Ulehla Sets Priority on Building Championship Culture
Jennifer Ulehla

Dec. 18, 2013

By Whitney Dixon

When Jennifer Ulehla accepted the job as the first University of Michigan women's lacrosse head coach in program history on Sept. 8, 2011, she was well aware of the challenges that come with building a new program from scratch. After gaining valuable experience in the development of a new program as an assistant coach at Florida from Jan. 2008-June 2010, Ulehla was ready to take on the challenge as the head coach at Michigan.

She immediately went to working assembling her coaching staff that would help lead the first-year program into action in 2014, and hit the recruiting trial in full force.

With her coaching staff in place, Ulehla's team of 28 freshmen, stepped foot on campus on Aug. 28, 2013, with many emotions about the journey that was in front of them. From day one, Ulehla's mission was to develop a championship culture within her program parallel to Michigan's well-established tradition of excellence.

In addition to adapting to life as first-year college students, the team was introduced to the increased demands of being collegiate athletes. Conditioning, weight lifting and practices were much more intense than the young women were used to at the high school level. And with 100 percent of the roster being freshmen, the team lacked upperclassmen and defined leaders to set the tone.

"There is so much more that goes into being a leader at the collegiate level," said freshman Anna Schueler. "Between school and lacrosse and our social lives, you have to be at the top of your game in all aspects."

"It was difficult for girls to step up at the beginning because we were all on the same level," added freshman Emily Braun.

A constant theme throughout the fall season was helping each player understand the level of play and work ethic needed to excel at the Division I level. Playing some of the nation's top teams during the fall, including Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Louisville, Duke and defending national champion North Carolina, put the inexperienced team in a challenging position, but one that would help hammer home the coaches' message.

The team's level of play and daily level of intensity began to improve, but was lacking consistency at times. Following the fall season, the coaching staff decided it would be helpful to receive some outside assistance with building that championship culture from The Program -- an organization that provides professional and collegiate athletic teams with leadership development and team building services.

Throughout a two-day span the team went through six hours of training with CEO and Founder of The Program, Eric Kapitulik, a retired Officer in the United States Marine Corps. Prior to starting the physical work at Michigan Stadium, Eric and his assistant Kelly Boring, an All-American swimmer at the US Naval Academy and retired Naval Aviator, met with the team to explain its mission. Eric's inspiring story about surviving a helicopter crash in the middle of the ocean and then raising money for the children of his fallen men by competing in the world's toughest endurance events, including eight Ironman Triathlons, immediately motivated the team.

"A lot of credibility came with their backgrounds and what they'd been through," said Schueler. "After seeing the video of Eric surviving the helicopter crash, we knew we could accomplish anything."

Pool exercise

Many members of Team One worked harder in those two days than they had ever worked before and were pushed far outside their comfort zone. Different players were selected as leaders throughout the two days with the goal of developing stronger leaders. After completing day one at the Big House, the team met at the pool at 5 a.m. to begin the second day.

Braun was one of the leaders selected to direct one of two groups during the first mission in the pool. With two groups split on opposite sides of the pool, Braun shouted commands for her team to jump in, swim across the pool, climb out and perform an exercise such as jumping jacks or pushups on the pool deck. If the group did not perform the task with perfect execution and intensity, the responsibility fell on Braun and the team repeated the task. For over an hour the two groups attempted to achieve perfection in all aspects of the mission.

"Emily Braun stepped up a lot and was an immediate leader," said Schueler.

"I think it forced me to come out of my comfort zone because in the fall it was easy to just follow other's lead, but when they told me I was going to lead the group, it demanded a lot more of me," Braun added about her experience as a leader. "I think I've always been a leader, but I just needed something to pull it out of me on this team. I thought The Program really gave girls the opportunity to step up and show their leadership ability."

Although Braun was one of the leaders, the team was not able to complete the mission without active listening, cooperation and hard work from the entire team. Each player had to perform at the highest level before they moved onto the next mission.

"I thought it opened the eyes of all of us on the team because The Program emphasized the importance of all of us fulfilling our roles," said Braun. "We all have to depend on each other in order to be successful."

The second mission was even more physically and mentally trying and required more swimming ability, as the team jumped into the deep end wearing hooded sweatshirts and began treading water. With freshman Kelly Kubach now leading the entire team, they were tasked with removing their sweatshirts, switching sweatshirts with a partner and putting that soaking wet sweatshirt on as fast as possible -- all while treading water. For some who were not strong swimmers, the mission was terrifying at times.

"For me personally, I hate water, so going in I didn't want to do it," Schueler admitted. "Some girls were more comfortable than others, so people that were comfortable stepped up and helped others who weren't."

After each unsuccessful attempt, the team talked about what it could improve upon and began to identify its strengths and how to overcome its weaknesses. In an effort to help those who were struggling, several players, without hesitation, dove underwater to hold up teammates who were having difficulty.

Freshman Amanda Sutor, a two-time letterwinner in swimming in high school, was one player who shined during that mission. She not only excelled individually, but helped others when the team attempted time and time again to complete the mission. Sutor took her sweatshirt on and off with ease each time, but that was not the case for Schueler, who was next to Sutor struggling with each rep.

"I recognized that I could swim well and it was my responsibility to help someone who couldn't -- I couldn't help everyone, but I was able to help Anna," said Sutor.

"Everyone saw how much Amanda helped me in the water and I couldn't have gotten through that without her," Schueler recalled. "If she didn't help me, we never could have passed as a team. Amanda helping me helped the whole team."

Trust played a major role as several players were forced to put aside their fears to let others help them. "Anna had to trust me because I told her to go under water with the sweatshirt around her head and I would take it off of her in two seconds," Sutor said. "If she didn't trust me, it would have been much harder, but we got a system down and got faster each time."

Although a lot of pressure was put on the leaders of each mission, it quickly became apparent that all members of the team had to work extremely hard and communicate effectively to succeed.

Pool exercise

"A lot of people were able to show their heart, passion and ability to be good teammates in a different environment," said Sutor. "Now we just have to translate that onto the lacrosse field."

The young Wolverines were able to show the fight that each of them possessed, which will be essential in the team's inaugural season.

"We never wanted to quit and that's what's really cool about this team," Schueler explained. "There was a general consensus that it was hard, but we wanted to keep pushing and complete the task."

Things were by no means perfect by the end of second day, but the team gained a great deal that it can now apply on the lacrosse field. Perhaps the most important take away from the experience was for each athlete to understand how far they can push themselves, both physically and mentally.

"Looking back, we physically exerted ourselves so much beyond our comfort zone," said Sutor. "I wouldn't have thought I could do that many pushups, but we did. It shows that if we go out with that intensity and energy every day and just focus on the task at hand that we'll see good results."

The team now seems to embrace the fact that constant hard work is the only thing that's going to help them reach their goals, and realizes that the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a mission or a hard workout is totally worth it.

"Nothing is going to come easy and we have to work hard every day, but we're trying to have fun with it because if you make it enjoyable it makes it easier," said Braun. "Going through The Program helped put things in perspective and showed us we can get through anything."

For coach Ulehla and Team One, building that championship culture is an ongoing process to, in the words of Eric Kapitulik, get "that much better" every day.

With the inaugural season right around the corner, Sutor stressed the importance of continuing to build on what they learned during The Program and throughout the fall. "It's really important for our leaders to step up and for us to hold each other accountable. We're preparing to play our first season and we have to be physically and mentally ready to hit the ground running in January."