Last summer, Tim Davis opened one of his first workshops for University of Virginia athletic coaches with a moment of vulnerability.
On Zoom, he held up a photo of himself in high school lifting the Ohio State Football Championship trophy. “Then I shared what was really going on in my head at that point – which was a shame,” Davis said.
With a score of 0-0 and seven minutes to go, Davis missed a critical shot on goal after a nice pass from a teammate. His coach pulled him out of the game.
“We won in an exciting way with me on the bench,” said Davis, associate professor of public policy at AVU’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “I was more demoralized by this than excited that we won.”
By sharing the experience with the coaches in his class, he was basically telling them, “I’m not going to pose here for you,” Davis said. “I’m going to tell you about the real Tim, and I hope you accept the offer to tell me about the real you, as a coach and as a person.”
A clinical psychologist who studies team leadership and emotional resilience, Davis co-taught a series of four workshops for AVU head coaches and assistants with psychology professor Chris Hulleman in July 2020. The course – facilitated by BattenX, The Batten School’s lifelong learning initiative – focused on motivating student-athletes, and has proven to be so popular that it will teach another focused on emotional resilience in the near future .
Coaches and athletes experience difficulties differently than the average person, Davis noted. “They don’t face the adversity of life or death, but their ups and downs are getting lower and lower,” he explained. “Every year they win either a conference championship or a devastating loss at the end of the season.
“For many of us our ups and downs are a lot less intense and a lot more spread out.”
Whatever their profession, some people react more positively to the lows of life, he added. While it may seem natural to feel exhausted after going through a difficult experience, some people come out stronger. In the context of athletics, Davis’s course explores how these people think.
Through lectures, discussions and evening take-out activities, the coaches in the program learn to meet challenges and use them as opportunities for growth. One particularly important concept the course covered last year, Davis said, was intrinsic motivation: valuing the work you do for yourself. Participants also learned new techniques for communicating feedback and discussed what deep listening looks like both inside and out.
After sharing his state championship experience, Davis was in awe of how the coaches in his class were prepared to be just as vulnerable – and to admit all they had to learn.
“I loved their openness,” he said. “As an elite group of coaches, they have every reason to pose and act like they have it all together. And they do. They are very high level people. But hearing them say, “This is something that I haven’t finished developing” or “I need help in this area”, it was really inspiring.
Todd DeSorbo, head coach of UVA swimming and diving who also will be assistant coach of the U.S. Olympic swim team later this month, said he appreciated the opportunity to receive outside advice last summer.
“My athletes and assistant coaches look to me for advice and suggestions, but no one does for any of us. Nobody coaches head coaches, ”he said. While his technical knowledge of swimming may be a more obvious qualification for his job, effectively leading and motivating his team “is just as, if not more, important,” he said.
Joanna Hardin, head coach of the AVU softball team, said the course’s focus on resilience was particularly relevant to what her players are going through. In the age of screens and social media, everything about playing sports is very public, she said. It can be difficult to maintain a sense of self-worth and see the value of your contributions, no matter what form they take.
Players often find it difficult to see their teammates playing while they themselves spend the game on the bench, for example. “We as coaches know that they are important, but for a youngster of 18, 19 or 20, if he is not in the roster every day, he does not feel important” , she said. “There is also a tension there. We tell them to work hard and be diligent, but at the end of the day it’s your results that get you on the list. Sometimes the very hard working athlete just doesn’t produce enough to get on the pitch.
Davis’s class, she added, helped her think about how to deal with this tension. “It’s important to give some perspective,” she said. “We have to recognize that there will always be people who don’t have to put in as much effort as we do, but still get better results. We have to learn to walk in it and live in it.
This is where intrinsic motivation comes in. “When we can get an all-in player for an activity, just because he’s rich, he’s satisfying – can you imagine a whole team of people motivated at that level? Davis said. “This is how we started the intrinsic motivation: how do you help players want to improve the way they play just because it makes them feel good? “
Hardin said she enjoys working with Davis and has kept in close contact with him over the past year. But the value of the course, she said, lies not only in its expertise, but also in the way it brings together coaches from all sports, from rowing to lacrosse.
“We can easily become siled because our seasons are different and our offices are in different places,” she said. “You may start to believe that something is just a problem in your program. But the reality is that all of our goals are the same, and we all face similar challenges. “
For Davis, these challenges extend far beyond athletics. “I like the very idea of sport as a microcosm for life, because they totally are,” he said.
Although he has never pursued a career in athletics himself, other than a few stints in sports administration, he sees the course as an opportunity to explore how athletics and psychology overlap. “I like being a psychologist and a teacher. Learning to do it with track and field rings all the bells for me, ”he said.
Yet sometimes he wonders what would have happened if he had instead tried to coach professionally. He might still have a chance. Hardin calls her periodically to talk about the daily challenges her team face, and she recently told him that she was looking for an executive coach.
“So I offered him the job,” she laughed. “I don’t know if he will answer.
Hardin said she would jump at the chance to resume Davis’ course when available. “It gives us all a competitive advantage,” she said. “I am really grateful for the opportunity.”