Champion’s Mojo Podcast: Todd DeSorbo Talks Relentless Effort and NCAA Title Contending Pressure

todd-desorbo
Photo Courtesy: Sarah D. Davis/theACC.com

Champion’s Mojo Podcast: Todd DeSorbo Talks Relentless Effort and NCAA Title Contending Pressure

The head coach of the University of Virginia’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, Todd DeSorbo has transformed the UVA women’s team into an NCAA championship contender after just three seasons at the helm. Having coached multiple champions and members of Olympic teams, DeSorbo has learned the importance of building relationships and learning as much as possible to ensure the success of everyone around him. He joined the Champion’s Mojo podcast to talk about his use of reckless abandon and relentless effort, as well as the necessity of having fun, in his coaching 

Below is an abridged version of the Todd DeSorbo Interview with Champion’s Mojo Co-Hosts, Kelly Palace and Maria Parker. You can listen at HERE.

Champion’s Mojo: Why are you wearing a NC State shirt in your UVA recruiting video?

Todd DeSorbo: I had a blast when I was at NC State. It was a great experience. I loved working with Braden. We had a lot of fun together. I learned a lot and I wouldn’t change it for the world. When I got there, back in the day, the rivalry used to be UVA and UNC. They used to be the top teams in the conference for years and years and years, long before I was probably even coaching. In the latter few years of my time at NC State, we at NC State changed that to a UVA NC State rivalry because UVA continued to be very good in the conference and at the highest levels. And NC State kind of took over as that big challenger, especially on the men’s side. We became the team to beat. The year before I came to Virginia, the Virginia women had won nine championships in a row. That year they were trying to go for their tenth in a row. That’s a big deal. That was my last year at NC State when our women actually upset Virginia. Then I left and came to UVA. That’s when the rivalry was really born. I think that video was taken the week of our dual meet against NC State. It’s something we used to do at NC State all the time, and I kind of spearheaded this. I would wear a Virginia shirt before we raced them, to get the team hyped and excited. I happened to have a lot of NC State gear because I was there for six years. The video was from one day where I was wearing an NC State shirt to try to get the team pumped up. I knew they were taking a video. 

Champion’s Mojo: Tell us about getting your athletes hyped up?

Todd DeSorbo: I like to get riled up and get hyped up and get excited, and I don’t want to be bored and I don’t want the team to be bored. I think swimming is a sport that’s not like a lot of other team sports, like basketball. They’re exciting and they’re fun and everybody is getting crazy and excited. I try to just incorporate some of that into the swimming world to make it fun. Swimming is hard. We say this all the time, that you don’t play swimming. Anything we can do to make it fun and exciting and different, we’re going to do it. I feel like it kind of started when we got here. Some of the guys our first year just started bringing a massive speaker into the room and then they had a strobe light at their house. They brought that and the music is just blasting. I actually like it because I’m kind of an in-the-moment type of speaker. If I plan stuff too much, it doesn’t usually go really all that well. It works with that situation. The music blasting up until probably one minute before we run out and then they cut the music off and I say like 30 seconds worth of words. I don’t even know what I say at the time. They just go crazy and then they run out. I think it’s really important. If you ask our kids, or if recruits ask our current team, what do you love about swimming here, every one of them will say, we love the hype up room before we go out and race.

Champion’s Mojo: How has the pandemic been for you recently and how has it affected life in general? 

Todd DeSorbo: I’m sure everybody’s lives are turned upside down in the last eight months or so. There were three or four months from March till June where I wasn’t coaching at all. That was totally different. I think I was working more every day than I ever have, without ever stepping foot on the pool. I was just constantly keeping in touch with the team. We were doing Zoom calls with the team and talking one on one with them, turning into motivational coaches more than anything. Trying to keep people motivated, excited, trying to keep them in shape, helping them find pools and dryland equipment. It was a long summer. The kids were able to get back in the pool in June. It was a little bit back to normal, but we weren’t necessarily coaching them at that point. It was just like, hey, here’s a pool and here’s a workout. Go for it. At least in mid-June, we got to start recruiting. That made my life a little bit more normal. I was doing a lot of recruiting and then we didn’t start practice until early September. Things have slowly but surely turned back into somewhat normal, although we’re still swimming limited people per lane and limiting our weight room. It’s still really different, but becoming a little bit more normal. I think at this point, it’s a new normal. So it is normal now, but it’s definitely been a challenge. Personally, I’m home way more than I ever was before because I’m home all day, every day. I go to practice in the morning and then I come home. It’s not because we can’t be in the office, but there’s no reason for me to be in the office. I don’t have any in-person meetings and I don’t have athletes or staff stopping by to meet or chat. I tell the staff if you can get your work done more comfortably from home, not having to wear a mask, then you can stay home. The world is different. My kids are obviously at home doing virtual school. I’m probably wearing a couple of hats every day helping them a little bit, although my wife is taking care of the bulk of that. Life is definitely different now. More challenging. I told our team this year is going to be very challenging, but with challenges there’s more excitement. There’s more entertainment. It’s fun to try to overcome. We have to look at it that way. 

Champion’s Mojo: How are you balancing the fact that the season might not happen?

Todd DeSorbo: I think this is a question that anybody would like to hear. People planning a wedding. People planning a marathon. People planning an Ironman. You’re out there training and preparing and it may or may not happen. I think with the uncertainty of the season, motivation is probably the biggest factor that you have to overcome. Keeping the kids motivated, especially your seniors. For them, if they don’t have an end of the season, then why are they doing all of this right now. Trying to keep the team motivated and excited. We’ve done a lot of things before we were able to start competing, which was late October. We were doing a lot of things in practice. We had intersquad competitions just to spice it up and keep it exciting and different. We’re only swimming once a day. We haven’t done a double this entire year. Normally we swim nine times a week. We haven’t swam twice in a day yet. A lot of the reason was because of the uncertainty. Normally in October, we call it Rocktober, we kill them. We train hard. We’re training a lot. We didn’t do that this year because I’d hate to have to have gone through that then have the season get canceled. We’re definitely progressing as if we are going to have a championship season. Our football coach said it really well at the beginning of the football season before they started having games. They’re going to train. It’s like the military. Being a Navy SEAL, you have to be ready. You may never get the green light. You may never get called on to your mission, but you have to be ready for it. We kind of took that approach as well. You can’t plan for the season not to happen. You have to plan for the season to happen. We’ve been doing that. We’re also trying to balance the mental health side of things. Only swimming once a day, they’re more motivated to give it their all. They’ve been doing a phenomenal job. We’ve had some of the best workouts since I’ve been here. Even if they don’t have quite the motivation that they normally have in the season, I think the motivation is there and they’re doing a good job. It’s been challenging. It’s a different season, so we’re approaching it differently. Even if we do have a championship season it is still going to be different than it normally is. The PAC-12 just started competing. The Big Ten doesn’t compete till after the New Year. It’s just different. We’re approaching it differently. We’ve adjusted to the situation, which I think you have to do. If you don’t, it’s going to be a really long year. The season being canceled early last year was pretty hard on our team, especially the women. I think the reason why it was very difficult for our women was because the talk had been moving towards winning a national championship or putting ourselves in a position to contend for a national title. That was the talk all along, internally and externally, throughout the year. Next year is going to be the year. 2021 is going to be the year we can really win. We’re going to have a lot of great returners. We’re going to have a lot of really good incoming freshmen. We’re going to be set up to win it next year. The expectation wasn’t for us to win one this year or last year. Last February, the confidence was at an all time high. They were excited because now it wasn’t, we can win this next year, it was, we can win it this year. The fact that that got taken away was pretty hard on them, especially because Virginia has never won a national title in swimming diving. Nobody in our conference has ever won a national title in swimming or diving. It would have been a first on all kinds of levels. I think everybody in the country took it pretty hard. Seniors across the country didn’t get their last year of last NCAA Championships. 

Champion’s Mojo: How did you encourage your women after the NCAA’s were cancelled last year? 

Todd DeSorbo: It was all such a whirlwind when everything went down. It all happened within like a three day window. It was like, we had a practice scheduled for 3 o’clock, and I got a call at 2:30. Rather than our practice, we had a team meeting and it was like a 15 or 20 minute meeting. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have much to say at that point other than here’s the situation. It was hard. We probably went weeks before we went back to addressing and thinking about it. It was just, take some time off and get away and we’ll come back to this later. 

Champion’s Mojo: Tell us about your two expressions, All Day and Reckless Abandon. 

Todd DeSorbo: All day was from my first year here and I actually have a huge sign in my office that says all day plastered on the wall. It’s just about carrying yourself like a champion in everything that you do all day. I firmly believed before coming to Virginia that Virginia was a type of program, a type of university, that attracts the type of athletes that can be championship level athletes and can contend for NCAA titles and Olympic berths. I firmly believe that you have to carry yourself like a champion first, in everything that you do, before you can actually become a champion. We have that motto that you act like a champion all day, every day in everything that you do. That’s related to the classroom. That’s related to your training in the pool, in the weight room and the dry land. That’s related to your social life and the community and everything that you do. It’s not about the two hours or the four hours a day you’re with the team. It’s a lot more about the other 20 hours of the day that you’re not with us. What you do when we’re not watching you is significantly more important than what you’re doing while we’re watching you. I can hold you accountable. That’s easy. I can make you work harder. I can motivate you to work hard. But can you continue to be motivated to do those things once you leave the pool? That’s kind of our mentality and motto just broadly for the team. Reckless abandon, was that the other one? Yeah. Those words are actually David Fox’s words. David Fox was an NCAA champion at NC State, a sprinter. He was an Olympic gold medalist. There’s actually two more words that go along with that that I use as well. Relentless effort. He had sent me a text message years and years ago while I was coaching at NC State about one of the individuals on a team that I was coaching. He was like, you just train with reckless abandon. You basically run through a wall. I use that wording a lot with my team as well. Like, I want you to run through a wall for me. I need you to run through a wall for me then get up and do it again and again. That’s the way we practice. We practice with a reckless abandon. I’m a more low volume, high intensity type of coach. The athletes that will perform the best for me are those who will run a run through a wall for me thirty times in a practice and get back and keep doing it. That’s reckless abandon. Just pushing off and not caring about how bad something is going to hurt or that you might throw up at the end of it or being embarrassed because you might die. You just let it go. Just let it go and let it rip. Relentless effort  kind of goes along with it, because usually when I use relentless effort, I also say you start with reckless abandon. If you go with reckless abandon, at some point you’re going to you are going to actually hit a wall and not be able to go. Then you’ve got to have relentless effort to be able to continue through the rest of the practice or the rest of the race or whatever it might be, swimming or life. Those two things kind of go hand in hand. 

Champion’s Mojo: How have you applied Relentless Effort to your career or life? 

Todd DeSorbo: I’m pretty reckless in everything I do. I think I’m a loose cannon. I don’t know how we ended up where we are today or how NC State ended up where they were while I was there, and obviously they’re still doing really well. I look at life just in general and really everything I do and I try to pass this along to our kids, If you just work really hard and you’re also just a good person, good things are going to happen. If you, for the most part, do things that you feel like are the right things to do, then good things are really going to happen. I don’t think you can do one or the other. The nice guy never wins, you have to have to make it happen. 

Champion’s Mojo: What is some advice you’d give on dealing with pressure?

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Photo Courtesy: Sarah D. Davis/theACC.com

Todd DeSorbo: I don’t think about it personally, and I try to not have the athletes think about it as well, although I know that’s really hard. It’s easier said than done. I haven’t been in the situation personally where the pressure is on us, because I’ve always been in the situation were the athletes and I have nothing to lose. I think that’s a fortunate position to be in. I’m hopeful that I won’t always be in that position, because if I’m always in that position, that means I’ve never done anything for the athletes that I’ve coached. At some point, if you start winning national titles and you start putting people in Olympic teams, then I think the pressure is there. The expectations are there. You do have something to lose. I tell our girls that the Stanford women have won three NCAA championships in a row. They’ve got a lot more to lose than we do if we get second. That’s still really good for us and we weren’t necessarily expected to win. Whereas if they get second, it’s not very good for them. That’s kind of the approach that I’ve taken all the way to this point and I’ll continue to take until we get to the point where the targets on our back a little bit more. Maybe other people would say, you’re crazy, you are there. The pressure is on you. The expectation is on you. I don’t feel that way. We’ve got kids who can probably make the Olympic team. We’ve got kids who can win national titles. We have a team that can win a national championship. But their approach right now is they have a chip on their shoulder. They’re just trying to prove things to themselves and work hard and be good people. Maybe my approach will change when we have reached the top. I think it’s hard, but in different ways. It’s hard to get to the top, but I think it’s harder to stay at the top once you’re there. You’re going to get knocked down and you’ve got to figure out how to get back up and regain that. I’m just having fun for now. I don’t have to feel any 

Champion’s Mojo: Do you find any differences between coaching men and women? 

Todd DeSorbo: Women are a lot tougher than the men. Every team I’ve ever been a part of, UNC-Wilmington, NC State and now Virginia, we’ve all trained the men and women are combined. They train at the same time. They train together. They do the same work. I don’t approach coaching very differently with them from a physical perspective. I think from a mental, psychological, motivational perspective, it’s really different. I don’t want to say that the men or women are different. It’s every individual is really different. I could have a guy and a girl that are exactly the same. They’re going to be motivated the same way, but they’re entirely different motivated than these other people. I think that just figuring out your athletes and having a relationship with each athlete individually is going to tell you how you need to coach them and what you need to say to them. There’s an art to coaching. It’s not just about giving them a workout. Presenting the workout has a lot to do with being able to motivate them to work hard during that workout. It motivates them to continue to work hard and think about their swimming career once they leave the pool and go to bed at night. What time are you going to bed? What do you eat and what are you drinking? How are you recovering? All that stuff. I don’t necessarily know that it’s a lot different by gender, but it’s a lot different by individuals, even within the genders. I don’t know that there’s one thing I could say that, well, women are this way and men are this way. It’s just there’s so many different individuals, so many different personalities. Nothing’s cookie cutter. Nothing is a one size fits all. That’s the challenge of it. That’s the fun of it. I’ve got 15 swimmers in my group right now, seven girls and eight guys. They’re all really, really different. What it takes to motivate them, to get them out of a funk, is really different for every person. 

Champion’s Mojo: How do you build relationships in this environment? 

Todd DeSorbo: The recruiting process now lends to that a lot more than it used to, and I think that’s one of the advantages and benefits to this recruiting process. Swimming and diving has been sped up in the last two years. We’re allowed to recruit high school juniors. We can start recruiting them the summer before their junior year. We’ve got commitments already for the class of 2022. They’ve committed here almost two years before they’re actually going to step foot on campus their freshman year. We have two years to build a relationship with them. It used to be you couldn’t start recruiting them until before their senior year. At least for me, that extra year is playing a huge role in having that relationship before our kid, even getting here. Then, once they get here, we can really hit the ground running. Once they’re here and you’re interacting with them, every day is different, but you get a good sense and a good feel about the type of person they are and what motivates them. You can talk to their coaches, so that’s really helpful. This year is really different because previously we can come by the pool 20 minutes early and talk and hangout for 15 minutes after practice. None of that’s happening anymore. We’re minimizing all possible contact. I have Zoom meetings with the team. I think I’ve gone through two cycles of meeting with every individual on the team so far this season. I’ve got my staff meeting with the kids one-on-one. Each coach takes ten people a week. You need to connect with them this week, find out how they’re doing, check in on them, and then send me notes because I need help. I can’t get to 60 kids every week. My staff is an extension of me and they do a really good job. None of this happens without everything else that’s going on. I can’t do it all myself. I’ve got a really good staff that does a fantastic job. They are really good extensions of me. I lean on my assistant coaches to find stuff out for me. 

Champion’s Mojo: Tell us one of your favorite stories from your time as a coach. 

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Simonas Bilis. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Todd DeSorbo: One really sticks out to me and helped me to learn. As I mentioned earlier, coaching is more of an art, right? It’s not about being able to write a workout. I learned that really early on when I was at UNC Wilmington coaching. I think it might have been my first year coaching. I didn’t really have any coaching experience when I started coaching at UNC-Wilmington. I coached a club team for one year and it just happened to fall on my lap that the job opened up and it was just a perfect storm. So I got the job and I was thrown into coaching a sprint group. I never coached sprinters before. I’d never done a sprint workout in my life before. I didn’t know anything. I had one athlete, one female athlete, who I didn’t recruit. She showed up at the same time I showed up. She was a freshman during my first year coaching in college. She was highly talented. She was one of the best. She was probably the best swimmer UNCW had ever gotten on the female side coming out of high school. Within the first month or two, I was coaching her and I yelled at her. I think she took a breath when she wasn’t supposed to be breathing. I wasn’t being harsh or trying to be really mean, but I yelled at her. I got on her pretty bad about taking this breath where she wasn’t supposed to. She stopped. She just stopped, got out, and walked over to me. I’m starting to fume because she’s not doing what I’m supposed to be doing and now she’s getting out. I’m like, what is going on? So she comes over me and she’s like, I really like you but, if you yell at me, that’s going to make things worse. I’m not going to want to do anything. It doesn’t motivate me. I don’t like it. I was pretty young and not not that much older than them, you know. I did not know what to think at that moment and I didn’t know what to say and I was just like OK. I learned from that that you can’t coach everybody the same way. I probably could have yelled at a guy and they would never breathe again, whereas I found out with her, and there’s probably a lot of people like her, that she was just going to shut down and not want to do anything I asked her to do. That was a defining moment for me, just learning how to coach personalities and motivate. Realizing that this isn’t just about giving them a workout. That was big for me. When I was at NC State, another kind of learning moment for me was I was coaching Simonas Bilas, who ended up making the Olympics for Lithuania and swimming in the final of the 50 free in 2016. He was the NC State record holder in several events. He had a really successful career, but he drove me nuts and he knows it. We still talk today. He still is a pro swimmer living in Europe and still doing really good. We talk quite a bit, but he drove me nuts and we butted heads several times a week. It wasn’t about him. He would work hard. He would kind of do what I wanted him to do. He just sometimes didn’t have the attitude. It just really hurt me. We got in like shouting matches on the field. That was one I couldn’t figure out on my own. I actually went to our sports psychologist at NC State and was like, I need to talk to you about this kid. I was so fired up and mad. I was like, this kid gets me so mad in the middle of practice. I realized that it took me away from the other kids in the pool. I had 15 kids I was coaching. I was so mad at him. I wasn’t giving the other kids what they needed. I would kick the entire group out of practice because of this one person, that’s how bad it was. I learned a lot from that. I had one meeting with sports psych and I was like, oh my God, this is like the best thing ever. She kind of taught me how the brain works and why it does those types of things. That was huge too, because I was able to figure out how to not only only not get so mad, but also not take away from the other kids. That was a pretty big defining moment in my career as well, and something I’ve taken forward because kids don’t always do what you want them to do. That’s never going to change. It’s hard to have a great attitude every day and it’s hard to work hard every day. Being able to manage myself as a coach is important as well. 

Champion’s Mojo: You sound so humble in the way you talk.

Todd DeSorbo: I have been successful, I’m proud of my accomplishments of having coached an Olympic gold medalist or an NCAA champion or whatever, but the things I’m most proud of is things like helping somebody overcome something. It’s not necessarily about like helping somebody make the Olympic team or winning an Olympic gold medal was my crowning achievement. To me, it’s these things that nobody ever saw that I’m more proud of having figured out. And it’s not only me, right? It’s the athlete figuring it out, too, and helping them figure it out. Those are the things that are, to me, the coolest. Those are the things that are going to help me ten years from now, but are also going to help them ten years from now or 20 years from now when they’re long done swimming. 

Champion’s Mojo: How did you get into coaching sprinters after having swum distance yourself?

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NC State’s 4th place team in 2016. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Todd DeSorbo: I think that one of the biggest things I can attribute to my success coaching sprint is that I didn’t grow up swimming it. I started coaching sprint because that’s what they needed. They were hiring a sprint coach. I was coaching club and Masters swimmers while working as a CPA. I happened to be in the head coach at UNCW’s office basically telling him what I was doing with my life, and he was like, well, what do you really want to do? I was like, well, I think I want to be a college coach. He said, well, at the end of the season, my spring coach is retiring. If you want, the job is yours. So I did another year of tax consulting and the coaching and all the stuff on the side and, at that end of that year, I quit everything and went to coach college. It just happened to be a sprint job. Coach Dave Allen, who was the head coach, gave me David Marsh’s videos on sprint coaching, and some books on sprinting. I think he gave me some stuff from Dave Salo. I knew I wasn’t them, but I mushed it all together. I said I’m going to take what I like out of all those things and just mesh it with my personality and let’s go. I learned a lot in that first year especially. That’s kind of how I got thrown into being a sprint coach. I think a lot of coaches coach what they swam because they base their coaching on the way they were coached. That’s what they know. I feel like it may hinder them in that it may keep them a little bit closed minded. It may hinder their willingness to learn and do things differently because, hey, this worked for me. It’s going to work for them, which is not the case. Especially twenty years later when you’re dealing with people are different now than they were twenty years ago. I think that the fact that I wasn’t a sprinter and didn’t do sprint practices and wasn’t coached by a sprint coach, I had to learn it all and I had to figure things out myself and I had to experiment with things. I’m still learning. I’m definitely still learning. I’m definitely still experimenting. I think that that’s been beneficial because you evolve with the times, right? I think I hope to never be considered an old school coach. That’s one of my goals. I don’t want to be ever considered old school. I don’t necessarily need to be considered new school or innovative or anything like that, but I’d like to try to stay up with the times at some level. 

Champion’s Mojo: Thank you so much for being on the show Todd and best of luck with everything!

Todd DeSorbo: This was great! Thank you for having me!

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