August 28, 2014 12:08:55 AM
STARKVILLE -- Intimidating. Soft spoken. Mean. Sweet.
Mark Tribus has a knack for eliciting a wide array of colorful words from people who are asked to describe him.
Those four words are a sample of ones Mississippi State women's soccer players used in talking about the graduate of West Point and Harvard Business School.
But the word the Bulldogs will remember the most from their time with Tribus is much more significant: Team.
"I feel like I have been on groups that play soccer, not ever teams that play soccer," MSU freshman Kayleigh Henry said. "I think team is kind of used a little bit loosely. A lot of people have come together on my soccer teams on Tuesdays and Thursdays and you go to games and you don't spend any extra time. You love the girls, but you don't extra time with them. You don't go out to eat with them. You don't invest in your relationship with the others. This team at Mississippi State is the first time I have experienced a real team and people who really care for each other.
"I feel like I have been a part of a lot of groups and not a lot of teams. I think Mark coming in, if we weren't a team before -- if we were a group -- we are definitely a team now."
Earlier this month, MSU women's soccer coach Aaron Gordon invited Tribus to come to Starkville to put his team through a leadership development and team-building exercise. Gordon saw the success Tribus had at his former school, Texas Tech, where he was an assistant coach to Tom Stone, and believed Tribus' message would be extremely important for his squad, especially since he brought in 19 new players. After working with Tribus for a weekend, Gordon has seen an immediate impact on his players and on his program.
"A big part of what Mark teaches the coaching staff and the players is relationships matter," said Gordon, whose team (0-2) faces Furman at 6 tonight in its first road game of the season. "Relationships matter for a team, and he does a really, really good job of articulating it, motivating it, and enlightening everyone involved.
"Our program needed a shot in the arm, too, in terms of not a wake-up call, but the realization of if we want to have success here, it goes well beyond soccer. That is what I learned in my first year here is a lot of those things that involve the team and the relationships weren't addressed here. I don't know what the word is for it, but I didn't find it here. I was looking for it, but after I got into it I realized that is not here and I thought, 'How am I going to get these kids to seek what I think a team is if it is not ingrained in them, if there is not a thread running through every one of them."
Tribus specializes in building those bonds. He served a 20-year career in the U.S. Army, which included a combat tour in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. As president of Mark Tribus, Inc., his goal is to build winning teams one leader at a time. He has developed and taught leadership courses at West Point and Duke, and has custom-designed programs for six soccer teams and 40 universities. His message is simple: Teams rarely exist and you have to get individuals to sacrifice for a greater cause that is greater than themselves.
With such a young team, Gordon wanted to bring Tribus in to help everyone see what needed to be done to push the program forward. He said one of Tribus' greatest gifts is to get players to realize they have a reserve tank they can dip into when things get challenging. In sports, those moments come quickly, so players have to push themselves and set aside their individual hopes and goals and do what is best for the team.
"The aftermath of becoming a good team is like eating an elephant. It is one bite at a time," Gordon said. "It doesn't happen overnight. We have already seen little indicators already in how they are around each other, how the team interacts -- whether it is in the locker room or at the dinner table. There already are little things that are night and day to when I arrived -- stuff I assumed, or took for granted, would be the case, not realizing from my past experiences we developed those. I think the immediate impact with Mark is small things like that from a relationship standpoint that probably were the easiest things to do with 19 new players because they could all come together that way. The best experiences are shared experiences, and they got to share a profound experience with Mark that was physical, mental, and revealing. That is something that will never be taken away from this group."
Tribus said coaches can assist in the design of a team-building exercise for their program. He said a session typically lasts for three hours, and that he doesn't do only one session. The three to five sessions he does with each team combine indoor and outdoor exercises. He said players initially have to develop the courage to confront their demons and then build love, trust, and respect among their teammates. After they have overcome the first two "fights," Tribus said teams then can "punish another team with grace."
"Champions go the extra mile," Tribus said. "You have to overcome selfishness. A team can only grow from hardship and suffering and sacrifice. You have to learn to break down the barriers and trust your teammates. You have to learn to be vulnerable and not to pretend."
Tribus did three sessions at MSU. The first involved a tug of war that had teams pulling a rope in different directions. The second used "self-concept boards" in which players were asked to build collages of themselves using photos, markers, crayons, and anything else they could imagine to show their teammates who they are. The players were then asked to list eight to 10 qualities they see in their role model and list them on the board. At the top, they were asked to put "I Am ... ." Tribus said the exercise is designed to help the players see that if they can see those qualities in others, they can see them in themselves.
The third session was a mungadai, an ancient warrior term that refers to a feat of mental and physical strength that is designed to test a person's limits. In the exercise, the MSU players had to carry a teammate on a stretcher around Chadwick Lake. The 2 1/2-mile trek included stops every half mile in which the players had to do 100 pushups, situps, or jumping jacks. Tribus said the exercise is designed to show the players they can do more than they expect out of themselves.
Henry, a 5-foot-3 defender from Hattiesburg, said the sessions brought all of the players together mentally and physically. She said the players had to rely on each other and, ultimately, developed a new understanding and a better appreciation of what it means to be a part of a team.
"It was awesome," Henry said. "It was a lot of team building. Awesome is the only word I can think of to describe Mark and what he did to our team and helped with the transformation coach Aaron is trying to do. He was tough, and I feel like Mark is with our team every day. We joke about him, and we talk that he is going to be popping up at practice."
Henry said the team even came up with a word -- ubuntu, which means I am because we are. She said the Bulldogs used the word when they were doing the mungadai on Tribus' final day with them. Knowing the team that finished last in the exercise would have to do it again, Henry said all three teams joined hands and finished the exercise at the same time.
Senior Shannen Jainudeen said Tribus' work helped the players realize they are more than athletes representing MSU, they are "soccer sisters."
Junior Shelby Jordan, who called Tribus "intimidating," said the time spent with Tribus showed the Bulldogs how far they can push themselves and what they can accomplish if they work together.
"I think I can speak for everyone else when I say that if we can go through Mark Tribus and all of the stuff he put us through, we can go through anything together," Jordan said. "That is going to help in games because in games it gets hard and it gets hot and you get tired, but you can go back to the workout he put us through and how we all came out together. I think that is really going to help on the field because it is always going to be back there and you're always going to think, 'I have my girls here. If we can go through that, we can go through anything.' "
Two games into his second season, Gordon hopes the things his players learned from Tribus stick. Like Tribus said, he understands becoming a championship program is a process that will take time, but he believes the foundation has been established for the Bulldogs to have success.
"That is the way you deal with coming out of the experience, how every person is connected in a way they didn't realize. It is not the uniform they wear, it is not the classes they go to. It is when they get together it is way more than just a transactional relationship of walking in the gate together or going into the locker room. Those are givens. It's really being able to trust and love and respect the girl to either side of you so when it really does get hard you are ready to suffer and sacrifice. That is a really big part of what Mark does."
Tribus said he has been asked to come back and work with the MSU soccer program again next month. He said he also could work with the MSU volleyball and softball teams in the coming months. After seeing how well the soccer players grasped and embraced his concepts, Tribus is confident the future for Gordon and MSU women's soccer will be bright.
"They are on the top tier of teams we have worked with," Tribus said. "I give them unbelievable marks. I think they have great DNA on the team. I think the team has women with unbelievable character and will. Now it is just a matter of playing and building skill. As they develop, they are going to be a powerhouse. I have all the confidence they will develop into a team."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.