous reaction, a truthful expression. I describe this as athletes using the “language of leadership.”

I always tell young players to aspire to be a leader, that the journey to true leadership will take you to all of your individual playing goals. We may recognize a leader when we see him or her, but what does it sound like?

Genuine leadership speaks in the first person.  It is not simply, “Let’s go,” to your teammates. It is much more often in word and action, “Watch me.” For those who are not as good with words, their actions at consistently critical moments speak volumes. However, there are also moments when the right words clarify the message and serve a necessary purpose. To these same young athletes, I suggest this: Close your eyes and try to imagine some variation of these words coming out of your own mouth as you consider the evolution of your athletic career.

Genuine leadership speaks in the first person.

‘I made a mistake’

In 1991, our Brown team was 6-0 and about to play Yale, a returning NCAA semifinalist from and our first Ivy opponent, on a Wednesday in Providence. We were coming off a bye weekend and the players were required to be back in town for a community service project on Sunday afternoon.  Andy Towers, first-team All-American midfielder, our faceoff man and perhaps our best player, missed his ride and the Sunday activity. He called along the way to apologize, and I told him not to come to Monday’s practice.

A couple of the older players came to speak to me afterward. They made the case that we needed Andy for Wednesday’s game. I slept on it and told everyone he had to sit for the game — there are consequences for actions and decisions.

When Andy asked to speak to the team after Tuesday’s practice, I had some concerns, but said OK. He stepped in to the team huddle and said, “Dom is right. I made a mistake. I deserve to sit. You will beat Yale tomorrow without me.”

We did beat Yale, and Andy was one of the finest game day managers I ever had. The episode galvanized the team and we finished the regular season undefeated at 13-0.

‘Watch me’

In 1992, my final spring at Brown, we got beat 17-12 by Loyola in the first round of the Fleet Tournament. We were playing an NCAA tournament-bound Duke team the next day and were still licking our wounds at a team meeting that evening. I was concerned about the mood of the team until future Hall of Famer Darren Lowe had the last word of the day.

“If you want to know how this will go tomorrow, watch me,” he said.

Darren scored three goals and doled out seven assists as we beat Duke 16-4.

‘We will not lose again’

My second season at UVA was the spring of 1994. There was some selfishness in the locker room, and our season was spiraling downward, especially after UNC beat us 15-7 in the ACC championship game. It was hard not to be discouraged until two freshmen, Doug Knight and Brian Birch, walked in my office and declared, “Enough of that. We will not lose again.”

Neither Knight nor Birch was a starter, but their laser focus became a contagion for the entire team. We went on to beat a higher ranked UNC team on the road in the NCAA quarterfinals, the No. 1 seed Syracuse in double overtime (after being down five goal and two men to start the fourth quarter) in the semifinals and came back from three down in the fourth quarter to force overtime in the national championship game against Princeton.  While we lost that final game, our program turned a corner and took on a different edge.

‘The right time for me to play’

I ran into junior defenseman Darren Mahoney late in the 1996 season. He had been inserted into the lineup midway through that season and was just terrific down the stretch. I actually apologized to Darren for not getting him in to the lineup earlier in his career and he responded, “Coach, I’m sure it was just the right time for me to play.”  He was a captain and leader in 1997.

‘I got this one’

Eerily similar to 1994, we trailed by three goals in the fourth quarter again in the 1996 NCAA final. We came storming back and found ourselves in the huddle about to face off in overtime.  We used two faceoff guys throughout the season and throughout the game, and I was not certain who would take this all-important draw. Virginia at the time had not won a national championship in 24 years.

I glanced across the huddle, and David Wren looked me in the eye and mouthed the words, “I got this one.” I could not have asked for anything more from an athlete than that reaction in that setting. The fact that we did not win the faceoff nor the game speaks to the reality of life and competition. We do not make every shot, we do not win every game, but the willingness to step to the center of the battle at the critical moment defines our character.

‘That wasn’t so hard’

We finally won our championship in 1999, and after all the anguish of 27 years, it was left to senior defenseman Courtland Weisleder to simply state, “That wasn’t so hard.” So profound in its simplicity, I use it over and over again to explain to young people that it is the anticipation of the sacrifice and commitment that seems so overwhelming. If you happen to reach your goals, you can only barely imagine why the decision to take this journey seemed so daunting.


Goalie Kip Turner arrived in Charlottesville knowing a starting role would not be assured. He went on to lead Virginia to an undefeated season and NCAA title as a junior in 2006.

‘Will I have a fair chance?’

It was the summer of 2002, and we were looking to add two goalies in the incoming class. Our first choice was Bud Petit, the U.S. U19 team member. We offered the second spot to Kip Turner, and we were forthright about the situation. He was not especially pleased and asked to think about it through the weekend.

“I have one question,” Kip said when we spoke next. “Will I have a fair chance when I get there?”

I assured Kip that he would have 40 teammates who would be certain that we played the best goalie. Kip sat behind Tillman Johnson for a year and then started the next three seasons, including the 2006 undefeated national championship season. To his great credit, Bud did not make it into the lineup until his fifth year, when he carried the 2008 team to the national semifinals.

‘You are going to have to trust us’

We struggled with issues on and off the field in 2004, and the common assumption would have been to crack down hard in 2005. Junior defenseman Mike Culver came into my office to talk following the 2004 season and surprised me with his assertion.

“Coach, you are going to have to trust us,” he said.

When I assured Mike that the price for my trust would be more severe consequences for any transgressions, he was fully prepared to bear that responsibility. I do not recall a single issue during those two years, and we played some of the finest lacrosse in the game’s history.

‘I am going to take care of this for you’

Here is an example of the unspoken language of leadership: It was the fall of 2008, and our returning attack included Danny Glading and Garrett Billings. We needed one of our talented incoming attackmen, Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet, both natural righties, to play on their left-handed side in their first year. I mentioned that to both Steele and Chris early in the summer before their arrival. They could help the team and get on the field quicker if they could manage on the left side.

On the first rep of the first drill of the first fall practice, Steele jump into the front of the left-handed line for a 3v2 drill coming off the end line. I swear it may have been the first ball I ever saw him shoot. He dropped his hands and ripped it low to high in the upper corner. He sort of looked over at me and without saying a word, his body language screamed, “I am going to take care of this for you.”

Steele scored close to 40 goals that year, and I will bet that 35 were left-handed.

‘I know that was hard for you’

Finally, there was one game to go in our 2011 regular season. Our record was 7-5, we had just been clobbered in consecutive games, our best defenseman was recovering from season-ending surgery and I had just dismissed two of our leading players from the team. I was concerned that we were closer to disarray than to the NCAA playoffs.

Two days before our final regular season game against an NCAA tournament-bound Penn team, senior captain Bray Malphrus came to me to affirm, “I know how hard that was for you Coach (the dismissals). We are ready to go.”

We went on to beat Penn and win the NCAA championship with more regular season losses than any team that had ever won the title. Along with Steele and John Haldy, Bray provided one of the great demonstrations of athletic leadership.

‘Give it to someone who needs it more’

Here is one for the parents: Usually you make a scholarship offer before a young man commits to college. When one of our top recruits committed before we made our offer, I went on to tell him, “And, oh, by the way, here is what we have in mind for your partial scholarship.”

I received a text message later that evening from his mother, who said she needed to talk with me the next day. “Uh oh!” I thought. But then she called to say, “Dom, we have been blessed. We don’t need the scholarship. Please give it to someone on the team who needs it more.”

These are the memories that live on for me. These are the stories that I retell, that changed my life. The championships and the games have been breathtaking.  At the same time, it is these very real moments that fill up your soul.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Mike Schambach and his family.