When Jeff Dugdale was an assistant coach for Duke University’s swimming program in the 2000s, his day job was in pharmaceutical sales for GSK. It is a combination of experiences that has shaped his approach to coaching.
Successful business leaders are not much different from successful swimmers.
Banners around the campus of Queens University in Charlotte, where Dugdale now leads the swimming program, celebrate seven consecutive national titles. That’s actually an understatement. Both the men’s and women’s swim teams have won the NCAA Division II championship seven years in a row. That’s 14 national titles.
Dugdale lists seven characteristics of great leaders and swimmers. “They don’t blame others, they take responsibility. They love comments. They are all about the process versus the event. They can intervene on request. They invest in their performance. They look for the purpose or why. They work better and work smarter than others.
It’s about what greatness looks like, Dugdale said in a recent interview. A big goal is a goal so big it makes your stomach sick.
“When you have a vision of what greatness looks like, work backwards and surround yourself with good people,” he said.
Start with a five-year promise
Dugdale came to Queens in 2010 with the promise of delivering a national championship within five years. Current Queens women’s rugby coach Katie Wurst points out that the university didn’t even have a swimming pool back then.
When Dugdale mentioned the five-year goal to the first batch of Queens swimmers, Nic Eriksson couldn’t believe it. Now an assistant coach, Eriksson remembers recently, “we thought he was going to bring in other people than us. But ultimately, in four years, he put it all together and we achieved the excellence he saw with us.
Learning the ropes in Auburn
Dugdale fell in love with swimming as a child – he said his mum wanted to keep him busy despite his ADHD – and soon success came. Dugdale was a student-athlete at Auburn University from 1989 to 1991, then joined David Marsh in coaching the Tigers to win their first national championship in 1997.
Marsh, now an assistant head swimming coach at the University of California, Berkeley and Dugdale’s mentor, describes Jeff as an athlete and coach from Cinderella history.
“In 1997 (Auburn University swimming) won its first national championship with Dugdale instrumental in the victory,” Marsh wrote in a recent email. Seeing Dugdale’s potential to improve others, Marsh brought him to the Team Elite swim program for Olympic-level athletes, then located in Charlotte. Dugdale was then offered the position of head coach of Queens.
Avoid tunnel vision
A connection to something bigger than yourself is important, said Dugdale, giving an example from the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“Australia in 2016 was supposed to blow the USA away at the Olympics,” he said. But they didn’t. “One of the things Team USA did against Team Australia was not to dedicate your life to swimming. Team Australia is government funded and only eats, sleeps and swims.
“To succeed in athletics, it is important not to dedicate your life to sport. Instead, you have to create something bigger than yourself so you can thrive in what you do,” he said.
“If all you do is eat, sleep and exercise, you will bend under pressure. You have to occupy your brain with other things like giving and serving and doing something bigger than yourself. This is what a champion looks like.
Transition from Section II to Section I
As Queens begin a transition from Division II to Division I, Dugdale sees new challenges and opportunities. “If we get the scholarships to compete in the ID field, we can be very competitive. Our power rankings put us at 21st in the DI rankings.
Several Queens swimmers can already make the top 16, he said, and additional scholarships would help. Swimming should be one of the programs that will lead the transition from college to DI, Dugdale said.
At a May 10 press conference to announce a new ASUN conference membership, Queens President Daniel Lugo reminded reporters that the Queens swim program currently has the longest winning streak of any sports in all divisions of the NCAA.
Where love fits into a sports program
The word “love” is part of Dugdale’s training strategy.
“Athletics is just a platform to practice in order to perform in the classroom, in our job interviews, graduate school interviews, and medical school interviews.
“I have a sister, I’m a dad girl and I have a great women’s team. I think it’s important to be strong, but also to love and say I love you.
Palmer Magri is a student at the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University in Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.