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A League of Fans Special Feature

Diana Cutaia

Diana Cutaia has been the athletic director at Wheelock College in Boston since 2005.  Wheelock competes at the NCAA Division III level.

Cutaia is a former college athlete who began her coaching career on the high school level at the age of 19.  She started the women’s basketball program at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut, where she built a successful program, including an Elite 8 appearance.  She went on to coach at Mt. Holyoke College and Curry College.  Prior to arriving at Wheelock, she served as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Governor’s Committee on Physical Fitness and Sport.

Due to her focus on eliminating win-loss records as an evaluative criterion at Wheelock, she has received extensive media coverage for her unique approach to sports.  Cutaia instituted a humanistic coaching model at Wheelock and established an athletic department mission that she describes as designed to “complement and enhance the academic experience and measure our success not by the outcomes of games but by the goals set by players and teams.”

Cutaia has become a sought-after speaker regarding the need to change our win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs sports model.  She is leaving Wheelock on November 15th to start her own advocacy consultancy.  Through this new venture, she hopes to reach more stakeholders in the areas of youth, high school and college sports with her message.

Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Cutaia on a variety of topics.

Ken Reed:   How did you arrive at your philosophy regarding not using winning as part of your criteria for evaluating coaches and athletics programs?

Diana Cutaia:  Early in my coaching career, I was the typical autocratic coach who got a technical foul every other game.  I was driven by winning.  I gradually started changing my approach after my first couple years.  I came to believe that the winning-obsessed autocratic coaching style wasn’t the best way to get athletes to be their most effective.  We had our most success –the Elite Eight – after I had modified my coaching style.

I then took an assistant coaching position at Mt. Holoyoke College and also began working on my master’s.  While there, I stopped by the gym one day and watched a sixth grade basketball game.  The language from the coaches and parents had a distinct aggressive, violent, and war-like tone.  There was a lot of focusing on “attacking” the opponent and very little sportsmanship going on.  I walked out of the gym thinking if this stuff is going on during 6th grade games we need to find a better way.  We have to make changes.  That’s when I began to research and develop my ideas on coaching peace (www.coachingpeace.com)

Reed:  How do you think coaches should be evaluated?

Cutaia:  Measuring success should be about the process, not the outcome.  We need goals besides winning in sports, especially at the youth level, in high schools, and I would argue, through college.  If we do that, we’ll have better people when they come out of sports.

My evaluation model is not based on wins and losses.  I evaluate on a variety of other things – each of which could potentially impact the win-loss record in positive ways.  We strive to win but winning games and championships isn’t why our athletic department exists.  It is interesting to note, however, that when we started measuring success in other ways besides wins and losses, we started seeing more wins.

Reed:  What types of things do your coaches focus on?

Cutaia:  Our coaches teach problem-solving, critical thinking skills, relationship-building, etc.  We intentionally structure our sports programs to reinforce and supplement what they’re learning in classrooms.  If we’re going to tie athletics to academics then we should have the same standards as academics.  We should have a curriculum for athletics that outlines what the athletes are going to learn.

In terms of evaluations, I look to see if the athletes under a certain coach had a positive experience or not.  Did their skills improve?  I watch practices and evaluate how effectively they’re teaching, the type of feedback they’re giving their athletes, etc.  I want more specific feedback from coaches to athletes rather than the typical negative stuff and simple “nice jobs” you so often hear.

Reed:  Did you have to let any “old-school” coaches go when you arrived at Wheelock?

Cutaia:  No, I didn’t let any coaches go.  A couple coaches that didn’t buy in to our philosophy weeded themselves out.  The first year at Wheelock is always the most challenging for new coaches.  I look at it as a learning year for both the coach and myself.  There are rough patches sometimes but things tend to work out.  Most coaches are relieved to coach under this model.  They can focus on coaching and teaching sport and life skills.

Reed:  How do you respond to people who claim your approach is too soft, that we live in a competitive world and that we need to focus on teaching kids how to beat their opponents?

Cutaia:  Well, I’d ask, how’s that working out?  How’s that playing out in terms of economics and our relationships with other countries?

Sports are about both collaboration and competition.  The games themselves are great models of collaboration.  If one team walks off the field or court, the remaining team has nobody to play against.

Sports are about me needing you to push me and help challenge myself.  Hating your competition, seeing them as the enemy, just doesn’t make any sense.

Reed:  The Boston Globe ran a major feature on you, your philosophy, and your program at Wheelock.  What type of response did you get to that?

Cutaia:  That article initiated a wide-range of support and criticism.  Some folks with the local Fox channel said I was emasculating and feminizing sport.  Others said I wasn’t preparing kids for life.  Some said I only adopted this philosophy because we can’t win.  The pushback came from males predominantly.

Reed:  How does your boss at Wheelock evaluate you?

Cutaia:  I report to the Dean of Students.  My evaluations have been wonderful.  I’ve been successful beyond “meeting expectations.”  Wins and losses have never been a topic during my evaluations.

Reed:  What do your college athletic director peers think of your philosophy and situation at Wheelock?

Cutaia:  I get nothing but positive feedback from my fellow athletic directors.  The most common response I get back is, “I wish I could do that here.”

Reed:  Do you think your model could be successful at the big-time Division I level of college sports?

Cutaia:  I do because I believe wins are the by-product of doing the process the right way, of focusing on the truly important things.  People are quick to assume that if you did this at the higher levels it wouldn’t be successful.  That’s just an assumption.

Reed:  What’s your take on the state of youth sports today?

Cutaia:  I think the excessive focus on winning is so destructive in sports — at all levels — but especially in youth sports.  This winning obsession is created by adults and transferred to our kids.  It takes away the joy of sports from kids.  Kids need that joy in their lives to function optimally.

The emphasis on winning in sports negatively impacts how you deal with both teammates and opponents.  It becomes about “How much better can I be than you?” and “How badly can I beat you?”  It’s not about collaboration, helping the person next to you.  For coaches and players, it becomes about a “power-over” model, how much power can I have over someone else?

Reed:  By leaving Wheelock and starting your consultancy, you’re embarking on a new adventure.  What’s your vision for your career moving forward?

Cutaia:  Well, the biggest thing for me is the understanding that we have such a great medium in sport to use as a way to teach people how to get along better, form stronger communities, improve sportsmanship, etc.  We talk about all those things now but we’re not intentional about it, because the focus on winning gets in the way.

We need to intentionally use sport as a tool for positive social change; for positive youth development.  Sport can bring people together through collaboration.

I want to help people look at youth sports in terms of access, opportunity, physical activity, a chance to develop core youth development skills, as a form of play, and a great way to have fun.  I want to take out the “war mentality” at the youth level.

I also want to be a catalyst in the process of shifting and changing the model of sport on the collegiate level.

Mostly, I want to help us all focus on sport as a way to develop good people.

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