A dive into how a team’s culture is curated and its correlation to success.


Sports teams at Upper Arlington are well-accustomed to their rigorous schedules by the time the preseason comes to an end; many teams are lifting and practicing all week in preparation for games and matches. All the work that teams put in during the preseason does not go unnoticed in competition; however, neither does the way the players interact with each other.

For teams in Upper Arlington, preseason is riddled with bonding activities, retreats held by captains and lots of getting to know other players. Coaches are busy corralling their players together to create a strong team morale and chemistry. With 19 state championships girls water polo is one of UA’s most successful sports teams. The team reflects on the challenges and triumphs of sustaining a healthy team culture.

Leading Legacy

Co-captains Emmy Campbell and Violet Houser are two of the three newly named varsity girls water polo captains. Faced with the challenge of getting incoming freshmen and returning players to seamlessly work together in the water, the new captains look to past role models for inspiration on how to bond the team together to maximize success.

“I’ve actually been really thinking about the seniors I looked up to when I was a freshman, and knowing that whenever I was going through something I could always look up to them and talk to them,” Houser said.

Campbell and Houser feel that past leaders in the water led by example, and stress the importance of doing the same.

“As a senior, if you’re not doing what is supposed to be done, it sets a bad tone for the rest of the practice or week or game,” Campbell said. “So I think leading by example is a big thing for me.”

Like many other Upper Arlington High School teams, girls water polo organizes team events to give the team a chance to bond and form strong relationships with each other. Players spend time around breakfast tables, bonfires, and scavenger hunt maps as a way of bringing the team closer together
during the preseason.

Aside from team bondings and big team get-togethers, the co-captains find that it’s the day-to-day activities that bring a team closer.

“Things like carpooling into practice with an upperclassman who can drive or going to get food after practice,” Campbell said. “I think that those little things help our culture and build a relationship for the team.”

The team traditions and bonding don’t stop when it’s game day. Girls water polo has their fair share of pre-game rituals that get everyone hyped up and ready to play together.

“We started to have dance circles and just listen to music and sing as a team,” Campbell said. “Things like that help us be positive and have more fun.”

Bond and Balance

Whether it’s stress, exhaustion, or a lack of confidence, many student-athletes struggle with mental health. These issues affect not only a player’s competition performance, but also their academic performance. Due to the competitive and time consuming nature of high school sports, a negative team environment can often result in burnt-out players and team struggles overall.

“Having a positive environment is the biggest thing you can do for your team,” Houser said.

Coaches have a massive impact on the environment teams learn and compete in. The structure of a program’s training and practice schedules have a remarkable influence on the health of a team. Balancing the physical and mental needs of a team is a prime role coaches hold in leading a team to success.

“[Our coach] helps us to have a really good balance between when we need to be working hard or when we need to focus, and when we’re allowed to have fun and goof off,” Campbell said. “Having that balance helps.”

Teams try to bond as much in practice as they do out of practice. It’s difficult to create time for players to connect during practice, but the girls water polo team has it down to a science.

“When we condition we won’t just constantly swim or practice,” Campbell said. “Sometimes we’ll do relays and some of us will be out of the water cheering for our teammates.”

“It also helps because it incorporates team bonding while we’re going through the hard conditioning,” Houser added.

Along with her perfectly balanced practices coach Ashley Neri has a way of making sure her players minds are also perfectly balanced.

“[Our coach] has a really good understanding of mental health,” Houser said. “She’s been doing a really good job of noticing when our team energy has changed and pulling people aside [or] talking to the whole team to change what needs to change. Even if that means skipping a practice or letting the team
have a practice off to get back in there.”

Positive Pool Deck

Although she is still early in her career, girls’ water polo head coach Ashley Neri highlights the importance of focusing on culture as a coach.

“I think it’s the pinnacle of being a successful team. If you don’t have a good team culture, you have a lot of clashes. You don’t play very well together,” Neri explained. “I think the better your team culture is the more success you have. Obviously hard work plays into that, but I think it’s a huge part of your success as a team.”

Coaches set the overall tone and energy of a team during practice and competitions. Intentional leadership has a big effect on the mindset of a team and their trust in each other.

“I’ve had coaches before, when I played in college or in high school, or all different kinds of levels where when the coach would walk on the deck, their attitude or their presence about them would dictate how everything was gonna go,” Neri reflected. “If I come to the deck with a positive attitude or trying to encourage people, that will trickle over into things.”

Neri believes it’s also a player’s responsibility to impact the team’s dynamic.

“I think it’s very important to hold athletes accountable, and athletes hold other athletes accountable to that same atmosphere,” Neri said.

One of the most important ways to maintain an already successful program is communicating standards and goals.

With a sport like water polo, most players join the sport in the fall of their freshman year, making it crucial to establish a strong program foundation early.

Before the season begins, Neri takes time to explain her goals for the season and expectations of the players.

“We stand for hard work, dedication, encouragement, positivity, just a lot of different things,” she said. “That’s the expectation before they even start is, hey this is what we stand for. This is what we’re gonna hold you to, and if we don’t see those then we’ll have a talk or athletes will talk with each other about creating that positive environment.”

Establishing standards and beliefs early on helps develop an encouraging atmosphere throughout the season. Girls water polo has developed a unique roster by having all players dress for every match.

One of the team’s goals for the season is to have each JV and varsity player score during a varsity game. With the opportunity for the entire program to be supportive to each other, players have more opportunities to learn and grow during the season.

“We encourage our varsity to cheer our junior varsity on and educate them on the benches about how to play,” Neri explained.

Dominant Dynasty

Both coaches and Captains come and go. Part of their job is to leave a legacy that lasts. As arguably the most successful high school sport in Upper Arlington history, girls water polo is a program full of gold and glory, leaving its mark on the school throughout the years.

In an attempt to continue the coaching dynasty her father began, Coach Neri incorporates his philosophies into her coaching, expanding his impact as a coach and continuing his legacy.

“He always said, you want to be remembered for how you made athletes turn out into people, not necessarily your wins. You want to be someone who makes a positive impact on someone and leaves a positive legacy. So I try to do that as much as possible,” Neri said.

When the season eventually comes to an end, and the girls water polo captains must say goodbye, they leave a legacy and a bit of advice for future Golden Bears:

“Don’t hesitate to talk to people,” Houser said. “I can guarantee if you’re going through something, one of your teammates has already gone through it.”