CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Ask any coach and they'll tell you the recruiting of student-athletes is not an exact science.
Skill level, personality and leadership abilities are important. But how many times have you seen a team succeed despite lacking an abundance of talent? The key most likely is team chemistry and how the individuals interact within the group, both on and off the playing surface.
At least two University of Northern Iowa head coaches have taken "team-building" to great heights. They have incorporated activities into their preseason and postseason training to facilitate positive interaction and winning records.
Volleyball coach Bobbi Petersen said preseason is "very much a learning process for all of us. We're figuring out our student-athletes just as much as they are trying to figure out each other."
"We've got 28-to-30 girls," soccer coach James Price said. "We accept that there are going to be pockets of girls that get along better with each other. We accept that it's going to be clicky - some players will mesh better with some than others. We don't fight that. What we try to do is integrate those pockets."
Neither being sport psychologists, both coaches have taken to scheduling "out-of-the-box" activities, some designed for fun, some for specific purposes of developing leadership skills and competitiveness. The farther the activities are removed from volleyball and soccer the better.
One year, volleyball's activity centered around the television show "Minute to Win It", except volleyball's version is called "In It to Win It." It also was offered one evening at the program's Team Camp this summer.
"We get high raves about (the team-building activity) every year," Petersen said.
Actual activities performed on the show, a list of which can be found on-line, are incorporated. For example, players had to dip their noses in a tub of Vaseline, then pick up a cotton ball with their noses, run to a location and put the cotton ball in a dish, all without using their hands. The idea was to see how many cotton balls could be deposited in a certain time frame.
"Some of it is comic relief for the coaches," Petersen said.
During one Olympic year, volleyball had its own Olympics. The team was separated into two groups and competed in a different activity each night of preseason. The best belly flop was judged in the swimming and diving event.
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Soccer's activity this preseason was called "The Amazing Race." Done on just the second day back on campus, it included catching a fish, a 400-yard "piggy-back" race around the outdoor track, a volleyball rally over the net 20 consecutive times, a run up and down the UNI-Dome stairs and 10 more events located around campus, culminating with an end-of-race challenge in the team's locker room. It was much more strenuous than last year's activity, which was tubing down the Iowa River.
"The Race got them away from soccer a little bit," Price said. "For the new kids, two things happened. No. 1, they got to see the campus. Two, they got to see how competitive some of our older kids are. A lot of times new kids come in and they're very talented and enthusiastic, but they don't really know the difference between high school and college sports. The intensity is huge."
Both teams have participated in rope course challenges. Volleyball went to the Boy Scout camp where professional facilitators ran the program. Some sections were completed while blindfolded. Petersen says there have been a few activities over the years when "I was borderline concerned (about safety), but they take risks everyday with what they do on the court.
"What we do a lot of times is put them in situations that will cause stress, or cause them to have to use their minds and work together ... putting them in situations and seeing who steps up. We all have very different personalities and some of them don't always mesh. Volleyball is one of the most team sports there is. Nothing else can happen without somebody else doing their job."
The two teams have competed against each other in dodgeball and kickball games. This year they went against each other in a swimming competition. Volleyball has gone through a Navy Seal training exercise led by Panther strength and conditioning coach Jed Smith. It also has gone silo ice climbing, cross-country skiing and has played Ultimate Frisbee.
"The team-bonding activities are some of my favorite memories with my teammates," said volleyball player Amy Braun. "They are a special way for our team to bond right away in the early weeks of preseason. My favorite activity was tie-dying."
Soccer player Ericka O'Meara enjoyed The Amazing Race.
"Preseason is critical in getting to know our teammates and building relationships," she said. "The more we can have fun together, the more comfortable we are with each other on and off the field."
Petersen said she received several texts from former players wishing they could participate in this year's activities.
"We could be practicing more, or letting the kids just hang out and rest," Petersen said. "It's a lot of work to organize these activities and make them happen. It shows how important we think it is."