BSN Sports Swim Team of the Week: Washington State Cougars

The Washington State Cougars, led by 2nd year head coach Matt Leach, are the focus of this week’s BSN Sports Swim Team of the Week. The Cougars compete in the Pac-12, one of the strongest swimming conferences in the nation, but the team already seems to be trending in the right direction in less than two years since Leach was hired. Last season, they had their first NCAA qualifier in nine years. This season, they’ve performed well during a challenging fall dual meet schedule that included conference foes Cal and Stanford, and they already have three women qualified for this summer’s Olympic Trials.

Asked to describe his coaching philosophy in one sentence, Leach described it as…

My coaching philosophy is very simple as I try to educate, motivate and inspire our family to do extraordinary things in the community, classroom and in the pool.  It might be more than one sentence, but I try to set our expectations to a standard that everyone can achieve if they are truly dedicated to our process of building a championship family culture. 

Leach expounded more on what it means to build a “championship family culture” at Washington State.

When our staff got to WSU, we knew building team chemistry was going to be our primary focus as we began to change this program, this family and the relationships between each student-athlete and each staff member.  We like to refer to our program as our family.  The one aspect that stands out about our team chemistry is that, in just a short amount of time, is that we have created a feeling of family.  The girls hang out outside of the pool, they enjoy team meals together on their own as well as fun team activities together, sometimes with the staff and sometimes without the staff.  Our family dynamic has totally changed in the year and a half we have been here and I know it will continue to grow and develop as we continue to add to our Cougar family each recruiting cycle, each team meeting and with everything we do together.

For Leach and the rest of the Cougar staff, a big part of developing that team chemistry has to do with also helping the athletes develop as future leaders.

We try and empower our family to have REAL relationships with their teammates and coaches, to truly trust that communication, have OPEN communication, and the result will be the strongest piece of family’s growth.  We also have Chris DeSantis to help our student-athletes with the process of emotional regulation and using different strategies to help grow and build our family.  As a program, we don’t have captains, I believe that you need to lead yourself before you can lead others.  It is very challenging to have a title without letting that title empower you to leading the wrong way which I see as a common problem.  I believe you need to lead yourself before you can lead others, and once everyone sees you doing the correct things, in the pool, in the classroom and in the weight room, then they will follow that lead.  We also have a summer reading that we discuss chapter by chapter throughout the season in order to instill proper communication, ideal values and believe in the process. The book we decided to read this past summer and focus on this year is, “Becoming a Great Team Player, How to Positively Impact and Contribute to a Winning Team Culture” by Allistair McCaw.

While the Cougars have had a lot of quick success under Leach, he acknowledges that no matter what the environment, it can be challenging to implement a new culture and process.

My biggest struggle as a coach, no matter what school I have been at, has been the few student-athletes that I have worked with not buying into our family culture and our process, not buying into the idea that “we comes before me”.  Once people start seeing the success of their peers, they tend to buy in, but there have been a couple who stand firm in their beliefs.  Overcoming this process takes time, it takes time for the student-athlete and staff to connect, time to build relationships so we can understand where our program is going but also where each student-athlete fits in. When the process works and everyone in the family is on the same page, great things happen not only in the pool but on the deck. This process can truly transform a program into a family where everyone is a valuable piece of the puzzle.

When asked about his favorite coaching memory, rather than sharing a specific meet or swim, Leach chose to talk about the perseverance of one specific swimmer during an especially challenging time.

I have been very lucky to help a lot of student-athletes reach high levels, but the one memory that stands out the most isn’t a swimmer winning a race or making a qualifying time, it was actually the growth of a student-athlete that I was working with and the tragedy of losing her parent.  I won’t mention her name or which school I was at as I don’t want to have her relive that time of her life.  She came in as someone that I know could improve tremendously and after a long recruiting process, she trusted me to help her grow and become an important part of our program.  As we were getting closer to Thanksgiving Break, her father passed away unexpectedly.  At the time, the staff and myself included, didn’t think she would come back to swim so she could be with her family during the tragic time of her life, and we also told her to stay home and be with family.  Not only did she get through that time of her life, she came back to school and received amazing grades, continued to become a strong contributor in the pool.  That year, she dropped from a 2:09 200Back down to a 2:00 at conference! It was the best moment because I was so proud of this young student-athlete and the trials and tribulations she went through.  I am still VERY proud to this day!

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