7 Winning Philosophies From UC Davis Coaches

A softball coach, right, talking to a batter in a helmet
On the UC Davis home page: Head softball coach Erin Thorpe says 70 percent of her job is being a psychologist to her team. Wayne Tilcock/photo

Winning, losing, success, failure: All issues that UC Davis students face. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that our student-athletes are also struggling with these challenges, but they get help from UC Davis’ ultimate life coaches. Read how our athletic mentors’ wisdom might apply to your life.

Pete Motekaitis, assistant women’s swim coach

Swim coach Pete Motekaitis talks with a female swimmer at a pool
Coach Pete Motekaitis advises a member from the women’s swim team. Mark Honbo/UC Davis photo

Coach Motekaitis has mentored many swimmers in his career, including alumnus Scott Weltz at the 2012 Olympics. He’s also been handing out advice as UC Davis’ head men’s coach and women’s assistant coach, and as coach for the Davis Senior High School swim team and the Davis Aquamonsters youth program. 

The philosophies at all levels are the same. Take away the word “swim” in the fourth bullet, and you have a foundation that anyone could subscribe to, athlete or otherwise. Here is my list about the similar goals for Olympians and UC Davis swimmers.

  • Be process focused
  • Plan for repeatable excellence
  • You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing
  • Swim for the brand
  • Great performances are based upon a foundation of hidden supporters
  • Surround yourself with “great people”
  • Be a lifelong learner
  • Change parameters — challenge the why, who, when, where and how
  • Have fun and be totally in the moment

Twila Kaufman, head women’s soccer coach

Soccer coach Twila Kaufman talking to her team of female players
In coaching women’s soccer, Coach Twila Kaufman helps her players balance their lives by connecting sports to life analogies. Wayne Tilcock/photo

Coach Kaufman knows how to help student-athletes succeed on and off the soccer field; the same strategies that have fueled her program’s drastic turnaround also apply to her players’ academic and personal lives.

1.  When you are squeezed, what you are truly made of will come out 

“We constantly encourage our players to improve themselves as players and individuals when they face challenges on the field or off. When you are squeezed, your true character will show itself. Sometimes we may not execute to the desired level, but when we play a tough opponent, whatever we cover and how we practice will show results in those situations.” 

2. The Law of the Farm

“The Law of the Farm” is based on hard work. We plant seeds, prepare the soil, water the ground, protect the garden from insects, cut back vegetation and add fertilizer, but we cannot control when the vines bear fruit. This is a scary thing that can make us feel uncomfortable, having to wait on the one element we cannot directly control. We just need to have confidence that if we tend to every step correctly along the way, the fruit will show in due time. 

3. This year’s ceiling, next year’s floor

Whatever ceiling the senior class members hit at the end of their career, we need to celebrate them since that level was reached through hard work and not chance. The following year, we want to make sure that the ceiling becomes the floor for the next graduating class. That is how the program will grow. We want to focus our energy on the growth of our program over time, since it is a process.

Eric Steidlmayer, head men’s tennis coach

Tennis coach Eric Steidmayer talking to two players in the foreground
Playing tennis is about learning to deal with failure and success, says Coach Eric Steidlmayer. Wayne Tilcock/photo

Coach Steidlmayer was no stranger to UC Davis when he assumed the men’s tennis coach job in July of 2012. He had earned his master’s degree here in 1998, while his brother, Luke, was an outstanding right-handed pitcher for the Aggies. Steidlmayer’s program went from just six wins in the spring before his arrival, to 14 in 2014, to 16 in 2015. He captured Big West Conference Coach of the Year accolades last spring after guiding the Aggies to their first-ever league championship.

In every endeavor to be really good at something, the margins and differences are so small. The difference between being good, really good, great and fantastic is all smaller. Our students need to realize with hard work — whether it be at your job, your hobby, or whatever — you’re going to be able to gain that advantage, improve and be really great at whatever you’re doing.

I think the No. 1 one thing athletics helps is to teach students how to learn to deal with failure and success. You know you’re not going to get too high after a win; you’re not going to get too low after a loss; you’re going to realize that both are going to happen. Both are expected. What we’re going to do is continue to go forward and get better long-term. 

Second, is time management. When you have 20-plus hours a week as an athlete — when you’re expected to be ‘on’ and ready to go — then you learn how to be ‘on’ and more ready to go in other aspects of your life as well.

John Lavallee, head gymnastics coach

Coach John LaVallee talking to his gymnastics team
Athletics teaches leadership to students, says gymnastics coach John LaVallee. Mark Honbo/UC Davis photo

Long before his arrival at UC Davis in 2007 or his previous assistant coaching tenure at Yale, the Aggie women’s gymnastics coach was an All-American gymnast at Springfield College. Although the Massachusetts-based school may best be known for the invention of basketball, its second claim to fame is the triangle in its seal representing “spirit, mind and body.” 

From the time they come in as freshmen, grow and develop, and then graduate as seniors, our students see how organizational goals and objectives work. They have a chance to see it from below, then from above in leadership positions. I think that experience helps them grow into their desired professions. 

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a student-athlete who was going into medicine. She didn’t like to speak a lot to the team. She was a very proficient gymnast, maybe our most proficient ever.

We were having an intense conversation, and I told her, “If you feel that way, you need to tell the team.” She said, “Oh I can’t do that.” So I said, “Here’s the thing: In a couple of years from now, you’ll be a doctor. You will be in a room with a bunch of people, working with a patient, and you need to be able to give them directives. They will look to you for that. You’re in the same situation right now. You’re a senior and one of our best performers. Your opinion matters.” 

Hopefully, that experience will come back to her down the road. I’ve had many student-athletes who have gone on to discover that their experiences here were invaluable in their jobs.

Erin Thorpe, head softball coach

A softball coach, right, talking to a batter in a helmet
Building trust and strong relationships is a recipe for handling stress in a safe environment, according to softball coach Erin Thorpe. Wayne Tilcock/photo

Coach Thorpe says 70 percent of her job is being a psychologist to her team: Helping players find solutions to challenges and obstacles both on and off the diamond will help them relax, manage what elements they can directly control and succeed in any environment. That’s how Thorpe built a program from scratch at Boise State, and is shaping UC Davis’ program today.

My staff and I spend an extensive amount of time teaching the players techniques and strategies to help them manage stress and anxiety. By investing the amount of time needed to develop strong relationships with everyone, it’s that much easier to trust each other when challenges arise. 

Our staff also teaches players how to study more effectively, better manage their time and responsibilities. This strengthens the relationships coaches have with every player, which encourages players to help one another out when needed. 

By creating a safe environment where student-athletes can reach out to others for help with situations pertaining to softball, academics or their personal lives, players know that their mental, physical and emotional health is something that is important to everyone in the program. 

Most of the time, millions of other people experience the same challenges, frustrations and stress that student-athletes feel, yet those individuals often feel as if they are on an island. This is why it is important to built trust, create strong relationships and create a safe environment that allows you to further develop your interpersonal skills and handle stressful, or challenging situations accordingly.

Jim Les, head men’s basketball coach

Basketball coach Jim Les talking to his team on the court
Coach Jim Les believes that teammates help each other and become family. Wayne Tilcock

Within four years, Coach Les turned one of the Big West Conference’s newest teams into one of the most well-respected programs in the nation. UC Davis earned its first Big West Conference championship and inaugural Division I postseason appearance last year. Whether in the community, classroom or on the basketball court, men’s basketball student-athletes apply the same principles to help others, and themselves, succeed, says Les.

Trust, integrity, respect and communication are the foundation of relationships that are built between coaches, players and staff members. These relationships will help anyone weather all the types of challenges they will face during the season, off the court or throughout one’s career.

This is why we invest a lot of time and energy focused on the relationships this program has: player-coach, coach-player, player-player and coach-coach. The character of the people in your family are the reason why everyone can successfully deal with challenges faced individually, or collectively as a team.

If that that foundation is strong, you can work through or conquer anything.

Dan Conners, head volleyball coach 

Volleyball coach Dan Conners talking to his team on the court
Feedback that’s honest and direct is important in sports and in business, says volleyball coach Dan Conners. Wayne Tilcock/photo

Now in his second season at the helm of UC Davis women’s volleyball, Conners considers his student-athletes members of a “board of directors” — a group that will shape the vision of his program. As such, the communication between player and coach is strong. Each practice ends with staff and student-athletes gathering in a large oval —surrounding that invisible board-room table — asking questions and providing input as equals. 

At the end of our practices, we give our players an opportunity to give feedback. It’s an important skill to be able to be honest, direct and straightforward, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s something we preach here. You have to be able to communicate directly and not be judged. At the beginning of the season, people are trying to be nice and trying not to offend when they say something. Maybe they try to stay too positive instead of talking directly.

I want my players to know how valuable the culture of any team is, whether an athletic team or a team in business. The functions of that culture can lead to great things or it can lead to destruction. If they can understand which direction to go and to use this time in college as a learning experience, they’ll understand how communication can lead to changing their team culture.

I’m a volleyball coach. If I sit down and think about it, just coaching volleyball is not very rewarding. It doesn’t contribute to society in any profound way. But if I help people grow and think for themselves, then there’s a sense of satisfaction to what I do.

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