Days before winning a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, members of the U.S. women's national soccer team took turns sprinting up the concrete steps of a building on the University of Georgia campus. At the top, each jumped, danced or otherwise emoted. During every player's ascent, the rest of the team enthusiastically sang out the theme from the movie "Rocky."
"We looked," midfielder Julie Foudy recalled, "like goofballs."
Despite all indications, the U.S. women hadn't lost their minds. Rather, they were exercising them by participating in a team-building drill devised by then first-year team psychologist Colleen Hacker. Earlier that year, the U.S. team drove to the top of a cliff in Portland, Ore. Half of the team was blindfolded. The blindfolded players were led by their teammates down a steep ledge, only a few feet wide in places.
Though the benefit of those exercises may not be immediately apparent to outsiders, U.S. players and Coach Tony DiCicco credit Hacker with a substantial portion of their success in recent years. They say Hacker and her unusual methodology have made a drastic impact on their confidence, concentration and what they say is their biggest weapon: their uncommon bond as teammates and friends.
"Colleen's meant so much to this team," forward Mia Hamm said recently. "She's like a final piece to a puzzle. . . . Our team chemistry has always been one of our strengths, but she's made it 10 times better."
Said defender Carla Overbeck: "She is vital to this organization."
The players say Hacker earned her place with the U.S. team during her first summer on the job, when she helped players overcome the frustration of a semifinal loss to Norway in the 1995 Women's World Cup and develop an unparalleled focus during the 1996 Olympics. After that upset loss to Norway, the U.S. team won 25 of its next 28 games (with two ties and one loss) and concluded the run with a 2-1 victory over China to win the Olympic gold medal in front of 76,489 in Athens, Ga.
The U.S. team members hope they can carry that same focus -- and get the same results -- throughout the Women's World Cup, which concludes July 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The U.S. team is 3-0 after first-round play and faces Germany Thursday night at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in a quarterfinal matchup.
U.S. players say Hacker, who was a four-time NAIA coach of the year at Pacific Lutheran University in Seattle, has been as important to the team as an assistant coach. Which is fitting, as DiCicco gave Hacker the title of "mental skills coach" when he pleaded with the U.S. Soccer Federation to hire her on a nearly full-time basis after the 1995 World Cup. A grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee funded Hacker's early work with the U.S. team.
Just over three years ago, nine of 11 starters attended Hacker's first meeting with the U.S. women's team, a voluntary one. During the session, Hacker introduced the topic of mental imagery, a technique used by many athletes that involves visualizing success.
"When she came on to the team and started talking her psychological babble, it floored everyone -- in a very good way," U.S. forward Tiffeny Milbrett said. "It was so different than anything any one of us had ever heard. . . . In your heart, you understand that this is something different and it feels good. It makes sense. . . . We thought, `Oh, maybe that's what we've been missing.'
"We needed it, frankly. . . . We didn't play our best in '95. We weren't ready to play."
Hacker's work has complemented DiCicco's. As the U.S. team struggled recently to accept and comprehend a new formation with four defenders instead of three, which DiCicco installed for this summer's World Cup, Hacker tailored team-building exercises to help the players adapt. In one exercise, the players were given a seemingly impossible task that involved moving in unison on two long planks as if they were skis, with one player holding the planks by two strings. The activity, as bizarre as it may seem, taught about dealing with frustration and uncertainty.
Like many Women's World Cup teams, the U.S. team is a highly educated group. Every player has a college degree or is working toward one. Players represent universities across the nation from Stanford to Notre Dame to Massachusetts to North Carolina, the women's college soccer power that eight current players attend or have attended. Players range in age from 20 (Lorrie Fair) to 33 (Michelle Akers) and come from a variety of backgrounds.
"On the one hand they're the most gracious, welcoming group you could ever be around," Hacker said. "On the other hand, they are world champions. They know if you are blowing smoke."
Said Hamm: "She respects all of us and understands that we're all intelligent and can make decisions by ourselves. She understands that everyone has their own way."
Hacker hardly is unique. Since the late 1980s, sports psychology has become a big-time industry. During the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, when speed skater Dan Jansen's sister died before his competition, the U.S. Olympic Committee fretted about the fact it had no counselor to offer Jansen. But by the 1996 Games, change was in full swing. About 100 sports psychologists accompanied the 650 U.S. athletes to Atlanta, Hacker said.
Hacker, a professor and assistant dean at Pacific Lutheran, received her master's degree in sports psychology from the University of Arizona and her PhD from the University of Oregon. She coached the women's soccer team at Pacific Lutheran University for 17 years, where she won NAIA national championships in 1988, '89 and '91. She and DiCicco met through a coaching association.
DiCicco, who took over the U.S. team from Anson Dorrance in 1994, believed he could provide leadership in areas of technique and tactics, but not in the psychology of sport.
That seemed clear given the U.S. team's breakdown in the 1995 World Cup in Sweden. Players blamed the loss partly on their failure to eliminate distractions. They were bothered by a dispute with the USSF over what brand of shoes they could wear. Family members that accompanied the team provided additional stress. An injury to Akers minutes into their opening game didn't help.
Said Hacker: "I was brought in, quite honestly, as a response to what happened in 1995."
Upon her arrival, Hacker appointed two parents -- the mothers of Brandi Chastain and Carla Overbeck -- as "captains" of the U.S. team's contingent of friends and families. They were told to act as intermediaries between players' loved ones and the federation, shouldering various problems and issues so the U.S. players could avoid them. The inaugural family captains, Lark Chastain and Sandra Werden, remain in that role.
Hacker also asked each player to submit two songs as background music for individual imagery tapes, 5-7 minutes of key personal moments on the field edited together. Additionally, Hacker gave team members audiotapes, which are recommended for pregame listening and include positive and personalized messages.
Hacker spends five to six days every month with the U.S. women's team. For major tournaments, such as the Women's World Cup, she accompanies the team every step of the way.
"You could just feel, six months ago, they were all out there taking it all in," Hacker said. "Now you can feel this funneling effect."
During halftime of the U.S. team's final World Cup preparation match against Canada, a television reporter requested an interview with Hamm. Hamm declined, flashing a laminated card with "PERMISSION" on the front of it. Hacker had passed them out that morning at breakfast, telling players the cards gave them permission, throughout the World Cup, to decline anything that would not help them reach the title game.
"The biggest difference between our team in 1995 and now, is we're a lot more mature about distractions," Foudy said. "What we've learned in the last four years is that there has got to be a focus, where you are only looking at things that are going to help you win the World Cup."
CAPTION: U.S. women's soccer team psychologist Colleen Hacker, left, Kristine Lilly talk. Players credit Hacker, her unusual methodology for confidence, unity.
CAPTION: "Colleen's meant so much to this team," Mia Hamm says of Hacker. "She's like a final piece to a puzzle." Hacker was four-time NAIA coach of year at Pacific Lutheran University.
CAPTION: U.S. women's team is a highly unified bunch, thanks in part to Colleen Hacker. Said defender Carla Overbeck: "She is vital to this organization."