Q&A with Deitre Collins

Cornell University

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.5, April 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1405/qacollins.htm

As a middle blocker at the University of Hawaiíi, Deitre Collins established a reputation as one of the greatest athletes ever to play the game. Along with leading the Rainbow Wahine to national championships in 1982 and í83, Collins was a three-time AVCA All-American and the 1983 Honda Broderick Cup Winner as the National Athlete of the Year. This fall, she was one of six players named to the NCAA Division I Womenís Volleyball 25th Anniversary Team.

Collins played on the U.S. National Team at the 1988 and í92 Olympics and on professional teams in Europe before beginning her coaching career with assistant positions at the University of South Alabama, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Houston. In her first job as head coach, Collins revived a dormant program at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and became the winningest coach in program history. In 1998, her third year at UNLV, the Lady Rebels compiled a 23-8 record, and Collins was named the Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.

Over the next five years, UNLV struggled to post another winning season, and in 2004, Collins became head coach at Cornell University, where sheís found her stride once again. In her first season, the Big Red finished 17-9, sharing the Ivy League title with three other schools. In 2005, Cornell improved its record to 19-6 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years.

In this interview, Collins talks about making the transition from athlete to coach, working in the Ivy League (which does not offer athletic scholarships but competes in NCAA Division I), and encouraging minority involvement in the sport.

CM: What have you learned since going to Cornell?

Collins: Iíve learned to listen to my players. When I interviewed at Cornell, I met with the team, and one of the athletes said, ďSometimes weíre going to be so bogged down with schoolwork that weíll need a break from volleyball. But weíre not going to tell youóweíll just go on doing whatever you tell us to do. How are you going to handle that?Ē

As a coach, it was wonderful to hear that your players will do anything you tell them to do. But it was actually more important for me to understand that the lines of communication always need to be open. My response was, ďThatís where we need to trust each other. I might not be able to read your mood, so if you need a break, you have to tell me. We need to have that dialogue, and together we can work hard and take the breaks we need.Ē

How is that different from your approach at UNLV?

At UNLV, I spent too much of my time stressed, managing the kids who didnít really want to be there instead of coaching the ones who did. People misunderstood my energy and thought I was too demanding. I had one athlete come to me and say, ďCoach, we think you want us all to be Olympians.Ē Thatís definitely not what I was aiming for.

When I left, I felt burnt-out, ready to believe that coaching wasnít what I was supposed to do. I looked at other kinds of jobs, but I knew that my heart still wanted to teach volleyball. Iím not a great motivator, so Iíve realized if Iím going to succeed, I need athletes who work hard because thatís what they want to do. People come to Cornell because they want to be here, not because Iím offering them a scholarship. Those athletes fit my coaching style.

Iím a very competitive person, and I could stay in the gym all day. But if my athletes are stressed, I back off a little bit, and it relieves the stress. We donít get nearly as many practice hours as we could use, but I let it go. For me, thatís much easier to deal with than kids who donít care that theyíre struggling.

How do you teach your Cornell athletes to take responsibility?

By putting my expectations out there. When we set goals at the beginning of the season, I tell them what I think theyíre capable of achieving. But itís up to them to decide what they really want, because I canít make them want any more than whatís in their hearts. And I have kids now who are honest enough to say, ďYou know what, coach? I just want to be as good as I can in college. Because after that, I have to focus on being an engineer.Ē Thatís reality: setting goals that fit within what youíre willing to do.

What goals did you set this year?

We wanted to be outright Ivy champions, and we wanted the national recognition that even though we donít have scholarships, weíre still serious athletes. And I think we achieved that.

What did you tell your athletes after the team lost to Long Island University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament?

I told them to keep their heads up, because weíd accomplished so much this year. I thanked the seniors, and left it at that. They cried, but we all had a sense of satisfaction, and we stayed together to watch the next game. That was one of the easier talks, thanking them for simply being who they are.

What does that say about your philosophy?

That Iím on track. At the end of a game, I know my kids are happy. They enjoy being part of Cornell volleyball and improving every year. Thatís why I coach: to feel good about the kids I have, to know theyíve gotten something out of it, and to feel satisfied that weíve done our best. Thatís all that matters.

What was your role in taking Cornell to the next level?

When I arrived, the team was already good. I just guided them and worked to earn their trust in my knowledge of the game. We drill a lot, do a lot of reps, and concentrate on the fundamentals of the game. A lot of our drills are focused on minimizing errors and learning to read the other team. People assume they can tell where the setter is going to set the ball, and if they guess right, thatís all fine and dandy. But too often, they guess wrong, step the wrong way, and drop the point. So we do a lot of training by just focusing on what we really see, not what we think we see. And we do a lot of footwork without the ball, learning to get a quick, explosive first step in everything we do.

What do you tell them about your playing career?

I donít talk much about playing. I talk about what I gained by being an athleteóall the places I traveled and the things I learned. It doesnít necessarily make them better volleyball players, but it helps them understand who I am and why I love the sport.

What makes them better volleyball players?

I believe in discipline and consistency. Iím perfectly straightforward with them, saying, ďThis is what I expect and thereís no wavering.Ē Also, I am the same person every day, and I think thatís helped them play well. My players tell me they respect me because I am fair and honest and I donít play mind games with them. They know what they can expect from me.

How is recruiting different in the Ivy League?

I still want the best players, but I donít have scholarships to offer, and Cornell is a really hard school to get in to. So the first thing I look at is GPA. We get scouting reports, and Iím interested in any player who has a 4.0 GPA. Weíll send a letter and see what kind of response we get. And when Iím trying to find new talent, Iíll concentrate on kids who I think can succeed academically in the Ivy League.

But scholarships are still a very big deal. A lot of parents arenít prepared to pay for an Ivy League education, and itís hard to get past the notion that if you donít have a scholarship, youíre not playing good volleyball.

What do you do to get more minority players interested?

First and foremost, I try to be visible and let minority athletes know Iím here. Another thing that attracts minorities is knowing there are other minority athletes on your team. Cornell does a lot to bring minority students to the university, and their exposure is a tremendous help.

Are there ways to get more minorities involved at the high school and club level?

There are always ways. Getting more information to city schools, where we lack exposure, will hopefully produce more minority athletes. And so will developing more minority high school coaches, because theyíre going to help bring in minority players.

Whatís the significance of being named to the NCAA Anniversary Team?

Itís an incredible honor. Twenty-five years is a long time, so it meant a lot to me. I remember winning the Broderick Cup and sitting at the banquet, just mesmerized by the people who were around me. Jackie Joyner was one. Tracy Calkins was another. They were incredible athletes, and their stats were unbelievable. Mine were okay, but I could never see myself as the best, because thereís always someone better.

Of the six people on the anniversary team, why are you the only one whoís coaching in Division I?

Because coaching in Division I is difficult, especially if youíre a woman. The openings this year came from women who were fired, and the jobs were filled by men. There are a lot of jobs that we can get, but theyíre never the ones at the top.

What are the challenges of being a female volleyball coach?

Number one is that athletes think itís better to play for a man. Number two is that life for a woman is more than just going to a job. My fiancť is incredibly supportive, but itís still challenging to put in the hours necessary to do my job well and maintain my home.

Are there specific challenges you face as a minority coach?

There are challenges as a minority, period. Society is quicker to notice your failures, and itís much harder to bounce back. As a minority, you always feel youíre representing your entire group. You wish you could just be recognized as a person, or as a good hire, instead of having to represent your whole race. We could probably count on one hand the schools that have gotten rid of a minority coach and hired another. It does happen, but itís rare.

And not only do I represent minorities, I represent women. If we donít succeed, are schools going to take a chance on another woman? Or are they going to try a man next time instead?

Whatís the solution?

Men who are coaching women have to help their athletes become coaches. We canít do it without their help. They should be training their assistants to coach, not just to recruit. They should want women to become coaches of women.

If you could go back to your college playing days, what would you change?

I would do better in school. When I was in school, I didnít focus on schoolwork, I focused on winning a national championship. But I got turned down once for a coaching job because I didnít have a college degree. I decided that would never happen again, so I took a semester off from assistant coaching at South Alabama, finished my 21 credits, and earned my diploma.

What was it like to go back to college after 12 years?

I got to see what it was like being a full-time student with no distractions. I had seven classes, but it was my best semester ever.

And now youíre in the Ivy League.

Yes, and it can be very intimidating. Sometimes I wonder if Iím saying the right thing. Or if I send letters to alumni, is everything grammatically correct? But the athletes appreciate me and know that Iím intelligent. I love my conversations with them, because I learn so much. They confide in me, we work well together, and I feel like I fit.