It has been a remarkable time in the history of Philippine Athletics. The past 12 months have borne witness to many firsts, honors, and accolades from athletes who proudly claim their Filipino heritage, including the first Olympic Gold Medal earned by a Filpino athlete, the incomparable Hidilyn Diaz. As a coach of a team sport, the most improbable and personally gratifying achievement for Philippine Athletics was the recent run the Philippine Women’s National Football Team (PWNT) made in the 2022 Asia Cup, which culminated in a berth in the 2023 FIFA World Cup.
What the Malditas were able to achieve was particularly impressive because it was earned in a team sport, which brings with it its own particular set of challenges compared to those experienced by athletes in individual sports.Having spent some time observing the Malditas early in their training camp process leading up to the Asian Cup Qualifiers in late 2021, I identified 7 team characteristics that appeared to set the foundation for their success.
Grooming Leadership from Within
It starts at the top. Belay Fernando-De La Cruz, Team Manager for the Philippine Womenʼs National Team, was once a member of the squad and had played with many of the current veterans on the team. Belay had also served as coach within the National Program. Her experience as a National Athlete and familiarity with the current players and their challenges gave her a unique perspective. She knew what the players, coaches, and staff needed in order to be at their best, because she had lived the experience in all these diverse roles. Having Belay Fernando-De La Cruz leading the way gave Malditas a competitive edge.
Continuity of Culture
An important corollary of Grooming Leadership from Within is fostering and establishing player-led teams. The PWNT benefitted from having veteran player leadership who have been aligned with their team manager, who just happens to be a former teammate. Having met veteran team members Camille Rodriguez, Ina Palacios, and Hali Long during my brief time with the team during Training Camp, it was evident that the PWNT was in good hands. On the pitch, they were vocal leaders who took every opportunity to teach and encourage potential teammates. The three took time and effort to share the lessons they learned as novice members of the team years ago.
Generosity of Energy & Spirit
I am a firm believer that player-led teams are stronger and more resilient than coach-led teams. Player-led teams are driven to play for each other, sacrifice for each other, and put themselves at risk for each other. Coach-led teams arenʼt nearly as successful because the engine and drive is external and outside the team. In my years of coaching, all player-led teams I have worked with or competed against have all demonstrated a Generosity of Energy and Spirit that creates a special bond between players, coaches, and staff. The Malditas are a prime example of the beauty of positive energy and selflessness at work. I saw teammates cook meals for each other and wash each otherʼs dishes. Older players shared information with younger players, even if it meant giving a teammate an advantage that would diminish their minutes. It was a willing expectation that players take care of each other, not because it would mean greater odds for success, but because thatʼs what great teammates do for each other.
In order to be competitive at the elite, international level, there must be an expectation of approaching your work and training in a professional manner. Being on time, being disciplined in your rest and recovery, and dedicating oneself to the required – and voluntary – training to perfect oneʼs skills are whatʼs necessary all the time – not just when one is in the mood. Athleticism, natural ability, and pure talent can only take you so far. The separator from good to great is bridged by an athleteʼs mental approach and discipline in proper routine. Upon arrival from a 14-hour flight from the Philippines, members of the PWNT immediately hit the pitch to get in a workout or took a hike to start to acclimatize themselves to a new country and time zone.
Commit to a Common Purpose
During press opportunities leading up to the Asian Cup, many of the PWNT Team Members reinforced the expectation that everyone, from player to coach to auxiliary staff, were committed to one, common purpose, “Win the Moment!”. In conversations with team members during Training Camp, it was the only thing that those players I met consistently talked about. There was not any hint of doubt that qualifying for the FIFA World Cup was an insurmountable goal for their group. It was clear that on the pitch, practices began and ended with a positive statement about what everyone was working to accomplish; every decision or action players made had to be aligned with this common purpose. After reaching their goal, Team Captain Hali Long shared that everyone was committed to a collective aspiration, and they spoke it into existence daily to inspire each other to make that dream a reality.
Group Problem Solving
A common characteristic of teams which meet or exceed its potential is that solutions arenʼt always coming from the coaching staff or outside observers to the process. When players on a team are so in sync with each other that they are independently coming together to problem-solve and figure things out, it is more likely that those solutions will be used consistently because they are self-driven and mutually agreed upon amongst the team members. It also reduces the time needed to do the right thing at a particular moment. Shared responsibility for team success can be an overlooked quality that coaches neglect to foster in their teams. Coaches should encourage and promote, not fear, when players come together to seek a way through something. One of the things that I was most impressed with the Malditas was their consistent practice of problem-solving as a group. During Training Camp, veterans and rookies alike were learning a new approach to playing the game. They cut down the learning time by actively talking on the pitch and, in their down time, attempted to figure out how these concepts worked for them as individuals and as a team.
The most touching and endearing quality that I encountered with Malditas was their ability to make everyone in their circle feel like they matter. Whether you are a coach, player, staff member, parent, interested observer, or team mascot (i.e. Max the Rescue Dog), the Malditas make it a point to make each and every person feel like they play an important role in their team’s success. No great deed was ever accomplished alone, and the PWNT have made the entire archipelago and Filipinos everywhere like they have a meaningful stake in their journey to the 2023 FIFA World Cup. If there is an impossible team feat to accomplish, creating the environment that Everyone Matters is the most difficult to achieve, but arguably the most gratifying, inspiring, and history-impacting to make a reality. Fortunately for us, we have the Malditas to show us the way.