Davidson Eyes Water Polo Renaissance after COVID-19 Dark Ages


In the midst of a nation-wide sports shutdown caused by the novel coronavirus, Ian Davidson, an age group water polo coach in Southern California, got busy. Staying put in his native San Diego, where his wife was expecting their first child, Davidson—one of the lead youth coaches in USA Water Polo’s national team program—took advantage of the COVID-19 lull to reset his thinking, much as many clubs across the country re-evaluated their respective futures.

In a recent interview with Total Waterpolo, Davidson—whose wife Nicole gave birth to their son Theo three month ago—spoke about how the best programs in America are rebooting during the COVID-19 pandemic, formative experiences with San Diego Shores Head Coach Doug Peabody and USAWP Chief High Performance Officer John Abdou, and how a looming water polo renaissance may be the salvation the sport desperately needs.

– As the head coach for USAWP’s boys’ development team, you’re tasked with searching all over the country for top talent to turn into Olympians.

The part for me that leads to helping the greater good and spreading the sport is my core value—my “why I do what I do.”

It’s almost nine years on this journey—not feeling like I need to win, win, win, but expanding the way I think [about] and see the world. A lot of that starts with my wife, who is also a coach and helps me see different sides of the coin—[and] to better contextualize the things that I’m seeing as I evolve as a coach.

Nicole,  Theo and Ian Davidson. Photo Courtesy: I. Davidson

In coaching, you often start out repeating the way you were coached. Do you change because you want to or do you continue to do the things you’re doing because you love what they are?

I discovered I want to help young men and women function in this world through water polo. That’s how I might help polo grow—not only within San Diego Shores, but into the areas around [and] the underdeveloped areas in the country.

Now, I’m fortunate enough to help all across the world through USA Water Polo coaches’ education. I was empowered with a love of coaching the sport and I want to spread that as far and as wide as possible.

– It’s so hard to get kids in the water; how do you keep the “big picture” in mind for development-level athletes when there’s so many different restrictions on playing due to the coronavirus?

To repeat something that we use a lot, it comes down to keeping the main thing the main thing.

When we talk about sports, these are [kids’] vehicles for growth—life growth, preparedness, character development. The lessons you learn through them become more impactful if as a parent you tell your child [that] he/she needs to treat others as they want to be treated.

[Sports] offer excitement and friendship and teamwork—and wins and losses. In pandemic times, the programs that I’ve talked to, the ones that struggle the most are the ones that don’t focus on character development.

If you’re not talking about growing through adversity, if you’re not talking about loving the sport—only playing because you want to win or to beat the team across town—then you’re finding now that motivation is a huge issue for your program.

All through the pandemic and the lockdown we hit really hard on that, talking about growth mindset, loving the process, dealing with adversity.

Having that extra element—how do you respond when you go down two goals or when life gets tough?—it’s the same message but one of them is more elastic at this time.

– You played for and coached with Doug Peabody, the legendary age group and high school water polo coach in San Diego.

By sheer luck I have been fortunate enough to work extremely closely with some of the greatest coaches in this country and in the world. In my role of coach education, where I travel around the country, the most common feedback I get from higher-level coaches is that they don’t get to watch somebody else’s practice. They don’t get to watch Connor Levoff at Santa Barbara 805, they don’t get to watch Brian Flacks at Harvard-Westlake, Felix Mercado at Brown or Kurt Predmore down in Florida.

Doug Peabody, Ian Davidson.

I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot and experience many things—and be on the ground with many different coaches. It’s helped me expand my mind and shift from when I started coaching as a 17-year-old senior in high school to where I am today 16 years later.

I hope to shift and change just as much over the next 16 years.

For me, Doug is my second dad. He coached me when I was younger, literally talked me off a ledge outside of school—not jumping but sitting and wanting to quit water polo at 15 years old because I was not having fun. He became one of the people that I’ve spent much of my life around, sharing our joint love of water polo. We’ve been all around the world together because of polo.

I spent four days in the ICU with him when he had his heart attack—it’s my journey with him together.

His love of reading, of searching things out, of studying the best athletes and teams in the world, has been immense to me. His empowerment of coaches has been formative but also transformative in that it became my mission to empower the next group of coaches who are out there.

That’s at the root of my desire to get out there and help as many coaches as I can. I’ve had such an amazing opportunity—not just with Doug, but he’s at the root of a lot of this. The experience I got—and I want to share at least a portion of this with coaches—I think everyone one of them can grow exponentially moving forward.

He speaks the most about never going to [another coach’s] practice, [but] now that I’ve moved back to San Diego—I was at Rose Bowl for three years and Harvard Westlake for three years—it’s the first time in [Peabody’s] life he’s able to deep dive in that rabbit hole of watching someone else, which for me is really cool because he’s the one who gave that to me.

In that same breath, I don’t want him to come and watch my practice—I want him to go observe everybody else!

– In your role with USA Water Polo you get to work with John Abdou who—like Peabody—has a tremendous passion for polo and the energy to push the sport in directions that will make polo in America better for all.

Being fortunate enough to work with Abdou has been absolutely amazing. There’s so many things I can say about him and the great job he’s done. [His] leadership and the mantle he’s had to carry for close to ten years is incredible. Both what he’s done and who he’s empowered to move forward and make things better has been inspiring to me.

Talking about him and coach education I couldn’t overlook Drew Clute—what he’s accomplished and what we’ve done as a unit. Drew’s been writing the coaching manual and finding new ways to educate Americans about polo.

Johnny’s perspective on our sport is not to repeat the things that we’ve done for 15 years. If you look at the pre-pandemic success of Junior Olympics and our women’s team and our men’s pipeline catching up.

We’ve made great strides that past four or five years—even if to the public it’s not necessarily seen the same way. But, [Abdou] is looking to make [more] changes, to implement new rules to help development and change the way the game is played at younger levels for greater long-term development.

Going against what people want today to set us up for long-term success—what we as a country need to move forward.

He states that we’re in a water polo renaissance right now. Going into lockdown during the pandemic is similar to [what transpired] during the Dark Ages. Coming out of that was the Renaissance—and the flourishing that happened in every part of the world.

In the midst of the pandemic the world shut down and things were very dark, but coming out of it, those who chose to use their time wisely—and not use [COVID-19] and an excuse—will flourish. Not just water polo but everywhere in the world.

Those who used it as an excuse will be left behind.

– The 1918 Influenza Pandemic gave birth to the Jazz Age and the Roaring 20’s in America, so you and Coach Abdou could be prescient in your predictions. In this moment of challenges—when many hope to seize the opportunity to improve—polo is currently flourishing in areas like Utah, Texas and Florida, regions not typically known for success. Will this help lift the level of polo throughout the country, or will it be a “California game” once the lockdown lifts?

The growth outside of California has been incredible. From a myopic view—in my brain—it was: Southern California, Northern California—then outside California. There’s quality athletes everywhere, but when you have the opportunity to work with players outside California, their skill level is generally lower.

It’s an amazing testament to the work Greenwich [Aquatics] has put in every single day for their athletes, and now reaping the results of their hard work and consistency, especially over the past four to five years. I’ve stopped thinking of their athletes as being from outside of California.

The Greenwich model—that it happened outside of California—is inspiring. During this pandemic time, it’s almost been a level-set. Early on, when athletics were put on hold, everyone took a breath. And then everyone re-evaluated.

A bevy of national team prospects from Greenwich Aquatics last year. Photo Courtesy: Ulmis Iordache

There are programs that just turned off their console or computer and they’re turning it right back on and hoping it operates the same way it’s supposed to.

Then there are programs that chose to reset. They’re looking at their values, how they operate, the events they’re attending, even the skills that they’re teaching. They’re asking: is there a better way to do things? That is one of the greatest things coming out of this.

By forcing us to stop with contact, we have a choice: Do I swim every day for an hour and a half, or am I bored watching you swim every day for an hour and a half and I want to focus on other things [like] movement in the water. Over the hips, jumping, field-blocking, switching from horizontal to vertical, skating or moving through the water.

These are the things that the best programs—not just in America but in the world—do. The best programs, no one’s swimming more than 2,000 yards. You get outside of those programs, and [coaches] think you have to swim 5,000 – 6,000 yards just to keep up with those programs.

They move better in the water, they react better to the game because they understand it better and that gap is closed by taking a short-term loss by not being as fast but working on how you move through the water—which takes time.

But now we’ve been in this world where all we have is time. I haven’t traveled outside of San Diego—I have a 10-week old, so travel was slim and none during my wife’s pregnancy. But, the moment there’s been live-streams, I’ve been watching it.

Not because I’m jonesing for polo that bad; every day my goal was to watch some water polo during the pandemic. Whether it was a quarter, a half, a full game, six-on-five, I was watching water polo. For me it was: can I see what these kids have been doing for the last nine months?

One things that stuck out to me is that a lot of teams went to zones because they were tired. Going to contact is tiring. No matter how much you swim, water polo shape is very different than swim shape. And watching them in the vertical, in frontcourt zones was enlightening to me. I saw a lot of teams better at catching on their legs. Teams who had worked on different shot selections and types. Creativity—which I think is something lost in our game in America. We don’t live in that Futsal world where we value that creativity over scoring the goal and winning.

I saw a lot of efficiency in the water and moving with ease: simple, beautiful movement. These are things I don’t think are glamorous in any way but coaches appreciate. Being able to spider really efficiently or skating to the left or right and getting on their legs.

Doug says: “We don’t egg-beater to the refrigerator.” “We don’t swim to the bathroom.” For the movements inherent to water polo to be great, they have to be practiced in the water.

Given they had practiced for the last seven to eight months—and now they’re playing games—I felt I was watching higher-level AAU or early level college basketball, where you’re seeing all these players with individual skills.

Now, can they take their games to the next level? That’s the first step in us as a country—a rising tide carries all ships—now we need captains pushing those ships in the right direction. You have places like Texas that are going to have 150 new high schools playing [water polo] starting in 2022, things of coaching education…hopefully we can move the sport in a good way.

– Your task now is to build up the national team program from development to cadet to junior to senior national team—and you are responsible for the first rung of that ladder. Given the leveling due to COVID-19, on your roster will there be room for athletes outside of California?

I would be remiss to say that, me having the confidence to make some of these decisions is not solely based on me wanting to shake up the world. It’s from the great men and women who chipped away at the old way of doing things—and a testament to how we’re being run right now.

Davidson leading a coaching clinic for USAWP coaches.

When you look at what we’re selecting for at the development group and what we’re selecting [for] at the cadet group—there are some athletes from Florida, [from] the Pacific Northwest—Washington and Oregon—are back in the mix. Players from Texas are in the mix to make cadet national teams.

There are athletes out there, and that’s the biggest key. There’s a shift in the value of winning today versus looking at long-term potential. I don’t necessarily select the best 18 kids for the development team. That’s not my job. My job is not to win tomorrow at a championship for 14 year olds. It’s to find a balance between the kids who are really good now that our going to timeline out to still be good—and the kids who have no idea that they could be good because they’re Labrador puppies.

A great example is: I had a kid from San Diego that we took to our development national team June camp. That’s our top 18 kids. He did not make our zone team—our top 14 kids—in San Diego, the next year as a cadet.

Six month later he made the academy camp for the selection roster and made the roster to travel to Europe. There’s a balance we’re trying to find on the national level; it’s not about winning today, it’s about long-term development and success.

[Stringham on Utah’s Salty Splash Tourney: Did it So Kids Could Play Water Polo]

I’d kick myself if I didn’t talk about the amazing opportunity to work with Joel Francisco, who used to work as a scout for ESPN in [basketball] player development who helps us now at USA Water Polo. We have these beliefs but it’s refreshing to hear someone from outside of our sport that deals with a mainstream sport.

It’s myopic of our sport to think that by finding the best kids who win today that it’s going to help us in the long run.

At the national level, shifting our values from winning today to finding the best athletes has been a huge change and a testament to what we’re seeing in that cadet group and the talent that we’re seeing in other areas. They’re getting more opportunities, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we say kids outside of California can’t play water polo well, and we never give them the chance to go to a national team selection camp and give them four days of coaching from Brian Flacks, Ross Sinclair or our senior team coaches—then, we’re right! They’re never going to be able to play.

– Based on parents in the East, this would represent a fundamental shift, as it’s hard for kids on this coast to experience high-level competition.

But if we help create the opportunity here as a national team, then we we’ll give them the chance and actually fulfill a different prophecy: there are greater athletes outside of California who are playing polo. We just don’t know about them because we aren’t seeing them.

It’s not just national teams, it’s providing more opportunities for games, coaching, clinics. Its guys like me and Drew traveling to East Coast regional championships and coaching, empowering coaches and athletes.

It’s all of those things to raise [competition] to that next group.

And that’s one of the hardest things. Having an eye to be able to see a complete, polished player versus [one] who has more potential. At younger ages, that is often misconstrued; a more polished player is seen as one who is going to get way better over time [versus] one who’s new to the sport, is uncoordinated, can’t swim yet or is new to the sport—but has amazing vision.

Or, when you think about goalies, has an amazing ability to move to the ball. There’s a microcosm of this in our ODP [Olympic Development Program] program; the goal of our ODP and national team coaches—of going to a national championship and being successful—a lot of it is to compete and be good. To look good for the kids, for themselves, to put their area on the map… at the end of the day, we’re not necessarily looking for that.

Davidson with Alphonso Pulido. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

There choices at a 14U, 16U, 18U level might be different than the choices that we might be making [in regards] to the kid who can’t handle the ball? That’s the kid who might timeline out and we might want to be select. That’s the thing with club sports, and youth sports in general. The way our youth sports culture works, and the way things are valued is inherently inverse to how development should be.

Take basketball and soccer, if you look at who we select at younger ages for our national teams, very rarely do more than 30% of those athletes carry through to the junior teams, 19U or 21U teams. That’s a testament to development over time, to different ways [athletes] mature, coaching. But it’s also a message that should be resounding to everyone: it’s the [athletes] who do other sports and don’t have a “win at all costs’ attitude that are the ones who time out to be great.

We are inherently backwards in our countries club system. Stress in placed on success and winning at the younger and younger ages—and we undermine the long term, often better track of development of athletes through this process. The things that bring success to kids at 12s and 14s rarely translate to success at the next level.

A lot of the time, the same kids end up getting picked because they’re the ones bold enough to come out for the camps and compete. They are the strongest players today, but don’t often timeline out to be the best.

We [USANT Coaches] need to do a better job of getting outside of CA to see more kids in their regions—to meet them where they are at and help give them the tools to improve.

I want nothing more than to have a geographically diversified pipeline and national team. If we stop praising for the now, and start developing for the future, we can truly be one of the best [programs] in the world.