The Importance of Identity for Water Polo

My today’s guest is Mr. James Graham. James is the head coach for the University of Pacific. Stockton, California. James used to be my coach. For all of yous this is just another interview. It’s not… Our today’s interview is all about Water polo, USA. Collegiate and other water polos that we can find within a country like the United States. It’s been more then eleven years since our paths separated. What has changed since with James and with the US Water polo you can find in this interview. So without further ado…

So James, it’s been a while haha. I am really really happy that we ended up doing this interview. Thank you a lot. I really appreciate it. How are you? How have you been? You have been the head coach of the same university for more than a decade now? How does it feel being at the helm of a water polo family for so long?

I have been doing great overall, life always throws you a few curve balls but I have been very happy to be at University of the Pacific for 13 years.  I personally love it here and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to continue to lead these programs. 

Could you tell us, or me haha, as a coach have you changed since our last workouts? What has changed?

I have radically changed.  When you were last here I was a coach that had learned from a number of top coaches in the United States and tried to apply their lessons to my teams.  Since you left I have become a coach that takes that information but questions everything and uses data to inform my decisions on how we do almost everything.  I am a huge believer in analytics and I try to make coaching much more of a science than just an art now.  There are always times you have to trust your gut and maybe go against the numbers but it is always important to make the most informed decisions possible.

You said you are a huge believer in analytics. What data do you collect and analyze and how do you decide what data to collect? Have you ever collected any data and realized later that it is of no use for you, or is there no such thing as a useless data?

We collect data on almost everything and it really depends on the year and team.  We have some data that we consistently collect because of its value in preparation each season but we also have projects that are unique to every year.  We try to ask questions that are key to the current season and from there decide what data is most important to collect to get a better picture of how to proceed.  We collect data on things like player health, contracts, individual game stats, team performance, strategies, scheduling, referees and many other aspects. 

To the second part of your question the answer is yes and no.  To me data is like gold mining.  You have figure out where you want to dig then run some ground from that area and test how much gold is in that that section.  What I have learned is there is always some gold in each batch of data but the question is if it is profitable and worth your time given your resources.  So,yes we have spent lots of time working on some data that produced very little important information (gold) but you always learn something.

How were you able to maintain continuity? In collegiate water polo you have the same player at your disposal for maximum of four seasons. Do you do any scouting? Are you allowed to do any scouting under the NCAA rules?

To me continuity comes from a few areas.  First is having great players, without great players none of this is possible.  So let me give all the credit to them first.  Second is understanding what makes you successful and what you can be the best at in the world.  I try to focus on what we can be the best at and I also try to analyze our success or failures to truly understand what causes them.  This comes from collecting huge amounts of data, asking questions and willingness to be wrong.  Last is have a great staff that tells you the truth but has your back at the same time.  I have been extremely fortunate to work with some amazing people.

We do scout and we have been to Europe many times to watch young players.  We also rely on former player and friends to give us a good idea of who are some of the top players in their areas.

Has anything changed within the NCAA community and structure in the last few years? I have seen that NCAA is either thinking about, or has already allowed student athletes to make some profits via their social media activity. Could you give me and my readers some sort of an up-date on this topic?

Yes, NCAA is allowing some changes for athletes to make money off their name and images.  Like everything in NCAA there are specific rules and regulations to these situations.  Allowing athletes to make money is a big topic in NCAA sports and we will see where it goes.

How has the rise of the social medias affected you as a coach? I remember you being more or less in tune with “whats the happs” of today, and I am pretty sure that the impact that these new platforms had on our daily lives and reality has not taken you by surprise, but how does a coach deal with todays kids and their new gadgets?

Well social media is a big deal and it is one of the most effective tools we have to communicate our story to a large audience.  We try to focus on using it to help us keep in touch with our alumni, assist with fundraising and enhance our recruiting ability.  Much like everything else you need to constantly adapt and innovate if you want to stay at the top of your game.   I personally do not like social media but I spend time everyday having to use it because it is a critical factor in the success of college athletic programs.

I have seen that you have made a few podcast episodes. How did that came about and what came out of it? Is that your way of adapting to this new modern times, or something purely personal what you wanted to get out and see what happens?

I have a weird response to failure.  When I thought we were not playing efficient water polo 2011 I developed water polo analytics and started a business so I could learn and improve.  Last two season I felt that our team identity and culture were not good enough.  So I started a podcast business with a friend of mine called Deep Dive: Conversations with Coaches.  The idea was to discuss important topics for teams and hear some of the best coach’s ideas so that I could learn and improve our identity.  It has been a great journey and I think it has really benefitted myself and my programs.  Check out the podcast if you get a chance.  The episodes are a different style podcast than most sports podcasts.  We have 3-6 guests for each episode and they are from all different sports.  Then we take their interviews and use them to tell a story to create a discussion on a topic for coaches, athletes or fans to think about.  What I think is unique is that many coaches have chosen to have their teams listen to these podcasts and then have a discussion about their own beliefs.  We really try to give different points of view and leave it open to the listen to think about what is important in their program.  There are so many people out there telling you what the “right way” to run a program is and I don’t believe there is one “right way”.  You need to be true to yourself and authentic.  If you are then you will attract people that believe in what you believe in and you can be successful. 

Could you maybe give us the links for your Podcast episodes? I am pretty sure we have a lot of coaches from all over the world reading this and I would advise them to listen a bit to what you had to say 🙂

In the last 10 years you have lead your University to two NCAA Final appearances, and from what I remember you have done it with two different generations. There were a few years apart between those finals. You lost both of them. I watched both of them. How do you now reflect on those moments and experiences? How different, or similar, were the two teams which you lead on those almost championship runs?

Those experiences were both amazing but losing is always difficult.  I honestly don’t spend much time letting loses bother me.  I just want to win so I don’t dwell on the fact we lost, but I do spend an enormous amount of time studying them.  Those teams and situations were very different.  The 2013 team was amazing.  That generation rebuilt Pacific water polo from the ground up and took it to heights few could imagine.  The credit goes to all those athletes.  They had a confidence, work ethic, determination, an accountability and talent you rarely see.  In addition, that year we were competing against some very experienced teams which included 5 time champion USC.  That group will forever be special to me and they taught me so much.  2019 was a great team as well but very different make up.  This group was built to score goals.  They were an extremely talented group as well and made some of the best highlights I have ever seen.  They were a little more fun loving and were their best when playing with that joy.  The 2019 team had to deal with more adversity in that season but handled it very well.  They also taught me some critical lessons that are key to our future success and I am extremely thankful.  We are now using those 2 teams to help guide how we build our next run for a national championship in 2022.  

In order for us two to make this interview there had to be a lot of growth done. A lot of change had to happen for us two to do this interview. As I was watching your last NCAA final I noticed one thing. The game was pretty much decided by the middle of the fourth quarter and then out of nowhere your team plays a man up play that I have seen you play before oh so many years ago haha. The play is called “The Twin Towers” where the last sequence of the man up situation has one post making a pass to another post which then slams it into the imaginary goal line. When I saw that play in the fourth quarter I just had to laugh thinking to myself how some things never change haha. Could you tell me where you as a coach still remained the same? Changing and evolving is important, but are there maybe things that should not change?

This is a great question and the answer to that is you have to stay true to your “Why” and your “identity”.  To me everything is about learning and adapting but I also believe that there are core values that don’t change like integrity, honesty and accountability.  When you don’t have those things the rest doesn’t matter.  So for me I am constantly trying to live up to those 3 words to the best of my ability each day.  

You speak a lot about The Identity. What do you mean by that? What does an identity mean to a team? Do you have a clear identity you want your team to have, or do you focus on the players and their characters and then the identity of the team presents itself with time? Does character create the identity, or does character submit itself to the wanted identity?

Teams always talk about “culture” and I think that is the wrong thing for the team to focus on.  I think the team should focus on their identity.  Culture is something that forms over long periods of time and it is something you can be a part of and leave.  I can fly somewhere and experience a culture for 2 days and leave.  Identity is who you are!  The most important thing for a team is WHO YOU ARE, not what the team has been over the last decade.  Coaches should maintain and think about culture because they are there to watch over a program for a long time.  To me it is the Identity of the team and Culture of the program.  The identity of the team is shaped by the culture of the program (the coaches) but each team is different and you have to embrace the strengths of each group.  It is important that coaches get players that believe in what they believe in and are bought into the shared dream of that program but you also have to get the players to take some ownership for who we are.  For me our identity will always start with Adaptation and Team Cohesion and then the team builds from there.  The podcast goes into these topics and I think that people love buzz words like Family, Trust, Relationships and Culture but I think these are not the right word choices all the time because they create expectation problems.   What trust means to one person may not be the same to another and what having a relationship looks like may be different too.  I have learned this over many years by coaching players from all over the world coming from many different cultures. So when building your identity you must be very clear what you mean and what the expectations are for the group.  Then you have to live that identity everyday because this is who you are.

Your team’s IDENTITY is established and enforced by the kinds of ATTITUDES and ACTIONS your leaders and teammates demonstrate and tolerate as ACCEPTABLE and UNACCEPTABLE in your program every day.

Can a sport also have an identity? Does our sport maybe need a bit of identity, or maybe a bit of character?

I do believe a sport can have an identity and I think water polo clearly does have an identity.  Now is our identity the most successful? That is up for people to discuss but what I would ask is what are the expectations for our sport?  Then do we meet them?  If we do then our identity is useful and strong.  If we don’t then either we have the wrong identity or we are not committed to the identity.  I think it would be useful to ask publicly what our expectations are and how have we done at meeting those expectations.  I think we as a sport need to be more adaptable and innovative for the sport to meet my expectations which is to grow the number of water polo participants and the size of the fan base.  I think we need to think about how do we get people to participate in water polo that have no connection to water polo.  Participate I mean play or be a fan.

Thank you for doing this with me James. Unfortunately we have reached our final question. It’s been a pure delight to do this with you. Wish you, your family and our UOP Tigers all the best in the future endeavors. Do you think that there will ever be time when we will have Professional Water polo, USA and why?

Hopeful answer: Yes,  but realistic answer: no.  I personally believe that water polo across the world needs to think differently and I see changes all the time but they are with the same thinking.  I will leave you with this quote if my hope is to ever come true for water polo both in the US and around the world.  “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein.