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The Word on Coaching: Penn State's Erica Dambach on 'Standards'

by on July 09, 2017 8:30 PM

 Erica Dambach has high standards.

Legit No. 1 standards.

Bona fide gold standards, even.

When the Penn State women's soccer coach does something, she likes it to be the best. No matter how long it takes.

For 41 years and counting.

As a soccer player, she was a high school All-American at Lower Moreland and a member of the U.S. Under-17 national team. In college, she led William & Mary to two league championships and four NCAA tournaments, was a two-time all-conference player and was inducted into the William & Mary Hall of Fame.

She was equally as proficient in the classroom, with an undergrad degree in biology from W&M and an MBA from Lehigh.

She's coached at some of the country's most demanding academic institutions, with stints as head coach at both Dartmouth and Harvard. (Yes, Harvard.) And she's has had successful and meaningful assistant coaching stops at Bucknell, Dartmouth, Lehigh and Florida State.

On the national level, she was an assistant on the U.S. team that won gold at the 2008 Olympics, and she has extensive experience coaching U.S. national and international teams.

She waited almost four decades to get married, then found a winner in Jason Dambach, the president of the State College Spikes and executive VP/GM of the Frisco RoughRiders, an AA affiliate of the Texas Rangers. Half of his job is in Texas. But his full life — in concert with wife Erica's — is fully in State College.

And with Jason, she had her first child a year and a day ago, giving birth to adorable Addison Jeanne Dambach on July 8, 2016.

Somewhere in among all those successes and accolades, she built Penn State women's soccer into a collegiate powerhouse, winning the NCAA championship in 2015 after being runner-up in 2012. Since she arrived at Penn State in 2007, the Nittany Lions have had a 169-55-14 record, 10 consecutive NCAA appearances and at least a share of the Big Ten title in nine out of 10 seasons.

Full disclosure: Her teams have lost 15 times in 108 Big Ten Conference games (but just four times over the past three seasons). So we know she's not perfect.

But her standards? As high as they come.


The following interview with Dambach is Part 5 of our "The Word on Coaching" series, in which Penn State’s athletics director and a half-dozen of PSU’s most successful current head coaches discuss their philosophy on athletics and life, summarized in a singular word of his or her choosing. The line-up:

Sandy Barbour, Director of Athletics — "Why?"

Russ Rose, Women’s Volleyball — "Commitment"

Char Morett-Curtiss, Field Hockey — "Heart"

Guy Gadowsky, Men’s Ice Hockey — "Environment"

Erica Dambach, Women’s Soccer — Today

James Franklin, Football — Friday, July 14

Cael Sanderson, Wrestling — Monday, July 17  


DAMBACH AND HER ONE WORD What's your word?

Dambach: When I look at the difference in focus at the seven institutions I've been to — and what a cool collection of places — they've all led me to creating this philosophy I have right now. I experienced the importance of where things exist on the continuum between academics and athletics, sometimes at the extremes.

That all led me here. In my opinion, I found the right balance and combination here (at Penn State). It presents challenges in its own right, in that there are high academic standards and expectations. But we also have the highest standard of athletics as well.

And that leads to my word, which would be "standards." Steve Jobs said you can only connect the dots looking backwards. How did your path to Penn State establish your standards?

Dambach: Mentors and surrounding myself with the best. I look across that wide array of experiences and there are so many people who impacted me along the way, going back to my high school basketball and soccer coach. The standard that they lived by and passed along to their students — the things that they did, the lengths that they went to to mentor me and to show their love, to show their support — really has stayed with me in terms of what's important in coaching.

I've been extremely fortunate to have been surrounded by the best in the business, according to my definition, which is wanting that comprehensive excellence, that whole package. Certainly winning is a big part of that, but winning in a way that I want to win, which is by creating a family. What are your standards?

Dambach: That's when you look across 26 players who have all different abilities. My job is to help all of them reach their potential. If you would have given me three words, my answer would've been, "Reach your potential." In terms of helping them to reach their potential, they're not all All-Americans, right? My job as a college coach — the reason why I stay in the college game vs. going on to the international level — is that they all do have different levels of potential.

It's so exciting to coach and mentor a Teddy Chase, who didn't get significant playing time in her four years here. But in terms of leadership and academic excellence, and involvement with our team and impact on our team, without a doubt she reached her potential. For me, that was upholding her standard in every area and aspect.

We've been fortunate to be able to recruit players who come in with a high standard, from families who are stable and have already instilled those standards into them. But they then have to make decisions in college that are hard decisions, so they need to go back to this idea of having a standard. What is their standard? What is the team standard? And often times, we're very fortunate that those standards match.

So, pushing their standard, pushing their potential — as a team we want to do that. If we can get every player to uphold that standard in the classroom, in the community and on the field, then we'll likely reach our potential as a team for that particular year. What's your biggest challenge in making sure they reach and then live up to those standards?

Dambach: Constant education and reminders, and consistency in those reminders. We understand they are going to slip up at times and make mistakes. They're kids. We have to make them understand that their response to those difficulties is as important as anything they do in life.

I would say that one of the greatest challenges with this generation of kids is those difficult conversations. They need to understand that we are here to be their advocate, but also need to push them and drive them and turn them into young, successful adults in their chosen endeavors.

Touching and impacting 26 student-athletes is my job as a college coach. It's to help push them and guide them, and to help them all reach their potential. That's full well knowing that everyone is not going to have the same impact, that they are all not going to be an All-American.

And I still need to put my other hat on; I need to win championships as well. Five of your Penn State players took a season away from your team last year to play on national teams. Was supporting them a difficult decision?

Dambach: No, it wasn't. When I recruit these student-athletes, one of the very first questions I ask is, "What are your goals and dreams in life?"

Those particular student-athletes expressed their desire to be a part of a World Cup some day. That was all I needed to know. They wanted to have success at Penn State, but on a larger scale they wanted to play professionally and be in the World Cup. So when their opportunity came, it was an easy decision for me.

I looked at the opportunities it was going to give our other student-athletes and sure, potentially we weren't going to repeat as national champions. But more importantly, I do believe that the standards and expectations of all the other players were raised a little bit. They expected more out of themselves. They raised their own standards.

So that gave us an opportunity to push those players who were part of our 2016 team. The impact that had on me as a coach led to one of my most impactful seasons. The 2016 season will stay with me as a coach as a constant reminder of "Believe in your players."

We had players like an Amanda Dennis. In her first season, she stepped in at goal and had a terrific freshman year. Perhaps in a different year, we would have asked, "Is she ready?" And maybe she wouldn't have been. But we put her in there, and she thrived. So, believe in them. Pushing them to believe in 2016 was probably our biggest challenge, because you look at what you're going to be missing and they had a hard time at what they still had to. What impact did winning the national championship have on your standards?

Dambach: The most amazing thing about the 2015 championship was a conversation I had 10 years ago, when I arrived at Penn State, with my best friend and my assistant, (associate head coach) Ann Cook.

We looked at each other in the eye and said, "Our championships will be won with these pillars: Attitude of a champion. Blue collar mentality. United family. And those are the three pillars we are going to live by. If we can win a national championship living by those pillars, then we have achieved our potential as coaches. If we have to sacrifice one or the other and the championship doesn't come, then maybe we don't belong at this level as coaches."

And we have that conversation every year, and we have it about every recruit, in terms of staying true to ourselves. We may have to pass on players who may appear to live up those standards, but really don't.

We've had a lot of tough conversations through the years, like with the star who may have missed a class and now has to sit. It comes up every day. But we were convinced we could do it the right way. And to have it validated was incredible. To see Teddy Chase celebrate the national championship just like Raquel Rodriguez, the national player of the year, was the greatest feeling I've ever had as a coach. In that particular moment, I think I reached my potential as a coach. Was there any doubt in the years between 2007 and 2015?

Dambach: Yes. Yes, there was. We believed that our program was capable of winning a national championship, that we had enough support to attract the top talent, that we had the right academic advisor in Jim Weaver to hold them to the highest standard.

But certainly we had doubts. We were going to have to make decisions and leave players behind on roadtrips, and discipline players in certain ways that we were going to sacrifice our standards on the playing field. And we did that. We were very consistent about that, leaving star players off the roster, supporting players to go compete in World Cups and staying true to ourselves from that standpoint. We were guided by those pillars. Facility upgrades are planned for Jeffrey Field. But where does winning the national championship with the complex in its current condition fit with soon having a facility that is of a much higher standard?

Dambach: Our success is built off of creating a family. And we had to sell that idea to recruits in 36 hours. Actually, in many ways, because we couldn't show off the facilities, we de-emphasized that area. So we put a strong emphasis on what we are all about overall.

I think that will shape us when we do have all of the amenities. We will continue to focus on the pillars and to remind our players what we're all about. One of things that made Raquel Rodriguez so special is that every day she walked off that training field she thanked us. Her gratitude was beyond anything I've ever experienced, and that was because of her background. She came from lesser means (in Costa Rica) than most of the other players.

So, how do you get the others to have that appreciation? That's one of the reasons why our trip aboard next spring is to Nicaragua. We will go with a company called Soccer Without Borders and we'll do service work. Many other programs, our peers in soccer, take the cool trip to Europe to see teams like Barcelona play. For us, it's "Let's give back to this game, because it's who we are." When we hand-pick student-athletes, it's what they're all about. We have to constantly remind ourselves of that as well. Where do you go now as a touchstone, as a reminder of maintaining those standards?

Dambach: My next challenge is finding a way to be the best mom I can possibly be. The best wife, and figuring out how to integrate all of these pieces together. I hope that by doing so, it will improve and enhance the experience for our student-athletes.

So much of my success has come from outworking my opponent. But now I have the best assistants in the game. I have people who can put in the 80-hour work weeks. Certainly, I need to invest my time and effort. But there's no reason my family can't be part of that time and effort. That may mean switching things around a bit, like the team barbecues are now at my house.

Addie's got 26 big sisters. There's no better way to raise a child than in this environment. Instead of looking at it as taking away, I have to figure out the right ways to join those two ideas and enhance everyone's experience with it.

Jason understands what my life is all about. For me to know myself, to get married at 40, I know what my priorities are. And he supports everything that I do, so he's not sitting at home going, "You're picking them over us." He knew what he was getting into and I knew the same with him. There's no bigger Penn State soccer fan than my husband.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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