Matt Kitchie is used to winning.
He won back-to-back state championships as a player at Southeast High School in Bradenton. His Newberry College teams were competitive every year he was there. And in his previous coaching stop at Land O’Lakes, Kitchie went 17-3.
Now the head coach at Leto, Kitchie is facing a first in his football life: a program devoid of any type of winning tradition. Since 2005, Leto has won 13 games while losing 49.
“This is my first real situation where winning is just not expected,” said Kitchie, whose team plays Riverview, a team that went 0-10 last season, Friday. “We hope to win, but we don’t expect to win. That’s the hardest part for me.”
Generally speaking, in order to stage a turnaround on the field, a coach must start from scratch. He needs to construct a new identity for his team and hope the school and larger community support his rebuilding efforts as well, said Jodi Yambor, a performance enhancement specialist who worked with several University of Miami teams, including football, from 1984-1992. Mental exercises such as visualizing a successful throw or tackle can help create a new, positive self image, she said.
“They’ve got to change the way they think, talk and behave,” Yambor said of the players. “They’ve got to change the culture of losing, and it’s hard; you don’t go from losing one day to winning the next.”
Pinellas Park’s trajectory from a perennial one-win team to a solid .500 squad the past two seasons offers proof that it can be done.
“We came in with a plan,” said Ken Crawford, who is entering his third year as head coach. “The No. 1 piece was recruitment and retention of our student-athletes in the hallways. We wanted to have our numbers at 10 percent of the male student population. No. 2 was to make sure all the kids have the grades to play. And No. 3 was to make it fun.”
Concrete changes, such as repainting the locker room or getting new uniforms go a long way toward establishing that new, winning character, Yambor said. Leto is sporting new black and gold pants this year, and a pile of Nike shoe boxes donated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sits right outside the locker room.
Leto’s stadium, at a quick glance, doesn’t appear to lack any essentials. There’s a fair amount of school spirit, with the 2011 varsity football schedule posted on a board in the parking lot, and a Leto High School Falcons banner hanging on a chain link fence. On the back of the scoreboard is a list of “Flights of the Past,” with the football team’s win-loss record, along with the name of the coach, for every year between 1966 and 1999. Despite the 9-4 mark in 1999, empty space has been lingering under the last entry for the past 12 years.
And perhaps that is for the best. Programs looking to rebuild should de-emphasize winning, said Gershon Tenenbaum, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at Florida State.
“You put unintended pressure on young athletes when winning is the ultimate goal, and sometimes it works the opposite when you haven’t been winning,” he said. “Don’t think just about the outcome, but about improving your own ability. Don’t create an atmosphere of a winning orientation, but instead one of a performance orientation. And the wins will come as a consequence of that.”
Though they have been outscored 98-3 in their first two games this season, the Falcons can see progress.
“In our first game we averaged 1.7 yards a play, and in the last game it was 2.3,” Kitchie said. “We talk a lot about the small things. I’m getting them to look at each play as a victory. A 3-yard gain is a 3-yard victory.”
So far, the team, along with more of the student body, is buying into Kitchie’s philosophy. Junior Sharon Honoret, one of four female students who help with duties such as filling water bottles and taping minor scrapes at practices and games, estimates that more than 50 students attended last week’s home game against Gaither, compared to about 10 that would come last year.
The players have noticed the change.
“People actually come to our games,” said middle linebacker Luycchi Jansen, who also noted that practices are more disciplined and organized.
“I feel like I’m part of an organization,” he added, smiling while dripping with sweat and huffing for breath after a kickoff drill. “I’m a part of something big.”