Friday the thirteenth looked to be a horror show for the Arizona State University Sun Devils. They had started the 2013 season with seven three-set wins in a row but now faced a buzz saw with No. 14 Illinois and No. 2 Texas on their plate in a preseason tournament. But a different Jason—sans hockey mask—watched his Sun Devils take Illinois to the limit, dropping a 15-17 fifth set, and coming back hours later to top Texas in straight sets.
The program, which just two years ago had a 9-22 record punctuated with an 11-match losing streak, ended the week ranked in the Top 20 for the first time since 2002.
While reflecting on the 2011 season, head coach Jason Watson said he knew things had to change.
“There was this realization that we couldn’t continue to do what we’d always done thinking we would get a different result,” he said. “As the head coach, that change had to come from me, and it was uncomfortable going out on the limb. It was a pretty big gamble.”
Watson said he started the spring of 2012 with a team meeting where he asked his players: What can I do for you to help you be great?
“Throwing that out there to a group coming off an unsuccessful season, well, they came back with a lot of things and the result [was] I needed to be much, much better,” Watson said of the sobering encounter.
After that meeting, Watson and his staff decided to take a very specific direction.
“One of the shifts we really wanted to make from ’11 to ’12 was this concept of being good ‘to’ and good ‘for’ everybody. I had to be good to and good for my staff, I had to be good to and good for my athletes, and they had to be good to and good for each other. That became a theme that we worked really hard on [between the two seasons].”
Linda Hampton-Keith joined the ASU staff in February of 2011 as an assistant coach. She worked with DI programs and as a USA Volleyball developmental coach for nearly 10 years before linking up with the Sun Devils. She witnessed firsthand what Watson did to revitalize the program and said she was in awe of the turn-around.
“When a season like 2011 happens, it is tough on everyone,” Hampton-Keith said. “What happened in 2012 was a deliberate and well-thought-out shift that occurred. [Watson’s] emphasis on ideas like ‘service to the team’ and ‘being good to and good for each other’ were all relationship-based ideas that became one of several pillars of our current culture.”
Hampton-Keith is confident that this deliberate culture shift led to the team’s ability to be successful.
“We shifted toward being a team that wanted to be great. It didn’t matter who got the credit. When that [shift] occurs, special things start happening.”
Watson and his coaching staff worked hard on the relationships with their athletes, although he readily admits he lost some players because he wasn’t good at strengthening those relationships, initially.
“We’re upset when kids transfer,” he said. “I look at it as a failure.”
However, the new focus on relationships has been successful. Senior libero Stephanie Preach, who has been a part of this culture change, can speak to the positive developments that came from the change. “There’s a much stronger player-coach relationship than when I first got here. We’re extremely close,” she said. “There’s so much more of a family aspect. Now it’s about comfort and trust and belief. The coaches have changed tremendously.”
So what specific steps did Watson take in his coaching methods to turn a losing program around? One of the vehicles Watson and his staff now use is a simple one. When the players get into the gym, the first thing they do is find a coach and give them a high five.
“We acknowledge that they’re in practice, we ask them about their day, and we acknowledge that they did a good job last practice,” Watson said. “I think the cumulative effect of these little tiny things is building the relationships.”
Another new tactic Watson instituted was asking the players to leave their signature on the practice – literally.
“At the beginning of each practice, we sign in. The [players] write their signature on the white board. At the end of practice, they get to decide if they’re going to leave their signature on their performance. It’s not up to us, it’s up to them,” he said. “It’s a little thing, but we want them to be engaged, we want them to be mindful at practice, and we want them to grow and know struggle is good.
“That was a big shift for us. Practice no longer became something we just went to. Practice was now something where we were mindfully engaged.” In his efforts to break down the wall between coach and player, Watson and his staff sign the white board as well.
“There are days when I’m not very good in the gym; I’m going to erase my name from the board,” Watson said. “I thought that kind of idea was another part of tearing down this wall. We’re all in this together, and I have just as much invested in this as [the players] do. If I’m not good, it’s my fault.”
Hampton-Keith said these changes have completely altered the vibe in the practice gym and locker room.
“I would describe what we have now as a culture of service to the team. These small but deliberate changes over time have created a culture that has permeated the entire being of our program,” she said. “The success and progress of this program relies on everyone to give their best and be a part of something that is bigger than themselves. While that sounds simple, it is quite difficult and takes a great deal of mindfulness each and every day. Our athletes are very special people, and I am so impressed at how much they give to our team.”
Watson is the first one to hold himself accountable, a trait he hopes his players will notice.
“[Often] coaches remove themselves from the poor performances. That attitude tends to make me laugh because if that was the case, then why do we have coaches? All you’re doing is rolling out the volleyballs and making sure the nets are up? I thought the idea of, what’s the value of your signature on today’s practice, for all of us, had a really profound effect on the quality of practices and the idea that we’re in this together.”
The Sun Devils pulled themselves up from their 2011 season struggles and posted a 20-13 record in 2012, which included a trip to the NCAA tournament, their first since 2006. And the turnaround continues. ASU currently stands 17-11 after recent 3-0 sweeps of Colorado and Washington State.
Preach feels confident their season will continue to be a winning one.
“I think we have a great chance to go really deep into the tournament, and I know we’re all kind of thinking that too,” she said. “We have trips we’re holding off until volleyball is over because we think we can go really, really far.”
As a mid-week October practice came to an end, Preach approached the white board. She picked up an eraser and wiped her signature from the board.
“I just didn’t feel like I gave 110 percent,” she said. “It wasn’t a bad practice by any means. There were just a couple of things. My serve receive was a little shaky. I feel like I could have contributed more. My team lost one of the drills, so I did not feel like I gave my entire best effort. So I erased my name.”
Watson might not agree with Preach, but he’ll ask her what he can do to help her be better; to be good to her and for her.
Originally published in January 2014