Building and Sustaining a Championship Culture by Gregg Parini, Denison University (2013)


by Joel Shinofield]

Hello, I am Joel Shinofield; I am the Executive Director of the College Swimming Coaches Association [CSCAA], and John Leonard has been gracious enough to allow us to run a track here for college coaches this afternoon.  And our next speaker is Gregg Parini.  Gregg is a 9-time CSCAA Coach of the Year.  He coaches both the men and women at Denison, where he has won 3 national championships, I believe 10 runner-up finishes, and between the two programs 50 top-10 national finishes at the Division III national meet.  But more than that, Gregg is someone who prepares his athletes not only for what they do in the pool and their championship competitions, both their conference championships and NCAAs, but also for life.  These are people who are absolutely devoted to him, they know that they can rely on him; he has given them everything he can and they give him everything that they can.  And just a tremendous performance and we are going to learn a little bit more about what he does to inspire that in his program.




[Parini begins]

Thank you, Joel.  That was a nice welcome.  It is nice to be here; it is my first trip to New Orleans, and I was humbled to be asked to speak today.  I remember when Joel approached me about the topic of what it takes to build a championship culture, I was a little intimidated, honestly, by the topic.  Because I do not think it is… it is an ongoing process, and I am not sure it is anything where there is… and I know there is no finish line in this process.  And that is why I put-up the Building and Sustaining a Championship Culture, because it is more than just getting to a point, it is getting to a point and then building on it from there and


I am going to give you a little bit of background of where we started Denison.  I am starting my 27th year at Denison.  When I have arrived at Denison, back in the Summer of 1987, I had a four-year plan, and then I would be out of there.  But, you know, twenty-seven years later, here I am.  I thought it would be… I thought I could take a program and do a quick-fix and turn it around really, really quickly; and I would have the problem solved and I could move-onto the next thing.  I had no, I think, understanding as a young coach just how involved it was to try to shift a program that had been perpetual underdogs and underachievers.  And it is one of the things I got into and I just could not walk away from it, because I just felt like it was kind of… while it might have been mission impossible, it was never mission achieved.  And so….


Just to give you some reflections on where we are at.  You know, I am going to talk about a championship team culture, not a championship individual culture.  I also coach Ice Hockey, at the high school-level, and this has been more a function of me staying in-touch with my six boys.  We all know how busy we are.  Our six children have all played ice hockey, and this is my way of staying connected with my kids.  So after 12-hour/14-hour day at the pool, I head-over to the ice rink and get on the ice rink for another hour-and-half to two hours, just so I had a few quality hours with them.  Nothing like coaching your own kids to really humble you.


But I have always been drawn to Ice Hockey because I think in many ways it is the consummate team sport.  And, you know, Swimming is often accused of being an individual sport, and I have never understood that.  Because I think just because we do not pass a puck back-and-forth, it does not disqualify us from being a team.


But I have always believed that it is much more challenging, much more daunting, to build a championship team than it is to develop a championship swimmer.  Because of that the human dynamic, because all the various personalities and the vicissitudes that come along with the development model; and trying to integrate so many different individuals in such a dynamic time, especially in college.  I mean, I really look at those four years in college as a terrifically dynamic time because you are taking these virtual strangers from all four corners of the country, and sometimes abroad, who have had various backgrounds and histories, and you are bring them onto campus and you are trying to meld them into a cohesive, high-functioning team.


I was an Age Group coach and a high school coach prior to becoming a college coach, and I remember one of the things that I enjoyed as a high school and club coach is that there was a certain commonality among the kids’ experiences coming-out of our community.  I was in East Lansing, Michigan, and East Lansing is an upper-middle-class suburb of the state capital.  And while there was certain demographic strata within the community, all those kids basically had very much the same kind of an experience.


Well college swimming is very different from that.  While you have kids who may come out of very similar socioeconomic backgrounds, they are coming from very different cultural backgrounds and different parts of the country.  They have had very different swimming experiences, different coaching experiences, different interactions with their coaches, various amounts of success, different approaches. So I think that the challenges associated with college coaching can be really pretty daunting sometimes, but it is a challenge that I really welcome.  So I stick by this.


I go into every year thinking how are we ever going to get this group of people on the same page.  And I always look to Herb Brooks, back in the 1980 US Hockey team, and what a magnificent job of a bridge-building that he did among real disparate and some really unique personalities and dynamics on that team.  It has always been a model of inspiration for me to watch that.


As I inferred earlier, I came into a program at Denison that was very moderately successful.  I do not think, in the history of college swimming, any team had ever finished second place more than a Denison University Swimming team.  When I arrived in 1987, Denison had finished second place at their conference meet… it was something in the order of 26 out of 27 straight years; the other year they finished third.  They had never won a championship.  They had never won a championship of any kind, whether it was conference meet, a relay meet, let alone a national championship.


They were sitting in the shadow of this goliath know as Kenyon College—my alma mater.  And sat in that shadow and had to deal with their presence and their success in a very real way, because Denison’s and Kenyon’s campuses are only 25 miles apart.  And in many ways they are sister colleges.  It is much like tobacco row in the college basketball thing with Duke and North Carolina: they are so close in proximity that you cannot escape the others presence.


And Denison, frankly, had a bridesmaid mentality when I arrived there.  They just… you know, I had never… I mean, it was interesting.  I was sitting down with that first team that I had, and I said, “So what are the goals this year?  What inspires you to comeback and swim this year?”  And they said: We’re gunning for second place.  And we started talking about that, and what was interesting was how locked-in they were of being a second-place team.  They were not even giving themselves a chance; they were not even open to the idea of winning.  They had just basically given-up prior-to even going, simply because that was the legacy, that was the history, that was the culture, that they had experienced.  Second place was all that they could achieve.


I had never seen such an ingrained mindset from such a young group of people who were supposed to be open-minded and hopeful and optimistic about their futures.  These were young men and young women who aspire to become doctors and lawyers and make a difference in the world; they saw the value and the meaning of going to a place like Denison; a place of higher education, liberal arts traditions.  But when it came to their Swimming, their world was about that big: it was the size of a matchbox.  They could not move outside those really clearly-defined boundaries.  And to no fault of Kenyon College, or Jim Steen who was the coach there, Kenyon and Jim did everything they possibly could to keep us in that box.  They certainly were not going to invite us to go outside that box.


So I had a real challenge getting Denison to really shift the mindset, and it was probably more daunting, more challenging than I possibly could.  And I remember I had a very fortuitous conversation with Mark Schubert—this was when Mark was back at USC.  And we happened to be sitting-up in the stands at C.T. Branin Natatorium watching the Ohio high school State meet; and he was recruiting a young lady out of Worthington High School by the name of Sherry White.  And I had never met Mark Schubert, but I was sitting next to him and I was in a particularly impish mood. And I knew he was there watching Sherry White because her name was highlighted on the heat sheet.


And I just turned to him and I said, “You are Coach Schubert, right?”  And he is like yeah.  And I said, “Well, I’m Gregg Parini from Denison, and I am really sorry that you are not going to get Sherry White because she told me last night she’s coming to Denison.”  And he looked at me with this shocked look on his face, and it was a good icebreaker for us.  And I think she ended up going there; I do not know how well it panned-out for her.  But anyway.


I remember Mark… it was a good icebreaker and we had a conversation.  We started talking about team dynamics little bit.  And, you know, Mark had had so much success in so many different places at that point.  But he told me, he said, “Now, listen, you guys are non-scholarship.  It is going to take you at least seven years to shift the culture on your team from a second-place mentality to a championship mentality.”  He said, “If you were D-1 with scholarships, I would say probably it could happen in half that time.”  But without scholarships, I was looking at probably closer to seven years.  Well as it turned out, it was a lot longer than even that, because, again, it was how ingrained our kids’ thinking was at Denison.


So the challenge for me was: how can I get these kids to start embracing something different; something different than just being the perennial doormat in our conference, let alone nationals.  So I sat down and we did a lot of thinking within the coaches and I talk to as many good people as I possibly could who had had a lot of success, not only in Swimming but in a lot of different sports.  And the one thing that I kept hearing about is that: do not plan for short-term success; what you want to do is set your goals for long, sustainable success.  And that when push-comes-to-shove always make decisions in the long-term best interest of your swim team and program.  Do not compromise long-term success for short-term gain, especially if it means compromising on your principles and the things that are most important to you.  And this message came through people in education and through businesses and things like that.  So basically: think big, but think long-term.  Okay.  Think big but think long-term.


And make sure that your program’s goals are in-line with the university’s goals.  Now I come-out of the liberal arts tradition were personal growth and those types of things are really emphasized, and so I had to make sure that it was not a win-at-all-cost sort of situation.  We had to make sure that we are taking a swimmer/individual-development approach, while we are also trying to develop a team championship.


So I remember, we are trying to chip-away at this mindset that we are only good at second place; we can only be as good as second place.  So, to kind of cut to the chase, I presented them an invitation to greatness.  And this kind of summarizes it.  And basically I told them, I said: Do you understand that all of us are invited to greatness.  And one of the fundamental questions I started asking my swimmers was this, I said:  What are your goals?


Let’s say I am talking to a 100 butterflier.  Olivia Zaleski is a really good example of this.  Olivia Zaleski came to us as a 1:01 100-yard backstroker. She ended up being a two-time national champion for us.  Olivia was 5’2”.  I said, “Olivia, what is a really fast 100 backstroke for you or for anybody?”  She goes: I think the girls are going 54s or 55s 100 backstroke; that’s really fast.  And then I presented her something; I said, “Olivia, do you understand that the girls who are going 55s in the 100 backstroke right now at one point in their career were going 1:01, just like you are right now.  Something’s allowed them to build a bridge between that 1:01 to the 55.”  And she looked at me, and you know, you could see the wheels starting to turn a little bit.


Then the most important question I think I could her was this: “Why not you?  What’s holding you back from building that same bridge to those same kind of times?”  And I remember her looking at me and she said: Do you think that is possible?  And I said, “Well, yeah, I do.  Is it probable?  Well, maybe not.  But I do think it is possible.”  I said, “If those girls who are going 55s at one point were going 1:01s, what’s preventing you from doing the exact same thing?”  She said Nothing, but me.  I said, “Let’s get started with that; let’s start on that.”  I said, “Those girls were able to build a bridge from 1:01 to 55.  I’m guessing that you can build that same bridge, but is probably going to look a little different than those other girls.  And you are going have to be willing to embrace the differences here.  That your path is unique, but you’re still capable.”


And that is a frequent question that… I was asking all of our swimmers that question.  That is a fundamental question in our goal setting, and it started 20-some years ago.  The idea was to plant the seed of greatness in their minds; do some seriously-epic shit.  Think big; think really, really big; do not hold yourself back. Okay?  But I also gave them a good dose of reality; they understand that this going to take an awful lot of work.


My feeling was if I could plant the seed individually and did it enough for them, if I threw the seed out to enough people, eventually I could start getting enough individuals to start thinking big, that maybe I could get the team to start thinking big.  To use the parable that you find in The Bible: a sower went out to sow, and threw some seed on good soil and some fell on rock.  The key was: do I have enough kids with good soil where that stuff will take root?  Dream big, but understand there is going to be an awful lot of work here.  Okay?


There is a learning curve here.  Now, I am encapsulating 20+ years of work in just a few frames here.  But to give you some sense as to where we were, there was a learning curve here.  And when I got to Denison, we were down there at the bottom where it says I suck.  And you can turn that into a we suck, a very collective “we suck”.  And I would say after about five years, six years, we got up to I’m perfectly average: we are growing, we are making progress.  And then probably by year 15, we hit the I kick ass stage.  And it has just been in the last few years where I think our kids have kind of lost their minds a little bit, and looking at themselves a little bit differently, to the point where it was like, okay, I am epic.  I am epic.


But as coaches, we have got to plant that seed of greatness in all our kids’ minds, but we also have to plant that seed of greatness in our team’s minds.  We have to invite them to the possibilities, but then we also have to give them a good plan to get there.  The point behind that we had to teach these kids how to learn… with basically, they had to learn how to excel.  They had to learn how to perform, they had to learn how to perform under pressure, and they had to learn how to win.


Now, that learning to win thing, when you are like, 0 and 99 against the big purple people up in Gambier, Ohio, that idea of winning is tough.  Because you have got to remember: we did not win dual meets, we did not win relay meets, we very rarely won a race; our kids would give-up the last ten yards of race simply because they expected to lose—you could see it.  And we never won a championship.


So my plan was: all right, let us first become relevant.  Let us become relevant competitors.  I wanted our kids to start thinking of themselves as: you don’t suck anymore, you’re average; but average sometimes beats good.  You are relevant in this race, you are relevant in the team race.  And then from relevant, we wanted to be competitive.  The transition was: we suck, we are relevant, we are competitive, and the fourth stage is we will be champions.  But we had to go from bad to good, from good to great, from great to epic.  But the goal was to go from… just to become relevant at first; part of the conversation.  Part of the conversation nationally, part of the conversation at conference, part of the conversation at dual meets, part of the conversation at a relay meet.


So our plan initially was: let us see if we can go out and win a relay meet.  So my first few years, in terms of getting these kids to start thinking themselves a little bit more seriously, our goal, one of our major goals of the season, was to beat Kenyon at a relay meet.  Did not care about the rest of the season, let us just beat them once.  Let us beat them in a meet where we know they are going to be really, really tired.  Let us just go and just get it inside of our kids that maybe we can win a race.  Next thing we know is we won like three or four relay meets in a row.


I said, “Okay, let’s take them on at a dual meets now.  Let’s amp up, see if we can take them on in dual meet.”  Next thing you know, we start winning some dual meets.  And then the third stage was: let’s win a conference meet.  And then we won like three or four conference meets in a row.  And it is not any accident that then finally the men went out and won a national championship.


They were not going to go from never having won a relay meet to winning a national title; it was too big a gap for them.  You know, it is an old adage: How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  We had to spoon-feed this to them so that they would start believing in themselves.  It was certainly a stair-step.  We were not going to go from I suck to I’m mythical in one year; it does not happen like that.  Our teams have cultures, our teams have mindsets.  And even though we may change 25%-30% of the personal year-to-year, that mindset still is sitting in that locker room.  That self-talk that we talk to individual swimmers about is a same thing that plagues our teams.  The self-talk of teams is just as damaging as the self-talk of an individual.  Are you addressing it?


Teri McKeever, I think, is a genius at dealing with team self-talk.  Teri is one of the great team builders, ever.  She has a way of getting teams to see themselves in the different kind of light; that is Terry’s real gift.  And it is something that we need to emulate and model.  She does things that are unique to her program that I could never do: I am not the kind of guys who is going to write the little notes and put them in their locker, that is just not me.  But there are ways to get to the same issue without writing little notes, okay.


You have got to find your own way to get there.  But the point is that we have got to deal with the self-talk.  And we have got to understand that that culture goes from year to year to year; those legacies pass-on from one class to the next.


So our goal was to raise the bar with baby steps.  And what I basically was trying to do is, I was trying to get these kids to embrace excellence in every facet of their lives.  And for me—and this is actually a paraphrase of the quote by Pat Riley, the great L.A. Lakers basketball coach and now I think the general manager of the Miami Heat—excellence is the gradual result of always striving to be better.  Okay.


So we started setting some really, almost… we started talking about ideal goals, we started talking about where are we setting the bar.  And we talked about setting the bar extremely high, not only in terms of how we were going to swim but how we are going to behave on the quad, in the dorms, how we were going to achieve in the classroom.  We wanted excellence to be pervasive in everything that we did—everything.  And so that was a key thing.


So we were talking about developing an integrated lifestyle and the pursuit of excellence with this in mind.  I got this from Todd Clark, who is a coach out at Fox Chapel and a dear friend of mine.  And I remember he told me this once, in passing conversation some twenty-some years ago, and it stuck with me to this day: The quality of our swimming reflects the quality of life we lead outside the pool.  Which means: if your kids are making the right decision socially and making the right decisions academically, their swimming is going to go really, really well.


At a place like Denison were it gets screwed-up is when kids put swimming first above making good decisions socially and academically.  Our kids get in trouble, our kids fail, when they get it backwards: when swimming becomes too much of the priority at the expense of other things.  But we are talking about making sure that everything is integrated; that our academics and our social decisions are feeding our swimming program.


I can tell you right now, we had some really-good success stories last year at Nationals, we had some not-so-good success stories.  The not-so-good success stories at Nationals last year were a function of decision-making that was going on outside the pool; I can tell you that flat out.  Our kids were compromising what they are trying to do, they were playing both ends against the middle.  It did not work.  Okay.


So in terms of practices and what we are doing inside and outside the pool, we set daily performance standards and challenges.  And one of the things that we do is we post everything: we post all results on bulletin boards in the locker room.  And we create a competitive atmosphere; you know, everybody is ranked on our team on everything.  It might be anything from flexibility parameters or range-of-motion parameters to how many pull-ups you can do, to let us say a set of 50 freestyles that we just did from a dive on 2:00 to GPAs to social records.  Everybody is evaluated and we are extremely public about it within the team—we are extremely public about it.  Everybody on our team knows what everybody else is doing.  Okay?  We will talk little bit more about that.


We are heavy in the day-to-day competition.  Those of you who were at the college coaches meeting down in Orlando, Sam Freas was showing some… was anybody in the room when they were slapping each other and beating each other up with that?  I was; Sam slapped me.  But one of the things that Sam likes to do is Sam like to instigate fights between his swimmers, and he has like slap fights and wrestling matches and things like that—it is a little bit nuts.  But the whole… I get where Sam is going because Sam is all into competition, and Sam is trying to get into that primordial soup that drives all of us.


So we do a lot of mano-a-mano… we have call-out challenges in the middle of practice.  The team has permission to call anybody out in the middle of practice, and practice will stop and we will get-up and race.  If somebody in say Lane 1 does not think somebody in Lane 5 is doing very good on a set, there will be a call-out.  They just stand-up, get-up on the blocks and say call-out.  And then they point at the guy/gal and say right now.  Practice stops, set stops, two get-up there and they race.  And there is no penalty if you get beat, except that your whole team knows you just got smoked.


We create a very competitive environment in our practices.  And there are call-outs all the time: there are callouts before practices, middle of practices, and after practices.  We have call-outs on the quad.  Patrick Lombardi, who is not one of our more successful swimmers, loves to call guys out on pull-ups.  And there is a tree in our quad that is really good for pull-ups, and if he sees a teammate walking by—might have a backpack on—he say okay, call-out.  They will do pull-ups right in the middle of the quad: who can do most the pull-ups.  It is very, very competitive on the team.


We pride ourselves on honest feedback, on behavior and performance.  But while we are doing that, it is a tough-love model, we have unconditional support of the student-athlete, okay.  We can be really critical of behavior and performance, but we make sure that we are never attacking the person.  We are never criticizing the person; we are talking about the behavior or the performance.  We have a model where we always work from strength, but we are also willing to expose weaknesses in practices.  We recognize success, we acknowledge failure.


And this is a key piece: we build camaraderie through shared challenges, defeats and successes.  I will purposely set practices up where they will fail; I set the team up to fail in practice, as a group.  Shared trauma, shared disappointment, shared failure, shared successes are all part of this game.  And we are trying to build that strong piece of camaraderie in that.


So that is a little bit of the model and a little bit of the attitude, the direction, we are trying to take this.  And I want talk a little bit more about leadership development within this.  It might sound like… it sounds very tyrannical and this sounds like boy that coach is an ogre and I have been called Genghis Khan before—there are lot of other things I have been called to.


But the reason this is working is because the kids have bought-into it.  They believe in it, they follow it, they embrace it, they love it, they… just drink this stuff up.  And the reason it is working is that it resonates with them.  They at some level recognize they have this need, and that we have to get these needs met if we are going to get to where we want to go.  Remember where we started: we started at the bottom, we could not win anything.  We are trying to find that competitive edge.  And I think we are there more often than we are not now; we still slip from it.


But I want to talk about leadership and how we communicate with our athletes, because this is the model that I think is really, really important.  And I am drawing… Certain Trumpets is actually the name of a book written by [Garry] Wills.  And it is a dated book; it is probably from the late 1980s—I forget exactly.  But what Wills did is, Wills did a historical study on leadership going back to ancient Greece and Rome.  And what he was trying to figure-out is why do some leaders rise to the top while other leaders fall down?  And the reason is because the leaders who are successful are the people who can send a message that resonates with their audience, with their constituents.  It is not that they necessarily have the best message, but the message that they have is connecting with the people there.  And what Wills contents is that nobody ever takes power, unless they are a tyrant; but the best systems are where the followers give the power to the leader.


And so we talk about this: successful leaders do not just trumpet or sound their own certain message but instead they sound a specific call to others who are capable of following them.  That is the key message.  Are your swimmers capable of following your call?  Are they hearing you?  And are they interested in what you are selling?  Successful leaders need to understand their followers more than the followers need to understand them.  The best leaders historically are the people who listen best and understand what their constituents and the people underneath in need.  The best coaches are the ones who listen best.


This goes back to Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People.  The people who succeed are the people who listen.  We address that a lot, you know: you have got two ears and one mouth, that means you should be listening twice as much as you talk.  That kind of gets to the point.  But the question is: are we really listening, are we paying attention to the needs of our swimmer.


I felt, at Denison, our biggest need was confidence; we need a confidence at Denison.  We had talent, oh my g… we had talent, we had talent, we had talent.  We had no confidence.  I watched really-talented swimmers give-up in the middle of the race simply because they thought we were supposed to lose.  Why?  Because that is what Denison swimmers do.  Put them up against any other team in the country, they will win.  Put them up against really-good Washington and Lee teams, they would win.  Put them up against Kenyon, they would fold.


You probably experienced some of that before.  I know I did, as a swimmer.  There were certain teams, certain… you know, I would swim really, really good against a Wright State; put me up against Ohio State, it was completely different game.  You know, I did not even want to come out of the locker room against the Buckeyes—just let me stay in there and be comfortable.  But you have to understand what your swimmers need and what the bigger dynamic are.  So the key is: what song are you playing and is it resonating with your athletes?


So go back to the first three words on the third sentence: capable of following.  So the question becomes: who can follow.  Who is going to listen to this message of mine?  Who is this going to resonate with?  So it gets down to what qualities am I going to be looking for in my swimmers.  Well at a place like Denison, you have got have strong academics; you know, we were an academically-centered place.  I was looking for kids with a really-strong Swimming commitment, okay.  Not many of the kids at Denison have world-class talent; I have only had one swimmer make the Olympic Games.  I have had one kid final at US Open, I had a couple kids at Trials, but that is about it.  Out of 27 years, I have two kids make it to what I would consider “elite level”.  The rest of them are pretty-darn mortal.


So I cannot expect them to have a world-class talent, but I cannot expect they may have world-class work ethic.  If you come to my program, you are going to have to work hard.  And we are really up-front with all of our recruits; I mean, we are not shy about it: we work hard in our programs.  Sprint, middle distance, distance, prima donnas, divas, red-headed step-children: they all work really, really hard; they all have got to work hard.


You also got to have a team-first attitude.  Okay.  We believe in team.  The team goals supersede any individual goals.  I remember years ago, I had to make a decision.  We were recruiting one of the top female breaststrokers out of state of Ohio.  We needed a breaststroker desperately—desperately.  And we are talking to this person who was really-fast, would have come in and made a huge impact on our program, probably have been highly-competitive as a freshman at D-3 Nationals—would have been a big plus for us.


And I remember going to the Ohio high school State meet to watch her swim.  And I remember getting there early, because I wanted to watch her swim her 50 breaststroke in the 200 Medley Relay, and she was not on it.  And I remember after the meet, call her up… she did really well in her 100—I am not going to give too much information because I do not want you to figure out who it is.  But she did really, really well in the 100 Breaststroke.  I called her up to congratulate her after, and said, “Hey, what happened to the 200 Medley Relay?  You know, your team was in the hunt.  If you were on that relay, your might have won.”  She goes: I just felt like it might tire me out for the 100 breaststroke[whistle]  Last time I ever talked to her.


Interestingly enough, we were recruiting another young lady who was about three seconds behind her in the 100 Breaststroke coming out of high school, who was not real-high on our list initially.  But I remember talking to her and I said, “So why do you swim?  She goes: I love the team; my favorite event is the 200 Medley Relay.  I want that one; I want the one who wants to be on the relay.


Interestingly enough, I tracked both of these two.  The one girl came, the one who liked the relays, came to Denison and did really, really well.  She is a name within Division III Swimming.  The other one went tier-two Division I, got the scholarship, went off the…. The girl who came to Denison out-swam her.  It took her two or three years to catch-up, but she ended-up doing it.  And had a lot more fun, probably, and was on relays and did really, really well.  I wanted that team-first kind of kid though.


We are also… you know, we are really clear: we are looking for kids who can score at championships.  And then the last criteria that I have amongst our kids is: would I let them date my kids.  I think this gets down to it. Mike Krzyzewski has that criteria among his recruits: would I invite this guy over to my house for dinner?  Nobody would ever want to come to my house for dinner with six boys.  But, but, the question is would I let them date my kid or would I let them date my niece?  And if I would let any of my recruits date my kid, they are probably a pretty good-egg because I am very protective kind of dad.  So that for me is kind of the ultimate litmus test.


But this is the criteria that we end-up looking for.  These are the kids I feel like can follow my program.  These are the kids who can follow my message and who the message will resonate with them.  Okay.


Anybody familiar with Derek Sivers?  I think that is how you pronounce it: SEE-vers. Derek Sivers a couple years ago posted this brilliant—I think it is absolutely brilliant—thing on TED.  (Ted TV is what they call it?  Ted TV, I like Ted TV.  I have got a son named Ted, we like Ted TV at our house.)  But anyway, he has got a line, and we are going to play, I am going to show you this video, because I think it underscores everything that we are trying to do at Denison.  But he had this wonderful quote in this thing: The first follower transforms the lone nut into a leader.  Okay?  So we are going to play this video, and then we will talk a little bit about it.


(Joel is helping me queue this up, so, if… hopefully.)  And this is just brilliant.  I watch this almost every day.  And if it is redundant for you guys, I am sorry.  (Can you hear it?  Oh, hang on, okay.)



So ladies and gentlemen at TED we talk a lot about leadership and how to make a movement.  So let’s watch a movement happen, start-to-finish in under three minutes, and dissect some lessons from it.  First, of course you know, a leader needs the guts to stand out and be ridiculed.  But what he’s doing is so easy to follow.  So here’s his first follower with a crucial role: he’s going to show everyone else how to follow. 


Now notice that the leader embraces him as an equal.  So now it is not about the leader anymore; it is about them, plural.  Now there he is calling to his friends.  Now if you notice that the first follower is actually an underestimated form of leadership in itself.  Takes guts to stand out like that.  The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.  [laughter/applause]


And here comes a second follower.  Now it is not a lone nut, it is not two nuts; three, it is a crowd and a crowd is news.  So a movement must be public.  It is important to show not just the leader, but the followers.  Because you find that new followers emulate the followers, not the leader.  Now, here come two more people, and immediately after, three more people.  Now we have got momentum; this is the tipping point: now we’ve got a movement. 


So… notice that as more people join in, it’s less risky.  So those that were sitting on the fence before, now have no reason not to.  They won’t stand out, they won’t be ridiculed, but they will be part of the in-crowd if they hurry.  So, over the next minute you’ll see all of those that prefer to stick with the crowd because eventually they would be ridiculed for not joining in.  And that is how you make a movement. 


But let’s recap some lessons from this.  So first, if you are the type, like the shirtless dancing guy, that is standing alone, remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, so it is clearly about the movement, not you.  Okay.  But we might have missed the real lesson here.  The biggest lesson, if you noticed.  Did you catch it?  Is that leadership is over-glorified.  That, yes, it was the shirtless guy who was first, and he’ll get all the credit.  But it was really the first follower that transformed the lone nut into a leader. 


So as we are told that we should all be leaders, that would be really ineffective.  If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow.  And when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand-up and join in. 


And what a perfect place to do that, at TED.  Thanks.



I love that.  I think that the key thing here is… the question for us as coaches: Who is your first follower on your team?  And Are they buying-in?  Have they bought in?  And what are the risks associated with your first follower not buying-in.  And that is why it is so important that we decide who we are selling this to.  You have got to know who you are talking to and you have got to find the right person to follow.


And I mean… I go back… I grew-up in the Judeo-Christian traditions, and I remember… you know, if you look at the disciple, you have Jesus and who was the great disciple among Jesus?  It is Peter, because he was the first one to name him as the Messiah.  But somebody has to be the first; you need the first follower.  The first follower gives the leader the power; the power lies in the follower, not in the head.


And this is where I think a lot of coaches… and I have gotten in trouble in years-past when I became the focus and not the following.  I think most coaches, when they put their ego in front of the team and it has got to be coach-centered rather than player-centered, that is when we start to get in to trouble.  That is when we start… you may have a good year, you may even have a couple of good years; but sustained success comes by empowering the followers and the followers empowering your message.  So you have got to make sure your message is good, but you have also got to make sure you got a great audience on this one.


Now it is interesting, I have got a son who is a lieutenant in the Army—he is an officer in the Army.  And I showed him this video when he was home recently, and he goes, that is the Army model.  Now that does not… I remember growing-up with all sorts of pre-conceptions of what the Army is about, and that was the last thing I expected to hear from an officer.  Because you have this, you get this sense of a chain of command and hierarchy.


A number years ago, there was a book written—and I have got a list of suggested books that I will share with you.  But there is the United States leadership development manual [The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual] that is available on Amazon and it was written by Army generals, about the U.S. Army model of leadership development.  And rather than top-down, which all of us think is how the Army works; that is not how it works: the U.S. Army builds leadership from the bottom-up.


Because they work in, let us face it, some pretty heavy situations, right?  And their thinking is: if the lieutenant is in-charge, at any moment that lieutenant may go down and the next person behind him has to be able to step-into that leadership role.  So they are constantly building leaders from the bottom-up; not from the top down, the bottom-up.  They expect everybody to have to lead at some point.  When my son was going through Ranger training, they exposed every single candidate to a leadership moment.  Not with the idea that we are going to weed-you-out/call-you-out, but we want you to develop the skills in case you are called in the moment to lead.  This is an Army model.


And it is interesting, there was an outside group that did a long-term study of all the organizations, all the businesses, all the industries, in the world looking for leadership development models.  They looked at the financial world, the manufacturing world; they looked at governments and everything like that.  The best model for leadership development, they concluded—this is independent—came out of the United States Army: bottom-up.  Everybody matters in the United States Army.


In our program everybody matters too.  Our success is dependent on everybody, especially the weakest swimmer.  That message resonates throughout the entire practice.  That is why we have call-outs.  A lot of time the person called-out is not the greatest swimmer but the weakest swimmer, because that weakest swimmer is going to be depended-on at some point.  Everybody contributes.


And the one thing that we underscore, especially as we are trying to develop this integrated culture of success, is that our daily choices—our choices on the quad, our choices in the classroom, our choices in the pool—are examples of leadership.  That following is the greatest form of leadership.  And then, when you… and so our freshman on our team are encouraged to follow.  In fact, our upperclassmen are showing them how to follow: what does it mean to be a Denison swimmer on this campus?  And that example is set with our captains.  Our captains are our first leaders; our seniors are our first leaders.


So if we have picked the right people, if we have encouraged the right people to come and maybe discourage the wrong people from coming to our program, what we end up with is a really strong consensus of values and goals.  We have got the right people on the bus.  I am remember Joel a number of years ago giving a presentation—I cannot remember where it was—but you were talking about getting the right people on the bus.  You have got to have the right people in your program.  The people that can hear your tone.


You know, not everybody… I came to the conclusion a long time ago that not every swimmer is fit to be a Denison.  Because I would be a lousy coach for them; I would be an awful coach from them; it would be a bad situation for them.  You have got to kind of sort that piece out, okay.  The right people will share our goals, embrace our vision, and share our values.


As I point out earlier: this is an ongoing process.  I often feel like Sisyphus.  You know, you push the rock up to the top of the hill; you think: I have made it!  Turn your back, the damn thing rolls right behind you, God I’ve got to start all over again.  Just when you think you crossed the finish line, you realize: there’s no finish line in this one.  There is absolutely no finish line in this process; you never reach the mountaintop.  And if you are there, it does not last very long.  And if you… I think if you stay on the mountaintop, then you are fooling yourself.  Because you are either, I think, hallucinating—because it is not really there—or somebody is going to knock you off—really, really fast.


But this obviously is a very humbling game.  It is a nonstop process.  I think it goes back to that, that constant pressure.


I share a story with my swimmers: I read an interview with Bill Gates on an airplane.  I was flying back from Europe, and it was… I cannot remember what, I think I was flying on El Al.  I was coming back from Israel, and there was an article, an interview, with Bill Gates.  And it was one of the better interviews I have ever read of Bill Gates.  I am really curious, you know: what makes this guy tick?  And the question was: Mr. Gates, what’s the first thing that you think of every morning when you wake up?


Now I had to turn the page to get to the answer, so I wanted to be… I wonder what the answer is?  So I wrote down three possibilities, and I was wrong on all three.  Anybody want to guess what he said?  Got to go to the bathroom, no, it was not that.  It might have been in his head.  No. It was: who is catching up to me today?  Now that is a pretty heavy place to live.  But then again, Bill Gates is kind of a heavy guy: he has kind of been successful, he has done pretty darn well.


And I am not sure that is where I want live.  But, honestly, if you are going to excel at anything, you have to be, at some level, kind of obsessed with it.  Especially if you want to do it well and do it well for a long, long time.  We have had some great… you know.


And I think I take a lot of solace in knowing that someone like John Wooden took a long time to win his first national championship at UCLA.  I think he coached for like 13-14 years before he ever won… 17 years before ever won his first one.  You know, Jim Steen won a lot of national titles at Kenyon, but it took him a long time before he won his first one.  It took me a long time.  And I just think if you are diligent enough, resilient enough, resourceful enough, then I think—in creating the right culture—that the great stuff can really, really happen.


Challenges that were dealing at Denison right now; things that I struggle with and I would welcome your input on this because I deal with this all the time.  You know, when you are trying to assess character versus talent: where do you draw-the-line when it comes to sacrificing character just because you have got… for some superior talent.  You have got this great swimmer that walks through your door and says, I really want to swim but, you know, not really wanting to give this stuff up either.  You know, these are challenges I wrestle with every day, is where do you draw that line?  Where do you draw-the-line on character issues versus talent issues?


And I have made the mistake where I have been seduced by the talent at the expense of character, and it is always come back to haunt me.  It never works out; you know, it just never seems to work out.


And I love this [picture].  That is actually a guy pushing a wheelbarrow over Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  That picture… that is as good picture as I could get.  I just love that picture though.  I mean, I do not know why would you do that, but he is a naked guy on the hill.  Anyway, not many guys follow that though; I think it is the only picture I could find.


And then honestly, I think the other question I struggle with the lot right now is, you know… and I do not know how many of you on college campuses or even really within your communities deal with this.  You know, I think Swimming demands a certain discipline, a certain work ethic, that I am not sure it is always characteristic of their larger peer group.  I think at times, within our team, we are developing a subculture that swims against the stream of the larger college campuses.  I mean, my own children in high school felt this.  You know, here they are, there are these really disciplined hockey players.  They are getting-up at five o’clock in the morning to go to hockey practice, then they are skating again… the Hockey lifestyle is much like Swimming.  And meanwhile, their friends are living completely different lifestyles.


How do you manage that?  How do you deal with that?  How do you talk to your athletes about the fact that they are going to be living a different lifestyle, a different priority, than most of their peer group?  I think in a lot of ways, it is getting harder to do that.  For all the reasons that we talk about, you know: technology and media and texting—all that sort of stuff.


We are trying to create self-reliant young men and young women.  I was talking to a sports psychologist from Duke University—this summer I think it was—who shared with me, the question was: how many times does the average college student contact their parents a day?  Anyone want to venture a guess?  Fourteen.  And we are trying to create self-reliant, independent young adults, and they are connecting with mom and dad 14 times a day.  That is a whole another variable in the equation.  Tough stuff; these are things that I will sleep over at night.


So, anyway, the last thing I want to… these are some books that I have drawn really good stuff off of:

  • Certain Trumpets by [Garry] Wells,
  • The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual by the Center of Army Leadership,
  • Good to Great by [Jim] Collins,
  • A Passion for Excellence, [Thomas] Peters and [Nancy] Austin,
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People, [Dale] Carnegie.

Which is… just basically all these books kind of encapsulate this.


The last thing, here is my contact information; my e-mail did not show up very well.  If anybody wants this presentation, I will be happy to send it to you—just e-mail me and I will just send you the PowerPoint.  I am happy to dialogue about this.  I mean, I have got more questions and answers; but I am always happy… I love sharing.


Any questions?  I really appreciate your attention—you listen better than my kids.  Thanks.


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