Although the Yale men’s soccer team finished its 2015 season last month with 29 players on the roster, five players have since quit the team, and others are considering doing the same.
The program, which ended its season with a 1–14–2 record, saw significant changes in its coaching staff this year following former head coach Brian Tompkins’ retirement at the end of the 2014 season. After a similar 1–13–3 record in Tompkins’ last season, new head coach Kylie Stannard, who previously worked as associate head coach at Michigan State, pushed to change the culture and mentality the team had developed under Tompkins. His actions, however, received mixed feedback from players. Some found themselves unable to adapt to Stannard’s new coaching style, which involved a higher level of intensity and negative criticism than players had seen in previous years.
The first piece of Stannard’s new approach, according to many players, involved elevating soccer to a higher priority for members of the team.
Stannard said he always told the team that, in order of importance, family comes first, academics second, and soccer third. He believed additional activities, such as job searches or other clubs, should not be given as much weight.
Although players agreed that a certain level of commitment was necessary to improve the program, reactions to Stannard’s approach were varied.
“There was definitely an increased focus on ensuring that soccer is the number one priority of the guys on the team over things like friendships and jobs,” said a senior soccer player who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic.
Forward Keith Bond ’16 highlighted the fact that none of the team’s coaching staff had any experience coaching in the Ivy League prior to this year. He said it took the coaches time to adjust to the type of student-athletes who play in the conference compared to other Division I leagues around the country.
But according to goalkeeper Ryan Simpson ’17, one of the first things Stannard said when he met his players was that the academic rigor and commitment at Michigan State were equal to Yale’s. Simpson noted that Stannard used this idea as an argument for holding players to the same standards that his former Michigan State players faced.
“Kylie values soccer as the sole commitment as to why you’re here, [that] this is Division I and it’s supposed to be your primary commitment,” Simpson said. “For [other] D-I schools that is true, for the Ivy League it is not true. We don’t receive scholarships, and when you are applying, [soccer] is seen as an extracurricular. We face the same standards and have to get in academically.”
Simpson, who is considering leaving the team, said that he and others who are contemplating quitting are doing so partially because the new priority on athletics is taking them away from other opportunities on campus.
Director of Athletics Tom Beckett said the desire to explore something else at Yale is generally the reason why athletes decide to leave their sport.
The senior who asked to remain anonymous added that although Stannard might have known in theory that the time spent in academics at Yale was larger than at other programs, he does not think Stannard understood this reality until he took his position at Yale.
Still, Bond said Yale is not the only Division I school that places a strong emphasis on academics, and that many of these peer schools have seen success in their soccer programs during a time when Yale’s team has struggled.
“I have no doubt that Coach Stannard will move on from this season considerably more aware of what it is like to coach in the Ivy League and at an institution like Yale,” Bond said.
Stannard said it is natural for differences to arise within the team regarding how specific players react to certain coaching ideas or philosophies, and that if some players decide that they want to spend their time doing other things, that is a personal choice that he respects.
However, Simpson said the coaching staff misunderstands the main reason certain players quit the team. While Stannard said players left to pursue other activities, Simpson said players chose to depart more due to disagreements with the coaching staff.
One of the five players who quit the team at season’s end, who also wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic, said his decision to leave the team was a direct consequence of the treatment he received from the head coach. Two other players who quit the team could not be reached for comment.
Simpson expressed similar frustrations, and also took issue with the treatment of players’ injuries since Stannard’s arrival.
In a game against Brown on Nov. 7, Simpson was hit on the head with eight minutes left in overtime. Simpson said although it was clear from the way he staggered on the field that he had a concussion, he was not pulled from the game and instead played for the remainder of the game — during which he received three additional hits to the head. Simpson said another player experienced a similar situation with a concussion earlier in the season.
Though Simpson questioned Stannard for the decision to keep him in the game, Stannard and head athletic trainer David DiNapoli said that this would have been a decision for a medical professional to make, not a coach.
Simpson said he continues to have impaired vision in the peripheral field of his right eye, and has consistent difficulty associating and disassociating images. He added that he does not know whether this condition will be temporary.
“It is now 22 days out from my concussions and I still have symptoms,” Simpson said. “So the question becomes, why was I not removed from the game knowing I was most likely concussed?”
Stannard said that he leaves decisions like this one to his athletic training staff, and that Simpson went through the “full protocols” after the game.
Sports medicine intern for men’s soccer Ashley Leverone said she could not disclose information about specific players’ injuries due to medical privacy laws.
DiNapoli said the standard procedure for potential concussions is for an official to stop play and wave medical staff to the injured player, after which the player would be removed and tested for a concussion. DiNapoli added that the main risk of keeping a player on the field is that he or she may sustain additional hits while continuing to play, which could increase the risk of traumatic brain injury.
“The medical staff has complete authority to remove an athlete from competition,” DiNapoli said. “In the case of soccer, removal would be at the discretion of the [medical doctor or physician assistant at the game], in conjunction with the athletic training staff.”
A WINNING MINDSET ABOVE ALL
After four consecutive seasons of Yale placing in the bottom half of the Ivy League under Tompkins, Stannard made competitiveness a main focus upon joining the team. In practices and games, on and off the field, Stannard highlighted the importance of players performing at a high level at all times.
“The new mantra this season was ‘someone is always watching, the coaches are seeing everything,’ which dictated whether you played or not,” Simpson said. “It was a lot more pressure, and we definitely felt the walls closing in.”
Under Tompkins, who had served as head coach since 1996, the team’s main focus had been its style of play, such as a strong commitment to ball possession, the senior who asked to remain anonymous said.
But in Stannard’s first season, the player said, the emphasis was more on winning games — regardless of the way the Bulldogs did so.
“In terms of in games and practices, there was an increased focus on the importance of results and getting the result in any way possible rather than the style of play,” he said.
Stannard also sought to improve the team’s physical fitness, often holding demanding practice sessions in the spring and fall, Bond said. He added that the increase in fitness sessions combined with limited sleep led to complaints from some team members.
Stannard also worked on providing direct feedback to players on their progress adapting to the team’s new style. After practices and matches, the coach would provide each individual player with a grade, Simpson said.
Although practice grades were private, match grades were made public for the first half of the season, and these grades helped determine who would be playing in upcoming games.
Bond said he found the grades helpful, but he added that many players felt their match grades did not align with how they felt they had played.
“The grades were used to see where guys stacked against one another,” Simpson said. “It was subjective to that type of a feedback system, of the mantra of ‘a player who doesn’t produce in practice won’t play.’”
Simpson said that after the team’s first four games — all of which were losses — he had a conversation with Stannard in which the coach told Simpson that he, personally, was responsible for the team’s poor performance in the beginning of the season. After that, Simpson was benched and freshmen goalkeepers started in his place.
During that time period, Simpson tore his quad while training for goal kicks and wound up missing seven total games either due to benching or injury.
“The way I am, I always have high expectations and demands for all the guys,” Stannard said. “I try not to single out certain individuals but occasionally it happens.”
Though several players took issue with this style of coaching, Bond said that he never felt uncomfortable when speaking with the coach. According to Bond, Stannard’s honesty may have been problematic for some, “especially those who were not very good at taking criticism.”
The anonymous senior added that much of the tension within the team was due to misunderstandings that naturally occur under a new coach, and that in general there were not major conflicts between Stannard and his players.
But the player who left the team said he took issue when, during games, Stannard highlighted the team’s mistakes rather than providing constructive criticism.
“[Stannard] had no problem telling us that he was embarrassed of being part of the team, that he had the opportunity to be part of a bunch of other Division I programs, and he wished he had taken on that responsibility instead of trying to pull us out of the cellar,” Simpson said.
When asked whether, after a one-win season, he regretted his decision to coach Yale, Stannard did not give a definitive answer.
“It’s been a really good learning experience for me, but frustrating at the same time,” Stannard said. “We’re all really competitive and want to do better. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to be here and excited for the future of the program.”
Players also worried that if they voiced any concerns to the coach, they might face negative consequences such as a reduction in playing time, Simpson said.
The player who quit the team said that players were more likely to accept advice from student leaders — such as captain Philip Piper ’16 and other seniors on the team — than from their new head coach.
“I don’t think getting angry at us when we know we’re not doing well helps anyone,” the player said. “I think I can speak for everyone that we were more comfortable talking to each other than [to Stannard] or even the other coaches when it came to anything we wanted to discuss.”
Despite significant setbacks, including consecutive one-win seasons and multiple players leaving the team, many believe the current hardships will eventually lead to a better and improved soccer program.
“I think this has been a great learning opportunity for me, the coaching staff and players to get to know the league even better,” Stannard said. “I think it has been a very positive step in the right direction for the future of the program.”
He added that he has spoken with other Yale coaches this year who have been in the same situation of trying to turn a program around, and that many had similar experiences with players leaving because they did not agree with the program’s new path.
Bond said it is important that the team remain patient going forward, as he said the hard work put in this year coupled with the team’s talent will eventually translate into wins.
“I think in the short term the multiple leaves are definitely going to make things tougher,” the anonymous senior said. “But I think the model Coach Stannard is trying to create in the long term is going to be successful whether or not all the guys currently on the team stick with it. The guys that stick with it and the new recruits will create a culture of winning in the long term.”
When a program sees multiple departures in a season, Beckett said the administration will add a recruiting spot, if possible, and encourage additional students to walk on to the team — two possibilities they will explore for the men’s soccer program.
Associate athletic director Jeremy Makins, the administrator in charge of men’s soccer, declined to comment.
Simpson said some recruits for the class of 2020 have voiced concerns when visiting campus, and that current players have been honest in informing them of the overall atmosphere in the program.
For Simpson, this involved telling recruits that the program was headed in a positive direction despite its record this year, but that joining the team meant making soccer a top priority.
When asked, Stannard said he had not heard of any concerns from recruits.
“There’s not much we can do besides be really supportive of the guys that are staying with us,” Stannard said. “We are just going to have to work with the group we have and the group we have coming in.”