Q&A with Sean Cotter

State University of New York College at Plattsburgh

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.9, October 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1409/qacotter.htm

Going into the 2006 season, NCAA Division III Plattsburgh State was predicted to finish fifth in the 11-team State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC). Instead, in their seventh season under Head Coach Sean Cotter, the Cardinals finished the regular season with a 19-1 mark, won the SUNYAC championship in four games at home, and earned their first NCAA Tournament berth, where they finished one win shy of the Division III World Series. The team’s offensive performance improved from one home run in 2005 to 41 in 2006, and from a .218 team batting average to .323. The offensive explosion helped propel Plattsburgh State to a 23-game winning streak and new school records for wins (40) and winning percentage (.816).

After one year as head coach at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, Conn., and another year as head coach at Division II Teikyo Post University, Cotter arrived at Plattsburgh State in 2000, taking over the second-year program. Since then, the Cardinals have averaged 24 wins a season and reached the SUNYAC Tournament seven times.

Cotter serves on the NFCA’s board of directors as the Division III representative and is past president of the New York State Women’s Collegiate Athletic Association’s softball committee. He has also served on the NFCA Top-25 and NCAA Northeast Regional rankings committees. In this interview, Cotter talks about keeping his team focused through a 23-game winning streak, using sports psychology skills to mediate problems between his athletes, and recovering from burnout.

CM: Why did you take the Plattsburgh State job?

Cotter: It was a chance to form a program in the image I wanted, and not worry about whether the team had been really bad or really good the year before. I took the job to start a tradition, and we’ve been able to put a nice little history together in the last few years.

What identity did you want the team to establish?

I wanted us to be pretty good pretty quickly, and to play the game the right way. I also wanted to create a family atmosphere, and I think we’ve done that. This year, when we hosted our conference tournament, 10 alumni took time off from work to watch us play because they feel just as much a part of our team as the kids on the field.

We play a high-energy, up-tempo game. We’re a cheering team, and there’s a lot of energy surrounding our program.

How do you foster that family atmosphere?

We do a lot of team building. I teach sports psychology here at Plattsburgh, and I feel those skills are very important. I want an environment that’s competitive, but at the same time, one that makes the players feel safe in knowing that the coaching staff and their teammates have their back.

We work really hard to encourage our players to confront one another in a positive way and not allow issues to fester. We don’t want to deal with passive-aggressiveness that can sometimes go on.

What do you do when conflicts arise?

I’ll bring the players in and act as mediator, or if the conflict is between myself and player, I’ll have someone else act as mediator. We teach players that they need to actively listen to what other the other person has to say.

How did the team overcome low pre-season expectations?

The foundation for this year’s success started immediately after the 2004 season. We had some issues and some changes we needed to make. At that time, I was a little burnt out with coaching and some players were strong enough to confront me on that. I re-charged my batteries and for the 2005 season we brought in a pretty young group of players. We were 23-19, but lost a lot of close ballgames in extra innings. With a little bit of luck, we could have easily won 30 games. I think the kids saw how talented they were and realized what they could do differently to have that represented in our record.

We instituted a stricter weightroom policy and the kids bought into it. I challenged the players who had been underachieving during their careers, and that motivated them big time. They had great leadership in the weightroom and during practice, and they didn’t want to be known as the first class that didn’t win more games than the class before them. They saw the preseason prediction of us finishing fifth as a slap in the face. From that moment on, it was a lot easier to motivate them.

How did you maintain momentum through the team’s 23-game winning streak?

Just by living in the moment, not looking back and not looking too far ahead. We concentrated on our top goal of winning a conference tournament game. As a team, we never really talked about the winning streak. We emphasized that every game was important in conference play.

Cortland State, our rival, kept winning, so we needed to keep pace if we wanted to host our tournament. We have a great home field and a lot of people come to watch us play. We felt those advantages would set us up to win.

Coming off your SUNYAC championship, how did you approach the NCAA Tournament?

We didn’t approach it any differently than the SUNYAC tournament, but maybe we should have. We never felt comfortable that weekend, from our coaching staff to the players. We had a bye in the first round, but it would have helped if we’d been able to play right away.

What would you do differently?

I wouldn’t have the kids attend as many games. We were out there watching games when we should have been taking our minds off competition. We could’ve gone to the movies, taken a hike, or done any of the things we normally do to relax as a team. We needed to remember that a game is just a game, and how you play it doesn’t change just because you’re playing in the postseason.

What triggered your feeling of burnout?

I was getting stressed about external things. I was starting to become the kind of coach I don’t like, one who yells and screams instead of teaching. So I made a conscious effort to re-think my future and realized I needed to get back to what made me successful: being positive with players and getting them to be the best they can be.

What else did you do to overcome the stresses of coaching?

I took time away from the office, and realized I didn’t have to be there every hour of the day. Our hectic recruiting schedule played a big role in my burnout. I think Division III is the hardest division to recruit for because the process never ends. Offers from Division II or Division I schools come during the summer, and we’ll often lose our recruits when they’re offered scholarships. Some years we’re on the road every weekend from May to November. That causes burnout, and to solve that we need to say, “I’m not out recruiting on this particular weekend. “I recruited a lot this summer, but I set aside 10 days when I wasn’t going to do any recruiting. I went to Florida to see a baseball game and did other things that weren’t softball-related.

Taking a step back allowed me to watch our kids enjoy one another. Even if you’re an average team, you can get a lot of enjoyment out of the experience. If your kids are working hard, they’ve bought into your philosophy, and you need to enjoy that.

How did you work with pitcher Stephanie Zwieg, who despite having Erb’s palsy, became the team’s first ever all-American?

I was a little concerned through the recruiting process knowing that in college batters would try to attack that, but there were really no adjustments we had to make. She fields her position really well and is even on our depth chart as a backup first baseman. She just gets rid of the ball really quickly and transfers the glove well. I no longer even look at it as a disability. I don’t see her as being any different than anyone else, and either does she. She even spends a lot of time working with kids with the same condition she has.

How has success changed your approach to recruiting?

When I first came here we were just starting our program, so if a potential student-athlete contacted us, I would drive hours to see her play. I might drive five hours one way and five back then decide she wasn’t going to fit into our program. We had to recruit everybody. Now we can be a little more selective. At the same time, having a new, full-time assistant coach has allowed us to see more kids and be more organized. This was the first summer we had two people on the road recruiting, and I expect it to pay dividends next year. Our success has opened the door to places we couldn’t get into before and we’ve got more people looking at us.

How is coaching in Division III different than in Division II?

In terms of teaching, I still do a lot of the same things I did in Division II. The only difference is that when we go on trips, I spend more time planning fun things for our days off. Our athletes aren’t in a scholarship situation, so I try to give them more life experiences. In Division II, we’d practice on our days off. Here, whenever we have day off, it’s truly a day off. From the time we leave our hotel until we get back that night, we don’t talk about softball. We talk about life.

What are your duties as a member of the NFCA’s executive board?

I’m the Division III representative, so I try to help the members understand what Division III is all about. I think there’s some type of stigma about Division III because there are no scholarships. But at the top level of Division III, we can compete with the top level Division II teams and the low- to mid-levels teams in Division I. There are some really good coaches, players, and programs in Division III, and it’s my job to show our board that we work just as hard as some of the scholarship schools, if not harder.