Here you will find the extended Q&A Interview from People+Sport Magazine Issue 3 with Matt Thurmond, Head Golf Coach at the University of Washington.
How did you get into coaching? Why did it initially appeal to you?
Matt Thurmond: Up to and through college my only focus was to be a pro golfer. When my college career ended my coach asked me to stay on the following year as his Assistant Coach. I decided to do it because I wasn’t quite ready to go out on my own. I was dating who is now my wife, and coaching intrigued me. Within months I knew that coaching would be it. I quickly lost interest in the long time periods of practice on my own game and constantly was thinking about my players and how all I wanted to do was help them. I realize coaching is what I was meant to do all along. I’ve always loved sports, performance, and leadership. My dad had me reading books by and about influential coaches like John Wooden, Bobby Knight, and Pat Riley as early as 6th grade.
What gets you most excited about your role as a coach?
Matt Thurmond: As someone who loves change and variety and new challenges, I most enjoy the constant variable environment. While there is a certain cycle each year, each day brings new opportunities and challenges. In coaching there is just never an end point or a specific finish. You can always do something to improve each of your players, your program, your facilities, your communication, your own training etc. It’s completely inexhaustible so I never get bored. I literally start every day excited for what is ahead and love seeing growth in my players and in our program.
Beyond coaching technical skill, what else do you see yourself providing as a coach?
Matt Thurmond: I’ve always felt I need to be the biggest fan of each of my guys. I’ve found that when I truly enjoy and respect the player my coaching is really good. So I like to be a friend, brother, and huge fan. That connects us in a special way, builds a high level of trust and allows me to make a singular impact in those special moments when a big learning opportunity presents itself.
Who has been your mentor or biggest supporter?
Matt Thurmond: That’s really tough because there are so many. My Dad has had a big impact by instilling passion and vision in me. My wife is the most amazing supporter ever and allows me to invest all of myself to my team and players without feeling guilty about it. O.D. Vincent hired me at Washington and really taught me how to run a program and remains a close confidant. I have past Assistant Coaches (Jon Reehoorn, Garrett Clegg, Dan Potter) who I talked with very often about all things coaching and life. Certain past players of mine like James Lepp and Nick Taylor have been big mentors to me as well, even though I’m supposed to be their mentor. There are many more people than those listed, whom have all taken an interest in me and helped me along the way.
What you are most proud of?
Matt Thurmond: I’m most proud that nearly every one of my past players and their parents would choose to come to Washington and play in our program again. They have a good experience here and leave happy. I really enjoy the winning too, but deep down I’m most proud of the overall experience our student-athletes enjoy here.
Where there any particular challenges that helped define where you are now?
Matt Thurmond: I’ve always believed that there are a few key moments, experiences, or influences in everyone’s life that explain everything about them. There are certain salient moments in our life that draw out our strengths and weaknesses in a way that culminates in our character and personality. My family went through a very difficult time when I was in grades 9-12 and I had to rise to the occasion, carry a burden, and develop maturity at an early age. That difficult experience taught me so much about the strength we all have inside of us, the power of choosing one’s own thoughts, the importance of empathy and seeing things from another perspective. I wouldn’t be who I am today without that extremely challenging experience.
A period that stands out was when I chose to go on a church mission when I was 19-years-old. I went to South America where I had to learn a new language, share something that only a small percentage of people wanted to hear, and learn to survive on my own in a tough place far away from all I knew. It was amazingly difficult, but also shaped me. I learned to work very hard. I developed a sense of confidence that no challenge was too great to overcome. I learned to express myself with conviction. I solidified most of my philosophy about life and what matters most on that mission.
These aren’t golf or specific coaching experiences, but they are the two important experiences that shaped my whole life. I often remind my team that the greatest challenges and difficulties are our biggest opportunities. I think that is such an essential thing to learn.
How would you describe the culture of your team?
Matt Thurmond: If you asked any of our team members they would say that “we are a family” or “we have more fun than any other team.” One thing that is cultural but they may not fully realize, is that we have players that care deeply about our team’s success. I see it in the intensity they bring to practice and competition every day. I think a lot of that comes from being a family and having a good time together.
What won’t you compromise on within your team culture?
Matt Thurmond: A couple of things that just won’t survive in our program are apathy and hostility. We have a lot of different types of people and I allow them the freedom to be themselves. We have few rules and function mostly on principles. However, apathy will simply not survive more than a few days with us. We expect passion and drive in our program. Also, I think general kindness is a pre-requisite for anyone on any team, especially ours that strives to be a family. Simple kindness in a team has a profound impact on everything else.
How do you build and maintain this culture?
Matt Thurmond: First I demand it from my staff and myself. We are constantly reviewing our performance in every area and making sure we fully embody everything we expect our team to embody. We also try to prompt our leaders to embody our culture. We don’t really have a specific plan, we just make sure we always are what we say we are and what we strive to be. That means that all of our conversations, goals, activities and everything else reinforce our values. When all the little things we do are in harmony with our culture it becomes strong without needing any big plans or programs.
How do you recruit new student-athletes to fit this particular culture?
Matt Thurmond: We are always presenting to recruits in some way through various means so we always try to make sure that what we say is actually 100% true. Sometimes when you use the same stories or examples over and over through the years you forget to make sure they really represent the current culture and team values. So we try to always review those things by asking simple questions like; “Was there anything I said in our visit today that wasn’t completely true or representative of who or what we really are?”
We believe that the most important part of selling our program to recruits is having a great program to sell. So we try to make our program great and then just tell people about it without embellishment. We’ve found that those that share our values and like our culture are drawn to it. There will be words and phrases and ideas that just resonate with them. If we build a great program and culture, present it as it really is, and someone isn’t really excited about it then we know this isn’t the right fit for them or us.
What importance do you place on athlete leadership and how do you help your team captains and future leaders develop?
Matt Thurmond: Unquestionably our best years parallel perfectly with our years of best intra-team leadership. It’s absolutely crucial to big success. I wish I felt better about giving this answer, but I don’t feel we are great at this yet. We’ve seen people who have great leadership skills and even if they weren’t overly pronounced when they arrived they developed over time through our reinforcement and guidance. We just talk about it with them a lot and try to constantly point out opportunities where they can lead and make an impact. Still, as much as we all impact each other, there are fewer true “leaders” than I would have expected when I started this job. Maybe the sport encourages self-focus. Maybe I’m too dominant that they don’t feel they can take a leadership role unless they are really strong. I don’t know for sure. I’m just often surprised how rarely I have players that really see things from that sort of perspective.
What advice would you give someone starting out in his or her career?
Matt Thurmond: I see so many that want it to be easy and want short cuts. They want to network their way to success. I just tell anyone to be great at what you do and everything else will take care of itself. There is a shortage of people who do truly great work. Most just have a job and do barely what is required. People that do great work will always stand out. Others who know what it means to do great work will immediately notice them. Because these people are scarce they will be constantly sought out for other opportunities. Some people will succeed at whatever they do because that is just who they are. So just make sure you are one of those people.
How do you deal with the more challenging times?
Matt Thurmond: I try to always see challenges as opportunities. If you keep a long-term perspective and value learning and growing all difficulties are for one’s own good in the end. I also try to nurture my most meaningful relationships and those are most needed when times are tough. Not having deep relationships to turn to in the dark times make it very difficult to see a light at the end of everything and there is always a light. This is another reason why we value our relationships in our program so much. We know that college is tough and each one of us will have times of difficulty. Strong relationships can make all the difference in finding meaning in those times.
Can you share an epiphany or revolutionary idea you had during your career?
Matt Thurmond: Early in my career I was recruiting two local recruits who I desperately sought after. They were also being recruited by many other top schools and I felt a little insecure because whatever angle I chose to take in recruiting them there was someone recruiting them that had an edge in that specific area. In all the common themes of recruiting I felt like we were very good, but not the very best and it was hard for me to make a great sale when I couldn’t believe we were the best at something.
I woke in the middle of the night one night with the answer. I needed to change the playing field to my advantage. I don’t have to talk about what everyone else talks about. I don’t have to only recruit to the points that people normally recruit to.
Then I decided that the one thing I could be the best at was my relationship with my players and my love for them. I decided that I will be able to look any parent in the eye and honestly say with full conviction, “I will look after your child and care for them more than any other coach you can find. You can fully trust me.” I realized that would take more effort than anything else, that it would be the hardest to copy, and that it was what I had the most passion for anyway. So that shaped our program and our future as we decided to build around the way we treat our players, how much we love them and look after them and how we would provide them an unparalleled team experience.
This has served us well. We can confidently affirm this to any recruit and realize the massive effort it would take for someone to beat us in this area. We welcome them to try as all of college golf would be better for it.
What are you aiming for in the future?
Matt Thurmond: I’m fascinated by the idea of time and constancy. I used to really value a one-time great performance and I still enjoy it to be certain. However, I find true greatness in being able to do it over and over and over again. Because people jump around to the next thing so often we rarely get to see what happens when someone passionately and skilfully does something for decades. When you see some leader building and growing and working at something for decades, almost always a masterpiece is created. I’m starting to see the impact of all the little things we did 10 years ago. I can’t wait to see the impact 20 years from now of all the little things we are doing now. So I’m striving to keep my energy and passion and to improve every day so that maybe someday we can look back and be amazed at what has been built in the here and now.
Overall what is the crucial attributes a coach should possess?
Matt Thurmond: I think it all boils down to loving those you lead, serve, and have stewardship for. It’s amazing what can happen when one feels great love and interest. All things then work in harmony for the overarching goal and special things happen.I think it all boils down to loving those you lead, serve, and have stewardship for. It’s amazing what can happen when one feels great love and interest. All things then work in harmony for the overarching goal and special things happen.
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