Culture of Service Resonated For Norman's SquadBy Joanne Norell
Editor’s Note: In 2018, five University of Notre Dame head coaches began preparations for their first seasons leading their respective programs: Chad Riley (men’s soccer), Nate Norman (women’s soccer), Alison Silverio (women’s tennis), Mike Johnson (volleyball) and Matt Sparks (cross country/track and field). This is the second of a five-part series examining the last year in the life of those coaches and their outlook now that they’ve navigated a year of competition in the shadow of the Golden Dome.
Nate Norman wasn’t thinking of set pieces when he landed on “Serve” as the Notre Dame women’s soccer program’s guiding mantra in his first year as head coach of the program in 2018.
Since his promotion last February, Norman (‘07) has set about reimagining the culture of the program. Of course, the full implementation of a tactical philosophy would come in time — and surely those first pieces were put into place in Norman’s inaugural season as an Irish head coach.
But in Year One, for Norman, culture came first.
“From a culture standpoint our big action word was just the word ‘serve,’” Norman said. “‘How can we be a servant to each other in every way?’ Not only to our teammates, but the people we come in contact with, whether that be people in the dining hall, or professors, or people that we (meet) on road trips, or just people in our community in general.”
But service wasn’t the only foundation of the kind of team Norman was looking to build. Along with his staff — long-time Irish assistant coach Dawn Siergiej and newcomer Lauren Sinacola — Norman identified five pillars the program would stand for: service, humility, solidarity, sacrifice and hard work.
Almost universally, it was a message that resonated. To Norman, building a team that could succeed on the field would be nearly impossible without first building a team culture that could foster it. And his team met that challenge and ran with it.
The most public example was the genesis of sophomore Bailey Cartwright’s “Stronger Scars” podcast. Since she was diagnosed with Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome in both legs prior to her freshman season, Cartwright has undergone a pair of surgeries that have not only interrupted her playing career but left lasting marks in the form of the scars on her legs.
“‘How can we be a servant to each other in every way?’ Not only to our teammates, but the people we come in contact with, whether that be people in the dining hall, or professors, or people that we (meet) on road trips, or just people in our community in general.”
Instead of letting those setbacks rule her mindset, however, Cartwright turned her experience into an opportunity. Her podcast and website seek to give power back to student-athletes who have been injured and whose scars set them apart. What began as a project reaching only fellow Notre Dame student-athletes has expanded with Cartwright speaking with compatriots at schools across the country.
“Bailey’s taken a very difficult situation where she’s gone through certain injuries, but found a way that she can reach and give comfort to a lot of people,” Norman said.
Less publicly, Norman points to the work his team has done in the community, whether volunteering at local schools, visiting sick children in the hospital or getting involved in local youth soccer clubs.
“I’m just proud of them that they’ve come to embrace what the Notre Dame philosophy is,” he said. “You’re given some of these resources, platforms experiences, and you have to really use those to help and serve other people. Just looking at that from a broad scope, I’m super proud of that and I think that will continue to help us grow collectively as a team. (There’s an) understanding (of) these are our values and we might go through tough times during a season but how are we going to help each other through this fight, continue to use these values to push through some of these tough moments.”
Indeed, the 2018 season was not without its tough moments. The team finished 8-10 on the season and missed the NCAA tournament, frustrations given the historical success of the program. While Norman, an attacking forward during his own playing career, looks to implement a more aggressive approach — a departure from the defense-first philosophy during his season as an Irish assistant in 2017 — he believes only a few key pieces need adjusting as he and the Irish head into Year Two.
“We did a great job of keeping possession, we had the ball, we connected a lot of passes. But now we have to go somewhere with that. And we have to be more ruthless than that in that attacking and punish teams when we get the ball in dangerous areas.
“We are going to always be an attack-minded team that gets numbers forward, but we’ve got to do a better job from a transition defending standpoint. We gave up too many goals, too many chances. When teams get meaningful possession in our defensive third, like we have to be a little more organized and have a better understanding of each other’s roles in those types of situations.”
When all of those things are clicking — from the cultural philosophy to the on-field product — Norman has a strong pitch to the recruits who will help him bring his vision to life. This fall, he will welcome 10 freshmen to the program, four of whom ranked as four-star prospects by TopDrawerSoccer, plus San Francisco graduate transfer Autumn Smithers.
As a Notre Dame alum himself — Norman played for Bobby Clark and graduated in 2007 — he has a unique viewpoint from which to tell the story he wants potential student-athletes to hear. The gist of it? “Hey, I’ve been there.”
“I had some tough times. I’d be sitting in Coach’s office and some were great conversations, but some are tough conversations where he thought I could do more, thought I could treat people better, thought I could take care of myself better,” Norman said. “And I had times where I’m thinking ‘Can I do this academically? This is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. Am I enough to be around these kids?’
“I think what I found out as I went through all those trials is that I became something that I wasn’t even sure I ever thought I could be. But I also was able to look back on my whole journey here and I never had that question, ‘What if? What if I had done all that more, push myself a little bit more? How good could I have been?’ I think that’s what makes this place really special. I think the journey is really fun. And I had a lot of great experiences and I think that’s why it was so enjoyable and fun for me is because it was super, super challenging.”