While casual sports fans may know the University of Virginia primarily for the Cavaliers winning the most recent NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship, swim fans know that the UVA swim team has been one of the hottest teams in college swimming over the past few seasons.
The Cavaliers (also known as the Wahoos) dominated the ACC for the better part of a decade, and they’ve had plenty of success at the NCAA level too, success that’s continuing under head coach Todd DeSorbo, who’s entering his 3rd season leading the Cavaliers.
BSN Sports Team Ambassador Jessica Hardy spoke with DeSorbo to get his thoughts on coaching in general, but also on what makes this UVA squad so special.
When asked to describe his coaching philosophy in one sentence, DeSorbo responded by saying “To Teach and Learn.” However, he was able to elaborate at length as to what exactly what that sentence means to him.
My goal is not to Coach, but to Teach, to help athletes understand at a higher level what it means to be “ELITE”, to “Respect the Sport”, to “Respect and Honor their Teammates”, “ to be a good person”. My pillars are to 1) WORK HARD and Honor your Peers with your Effort (this goes for athletes and staff), 2) HAVE FUN in every aspect of life, if you can work hard and have fun at the same time the results will be enhanced, and 3) BE A GOOD PERSON, which is obviously a great life lesson. From the learning aspect, I always intend to continue to learn and grow as a professional and as a person. I learn every day through interactions with past, present, and future athletes, through day to day interactions with our staff as well as mentors I’ve been fortunate enough to build relationships with, and maybe most importantly my personal family (wife and kids). I’ll be the first to say that I’m not perfect and I’ve got A LOT to learn both about Coaching and Life, but that’s what’s exciting. If I knew everything, I’d be bored! And that’s the last thing I want, to be bored!
If you’ve ever seen Virginia swim the past two years, you know immediately that the coaching staff brings a ton of energy to the deck, an energy that the whole team shows, even at dual meets. According to the DeSorbo, the positive team chemistry boils down to a very simple concept:
FTH: For The Hoos. The team embraces that motto as they compete for one another, for the common goal, they support each other like brothers and sisters, would do anything for each. They live together, have fantastic comradery and are best friends, so when they get to the pool, they push each other to be the best they can be. They embody what it means to be a TEAM. They honor each other with their work ethic. It shows every day. The athletes in our program have a sense of pride attached to be student-athletes at the University of Virginia, and that pride courses through the team and into the pool each day.
That team chemistry and emphasis on something bigger than the individual is also reflected in how the coaching staff seeks to help develop the athletes to be future leaders.
We emphasize to our entire team that everyone can be a leader, regardless of title or year in school. There are many different ways to lead, setting a good example, work ethic, attitude, the way you treat people, being a good teammate, doing well in school, etc. Our goal is to have every individual on the team contributing in some manner. We do our best to education our student athletes on making good choices and how those choices impact the team, their teammates, and themselves. We are planning to implement a leadership development program in the fall to help education all, including Coaches, on best practices, how to handle situations, and how to contribute to a positive and growth mindset culture. The hope is that the student-athletes in our program impact and influence each other in a positive manner and that coaches and athletes alike can be mentors to each other as we can all learn from each other, the door certainly swings both ways.
When asked about his biggest struggle as a coach, DeSorbo’s initial answer was something that probably every swim coach can identify with.
Paperwork, I dislike paperwork.
Seriously though, there isn’t too much that I struggle with. I’ve got a fantastic staff, a fantastic team, and fantastic support from the athletic department. It makes for a great experience for me and thus the team. My goal is to have each student-athlete become the most elite version of themselves possible. This is relative to their goals, both academically and athletically, and also to the team’s goals. There is a balancing act that has to be accomplished to do this, it takes a commitment to excellence both in the classroom and in the pool. It takes a bit of sacrifice on the part of the student-athletes. It also takes an understanding and flexibility from the coaching staff. Achieving this harmonious environment and relationship at an academic institution as highly regarding at UVA is challenging, but is also the most rewarding.
Before coming to UVA, DeSorbo was on staff at NC State as it had a meteoric rise. As the sprint coach there, DeSorbo got to help NC State’s Ryan Held to a largely unexpected berth on the 2016 USA Olympic team, something that DeSorbo ranked as his favorite coaching memory thus far.
If I had to pick I’d say that Ryan Held making the US Olympic team in 2016 was memorable for a lot of reasons. 1) Ryan was the first athlete that I have worked with to make the US Olympic Team, 2) THE PROCESS: the development process and time spent with Ryan in the 2 years leading into Trials in 2016 were pretty systematic and unfolded perfectly, 3) the 2-3 days beginning with prelims of the 100 free, moving to semi-finals, then to the final and the actual act of accomplishing the goal of finishing 3rd to qualify for the team, and the ensuing “madness” that happens after you make the Olympic Team I’ll never forget, and 4) being in Rio and sharing with his family the experience of winning an olympic gold medal. Just an enjoyable ride from 2014-2016, enjoying the process, and watching it come to fruition.
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