Jaro Zawislan is the Head Coach of the Cornell men's soccer program. Over his first three years at the helm of the team he has turned around a struggling program and made it into a squad to be reckoned with at the U.S. Collegiate level. Originally a native of Poland, Zawislan immigrated to Canada with his family when he was 17 years old and later attended Clemson University, where he played on the men’s soccer team from 1990 to 1993. He was a three-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference and four-time All-South region selection, in addition to being named the most valuable player of the 1993 ACC tournament. He holds school records for career saves (446), single-season saves (134), career wins by a goalkeeper (58) and career starts (88). He was also a two-time national All-Academic honoree.
Following graduation, Zawislan played professionally both in the United States and Poland. He began his collegiate coaching career in 1999 at Creighton, while also coaching the Nebraska Olympic Development Program’s Open U-23 team and the Nebraska state ODP goalkeepers. His career also includes a stop as a player-coach with the Columbia Heat of the USISL. Zawislan also holds a USSF “B” license, the NSCAA National Diploma and an NSCAA Goalkeeper Academy Diploma. Before being named as the 11th head coach at Cornell on April 13, 2009, Zawislan served as an assistant coach at Syracuse, Stanford and Creighton.
RedNation Online: Jaro, you recently completed your third successful season as a Head Coach at Cornell University. Your first NCAA Head Coaching job was one in which you took over at a struggling Ivy League School and turned it around. The team has improved offensively, defensively and in terms of its win-loss record since you took over. What is your philosophy of the game in terms of what you have brought to the Cornell program?
Jaro Zawislan: First of all, with regards to the team’s improvement I give credit to our players who are buying into our philosophy. They are the ones who get it done on and off the field every day. As coaches we set up the training and learning environment, but it is student-athletes themselves who use this environment to fulfill their potential. Through their commitment to the game, our players have been exceptional with enriching the soccer culture of this team and setting the foundation for this program for years to come.
On the very first day that I walked into the meeting with the team when I was introduced as the next Cornell Soccer Program Head Coach, I told all the players in the program at that time that this was my first Head Coaching job and that I was starting with a record of 0 wins, 0 losses and 0 ties and that I wanted them to take the exact same approach. That whatever happened in the past did not matter and that we needed to make sure that we were starting fresh with respect to the mental approach. So even though the previous team record was 1-15, I wanted to be clear that they were starting with 0 wins, 0 losses and 0 draws. So that was the very first step in order to be moving in the right direction.
The next step was that I made it clear to the players in the program that it didn’t matter if a player had been recruited by the previous coaching staff or by me – the moment I took over the program all of the players became my players and they were all my responsibility. I wanted them to feel comfortable that as long as they were willing to work with me, I was going to work with them.
Also, with respect to the work ethic, the situation was that there might have been a certain stereotype with respect to student athletes in the Ivy League that they might have a certain sense of entitlement after a couple of seasons that they were entitled to a roster spot or a particular position on the team or to playing time. The philosophy of my program is that you have to earn it – whatever you get out of the experience here in collegiate soccer with the Cornell soccer program, you have to earn it. And not every season or every month or even every week, but every day – you have to show up to practice and you have to be ready to compete. The only criteria that we use for the pecking order among the players in this program is the performance on the field, day in and day out.
So the work ethic of the program and level of competitiveness within the program were the main guidelines in terms of turning around the program and in setting the foundation for this program for years to come. Before we got to the X’s and O’s of strategy and tactics, we needed to make sure that we got that part right.
Then with regards to the tactical approach to the game, we wanted to make sure that the players didn’t feel like the team was going to step on the field and we were going to wait for things to happen to us. The approach to the game that we have is a high pace, high pressure style of game. It’s enjoyable for the players because they are involved in every aspect of the game and they are doing everything possible to take over the momentum of the game. Also, they then feel like they are not just sitting back and waiting for things to happen, as it might have been in the previous years. Of course, to play that type of game, the athletic component of the game has to be in place. Our players bought into that philosophy with regards to taking care of their bodies. The saying is that when you are always in shape, you are never out of shape. Also, improving the explosive and dynamic side of their athleticism during the winter and spring via strength and conditioning training programs and coming fully fit into the preseason and being prepared for the intense demands of the preseason and fall season were the keys in improving the overall athleticism of our team.
However, we didn’t forget about the other aspects of the game. It was very important that as we worked on the athletic foundation, we kept improving in the technical and tactical aspects of the game as well. And Ivy League students get the tactical part. They are not only good students in the classroom, but they are also very good students of the game. Our players really took to heart working on that component of the game. The players are embracing not only studying the game through our video sessions, tactical discussions and being exposed to different game situations via our training sessions, but also watching and analyzing games together as a group or individually via watching matches on television or online. Over time they just became great students of the game.
Throughout the year we work on the technical improvement of our players as a team in training sessions as well as individually and in small group sessions. It is just consistent and constant work toward improving the technical abilities of the players. That’s something that every player in the world has to do – they need to make sure that when they end the training day, they can ask the question, “Did I become a better soccer player?”. And when they can look back at the end of the day and answer that question with “yes”, that means they are progressing in the right direction. And when we had all of our individual players doing that and we put together days, weeks, months and semesters of improvement, then we were very confident that the results would eventually tilt our way at some point and hopefully sooner than later.
The other very important part when we talk about the foundation of becoming the best soccer player that one can be is the lifestyle choices an individual makes. And that is also something that our players embraced. When we talk about the lifestyle choices, we not only talk about what you eat and drink and how you rehydrate yourself, but also how you manage your academics so that you can get plenty of rest and prepare yourself for the next training session and the next game in the best manner that you can.
So putting together those five building blocks of being the best soccer player you can be – athletic, technical, tactical, mental and lifestyle choices – and excelling at them individually and as a team, that is what helped us to turn around this program. I do consider myself a players’ coach. I give a lot of the credit for the turnaround at Cornell to the players themselves and the work that they put in and for how they bought into the program with complete dedication and played a major role in setting the foundation for the program for the years to come. The game is played on the pitch and eventually you have to give the game back to the players as they are the ones who have to make split second decisions on the field. As a coach you trust that the learning environment that you create during training sessions will help players make the right decisions during the games.
RNO: You paid your dues as an assistant coach at Syracuse, Stanford and Creighton before taking over at the helm of Cornell. How important is it for a coach to pay his dues as an assistant and to have been mentored under experienced Head Coaches before he takes over as a Head Coach at the collegiate level?
Jaro Zawislan: The experiences that I gained as an Assistant Coach at Syracuse, Stanford and Creighton were invaluable. I was very fortunate that I was able to work with some very experienced and knowledgeable Head Coaches in Bret Simon and Dean Foti. It’s not only about paying dues or making suggestions to the Head Coaches, but it’s also that at some point you do become very influential with the decision making process and you learn about the different aspects of running the program. And running a collegiate soccer program isn’t only about going out there and taking care of the training sessions and game day management, there is so much more that goes into it – recruiting, managing the personalities on the team, managing the schedule and arranging things on and off the field to put the players into the best position to succeed on the field, community service and growing the profile of the soccer program in the community with activities on and off the campus. So there was a tremendous amount of experience that I was able to gain by being in the position of Assistant Coach.
RNO: Bruce Arena, Head Coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, got his start as an Assistant Coach at Cornell University. Does Bruce still keep in contact with the program as an alumnus?
Jaro Zawislan: Yes, definitely. Bruce Arena, Head Coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy and his Associate Coach Dave Sarachan were both former players here at Cornell University. And Dave Sarachan was actually the Head Coach of the Cornell Men’s Soccer team back in the ‘90s. And, yes, they are both great supporters of the program and stay in touch with the program.
RNO: The 2012 MLS SuperDraft will be held early in the New Year. Who do you think are some of the NCAA players that can make a big impact in the MLS?
Jaro Zawislan: That’s always something that is a fluid situation. With the collegiate players there is always the question of making the jump to the next level. It’s essentially the same question as when we recruit players out of high school and youth soccer. We always look at the potential of the players and not only recruit them based on how good they are at that time, but also based on how good they need to be when they come to the first day of the preseason at the collegiate level.
There have been some players that were projected heading into their senior year that they were going to be good prospects and some of those names include Ethan Finlay from Creighton, Matt Hedges from North Carolina, and 2010 Ivy League Player of the Year Antoine Hoppenot from Princeton to name few. There are also Casey Townsend from Maryland, Colin Rolfe from Louisville, and 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year Lucky Mkosana from Dartmouth. Among Canadian players who are seniors this year and doing well in NCAA Division I soccer are Sean Rosa from Brown and Carl Haworth from Niagara University. The list could go on and on and those are all good prospects for the MLS Draft. Now in terms of who will make the most impact, the jury is still out. One thing will be to see how they do at the MLS Combine and really the question is never answered until the players step into the professional environment and get the job done. As much as it is the same case with high school or youth soccer players making the adjustments to become collegiate players, it is very much similar for collegiate players trying to make the step to the professional level.
Now all of the names that I have given you are Seniors at the collegiate level and, of course, every year there will be some underclassmen that will get pulled out of the collegiate program early, especially via the Generation Adidas program. And some of those players could actually have an even greater impact at the MLS level than some of the college seniors that will be drafted and some of those younger players will likely be drafted quite high up in the MLS Draft.
Another issue that needs to be addressed pretty soon by the MLS is that of home grown players, as each team is trying to claim the rights to a number of college players. At the beginning it wasn’t such a big issue, but now that there are more and more players going through the MLS Academies, some of the players who have developed through the collegiate system are now in situations where the MLS teams are trying to claim them as home grown players so they don’t have to use draft picks on them. That will be an interesting issue to follow because sometimes those definitions are a little bit stretched by teams.
RNO: The majority of the successful coaches in the MLS were developed via their years as coaches in the NCAA. Is coaching a professional team something that you would like to do at some point in your career?
Jaro Zawislan: At this time, my full focus is on the Cornell Men’s Soccer Program and on keeping the positive momentum going with the program. The players in the program worked hard to get to this point and, even given the good season we had last season and with the progress that has been shown, we know there is still a lot of work ahead of us. So at this time, I’m not thinking about anything else but being focused on guiding this program and taking this program to the next level and in providing the players with the environment and all the tools with which they can fulfil their full potential as soccer players, students and people. That’s my full focus at this time. That said, in the same manner that anybody who plays soccer dreams about playing professionally, coaching at that level can be the ultimate goal for anybody that gets involved in coaching.
It’s a great working environment here at Cornell and it is a pleasure to work with the Athletic Department here. We have an excellent group of student athletes here, who have been part of the transformation. The Seniors who are graduating now have done a tremendous job in being an integral part of the recent improvements of our program. We have a very solid group of returning players and our recruiting class is again shaping up to be very strong. I have an exceptional coaching staff in assistant coaches Joe Schneck and TJ Love and our strength and conditioning coach Jeremy Golden. We have a really great group of supporters on and off the campus, with many of our former players coming back for our annual alumni weekend. The atmosphere and energy around the team is very positive, so I’m not looking to “run away” from this place.
RNO: Canada's most successful National Team Coach, who took Canada to the World Cup in 1986, was Tony Waiters, who played professionally as a keeper. In looking back at your playing career, you played as a keeper rather than as an outfield player. Given the perspective a keeper has on the pitch and the manner in which they have to lead and organize the back line, do you think that previous playing experience has assisted you in your ability to be successful as a coach?
Jaro Zawislan: Playing experience at any position helps tremendously later on during coaching career. Now as we have seen with great coaches throughout the world, one does not have to have played at the highest level for a long time in order to become a great coach, but it’s definitely very helpful to have had playing experience. I have been fortunate to have been exposed to various styles of coaching, different backgrounds and different nationalities and there are definitely unique coaching approaches throughout the world.
Growing up in Poland and playing with the youth soccer teams of professional clubs, moving to Canada and then being to exposed to the type of multicultural schools of coaching, playing in the U.S. Collegiate system and then playing professionally in Europe and in North America, and later being involved in quality programs at the Collegiate soccer level, it all has given me such a great opportunity to experience a lot of different styles of coaching.
As a player, as you go through your experiences as a player, you get a sense as to what types of things are working for you as a player and what type of coaching approaches push the right buttons with players. You start picking up on the things that coaches did that worked and that motivated the team. And maybe on another day you experienced something that didn’t really work. Sometimes the things that coaches will do will work for some players, but maybe not for another group of players. So it is not only the practical experience that you get as a player, but you also learn about the different coaching styles and you draw on that when you create your own coaching philosophy. So I do think it is an invaluable experience to play for as long as you can at the highest level possible. That’s what I always tell our players when they are coming out of the collegiate program, especially those that have ambitions to play at the higher levels and then eventually coach at the collegiate or any other level. Do play as long as you can at the highest level possible because it is going to pay dividends when you move to coaching full-time and it will also allow you to pass on so many more experiences to the next generation of players that you will be affecting.
RNO: An important part of your job is recruiting players. What qualities do you look for in terms of the players that you want playing for Cornell?
Jaro Zawislan: There are three areas in which we do not compromise when we are recruiting players. Those areas are academics, soccer and character - and prospective players have to meet our standards in all those three areas. With regards to academics, you are always a student first when you are an athlete at the collegiate level. That is a prerequisite requirement. The wonderful part of our Admissions Department at an Ivy League school such as Cornell University is that they do an excellent job of academic selection. Their standards are extremely high and we are pretty well assured that people getting through the admissions office here will be good students and will get the job done in the classroom.
In terms of the other areas, it is very important that players coming into our program have the proper character. Yes, everybody will make mistakes in their careers, but we definitely do cross-reference players, not only from a soccer point of view, but also with respect to character references from their schools and in their communities. When the red flags start popping up that there are some kinds of issues, then we will have concern and it might come to pass that they might not be the right fit in terms of joining our team. No matter how a good student they are or how good a soccer player they are, if we see they could be affecting the whole team in a negative way, then we just move on to another player. One part of recruiting that is very important is the prospect’s visit. Our players do not make any final decisions with regard to who will join our program or not, but through the interactions between prospect and our current players we are able to make sure there is a right fit both for the player joining our program and our current student-athletes, so we can continue to keep growing the proper soccer culture in our program. It’s very important that we get that positive mutual feedback before we make the final decision.
And, of course, with regards to soccer component we look at all of the parts that make a soccer player the best player that he can be. We look at the athleticism, technical ability, the tactical knowledge the player has, the mental approach to the game, the lifestyle choices he makes and the passion he has for the sport. Many times it is easy to be a good player on the field when things are going right, but for us it also good to see how a player handles adversity. Maybe his team is down 2-0 in a game and we will be watching the player to see how he reacts to that situation. Is he a driving positive force for a team trying to make a comeback? Or is he kind of just giving up and going through the motions? So all three components – academics, soccer, and character - are very important in recruiting process and we don’t compromise on any one of them.
RNO: In contrast to the European model, player development in North America has generally been based on the college system. Do you like the model and do you think it is vital for players to also get an education, especially given the current salaries in professional soccer in North America and, of course, the limited years that make up a professional playing career?
Jaro Zawislan: I think the opportunity for players coming out of high school to play collegiate soccer is a wonderful opportunity. Of course, now with MLS, MLS Reserve teams and MLS Academies, everything has really been growing with regards to opportunities for players to have a shot at playing professional soccer. Some players are now being signed out of high school or they are leaving college a little bit earlier. And those systems complement each other, because, yes, some players are ready right away to step into the professional environment, both in terms of their soccer ability and the mental character that is needed to be successful at the professional level. And then there are other players that need 1, 2, 3 or 4 years of collegiate soccer, which doesn’t only provide them with the opportunity to grow as a soccer player, but also as a person. And on top of that there are the opportunities to get the quality degrees that will eventually help with the transition – if they play professional soccer – to the life after professional soccer. Having a Degree is something that is invaluable. I’m definitely a proponent of that system, but I also realize that going through collegiate soccer is not the only way. If a player is ready for professional soccer and a team is ready to substantially compensate him right away, then he should consider going professional at that time.
But for the vast majority of players coming out of high school and youth soccer, the collegiate level is the next highest level of soccer that they can play and that eventually provides the opportunity for quite a few players to eventually make it to the professional level. The facilities are great, the support from the Universities is tremendous and the players not only have the opportunity to develop their games on the pitch, but also to develop their bodies with the help of top quality fitness coaches who put them through strength and conditioning programs. Many of the players can be “late bloomers” physically, so they essentially are growing into men’s bodies as they go through the collegiate career. These years in college can provide a nice transition period for those players who might not have been ready for professional soccer right away after high school.
RNO: You were born in Poland and then your family moved to Canada when you were 17 years old. You have spent the majority of your playing days and coaching career in the United States. Do you follow soccer developments in Canada closely and have you ever considered working as a coach in Canada?
Jaro Zawislan: Canada will always have a special place in my heart. When I immigrated to Canada with my family from Poland, that country became home for my family and my family still lives in the Toronto area. Right now, as I said previously, I’m fully focused on the Cornell Men’s Soccer Program, but, yes, that is always something to be considered. During some transition times I have spent some time coaching in various situations there in Canada. Occasionally I do come back and try to give back to the community by doing some clinics or camps. So, yes, Canada always has a special place in my heart and I always like going back there, not just for family reasons, but also to give back to the community and, of course, also to recruit.
RNO: Touching on the topic of recruiting again, do you recruit for Cornell in Canada specifically and, if so, what is the process?
Jaro Zawislan: Recruiting in Canada is invaluable for us. I’ve done it with other programs as an Assistant Coach. At Syracuse University we were extremely successful in terms of landing some quality players who had been with various Canadian Youth National Teams, including Richard Asante, Frank Bruno and Alim Karim, who were all part of the Canadian U-20 team that made that tremendous run in the 2003 FIFA Youth World Championship in United Arab Emirates. After that we had Robert Cavicchia in goal at Syracuse as well as Kyle Hall and they both also came through the Canadian Youth National Training Centers system.
Currently we have two players at Cornell with Canadian roots – Daniel Haber from Toronto and Franck Onambele from Ajax, Ontario. Franck had some problems with injuries this past season and we are counting on him to have a very big season in his senior year. On the other hand, Daniel Haber had a breakthrough season here as a sophomore – as a forward he was one of the top goalscorers in the league, was our top goalscorer and was one of the few underclassmen who were voted to the All Ivy Second Team. We are counting on him to continue to take his game to the next level and hopefully he will soon have the opportunity to be brought into one of the Youth National Team camps.
So Canadian recruiting is very important for us. Of course Cornell University is an American institution, so we do keep our focus and priority on the United States, but our philosophy is to find the best players to represent Cornell University, as long as they meet all of the criteria and guidelines.
RNO: Given your experiences living and being involved in the game in both countries, do you see any inherent difference between Canadian players and American players?
Jaro Zawislan: You can find quality players in both places. It’s just that the depth of the quality is greater in the United States and you could argue that is because of the numbers of people playing in the two countries. Definitely with the system that has been put in place with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system under the guidance of the United States Soccer Federation and MLS teams having Reserves and Youth Teams, that gives youth soccer players in the United States a great advantage in terms of being able to be put into the pre-professional environments and well run organizations through their teenage years and it also puts the USSF and the United States Youth National Teams in a great situation, where the idea behind the system is to make sure that they do not miss out on any talented players out there. This system is putting the players into the proper training and development environment, providing players with appropriate playing level competitions, and ensuring that the USSF is not missing any players who should be part of the Youth National Teams at the highest levels.
So that organization and structure provide a great advantage and, of course, there is money behind the organization. Those are the advantages that U.S. Soccer has. In Canada people are still trying to find ways to maximize the potential of the players playing this game. I do think that on both sides of the border, this healthy competitive “free market” type of environment of club teams, private academies and different leagues all being in place is a good thing because we don’t have the tradition and structure of the European and South American nations. This environment of various soccer entities and the free market dynamic of the survival of the strongest organizations will eventually strengthen the system because only those entities that are doing the best job of developing players will survive.
You can already see it in Canadian soccer where the youth clubs have all of a sudden seen the emergence of the private academies and they then realize that those private academies are providing players with certain types of training, trips to competitions in the United States and exposing players to scholarships. All of a sudden you see the clubs moving in that direction and putting more time and resources into developing players and providing them with exposure to soccer scholarships. This process pushes organizations, such as clubs, academies, youth leagues, to constantly keep raising bar of what they have to offer to players in terms of the training environment as well as future soccer opportunities. Even though these entities will continue to compete with each other, I think we should not lose the sight that we all are working to grow and to better the game of soccer in North America. Healthy competition will only the strengthen soccer system and structure in North America and it is going to benefit everybody.
RNO: You have lived and worked in the States for the majority of your career. What are some of the things the United States has done right in terms of developing the sport over the last twenty years?
Jaro Zawislan: I think the United States has done what the United States always tends to do in many different industries and parts of life – with soccer in the United States they have done a tremendous job of picking the best things from around the world and then putting them in place together while being open-minded and knowing what the strengths and weaknesses of the system and the players are and ultimately trying to put the strongest system in place. They have worked to minimize the chances of people slipping through the system – playing for other national teams or simply missing players - and so this idea of the Development Academy came into place, where every game is scouted by a representative from U.S. Soccer, with reports going back to the regional directors and then to the national directors. The Showcase events for the Academies happen two times a year and all of the Academies come to the same place and all of the youth National Team Coaches are there. Again, every game is scouted by a representative from U.S. Soccer and the reports are put together such that the best players surface on the boards of the daily meetings and it really ensures that no quality players are missed or fall through the cracks when they should be considered for any of the youth national teams.
They have also been very open to different coaching philosophies and have been very good about bringing quality coaches from within the country as well as from abroad to seminars and coaching conventions. The U.S. Soccer and coaches’ community have always been very open-minded and thirsty for opportunities to constantly keep improving their knowledge of the game. Various organizations, such as USSF and NSCAA, are doing a tremendous job in terms of educating coaches. All these things have a very positive effect on the player development in this country.