The Thunder, 12-1 on the season, has used a number of techniques to keep the team's morale high in 2022.
Start the exercise lying face down, your forehead resting on the back of your hands.
Relax your chest, arms and neck. Inhale through your nose, slowly, for four seconds. Hold it for two to four seconds, then exhale through the nose for four more. Pause for two seconds, then start the cycle again, noting how the air follows a 360 degree pattern through the body.
This is the essence of crocodile breathing, a technique that some athletes are using to relax their minds and get in touch with their bodies. That list includes The Out-of-Door Academy girls lacrosse players, who in 2022 have put an emphasis on mental health under Coach Carolyn Keber.
If the Thunder is any indication of the technique's effectiveness, more teams should try it — despite how silly it may look to outsiders.
As of April 6, ODA is 12-1 in 2022 after going 8-8 a season ago. The team's lone loss came March 29, a 20-6 home defeat at the hands of Olentangy Liberty, a school from Powell, Ohio, that features four NCAA Division I-committed players. Outside of that loss, the Thunder is dominating its competition, outscoring its Florida opponents 209 to 69.
ODA is ranked 44th nationally, 13th in the state and sixth in Class 1A by MaxPreps; the FHSAA's rankings have the Thunder 10th in the state and 5th in Class 1A.
There's more to the team's success than funky breathing techniques. The team has bona fide scorers including senior Dani Taraska, who has 33 goals on the season according to MaxPreps, senior Megan Dowdell, who has 37, and sophomore Aubrey Robbins, who has 40. They also get strong two-way play from seniors like Austin Bonacuse and Cristina Harold and steady goaltending from junior Emma Bonacuse. As the players tell it, though, the team's attitude has just as much to do with its success as its talent.
"At the end of last season we started saying 'PMA,' which means positive mental attitude," Harold said. "That carried into this year. Every time something does not go our way we scream 'PMA' and try to build each other up instead of thinking about what happened."
Not everything the Thunder has tried has been effective. Keber said the team attempted a group yoga session at practice early in the season and the players were less than enthusiastic about it, so they didn't try it again.
And the crocodile breathing, which Austin Bonacuse said genuinely helped her calm her nerves, can actually be too effective, tamping down the team's killer instinct before big games. The exercise is now reserved for practice and the night before a big game, letting the team wake up refreshed and ready.
Keber said the team will continue to implement new ideas and exercises centered around the idea of positivity. Creating a culture that lifts up instead of putting down has been a mission of hers since taking over the program three years ago.
"I remember what it is like to be a teenage athlete," Keber said. "When you are competitive like a lot of girls are, you are hard on yourself. If a teammate or a coach is also going hard on you, that's not going to make you play any better. They're already upset enough. The way that we are going to win and get better is by supporting each other and being positive. The fun exercises, that's a part of all this. We're teaching them that sports are a segue to good life habits."
Along with the attitude adjustment, it helps that the Thunder returned every player from last year's team. Austin Bonacuse said having built-in chemistry at the beginning of the season allowed the team to get a jump start during training instead of having to learn everyone's tendencies and strengths.
They implemented a new defensive strategy, playing a zone concept except for one player — Taraska — who acts as a "backer," tasked with stopping everything that gets through the zone. That double layer of defense, as Keber called it, helps prevent opposing offenses from hogging possession time. When ODA gets the ball back, Keber said, the team's transition game has been equally strong, churning up the field and getting the ball on the sicks of the team's top-tier scorers.
It has been a deadly plan for ODA opponents in 2022. Even the team's loss against Olentangy Liberty provided more hope than horror. Keber said she focused on the fact that the Thunder scored six goals in the game, the second-most the Patriots have allowed in a game this season. Now that the postseason has arrived, another loss will mean the team's season is over. No matter how far ODA gets, Keber is happy that her philosophy of positive thinking is making a difference in her player's lives.
"This is a special group," Keber said. "I commend the girls' commitment. I mean, they are all in. It has been awesome to see them embrace this culture."
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