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Olaf sports traditions: twelfth man

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Ever heard anyone call a St. Olaf sports team a cult? When it comes to team unity, this label might not be so far off the mark. The sheer amount of time spent studying, practicing and eating meals together transforms a collage of individuals into a dynamic and resilient force. Yet, simply spending time together does not always translate into the makings of a successful team. Instead, success depends on each individual being held accountable no matter his or her role in the team.

Ole women’s soccer is living proof of enthusiasm for this principle of accountability, embodied in the tradition called “The Twelfth Man.” Throughout the season, each member of the team is assigned a day to make a mini pep talk to the team before a game. Every member of the team must be present for the Twelfth Man talks, including coaches, players and managers.

“The idea behind the Twelfth Man is that everyone is held accountable on and off the field,” defender Susie Jelinek ’14 explained. “Everyone should be involved, whether they are starting, injured or on the bench.”

Themes vary for the Twelfth Man talk, though there is no shortage of creativity. For example, Jelinek ordered gold headbands last year that said “We’re Golden” on the front, a reminder that looking like a team usually correlates to playing like a team. Rachael Stets ’14 made black and gold stickers that said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Among other physical tokens of motivation are tiny Ole lions that team members wear during the game, key chains and numerous posters that decorate the locker room, as if to say that just because the game has ended does not mean the message is obsolete. In past years, girls have even remade Disney songs or poems in a lighthearted attempt to remind the team of how far they have come and what they can accomplish together.

Team members do not always have to include a tangible object in the Twelfth Man talk. A player can simply stand up and talk about past experiences and, in light of those experiences, focus on the direction she can see the season taking.

In essence, the Twelfth Man is about every voice being heard. There are 11 players on the soccer field, and not every player will be on the field for the entirety of a game. In this way, every player is the Twelfth Man, responsible for boosting team morale and encouraging others from whatever her position might be. No one is exempt from engaging herself fully in the game in whatever way she can.

Many newcomers to campus comment on the close-knit nature of any team. Their observations underline the idea that in order to perform well as a team, members must be comfortable with each other and understand the challenges ahead. However, could the idea behind the Twelfth Man be extended to the entire athletic program at St. Olaf? What if, instead of each individual team supporting and motivating each other, we viewed all athletics as one team?

The intense connection between athletes on a team is powerful, yet the fact remains that all athletes face the same challenges: how to work as a team, how to overcome physical and mental challenges, how to balance athletics and academics and so on. This congruency is the great equalizer among Ole athletics, and should bond teams together into a unit just as it bonds individuals together into a team.

The Twelfth Man is a fantastic display of the importance of teamwork and individual involvement. With the power to spread beyond the women’s soccer team, the Twelfth Man is an invaluable idea that transcends simple pre-game motivation.

ecstets@stolaf.edu