Q&A with Dave Sheets on Building a Championship Program

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Photo Courtesy: Atlantic 10 Conference

By Emily Thirion, Swimming World College Intern.

Dave Sheets has been coaching for the past twenty five years, and this season marks the start of his eighteenth year working at Duquesne University. Sheets has faced many challenges throughout his tenure as head coach, ranging from the University cutting the men’s program in 2010 to working with little scholarship funding and training within a facility that was constructed in 1970. Through all of this, Coach Sheets has maintained that the most challenging aspect of creating a competitive team – establishing an identity.

At this past year’s Atlantic Ten Conference Championship, Sheets was given the Coach of the Year award by his contemporaries after his team won their first conference title. Duquesne upset the reigning Richmond Spiders and ended a seven-year winning streak with a narrow margin of victory: 567 to 558. So where does the Dukes recent success come from? Sheets credits a long history behind its current roster. Swimming World had the opportunity to sit down with Sheets and discuss the components that comprise a high caliber program.

Swimming World: What are some of the foundational traits you have tried to instill in your program from the beginning of your coaching career?

Sheets: I think that your idea of cornerstone traits change as you grow older and become more experienced. I know that what I might have thought to be important in the first ten years of college coaching, I have found is not as valuable to me as what I have discovered through the next eight to ten years of my career. Traits that I value have evolved as I matured as a coach.

SW: This past year you won your first conference title. What does that mean to you?

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Photo Courtesy: Meghan Smith

Sheets: Obviously, to a certain extent, it feels a little bit like a justification for all the hard work we’ve put in. It’s rewarding because you look back and even though you tell yourself throughout your college coaching career, ‘Hey I think we can do this,’ or ‘As a program, we are capable of doing this,’ but until it actually happens, you’re just hoping. It is definitely a vindication of sorts for the things that our program has been through. It is more rewarding than anything else.

SW: What do you think made the 2017-18 team so successful?

Sheets: Last year was something that started about six years ago. Building the identity that we wanted to have as a program got us where we were in the position poised to do as well as we did. It was most certainly a process of finding the right young women who fit who we wanted to be. Step by step throughout recruiting, we said to ourselves: ‘Let’s get bright students. Let’s make sure they buy into what we are trying to accomplish.’ So I think it really took a significant period of time to get us where we were last season.

SW: What do you tell your swimmers on a daily basis to foster the mentality you just described to me?

Sheets: I do not think that there is any one thing that I tell them day-to-day, but I hope that whatever I tell them in the pool daily carries with them into the classroom and beyond this program. I believe that there are different things that we focus on each day, but perseverance is involved every single day. We try to stress the importance of doing your best and being the best you can be. We don’t like to compare ourselves to anyone else. If each of the ladies can focus on being their best, then everything else that we do will fall into place.

SW: We’ve talked about those steps in a process for what you have felt to be a long road to a successful postseason. Looking forward, how do you plan on replicating that success?

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Photo Courtesy: Zac Weiss

Sheets: I think once you’ve set a foundation, in a sense, everything becomes a little bit easier. We have talked about how every year presents unique challenges. Right now, we are going through a period where we are still trying to indoctrinate the freshmen into our program. Our identity and who we are does not boil down to winning championships. It comes down to being successful holistically. If at the end of the season we look back and have grown as a program, winning becomes secondary. Conference championships are just a small part of what we do.

SW: All of that being said, what are you most proud of in your professional career?

Sheets: When we have our alumni meets, the number of swimmers who come back is awesome. Having the chance to be able to see them now as fathers or mothers or as coaches. I think having them come to the realization and recognizing that the values we talked about throughout their collegiate careers as elements of their lives that are important to them is huge to me. When I can see that I helped further their success as human beings, it is rewarding. That is what it means to build a champion.

2 comments

  1. Pat Kennedy

    Congratulations to Coach Sheets and the entire team.

  2. avatar

    Congrat’s Dave, it has been impressive watching the process be executed.