More than a nail: Soccer coach uses symbolism to install pride in team


Central Michigan women's soccer players are rewarded for key plays with nails them hammer into a tree stump in the the team locker room. 

A nail is usually used as a fastener or peg to hang an item or keep things in place, but not for Central Michigan women’s soccer coach Peter McGahey.

For McGahey, a nail is more than just an object. 

It’s a way of life.

“We talk about the things you can control and the things we believe are critical to the outcome of the game,” McGahey said. “We talk about the grit, fight, and determination of how we have to compete. So the nails are something that most would look at as subjective description, but we’ve given them an objective behavior.

“When players were gritty and did what we believed would lead us to success, we rewarded them with a nail.”

After receiving a nail, players hammer it into a stump in the team locker room. The concept was brought up by Dr. Chris Carr, a counseling sports psychologist for CMU athletics.

“Chris is always telling us to reinforce the very specific behaviors you want,” McGahey said. “A way to do that was to give them a visual representation.”

The receiving of the nails was not an internal competition, but a recognition for players who delivered and executed necessary progressive behaviors. The goal was to motivate each athlete to exceed expectations. 

“It could be the person who led us on the grit sheet, but it could be someone who was off the field with a leadership moment,” McGahey said. “Those types of behaviors were recognized.”

The grit sheet included tackles, recoveries, blocks, key passes and more. Even though senior defender Lauren Sherry did not get many scoring chances, she proved herself on the sheet. 

“Every time you make one of those plays, you get a tally on the grit sheet,” Sherry said. “The top three people from every game would get a nail, which is mostly how I earned mine.”

Receiving a nail made Sherry proud, as she felt accomplished. To her, it meant she was doing her job well in practices and games.

“A big thing we wanted with the nails was give recognition to people that were going above and beyond,” Sherry said. “It was nice to have as a defender because you were motivated to get one. It was something to take pride in.”

Throughout the season, nails are given from coaches to players or from player to player. When a player earns a nail, they could give a nail to another member of the team. Pelafas enjoyed seeing her teammates, trainers and coaches faces light up when they received them.

“Getting a nail from my teammates meant the most,” Pelafas said. “It was one of my teammates reaching out and telling me I did a great job. I think the best reward is when your teammates can reach out and complement each other.”

McGahey is supportive of his team and has many more motivational plans up his sleeve for the future.

“I like helping people,” McGahey said. “I like watching people develop and helping them on their way in terms of becoming lifelong champions.”