Strong Connections

Football teams have done it for a century. Today, volleyball coaches are discovering the tremendous benefits of making alumnae players a part of their current team.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: KB@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 13.11, November 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1311/connections.htm

Twenty-five years ago, the Sacramento State University women’s volleyball team won its first national championship, the 1980 AIAW title, and the next year it won the inaugural NCAA Division II championship. This fall, the school celebrated those achievements’ anniversaries with a gala reunion weekend. Twenty of the 22 players on the teams returned to campus and were feted all weekend long, along with being inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

“It was an absolute blast,” says Debby Colberg, Head Coach at Sacramento State. “I knew it would be fun, but I had no idea it would be that much fun. It was a lot of work, because I had to run six matches in eight days, on top of helping to compile a highlight film of the ’80 and ’81 teams and preparing a speech. But I would do it again in a minute.

“The night of the reunion, we took a picture of the two returning teams together with the present team, and having everyone up there on the stage was a very special moment for me,” continues Colberg. “As coaches, we give a lot to our players, and moments like that make it clear how much we get back—probably more than we ever give.”

Beyond the celebration being a feel-good experience, it was a way to help the current program connect with its past. “It’s important for your players to understand that they’re part of a bigger picture,” says Colberg. “It’s important for them to see that there were athletes who came before them, who really laid the groundwork for their program, and that there’s a tradition they need to live up to.”

Colberg is not alone in working hard to bring alumnae back into the fold. Coaches at every level are finding that when former players are celebrated, or even just invited into the picture, the current team understands more clearly the significance of their own participation. Connecting with the past can also bring out a program’s most basic philosophy.

“Your former players are one of your greatest assets because they build a family atmosphere for your program,” says Mary Wise, Head Coach at the University of Florida. “And a family atmosphere builds tradition.

“It also shows our current student-athletes that we will follow through on our commitment to them for the long-term,” continues Wise. “When we recruit our athletes, we talk about how the relationships they will build in their four years here will affect them their whole lives, and that has been one of the keys to our success.”

Stephanie Schleuder, Head Coach at Macalester College, has found that the alumnae connection helps to put goals into perspective. “Everybody wants to win, but that can’t be our ultimate goal,” says Schleuder. “Our goal is to have people recall their experience fondly and remember the people who were a part of it. When they graduate, they’re not always going to keep in mind the individual wins and losses, but they’ll always know how they felt about being here. To understand that, our student-athletes need to gain that historical perspective.”

Honor The Past
For many volleyball teams, there is not a strong alumnae tradition. Until recently, few administrative resources have been channeled into keeping female athletes in the fold. Therefore, the first step in the alumnae-relations process is to get former athletes back on campus so you can connect with them face-to-face.

The best way to do this is to honor them in some way. Sacramento State’s anniversary celebration started on a Friday afternoon with both teams being inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame and continued that night with a banquet attended by past and present Hornet volleyball players. The next day, the championship teams were formally introduced at halftime ceremonies during the football game and honored again at that night’s volleyball match. The event was organized by the athletic department, alumni office, and booster club, all working together.

“The alumnae were treated like royalty, and they felt really appreciated,” says Colberg. “They loved seeing each other, and everybody who walked into that reception was just mesmerized by their reactions to one another. It was a truly magical event.”

The University of Nebraska held a 10th anniversary celebration of its 1995 NCAA Division I national championship team this summer, which included video clips from the title match and on-court introductions for each member of the team between games. “After the match, we invited the alumnae into the locker room and introduced them to our current players,” says Nebraska Head Coach John Cook. “Everybody was very relaxed, the dialogue started right away, and it made a huge impression on our team. When you’re in the presence of people who won a national championship, whose jerseys have been retired and whose photos are on the walls, it’s a very powerful experience.”

The returning players were just as pleased. “Alumnae want to reconnect, even if they haven’t always been able to keep in touch,” says Dee Wood, alumnae liaison to Nebraska’s Match Club, its volleyball boosters. “Our job is to create that opportunity, and the key to bringing them back is to acknowledge what they’ve given to your program.”

At Macalester, Schleuder recently assisted the athletic department in holding an event to celebrate the history of women’s sports at the school. There was a dinner for 500 people. A highlight reel was shown and archival photos decorated the walls. A hundred alumnae representing seven decades of women’s sports received varsity letters.

“There were women who had graduated as far back as the 1930s talking about the struggles they had endured—coaching themselves, making their own uniforms, setting up their own travel,” says Schleuder. “And the overriding message was how much their desire to play had propelled them over one hurdle after another. It was a heart-warming experience, and after listening to those stories, people had tears in their eyes.

“It took a lot of help from many different offices on campus, but it was a great thing to do,” she continues. “It took coordination among the special events office, the president’s office, the alumni office, and the athletic department. It was all more than worth it to honor the people who have come before us, to hear the amazing stories they have to tell, and to share that historical perspective with our student-athletes. It was one of the best events I’ve ever attended.”

At Florida, when volleyball athletes come back to campus, they can see their achievements perpetually honored, as the department has dedicated one wall of its building to the story of Gator women’s athletics. “There are pictures of former teams and highlights documented on the wall, and alumnae bring their children to see their place in history,” says Wise. “Women’s sports haven’t been around for very long, but at the first opportunity, we’ve tried to record that history.”

Alumnae Matches
Another great way to get your former athletes back on campus is to organize an alumnae match. At Nebraska, Cook holds an alumnae night once a year in late summer or early fall, when former players return to Lincoln for a match against each other, followed by a red-white scrimmage of current players.

“The alumnae love it,” Cook says. “We have people fly in from all over the country.”

“It felt absolutely wonderful to be back on the court,” says Wood, who at 53 was the oldest player in last year’s alumnae match. “It was so exhilarating. It took me right back to when I was in college, but with a much bigger crowd—we had 3,000 people come to see our alumnae match. The announcer knew something about each of us, which was great. And after the match, we were able to visit with the student-athletes.

“I was able to tell the current team what a thrill it was to come back after 30 years, and how playing collegiate volleyball is going to stay with them for the rest of their lives,” she continues. “It’s a life-changing experience, and I think they realized that.”

The University of Nevada has also enjoyed success with alumnae matches. Head Coach Devin Scruggs involves her current athletes by having them sit on the bench with the former players and cheer for them. “They sit on the bench talking with the alumnae, and it gets to be a real rivalry for everyone, because no matter how old the alumnae are, their competitive drive comes right back,” says Scruggs. “It shows our current athletes how important it is to continue their relationships with their teammates, and it starts them thinking about what they’re going to do when they come back for alumnae games years from now.”

As with any event, planning and organizing an alumnae match takes time. The keys, says Scruggs, are to schedule the match for the right weekend and to find former players who are motivated to bring their teammates back to campus. “It really helps to have someone who was a leader during her era,” she advises. “If you can get a player to coax her teammates to come, it will make a huge difference. And I always schedule the match for a weekend when there’s also a home football game, so people have multiple reasons to come to campus.”

At Central Michigan State University, Senior Associate Athletic Director and former Head Volleyball Coach Marcy Weston hosts a spring golf tournament for all athletic alumnae, and a fall match for volleyball alumnae. Her advice? “Pick a date as soon as you’ve got the volleyball schedule,” says Weston. “Choose one when your former coaches can be there, because the more ties you have to the past, the more alumnae will want to return.”

Macalester’s Schleuder also emphasizes the importance of planning in advance. “The earlier you can set the date, the more people will be able to come from out of town,” she says. “Hold a picnic or a cookout in conjunction with an alumnae match to make it more of an event, not just a game. And get officials for the match, so it doesn’t look thrown together and your alumnae can see you’re taking them seriously. As soon as you can, sit down with the people in your alumni office to plan how you’re going to work together. An event like this doesn’t just happen. It has to be thought through.”

Keeping Contact
In addition to once-a-year alumnae matches and anniversary celebrations, some coaches also try to connect with their former athletes on a more regular basis. At Yale University, Head Coach Erin Appleman regularly sends all Bulldog alumnae an e-newsletter. “During the season, I send it out on Mondays, writing about who we played over the weekend, how we did, and who we’re going to play that upcoming weekend,” she says. “And any time I run into alumnae, I make sure to mention them in the e-mail, saying, ‘It was great to see so-and-so. We’re thrilled that she could come to a match and we’re hoping you can, too.’

“Then, during the off-season, I send the newsletter out about once a month, letting alumnae know what we’re working on,” continues Appleman. “I don’t give them specific information about any one athlete, but I write about what we’re doing as a team, so they’ll remember what it felt like when they were going through the same thing. It makes them feel they’re still a part of our program.”

Colberg sends out a printed newsletter, which also goes to her booster club members. “I update them about the current team, profile our players, and inform them about any upcoming events,” she says. “Plus, I always have an alumnae section where I talk about things like the people who have gotten married and the babies that have been born.”

If your program doesn’t already have a newsletter, Colberg suggests you start simple and grow. “It doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy,” she says. “What matters is that you’re keeping contact. People just like to stay connected, and if they get something in the mail that has your name on it, they’ll be very appreciative. If you make the effort to create a newsletter, you’ll be rewarded.”

Nebraska’s Wood writes a feature for the Match Club newsletter, profiling one former player every month. “I call the column ‘In Touch,’ because it’s about getting in touch with alums, finding out where they are and what they’re doing,” she says. “I do a phone interview, and I ask them what they’re doing career-wise and family-wise. Regardless of how many years they’ve been away, every person I’ve spoken with still plays volleyball. As a result of talking with them, some of them have joined the Match Club, and I keep running into people who pass on suggestions for the next column.”

At Florida, Wise uses both print media and the Internet to keep her alumnae informed, starting with a booster club newsletter and supplementing it with regular e-mails to former players. “We have a very active booster club, which does a great job of sharing updates on what our alums are doing,” says Wise. “The Internet has also been a wonderful way for us to stay connected, with e-mails passing back and forth about wedding announcements, birth announcements, and other personal news.”

In every piece of correspondence, Wise invites her alumnae to visit with the current players. “Every time I communicate with them, I say, ‘I hope you’ll come by,’” she says. “Each time a former player comes back to Gainesville, whether it’s to watch a match or just to see a practice, we make a point to introduce her to the team. That allows me to explain who she is, which team she was on, and in some cases, point to the banner she helped win. We always want our former players to feel welcome and appreciated, because they’re the ones who put our program on the map.”

Schleuder invites alumnae to come early to home games, and hosts a chalk talk before every contest. “It usually lasts about an hour, and we provide pizza and pop,” says Schleuder. “I talk about our team, discuss our strengths and weaknesses, and then I share the same scouting report that I’ve given to my players, offering some insight into what we’re going to do that night and how we match up with our opponent.

“I also ask them questions like, ‘When you were playing, did you have scouting reports?’ and ‘What strategy would you have tried on your team?’” she continues.

Yale’s Appleman uses a similar open-door policy every time the team goes on the road. “Whenever I see alumnae at our away matches, I ask them to speak with our team after the match,” she says. “I invite them into the locker room, introduce them to our players, and ask them to talk about the things they think are most important. It’s a great way to provide our athletes with mentors who’ve shared their athletic experience.”

At Macalester, Schleuder also fosters mentoring relationships for student-athletes, inviting alumnae to speak with the team after matches and offer advice from their own experience. “When alumnae come down, I have the players introduce themselves and talk about where they’re from, what year they are, and what they’re majoring in,” she says. “Then the alums do the same thing, and hopefully people can start networking.

“To expand on that, our department has started a career night to bring back alums from all sports,” continues Schleuder. “It’s a way for our athletes to get their foot in the door at any number of different companies, which is one of the things we’ve seen in the past with men’s athletics. Plus, it’s another way to get past and present players to connect, and to involve our alumnae with the lives of the people on our team.”

Schleuder also keeps alumnae connected to the current team through audio Webcasts of home games, hosted by a pair of former Scots who contribute their insiders’ perspective to the play-by-play and color commentary. The broadcasts can be heard live on the athletic department’s Web site and are archived for the rest of the season.

“The two people who host the show really enjoy themselves,” says Schleuder. “They’re very outgoing, they know the players, and they keep our listeners feeling connected.”

Building The Future
Although it is not their main reason for connecting with former players, coaches find alumnae networking can eventually lead to raising funds for their program. “It’s a step-by-step process, but there’s a huge connection between bringing back alumnae and raising funds for your program,” says Weston. “It’s all part of letting people know they’re valued, cultivating the relationship, and keeping them connected. Send them updates, invite them to games, and announce them when they come back. Make them feel important.

“While you’re still in the planning stages, sit down with people in development and tell them what you want to do,” she continues. “Get out of your office, walk across campus, and meet with them. Ask them to come to your games. Ask them for help. And if you think you don’t have the time, you need to find it, because reinvolving your alumnae is crucial to the success of your program.”

For more articles on reconnecting with alumnae, search “former female athletes” at our Web site: www.AthleticSearch.com.


Sidebar: A Running Database
After graduation, many of your athletes will move from city to city and job to job, and over the years there will be countless opportunities for them to drop out of touch. To keep them connected to your program, you need a system for finding them and keeping track of them.

Of course, the easiest way to stay in touch with your alumnae is to never lose contact in the first place. At Sacramento State University, Head Coach Debby Colberg makes sure she has the most up-to-date information before her student-athletes graduate, and maintains a contact list of former Hornets over the past 30 years. “I keep a running database of the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of everyone who’s graduated from the program,” she says. “That way, when I need to reach any of my alumnae, I know where to find them.”

Being at the same school for so many years is a huge bonus for Colberg, but she’s found other solutions, too, like partnering with the athletics booster club to create an online questionnaire for former players and coaches. On the department Web site, a dialogue box reads: “Where Are You Now? Former Student-Athletes and Coaches Click Here,” which takes the alumnae to a very short survey. The survey asks for the most basic data about their years, sports, and degrees at Sacramento State, and alums can also request information about tickets, camps, schedules, and membership in the Hornet Club.

The Internet is also a useful, inexpensive tool for finding lost alumnae, especially www.google.com, which indexes newspapers, magazines, and Web sites, and www.switchboard.com, which collects information from the nation’s telephone directories. Another idea is to ask alumnae to set up an e-mail chain, in which you send an e-mail to a former athlete, who forwards it to some of her teammates, who forward it again, until all of the team has been located.

“Just start networking,” says Erin Appleman, Head Coach at Yale University. “If you have only one person’s e-mail address, start networking with that one person. Then, whether you’re at home or on the road, make yourself available to alumnae. When they come to campus, invite them out, spend time with them, and show them you care. Ask questions like, ‘Are you in touch with other alumnae? Do you have their telephone numbers? Can you forward me their e-mail addresses? Do you know how we can get them involved in the program again?’”

To view Sacramento State’s alumnae questionnaire, go to: www.hornetsports.com/prospective/questionnaire.asp.