Ethnography - Inter-team Conflict with the Coach

Ethnography - Inter-team Conflict with the Coach

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Ethnography - Inter-team Conflict with the Coach

Recently, two strong sophomore players quit the varsity women’s water polo team. They said that they were no longer having fun, one saying that the time commitment “just was not worth it anymore,” while the other said that playing polo at Oxy was making her more and more unhappy.” Earlier in the season, one of the players who was named first team All American and MVP of the National Tournament, also almost quit the team for good. Again, her reasoning was that the game was not fun for her anymore. She also expressed that she felt unappreciated by the coach for her efforts at Nationals, as well as for her leadership on the team on a regular basis.

These withdrawals reminded me of the last two years when I was on the team. I recall how often I would hear the other players express their discontent about being on the team. However, the problem did not lie in the team in itself, but rather in the coach and his ways.

Interestingly, although I was a member of the team, I truly was not aware of the problem at hand. I, above and beyond, was a novice player and almost never received anything but positive encouragement from the coach. It is important to realize that I had never played, or even seen, the game of water polo before coming to Oxy, and therefore learned a lot by coming to practice and watching and learning from the reminders and criticism that the coach would give.

Nevertheless, I did have a lot of experience swimming under various coaches—some of whom where the meanest of the mean. It is for this reason that I felt that the other players were often being overly sensitive to the criticisms (which I viewed more often than not as constructive) that the coach would give. Of course, there would betimes that I felt that he would pick on (or yell more at) certain players. But I believe that there are few coaches that specifically try to bring down moral and cause players to hate the game.

Yet, despite the fact that the coach may not mean to bring down moral and cause players to hate the game, it seems he has done something to cause two, almost three, players that played in the National Championship tournament to quit the team.

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These recent withdrawals mark a significant problem with the coach that exists with in this team. But this problem is not one that is unapparent to the common observer or fan. The women’s water polo team currently maintains the title of Division III National Champions, to which fans fill the stands at home games to cheer and support this team. A common fan would observe the coach doing and acting the way any competitive coach would, or should, act. Similarly, that same fan would observe the players responding to the coach in ways that one would never imagine to be of unhappiness, etc. Consequently, the common observer of this team is truly seeing nothing more than a surface façade of a unified national championship water polo team and coach. Thus, this realization led me to question exactly what the underlying problems are, and to therefore attempt to determinatively express and address these problems that cannot be explicitly observed.

So I began my research and quest for answers on Friday, February 9th.Earlier that day I asked one of the water polo players what time practice began. She told me that they had a meeting first at 5:30, and then they would get in the water. Knowing full well that I am no longer participating, she asked me why I wanted to know. I told her that I wanted to come and observe the team for a class, to which she replied with an “oh cool.”

I arrived at the meeting at 5:30. All swimming and polo meetings are held in the team room, which is near the boiler room on the pool deck. The room consists of three old, brown couches, a couch chair (of the same color), some tables in the back, workout mats, workout balls (to do abdominal and back exercises), two racks—one of deck coats, and one of warm-up clothes, a closet for the timing/scoring system, and an old TV and VCR. The walls are adorn with old swimming and water polo team pictures, some NCAA collegiate swimming and water polo posters and banners, and two large shelves which contain swimming and polo paraphernalia, such as kickboards, swim caps, polo caps, the ball basket (for the polo practice balls), and other boxes which contain unidentifiable materials.

In making my entrance, I said hi to everyone (approximately three-quarters of the team was present, as well as the assistant coach), and asked the coach if it would be okay if I sat-in and listened. I think that it probably would have been wise to ask him ahead of time just in case he said no, but the thought did not occurred to me beforehand. Luckily, he was nice about it, without asking why I was there, he just said “sure Em,” in a moderately surprised way. So, I pulled out a folding chair and sat down next to the coach. I could tell that the girls wanted to know why I was there, but nobody asked at that time, as the meeting was pretty much underway.

The meeting mostly discussed the issue of lack of athletic funding. The issue at hand was that of alumni giving money to athletics for letterman jackets. The team discussed the pros and cons surrounding the fact that the money could be put to better use, such as for new deck coats and warm-up sweats, etc. Everyone contributed their thoughts on the matter. Everyone was supportive of the ideas presented. The team seemed less than energized, but that could have been due to the fact that it was Friday. In any case, the meeting was short, approximately20 minutes long. The coach wrapped it up by stating that the quicker the meeting finished the quicker the team could be in and out of the water and “go home early.”

A couple of girls approached me at the end of the meeting. They all knew that I was not playing this year. They initially asked me how my back was (because the last time I saw most of these girls, I was had become too sick to play), and then they asked why I was there, to which I replied that I would be observing the team for my ethnography class. One girl obviously did not know what an ethnography was, but I offered no additional information. I told some of the girls that I would probably be watching them for a while (to let them know so they won’t be surprised to see me hanging around in the future).

By 5:50, the team had their swim caps on and were in the water—no complaints. The weather, in my opinion was bitter cold, but nobody seemed to be bothered. There was also very little fooling around—the coach gave the warm-up and the girls got right in and started. Based on my previous experience of playing polo, I always found that more procrastination about starting practice took place when the there was no incentive to do otherwise (such as getting out early, as was the case on this night). In any case, everyone did the full warm-up, and there was no talking or socializing going on at all.

While I was sitting there observing the warm-up, the coach gave me an interior-design-type magazine upon which the cover displayed a recognizable picture of his living room with its Native American décor(which I had been in on two occasions for polo carbo-loading parties for tournaments). I inquired about were the rest of the team was and found out that almost 6 girls were out due to sickness. Apparently there area total of 17 girls on the team, but due to illness and Sorority Rush, only 7 girls were got in the water for warm-up (one other girl, who was sick, only came to the meeting itself).

This workout seemed to consist of a lot of swimming. I recently heard that the coach was incorporating more swimming than he had in the past two seasons to increase team speed. So, in this workout they probably did about 1500 yards of swimming before any balls were thrown around. In any case, nobody seemed too phased about the yardage (which really wasn’t that much, but compared to last year, it was a lot). I think that it is important to note that most of the polo players used to be swimmers, or have been on swim teams in the past. But it tends to be the case that people who play polo, do not enjoy the yardage associated with swimming, which is why one could expect to have complainers as a result of the swim sets.

Throughout the whole swim portion of the workout, only one girl stopped. It seemed that she was coughing and therefore had to rest. I noticed that nobody seemed to care that she had stopped, that she had done less, and received extra resting time. In a different way, nobody seemed to be concerned about the reason that she stopped either. When she had rested/finished coughing, she continued with the rest of the workout.

I remember last year, when I had to stop in the workout that I felt as though the other players scoffed at me—that they were annoyed and un-understanding of the fact that I had to stop. However my situation was such that I was too sick, and in too much pain to continue. But, in addition, I think that I was sort of ashamed and disappointed in myself, which caused me to feel as though I was being chastised. Thus, it was at this point that I initially believed the focus of this observation and research to be rooted in the competitiveness of the sport—being that everyone works hard, and does the same amount: a pressure that comes with being a member of a team. However, upon my interview with my informant (which will be discussed later), the focus of my study promptly shifted to the underlying problems that exist with in this team despite the façade that is explicitly apparent (to the common observer/fan).

To continue, as I was sitting there, the coach asked me “so what are you doing here besides looking good?” (He always says stuff like that.) He thought that I was taking observations for sports psychology. I told him that I was observing for my anthropology class. He seemed to be surprisingly touched that I was interested in observing the women’s water polo team. After playing the sport with him for two years, I would not have thought him to be so surprised. In any case, he told me that there have been many students that have come by and observe “this” team.

It was in this conversation with the coach that I realized that he believed that I was particularly interested in observing this team because they win games and National Championships. I think that because he is proud of his success in coaching a Championship team, so he therefore interprets my interest in observing this team (which he sees as his team) as verification of his abilities as a coach. Furthermore, because he assumes that I am observing the women's water polo team for a sports psychology class, he probably believes that I am therefore interested in determining how he coaches a winning team.

In any case, after warm-up, the team was in limbo before the drill sets began. At this point there was some goofing around between the players—mostly consisting of hanging on the lane ropes and laughing. When the coach noticed, he stopped talking to me to go announce the sculling drills (arm drills with no kicking) to do next. Without the coach’s direction, the players got right back to the wall to begin. In observing this drill set, I noticed that there was the slightest bit of competition to be the first to the wall every time. I could observe this competition by watching all of the players looking around to see where they were in comparison to each other.

At the completion of the drills, the balls were thrown in and the girls separated themselves into groups of three to start passing (warming up their shoulders). I noticed two girls (both juniors) that were passing together with a new freshman. These two girls always passed together back when I played. I remember these two genuinely liking the game, but tending to always complain and be negative about the team, the coach, the other team, basically anything surrounding themselves and the game. Regardless, at this practice they were passing together. I remember the coach always having to remind us (the players) to “scramble up those groups, and try passing with someone else for a change.” I think that people of the same mentality tend to gravitate towards each other—to be among people who think like you is comfortable and easy.

While the team is passing, the coach voluntarily reflects on what the team was like when he first started the women’s polo team here at Oxy. He is amazed at the talent of the team right now compared to back in the day. To illustrate the difference in this team compared to that firs two men’s Oxy team that he coached, he told me that the Old Girls (as we will call them) could not make 6x50’s on the two minutes, but after a month into season, all of the girls were making 20x50’s on the minute. I have to say that I appreciated his voluntary information, which I felt he was giving to me as though I was writing an article for the Occidental paper, but I thought that it was especially humorous how his story really had no relevance, and provided no comparative incite, to the status of the current team. His example basically only shed light on his ability as a coach to turn some not-so-hot players, into significantly stronger swimmers. He was obviously was trying to prove to me, again, of his abilities as a coach--undoubtedly thinking that I was interested on what he as done to lead this team be National Champions. Although, I have probably caused my audience to perceive the coach as a bragger, it should be acknowledged that his abilities as a coach are significant—enough so that he was named coach of the year after last season's title.

After passing, the cage (goal) was put in the water, and the girls lined up to start shooting. The coach gave instructions of what shooting drills to practice. Ball after ball was fired, the goalie (ranked first-team all American) was as good as usual—but nobody seems to (or ever seemed to) become bitter at the fact that she is able to stop most shots from going in. I noticed, though, that people do tend to get excited and cheer when a shot goes in, which caused me to wonder if this bothers the goalie—that people get excited when they get one passed her, that it is kind of like the shooters against her… almost 16people on one…But I think that in actuality, the goalie realizes her strengths and her supportiveness of those who make shots is heartening… As a whole, there was very little goofing around. I heard very few “good jobs,” “or nice try’s,” amongst the players. However, although few were said, I know that the team can be very supportive of each other back from when I played.

Next, the coach gave some more instructions about a new drill to practice. People were having trouble getting the hang of what exactly he wanted them to do. I noticed that in the midst of not really understanding what to do, that many of the girls started to get a little silly. The coach was yelling out reminders and constructive criticisms, to which the team tried to respond, but was having trouble grasping this new drill. Interestingly, the coach noted the same phenomena as I: that the team usually has trouble getting the drill right the first time around, telling me that “it would take a few days.”

After a couple more shots, the coach instructed the team to go for 6more shots (score 6 more times) and then “balls away, and (pool) covers on, and go home.” Once the 6 shots were made, most of the girls were not in any rush to get out, as I would have thought them to be (probably as I, myself, would be). Then a freshman jumped out and initiated getting the balls out of the pool and back in the basket. She stood their as everyone tried to make shots into the basket, of which some made it in—all of the players were having a great time doing this. I noticed, however, that nobody made any effort to help the freshman girl that was out of the water collecting all of the balls. But the fact that she was not complaining about the freezing weather, is probably due to the fact that the women’s polo team has rookie duties, by which rookies do the “dirty work” and should not take it personally. In any case it was a group effort to get the pool covers on.

While I was taking all of this down (specifically the events that occurred at the end of practice), a player asked me what conclusions I drew from watching practice. I told her that today I was mostly observing the team set up and the process by which practice is carried out. And interestingly, SHE TOLD ME OF HER OWN FREE WILL that she would like to give me her perspective on the team, saying that “it would be fun.” Thrilled that she was interested in talking with me also made me wonder further what exactly her perspective would be.

After everything was done, I made my way up to the locker room to see if there might be any after-practice chats that might be of interest. I remember from my previous years on the team, that it was in the locker room that we would recap on practice. Often the players would complain about a drill, compliment each others' shots or defense, but mostly complain about the coach. But at this time, nothing of any pertaining interest was said, so I told them that they looked good in the water—and they told me that I should get in with them sometime, but I said, "thanks, but no…"

To get a deeper perspective of the women’s water polo team, I took-up the offer of the player (who will be referred to as FK) that volunteered to take part in an interview for my project. It is important to realize that before conducting my interview, I had it in my head that I was going to focus on the inter-team competition that exists with in Oxy’s women’s water polo team. Regardless, to reserve FK’s time for an evening interview, I stopped by her room earlier that afternoon on the23rd of February.

The interview took place at 6:20pm in FK’s room. She told me that she had been looking forward to talking to me about the team. At this point, it should be noted that she did not know the basis of the interview, but that she was just generally excited to discuss the team. FK is a junior and has been playing water polo for 7 years total, 3 of which have been with Occidental. She is a driver, and although water polo is her primary sport, she is also involved in the Ultimate Frisbee team at Oxy.

The interview was very informal—FK sitting at her desk in front of her computer where she was in the midst of working on a paper, while I was sitting on her roommate’s bed. Our conversation began with some brief small talk, which transitioned easily to the purpose of my project. I explained to her that I am trying to gain an understanding of the overall team sentiments, while also determining where the competition lies with in the team. In telling her this, she answered with a surprised “oh!” and seemed eager to begin.

I used my interview guide to conduct my interview with FK. She seemed unfazed at the amount of pages that I brought in with me. My questions tended to direct our conversation. However, at the very beginning of the interview, in answering my first few questions, FK delved into issues that she wished to discuss that answered some of my last few questions. Thus, I did not follow the exact order of questioning that I had initially outlined, but I did manage to cover each of my questions in my interview guide—many of which I now believe to be unnecessary to the directional topic with which I would now like to focus. Basically, based on the information that FK shared with me, I am now interested in focusing primarily on the sentiments that exist with in the team—specifically, the issues surrounding the coach--an intriguing contrast to the self-boasting conversations that I previously had with the coach.

FK and I primarily discussed her dislikes about the team regarding the coach. She believes that he does not coach the team to its full potential. In (my) asking what he could do better, she said, “everything.” FK believes that He (the coach) coaches the team as if they were novice players, rather than defending National Champions. The coach focuses on basic skills and drills that don’t truly pertain to the game. She believes these basics to be important at the beginning of the season, but that they are really becoming a waste of time because they lack the intensity that is crucial to the competitiveness of the sport. She said that his close-mindedness prevents him from changing his ways at the team’s request and ideas for a more productive practice. (However, this year, more so than in previous years, the coach is granting the request of the team and realizing the importance of scrimmages, which are game simulations that mirror the intensity that FK feels is necessary for a team of this caliber).

FK also explained another problem with the coach in that he causes segregation within the team. She said that his close-mindedness creates a mind-set about players’ abilities. She believes that he sticks to this mind-set despite improvements (or disimprovments) that players might make. To better illustrate: In practice, while working on drills, the coach breaks the team up into orange caps and black caps—the players in orange are always the weaker players, and those in black are always the starters. She feels that this causes segregation because he makes the weaker players feel as though they will never have an opportunity to move up. She explained that this mentality is carried over to games and tournaments, as well. The coach often will play the same players, and does a poor job with rotation. FK feels that he tends to give playing time to the stronger players in games that are not challenging—that he squanders the opportunity to play the less experienced players in those easier games.

From here, I transitioned the conversation to determining an existence of inter-team issues. I asked if the fact that the coach does not acknowledge improvements in practice and does a poor job of distributing playing time cause any inter-team conflict, competition, or bitterness. FK told me that by the third game at the tournament on Saturday, that one (less experienced) player that played minimal minutes in both the first two games, verbalized that she felt there was no reason to even suit-up for the last game because she probably won’t get any playing time at all. FK says that this player's feelings of not being good enough (a form of lack of self worth), as well as other’s who feel the same, causes bitterness that is not directed at the starters or more experienced players, but is directed towards playing water polo as a whole--that it is a waste of their time because they do not play. This is not to say that because the coach plays only the best players that it makes him a bad coach--it simply highlights his inability to recognize that less experienced players could benefit from game experience (as well as self-confidence) when the opposing team is not that good.

FK said that these feelings of bitterness and lack of self worth carryover into team sentiments after wins and losses. She characterized team sentiment after a win as being happy. But she recognized, however, that among those that played less tended to feel like they are not worthy of celebrating because they did not contribute to the win. Sometimes there are players that become bitter and say things like: “I am just as good as so-and-so, but [the coach] didn’t put me in.” FK characterized team losses as the team being frustrated—often players tend to blame each other or pick apart aspects of another’s game that were less than stellar. Sentiments among the players that played less, did not play at all, or played less than they believe that they should have played tend to feel bitter because they feel that they could have maybe helped the team win, but were never given the chance.

To wrap-up my conversation with FK, I shared with her my understanding of the sentiments that exist in this team—that the problems with the coach both brings the team together, while also tearing it apart. I shared with FK my understanding that the problems with the coach, which are mostly centered around his close-minded attitude, his tendencies to cause inter-team segregation, his inability to give inspirational speeches, and his focus on unnecessary skill-development drills, are all negatives that cause the team to come together. The fact that the entire team realizes these flaws actually increases team camaraderie, support, and closeness. FK agreed with my understanding that the team’s energy is focused on how bad the coach is, and that most of the time it is the team against the coach.

In parting with FK, she genuinely disclosed to me that this interview was really helpful for her. She told me that she likes to talk about her problems. She said that explaining and verbalizing the issues that exist, helps her to better understand the problem. She said that she appreciated my perspective in my re-cap of our conversation, because it helped to give her a different viewpoint and attitude toward the issues. She was so appreciative that I almost felt as though it was a therapy session for her, a service that I was happy to render. She said that it was so great that, if I have time, I should “do” (interview) everyone on the team!

In any case, I would say that the conversation that I had with the coach while observing the practice, in addition to my interview with FK, allowed me to observe two differing perspectives of the women’s water polo team. In my conversation with the coach, he seemed genuinely optimistic about the status, ability, and recognition that this team has received. However, through my interview with FK, I gained a deeper perspective of the underlying problems that exist, which wholly surround the coach.

I think that it is particularly interesting how both the coach and FK had their own objectives/agendas with in my conversations with them. The coach presented himself and the team to me as though I were a journalist. In his comparison of the current team to the Old Girls, it could be argued that his objective was to promote his abilities as a coach. His portrayal of himself as a successful and able coach, however, differs greatly from the opinions of the players on his coaching, as was FK’s specific objective on this particular topic. In a different way, FK presented herself and the feelings of the team to me as though I were a therapist. She expressed the issues, her concerns, and the team sentiments regarding the inabilities of the coach. Her portrayal of herself was that of a concerned team member that is stressed out by the bad coaching that the team has to endure.

However, in the wrap-up of my interview with FK, I shared with her my understanding that the problem with the coach, has, in some ways, brought the team together—a conclusion with which she agreed. We determined that the fact that the entire team realizes the coaching flaws actually increases team camaraderie, support, and closeness. Interestingly, more recently, in a conversation with Goalie, to which I simply asked, “How is water polo going,” I learned that the team has been conducting secret team meetings without the coach. According to the Goalie, these meetings have really helped to increase team moral, set team goals, and develop positive strategies with which to handle the problems with the coach. The Goalie feels that these meetings make the team stronger, and thus more competitive and successful. Furthermore, she went on to tell me that she believes that this team is better than last years, and if team moral is maintained, that this team will have no problem defending their title.

These secret meetings are a form of opposition to the coach. But it is important to realize that they are a positive form of opposition—necessary to improve and increase team camaraderie, team moral, and team competitiveness for success. This is not to say that the coach does not desire these things, but he seems inherently oblivious to the problems that that surround his coaching. In an article by Jeff Tobin entitled “A Question of Balls: The Sexual Politics of Argentine Soccer,” he acknowledges team struggles that can occur between a team and the coach. For emphasis, Tobin draws on the work of two anthropologists, Eduardo Galeano and Randy Martin, for theoretical evidence, saying that “what Galeano’s book calls attention to is that a soccer team also resists its own coach, much as Randy Martin argues that a dance company becomes a social body in ‘opposition to an initial domination for language-based authority in the figure of the choreographer” (Tobin). He goes on to explain that although both the dancers and players, and choreographers and coaches all want to make their performances as successful as possible, there still exists an opposition between those that are dancing or playing, and those that are doing the talking/choreography and calling the shots (Tobin).

The opposition of the players on the women’s water polo team toward the coach’s un-innovative plays, unnecessary drills, and un-inspirational pep-talks led the team develop a solution to this problem: to conduct secret meetings without the coach. The way in which this team chose to handle this problem is very similar to the way that Boas’s graduate students chose to handle their problem with their professor’s poor teaching: to develop discussion groups to make sense of what was lectured (Deacon, 1997). Thus, these secret meetings and (probably secret) study groups are a positive form of opposition—necessary to improve and increase success.

Thus, through my observations, conversations, and interview, my gathered understanding of the inter-team conflict with the coach that exists within the women’s water polo team is one that is not explicitly apparent--especially unapparent to the coach, himself. But it is a conflict that exists and is currently being momentarily mended by the team.


Deacon, Delsy. "New Science." Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Tobin, Jeff. "A Question of Balls: The Sexual Politics of Argentine Soccer." Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
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