Mark Misiak is heading into his eighth season as head coach for the SUNY Potsdam women’s soccer team. Misiak grew up in Ontario and spent his college years playing soccer at SUNY Plattsburgh before making his way to SUNY Potsdam to start his career as a coach. Last year, he was named the State University of New York’s Athletic Conference Coach of the Year after setting a SUNY Potsdam single-season record with 12 overall wins (five within the SUNYAC conference).
Can you talk about your youth and what eventually brought you to Potsdam?
“My dad was a pro, so obviously soccer is part of my blood. I grew up playing the game and I’ve loved it ever since. My life really has revolved around soccer. I was fortunate enough to be recruited by a few coaches and I chose SUNY Plattsburgh for my college career. As I edged toward the end of my studies I realized that I didn’t want to leave the game. I didn’t think I was talented enough to make it to the very, very top of the professional level, so I thought about how I could be part of the game for as long as I possibly can. I sat down with my coach at the time, Chris Waterbury, and he offered me the chance come on as a second assistant coach at Plattsburgh and kind of get a feel for what it’s like to be part of college soccer. From the first day I loved it and I knew that was what I wanted to do right from the very beginning—and the rest is history. I’ve been involved with college soccer ever since. I can’t picture myself approaching August and not looking forward to a soccer season.”
You’ve built your life around soccer. What is it that you love so much about the sport?
“So many things. I think you learn a lot about life in the game of soccer. Soccer is probably, out of all the sports, the most unfair and probably the cruelest game. I think in games like basketball, if you’re the better team and you play better, you’re going to win the game. In soccer that’s not always the case. You can dominate a team and hit the post and miss breakaways and you lose, or you suffer a bad refereeing decision that goes against you. On the flip side, sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes, you don’t play well and the other team dominates you and you end up winning the game. It’s very, very unjust and that’s kind of how life is. Sometimes in life you don’t get what you work for, or get what you think you deserve. So, I think soccer is a great way to learn a lot of life lessons. I love the camaraderie. The biggest reason that I’m in coaching right now is to be part of a team. I think that’s the main reason that I do what I do. I can’t be away from the team room, the atmosphere, the sounds.”
Can you talk about the challenges of working in a different country?
“It’s been simple. Same language, same culture, so there was no issue there. I think the game’s a bit different. The way soccer is played in America is a bit more athletic, the game’s a lot faster. Back home (Oakville, Ontario), the game is a bit more methodical in nature. It’s a bit more based on being patient, but people aren’t nearly as athletic. I think one thing about American players is their desire, their work ethic is second to none. It’s amazing. I’ve been to different countries and people always question what the coach does. Players here, they’re happy to run through a wall for you. So, like I say, the desire, the work ethic, the trust they put in the coach is really amazing.”
You were named the SUNYAC Coach of the Year last year. What did that mean to you, and what led to your success?
“It was a very special season overall. It was a lot of hard work. From the beginning of my time here at Potsdam, we’ve gotten better every single year, and last year we really broke out. The reason for that? It’s a very simple answer. We just have really good players in the program. We have a lot of really talented players who I think can go toe-to-toe with the best players in the conference. I think over the course of the couple seasons before last, we were in a lot of one-goal games and we couldn’t find that way to win. And last year, the team had a lot of confidence and with 10 minutes left in the game or overtime, we had that intangible sense of just knowing that we could do it. Everybody had this belief that when time was running down, we were going to find a way to win the game—and we won so many games late last year and so many games in overtime. That’s just stuff you can’t teach, that comes with experience and just being in tough situations. And it sounds so cliché, but you need to learn how to lose before you learn how to win. Our players went through a grind and through the difficulties of those one-goal losses. But looking back on it, that really taught them what it takes when the chips are down.”
Your dad was a professional soccer player. Can you talk about that and how that inspired you?
“I didn’t see much of his pro career at a young age, I saw kind of the flaming out portion of it, but then I saw him play at a very high amateur level and he was just so talented. You could see how good he was and I wanted to be just like him and I wanted to emulate him. Definitely a situation where I wanted to follow in his footsteps. To hear him talk about his lifestyle as a pro and to hear him talk about how basically his job was soccer, to me, was so motivating. Although I don’t have the same career path as him in terms of playing, I’m still very fortunate to call soccer my daily job. I always say I don’t ever go to work, because I come to work with a smile on my face and do what I love to do every single day of my life. My dad is definitely the catalyst for my love of soccer and when I see him now, and it’s not often anymore because of our busy schedules, but I think my mom and my wife get easily frustrated because it’s just soccer, soccer, soccer, it’s all we talk about. Did you see this game? Did you read about this transfer? Did you read that article about this? What do you think about this new tactical approach? Did you see that free kick? That’s basically all we talk about. Our relationship basically revolves around talking about soccer.”
What are some of the most important values that you try to instill in your players?
“I think the biggest thing for me is loyalty. We’ve been very fortunate that in the last four years in the program to have 100% retention. Everyone who comes into the program, stays in the program. I think loyalty is a big thing. I talk about that a lot. I talk about when you’re a Bear for one season, you become a Bear for life. Speaking in person, speaking face to face with me is so important. For me that’s a really, really important thing. I want players to feel comfortable in my office, feel comfortable coming to talk with me about things that they might think are difficult to speak about—it might be lack of playing time, it might be that they’re struggling in school, but whatever it is, I want them to feel like they can come to me about anything and have that face-to-face chat.”
What are your goals as you look ahead to this season?
“I’m very much a day-to-day kind of guy. When you set goals, sometimes you start to look too far ahead and you don’t see what’s tomorrow. We’re really big on the process, on what we can do right now to make sure we get better now. I think the biggest thing that we talk about is dreams, so I think goals and dreams are different. I want our players to lie in bed at night and close their eyes and see a vision of what we can achieve if we follow the process, so I want them to dream a little bit, but the goal is always to get better today.”
Can you talk about your transition from being a player to being a coach?
“Even when I was a player I always tried to see the game as a chess match. If I make this move, what’s their countermove? I look at soccer as a chess board basically. From a young age, I had a big interest in the tactical and strategic part of the game. As soccer became more ubiquitous on TV now, you can watch the best players, the best coaches, you basically have that access non-stop. So, I can watch a game, and take an idea and learn from something in my free time. When I do it, it’s like an endorphin for me. I have a big, big, interest in the tactical approach to the game, which I think as a coach, that sort of mindset helps me, because I can look at a game or a training session and then see what needs to be fixed. As a player I had that in me, and that made my transition to coaching very simple. The biggest difficulty is you go from worrying about yourself primarily, to worrying about yourself last. It’s about your players being happy first. You go from worrying about just one person to worrying about 30 other people and their happiness, and that’s probably the biggest transition and the biggest challenge.”
What does your last name mean and how is that connected to the SUNY Potsdam Bears?
“Being Polish, every Polish last name means something. The literal translation of my last name is ‘little bear.’ So, obviously being coach for the Bears is written in the stars from the start. It’s a cool thing. It’s not super important, but the affinity I have for this school is stronger because of that tie, obviously. My players actually call me Mish for short, that’s how they refer to me, and Mish actually means ‘teddy bear,’ so unbeknownst to them, they’re calling me ‘teddy bear’ basically.”
Can you talk about how you met your wife?
“I met my wife through family four years ago. From the beginning, she was happy to move up here. She loved Potsdam, loved the area, loved the lifestyle up here. Two years ago, she got a job at St. Lawrence University. Then last year, the same position opened up at SUNY Potsdam and we talked about how great it would be to just drive to work together and carpool. So, she applied and got the job. Even though we’re only four miles away, we carpool every single day and we try and meet for lunch as often as we can. It’s really enjoyable, just driving and being like, ‘Have a great day and I’ll pick you up at four o’clock.’ All of my players really, really have bonded with her and in turn she loves all of my players. She’s happy to make them special avocado frosting brownies or desserts. She really is the Bear’s biggest fan and she’s my biggest fan. She’s so supportive in every way. I couldn’t ask for a better friend and a better person to rely on. She loves Potsdam, she loves the team, she loves athletics and she loves the campus as a whole. She’s been fabulous in every single way and she comes to all our games. She’s our biggest supporter.”
What do you like to do in your free time?
“Soccer, soccer, soccer. I love to play ‘FIFA.’ Actually, the game for the true soccer aficionado is this game called ‘Pro Evolution Soccer,’ PES is the game. God, I spent so many hours of my college life playing that game with my friends. I love to sit back for an hour and turn off mentally and play PES and play FIFA. I love watching games on TV. Luckily, I’ve been able to transition to just watching a game for enjoyment’s sake. I love to read about the history of soccer. I’m a huge soccer trivia buff, I love to know all the stats. My wife and I love being outdoors. We love doing stuff that’s active. We love to go to Ottawa to skate on the canal in the winter and go for walks. With the new place now, we love to go out for swims. So, we’re definitely active lifestyle people.”