Aug. 14, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — If the thought of quitting crossed anyone’s mind as the University of Notre Dame women’s soccer team entered its third hour of treading water, no one showed it.
The sun had barely risen outside the building that housed the pool at the Sherman Lake YMCA Outdoor Center in Augusta, Michigan, but the Fighting Irish had been in motion for hours. Less than 18 hours beforehand, they had boarded a bus at Alumni Stadium expecting a weekend of relaxation and recovery tucked into the woods.
Instead, they got Sam, Glen and Judgment Day.
Sam Cila and Glen Cederholm work for The Program, LLC, which bills itself as a leadership development company for professional and collegiate athletes, coaches and teams. Cila is a retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant who served combat tours in Iraq and received a Purple Heart in 2005 after suffering an injury in an IED blast that ultimately claimed his left hand. Cederholm is a retiring Master Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps whose resume includes deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and attendance at some of the most challenging military schools over a 20-year military career.
The mood palpably shifted as Cila and Cederholm told their stories.
“I think we were all a bit shocked to see two big ex-military men talking to us about how they were going to whip us into shape in the next couple days,” senior Katie Naughton said of their first encounter with Cila and Cederholm, crowded in an otherwise quaint barn that more frequently hosts more tranquil get-togethers.
The Irish had no idea what was coming.
The Judgment Day program is an intensive two-day session that is designed to at once push athletes out of their comfort zones — both physical and mental — and improve leadership and team cohesion. Designed with a military-style boot camp in mind, instructors strive to instill the message that talent can only take a team so far, while true teamwork will not only make facing adversity easier, it will make goals easier to reach.
Irish head coach Theresa Romagnolo has known Cila for several years. She later told her team she brings The Program in to teams she thinks are special. With the Irish ranked No. 9 by the NSCAA heading into the season and returning a bevy of talent, Romagnolo expects big things from the Irish in 2015.
“I think there’s a great amount of talent in the group and a high amount of desire to be successful this year,” Romagnolo said. “I think at the end of the day, we’re trying to create the right mentality moving forward. For me, The Program is about putting you in situations where you’re out of your comfort zone and learning how to push through some adversity. I think that’s all part of sports. You’re going to encounter that over the course of the season. I want to make sure we have a great mentality moving forward.”
If the introduction was overwhelming, the actual training came as more of a shock. It quickly became clear that a lackadaisical approach would not be sufficient as the trainers launched into a calisthenic circuit. Perfection was stressed; sprinting required. Cila and Cederholm watched like hawks for movement in unison, and enthusiastic replies during the call-and-response.
Striving for one more yard, push up or jumping jack — six, 11, or 21 rather than five, 10 or 20 — was the basis of each set of exercises. Holding teammates accountable — cheering them on and correcting them where they struggled — was the biggest key to the next challenge.
“We were terrified at first because it’s never a good feeling having someone yell in your face and say things to bring you down,” senior Cari Roccaro said, “but then they would also say things at the same time to have you look left and right, look at your teammates and then you will start to almost eliminate the pain if you just cheer on your teammates and focus on getting through it with them.”
Chief among the lessons the Irish learned throughout the course of the program was that leadership could come in many forms, from quiet freshmen to all-stars. Captains Naughton, Roccaro and Glory Williams, as well as other upperclassmen, were charged with guiding tasks throughout the weekend, but they quickly learned to identify and utilize the strengths of each of their teammates to increase efficiency and help the group accomplish its goals.
The lesson became clear late into Friday evening’s session, when Cila indicated their next mission would be the most mentally challenging yet — something of a math problem in which the group had to move five numbered sandbags, one at a time, across a field without stacking a large-numbered bag on top of a small-numbered bag. They were given six minutes to complete the task, or else the distance between start and finish, marked by cones, would grow.
Instead, freshman Shannon Hendricks identified the pattern immediately, and leader Kaela Little delegated to Hendricks to direct the troops. The Irish finished the task in 4:20. They repeated it only to perfect the process and improve their time, driving home Cila’s maxim of getting “that much better.”
Later, Cila told the group Hendricks was one of just two of the nearly 7,000 student-athletes he’s trained to have identified the pattern on the first try. The other was a mechanical engineering major on the Tufts men’s lacrosse team.
“I think it’s huge because we have a very upperclassmen-based team and our leadership really comes from upperclassmen. I think that was really special to see people who have never stepped up before step up and do it well,” Williams said of seeing different team members lead in ways big and small.
Day Two proved just as challenging, taking what the group learned on Day One and implementing it in an even tougher setting: the pool. The session culminated in a mission in which the team had to exchange sweatshirts with a partner — taking them off and putting them back on — while treading water, and in the fastest possible time.
Especially for those less comfortable in the water, the task was the most challenging of all. But though it took nearly an hour to perfect the process, the Irish improved their time from nearly four minutes to 1:22. By this time, those with fears of the water had built enough trust in their teammates to rely on them to help them complete the mission.
Nearly everyone agreed it was the most memorable moment of the entire experience.
“We had some people who were pretty uncomfortable in the water and it’s a pretty challenging task that they were asked to do,” Romagnolo said. “I think (task leader) Katie (Naughton) did a great job of continuing to motivate the team in a difficult situation. I think that Rilka (Noel), who was a bit uncomfortable in the water … pushed herself off the wall in the deep end and put 100 percent trust in her teammates. I felt that that said a lot about this team and our willingness to trust each other.”
“I think watching people literally risk their lives to swim for the team and conquering fears (was meaningful),” added Williams, who was presented with The Program’s shirt, an item that cannot be bought, only earned through exhibiting the leadership qualities The Program extolls. The shirt features a Spartan shield, which, Cila explained, was much more important that the spear because it served to protect “the warrior to your right and the warrior to your left.”
Once it was over, Cila and Cederholm did what they never do — debriefed the entire team. In a chilly side room just steps from the punishing YMCA pool, Cila explained to the team that in his seven years with The Program, he had only ever debriefed one other squad. The Program instructors usually reserve this practice for the coaching staff, but they agreed that this Irish group had what Cila called “the edge” to both receive feedback and dish it out. He praised the team for its recall skills, its ability to take direction and for developing the capability to “bring the fight to the enemy.”
“I think it spoke to our character as a team and it reflected how hard we had worked and how much we had put into The Program,” Naughton said. “I think, in the grand scheme of things, it was warranted because we had proved to ourselves and to them that we could meet their standards and keep reaching higher and higher and accomplish all the goals we set out for ourselves.”
Romagnolo hopes the Irish will use the experience as a launching point for the season. As she addressed the team in the debriefing area, she talked about “buying into high standards,” not just talking the talk, but believing it.
“I hope it gives them confidence that they can really accomplish anything that they want to this year,” Romagnolo said. “It was a really challenging two days and it was grueling and pushed them into uncomfortable areas and they ran with it. If anything, it should give them a lot of confidence in the leaders’ ability to lead and their ability to be good teammates, their ability to bring urgency and focus in critical moments. For us, it should all be positives to propel us into the season.”
Only time will tell if their experiences translate into on-the-field success, but it was clear, once the dust had settled, that an already close Irish team had shared an experience that had bonded them even tighter.
“It brought us closer in a weird way, a different type of way,” Roccaro said. “We all were suffering at the same time. I don’t think we’ve ever suffered as a team that badly.
“It won’t get much worse, and (we’ll know) we’re able to fight through anything. That kind of feeling will really help us.”
— By Joanne Norell, Athletics Communications Assistant