sports psychologist & clinical psychology

SOCCER TEAM MOURNS BELOVED LEADER, ATTEMPTS TO REGROUP – A BRILLIANT MORNING SUN ROSE ABOVE THE HILLS BEHIND MAGRUDER HIGH SCHOOL’S SOCCER FIELD ON AUG. 15 WHEN COACH STEVE PFEIL BEGAN THE SPEECH HE HAD REHEARSED IN HIS MIND FOR NEARLY FIVE MONTHS.

Washington Post – Sep 3, 2007 – Rich Campbell – Soccer Team Mourns Beloved Leader, Attempts to Regroup – A brilliant morning sun rose above the hills behind Magruder High School’s soccer field on Aug. 15 when Coach Steve Pfeil began the speech he had rehearsed in his mind for nearly five months.

His voice cracked with sadness as he addressed the boys’ soccer team, which had assembled for the first day of tryouts. “What does it mean,” he asked, “when you dedicate a season to the memory of someone who has passed away?”

The question lingered in the morning mist, a cold reminder that the man supposed to be giving the season-opening speech wasn’t. Instead, the players were again challenged to move forward without Scott Alexander, their beloved head coach who died of complications related to a brain tumor on March 26 at age 36.

One player cried softly, others bowed their heads.

“It hit me really hard when we first came up here and we were sitting on the bleachers like we do every year, and Scott usually talks for a little bit,” senior midfielder Mike Lansing said. “It was just different this time. It was just weird. . . . Since I was a freshman, I’ve sat up there and listened to Scott talk. Just having someone else up there talking was just different.

“It was definitely more sobering because it wasn’t like he was off somewhere else. He passed away, and we can’t do anything about it.”

Pfeil, Alexander’s former assistant, realizes that these painful steps were necessary for the team to overcome its loss. Yet he also hopes that his two years of experience within the Rockville school’s program will facilitate the grieving process and help maintain the high level of success that has distinguished the team for years.

“My goal is to lead a seamless transition,” Pfeil, 43, said. “No one can replace Scott, and I am a unique individual in the world. But to the extent that those positive things that Scott has put in place are staples of the Magruder soccer family, that’s how I view a big piece of what I am doing here.”

Alexander took over at Magruder in 2001 and won the Maryland 4A championship in his first season. His impact, however, went beyond trophies.

His vibrant, outgoing personality allowed him to connect with his players in a special way, players said. He was young enough to take the field with them in practice and join in drills and scrimmages.

“Whenever I play soccer, I always think of him at least once,” Colonels senior Justin Lee said. “Especially coming out to Magruder, he was such a presence. He would just crack a joke, and everyone would laugh.”

In early March, the seemingly healthy Alexander checked himself into the hospital with headaches. By the end of the month he was dead, leaving behind a pregnant wife and 3-year-old daughter.

The tragedy stunned the Magruder soccer program and the Montgomery County soccer community. Following Alexander’s death, players held a two-hour candlelight vigil on their practice field and shared stories. Grief counselors were made available. A scholarship fund was established for Alexander’s kids, and a benefit soccer game was held to raise money.

Meantime, Magruder Athletic Director Karl Heimbach faced the task of finding a new coach to succeed his best friend. Heimbach coached Magruder’s soccer team for the 18 years before Alexander, so he was determined to make the right choice.

“Continuity was very important, someone that knew the kids,” Heimbach said. “I wanted to make sure we kept a successful program going.”

Talking about a person who has died is an important step in the grieving process, Palm Beach, Fla., sports psychologist John Murray said, and hiring a new coach who was familiar with the old one can facilitate that.

“The only way to recover from grief is to go through it,” Murray said. “I wouldn’t advise the new coach to stop talking about the memory of the previous coach completely and try to start fresh and forget, because that lengthens the time it takes to cope with the grieving.

“A lot of it has to do with the personality of the individual more than the fact that he was an assistant coach, but that’s possible because there’s a connection between the two, especially if they were friends and got along well and were perceived in a good way. It’s more likely, I think, to result in a healthier grief response than if a new coach comes in and they start from scratch.”

Pfeil applied for the job despite his lack of varsity head coaching experience. Magruder went 15-1 last season and has several Division I prospects, so it isn’t a run-of-the-mill team. The Colonels have state title aspirations, and Pfeil wanted to help them achieve that while carrying on Alexander’s legacy.

Pfeil coached Magruder’s junior varsity last season and was a varsity assistant under Alexander since 2005. The two became friends in the summer of 2005 when they took a coaching license class together. They had been acquaintances for about eight years prior.

On the day Alexander died, Pfeil’s mind began swimming with ideas, tactics and practices that Alexander used to make Magruder’s program so successful. He didn’t want them to be forgotten. He began to list these thoughts while his wife, Maureen, transcribed them. Within a day, he had three full pages of notes.

“How do you handle the day of a game? What do players wear? Who decides that? These things were important to Scott,” Pfeil said. “He used to do quotes before games. Players read inspirational quotes that he gives them. How did he get those quotes? Besides winning, the kids would say that’s one of the reasons they play.”

While those aspects won’t be difficult to duplicate, Pfeil said, he believes his ability to connect is not what Alexander’s was. One of his favorite parts of coaching with Alexander was watching him interact with the team.

“Scott was a psychological genius,” Pfeil said. “He knew what you were feeling before you even felt it. If you ask me for the eight coaching points to knock a ball from here to that green trash can, I can do it off the top of my head. The psychological side is where I have a real deficit. Scott was so connected with people, and so what I have learned is that without communication, you can’t have connection.”

Pfeil’s familiarity with Magruder’s players and traditions helped him win the team’s acceptance, players said.

“Naturally, we’re going to compare,” senior forward Alex Lee said. “Coach Alexander was a great coach, but I’m sure Coach Pfeil will do a great job.”

The players acknowledged, however, that Pfeil is trying to balance Alexander’s successful methods with his desire to put his own stamp on the program. Players believe that will be crucial to their success.

“Either we’re going to fall apart without coach Scott, or we can take this opportunity and make something of it,” Lansing said.

Back at tryouts, Pfeil’s opening speech drew to a close. With a freshly manicured field behind him and a bag of soccer balls at his side, he pushed forward.

“I believe coach wants us to move on,” he said. “He wants us to reinvent ourselves to the next step of what the Magruder soccer family is to become. I’m going to turn my energy to that now.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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