November 13, 2023

5x National Champion, Head Men’s Water Polo Coach at The University of California, Berkeley

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #117

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Kirk Everist, head coach of Men’s Water Polo at University of California, Berkeley. Coach Everist talks about the importance of failure and how we react to failure is a crucial point of learning and development.

He talks about how as a leader, or a coach, listening to your athletes helps to create a comfortable environment for everyone. Listening to one another and embracing each other’s input is monumental if you want your team to move forward in a proactive manner. 

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Kirk shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Your reaction to failure is going to create the ultimate outcome.”
  • “Create an environment where each individual person on your team is going to thrive the most.”

Sam Caucci: Well, coach, I guess kick it off. Do you mind sharing a little bit of your background? You don’t have to start all the way at the beginning unless you want. 

Kirk Everist: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been coaching here at the University of California at Berkeley for, this is my, going on my 22nd season. So 21 years here.

I played the sport of water polo here at Berkeley as well. So I’ve spent a lot of my life on this campus and around this program. I went on to compete in the Olympic games in 92 and 96 in Barcelona and Atlanta.  Started coaching in high school while I was training for the Olympic team.

Yeah, mostly so I could get keys to the pool and be able to train on my own when I was in the off season. And you know, had some flexibility that way and kind of fell in love with it. And then when I stopped playing on the national team, I went into the real world and was with the startup software company and in the Bay area for about six or seven years, but I kept my foot in the door coaching.

And when this job came open at Cal, I got talked out of the search panel to, hey, why don’t you get a resume going and you know, see if this is something you really want to do. So it’s worked out so far so good. But, you know, putting your livelihood in the hands of 18 to 22 year old boys is always entertaining.

Let’s put it that way. 

Sam Caucci: What’s changed most in your opinion from, you know, as a coach over that, you know, 20 plus years, what have you had to adjust to in order to continue to be, you know, successful like you are today? 

Kirk Everist: I think you just always have to evolve yourself a little bit.

You know, sometimes you’re looking at what the kids are like but I think mostly you start to just look at why are you doing things. You know, I think I came in and it was just, you know, train harder, you know, grind guys, get a mentally tough, you know, that, that, but the mental toughness was coming out of all adversity and putting them in those situations where you were really, really testing them all the time.

And as I’ve gotten into it, you take a step back and go, why am I, you know, why am I doing that? Why is the load at this level? Why am I. You know, just why a lot of why. And so that constant progression over the years of being able to step back or get people in your program or mentors outside the program that will ask you those questions of, you know, why are you doing it this way?

Is there a different way? And then being, you know, humble enough to take a step back and go, you know, I don’t have all the answers and maybe a 18 year old kid has a good idea or a 20 year old and they have perspective that’s unique and being willing to at least explore those things to kind of keep reinventing yourself, as a coach and reevaluating how you handle the athletes. 

Because at the end of the day, I think my job, you know, other than, you know, X’s and O’s and games and stuff like that, it really is to create an environment where that individual person and that team that year is going to thrive the most. And that’s going to change. Personalities of teams change at the drop of a hat, you know, different leadership players, graduate new players come in, there’s consistency to it, but the personality is changing. 

You got to be able to adapt, I think, and at least be willing to explore. Is there, is there a way that it’s going to be better for this team? As opposed to this is my system and this is what we’re going to do. And you’re going to figure out how to mix into it. I found more success with it being more collaborative.

Sam Caucci: It’s interesting college athletics, cause it’s so, I think maybe now so similar to the challenges that a lot of companies have coming out of covid. A lot of organizations struggle with employee retention. They’re struggling with turnover. They’re struggling with engagement. They’re maybe tired of blaming millennials.

Now they’re pointing to Gen Z. So I guess my question to you is how do you think about the system of, you turn over a lot of players over time, you gotta pull people out of a really good system to pull new athletes into your program to be able to produce results.

What’s the key to creating that repeatable program that maybe a business owner, a restaurant brand, a hotel brand, a retail brand could learn from, who’s also striving to create a repeatable, scalable business that succeeds? 

Kirk Everist: Yeah, I mean, we talk about a lot about like skills and things that we hope will travel, you know, in our, in our world, like what gets on the bus with you or the plane. And so like, you know, individual teams here, we talk a lot about, you know, the difference between a team and a program, you know. Water polo at Cal, it’s not the biggest sport, you know, nationally, it’s a California sport.

It’s starting to get bigger in other places. But, you know, we’ve been playing at this school for over 100 years. And we consider that, you know, that tradition and that legacy very important. whether you’re, you’re bringing them into an organization that’s bigger than just them and there’s a group of individuals, but we want them to understand that we’re trying to do something that has a past and there are, and we want to make it better when we, when you leave.

And there’s a responsibility to that each individual team has their kind of moment in the sun.

You know, we started in January with a new season and off of a national championship season. And we’re able to win this group’s one back to back national championships. So you know, they obviously have a goal and we’ve returned. All but three players from last year’s team. So it’s a team that has high expectations, but it’s a brand new group.

And the one thing that we can always connect to is that program and what are the things that are important to us? And trying to continually instill that in them, that, you know, that we have a responsibility to the ghosts of the past, the people that came in the seventies and eighties and in nineties and have built this program that gave them the opportunity now in 2022 and three to participate. 

And that’s really important. Whatever that is in a different organization, but every group has a culture. And you kind of try to build that year to year, you have pillars that are important things that you’re willing to, you know, draw a line in the sand on. But it changes a little bit. The personality of the team changes, but the concept of, you know, how do we want, what’s our brand going to be, what do we want to, you know, what’s your personal brand, what’s your team brand.

Which I think builds that culture or at least shows the culture is a really hard word to wrestle to the ground or concept to wrestle to the ground. Everybody’s got an idea. I just kind of, I dumb it down to the concept of if you walk onto the pool deck at Cal, you’re going to get an idea of our team culture just by how the team acts, how they interact. 

Do they go up and say hi to you? Do they recognize that you’re there? You know, what’s the feeling you get? And each person has an individual culture. I get an idea of what somebody’s about by just talking to them. And then I can go back and decipher what principles are important to them based on how that interaction went. 

But we’re always kind of trying to come back to that concept of, you know, we’re part of something that’s bigger than us and we have a unique opportunity in one year to put our stamp on it, that a layer of the tradition that will hopefully last good or bad. It’s going to have a lasting impact on the team.

If the culture is really good, it can go sour really fast if the people aren’t bought into doing the right things, whatever those things are within your organization. So I think a lot of times just communicating with these kids about why we think it’s important, what are the things that we believe are important, you know and how we’re going to act.

And then if we have good talent and we have good people, then I feel like we’ve got a shot at being competitive at the end of the day, because they trust each other. They’re willing to sacrifice for each other. They’re not holding secrets. So that they can elevate themselves or they can hold a starting position.

They’re willing to share the secrets with a first year player. And the risk that maybe they lose playing time because of that. But if they can get to that point, then you’ve got a strong team. And you know, so it’s a lot of continual talk about the history of it and the importance of it and our opportunity to be part of that history.

Sam Caucci: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, you know, I remember playing college football and especially in high school, I remember I played football and coaches really didn’t lead with why. 

Kirk Everist: Right.

Sam Caucci: You know, hey, this is what we’re doing.

Kirk Everist: Yeah.

Sam Caucci: Okay, that’s what we’re doing. You know, and it sounds like that. So I’m hearing you right that That’s changed a little bit.

Kirk Everist: Yeah. I mean, I still think every coach, I mean, you know, I think the best advice I ever got when I went into coaching was from, you know, my coach in college. And, you know, he was a larger than life figure, you know, the bear Bryant type figure, the person that still people to this day, you know, that’s what means, you know, Cal water polo.

And he just said, he goes, Kirk, you have to be yourself. If you try to be me, it’s not going to work. And there’s going to be a piece of him in me just because I played for him, but I’m not him. And I can’t, if I try to be a screamer, a yeller, you know, my way or the highway guy, I can do it, but it’s fake.

And these kids will, they’ll sniff that out in a heartbeat. That has not changed. I don’t care what Gen Z, millennial, whatever. Kids will sniff out, you know, someone that’s not genuine in a heartbeat and they’ll find a way to make your life miserable. So you have to be yourself and you create parameters and systems around it, but if you’re not yourself, they know it, if it’s an act all the time, they know it, cause there’s just no teeth behind it.

And so I think that’s super important to do that. And yeah, I think in reality, when I look back at some of the things that my coaches in the eighties made us do, I just kind of shrug and go, yeah. Why? We never would have asked. It was just, yes, we’re going to do it. But when I look back, I’m like, did it really have, what was the, what was the purpose other than control?

and that was the way things were done. Now, again, there is a lot more. I can get more buy in by if you understand why, or if you come to the conclusion yourself, that this is important, whether it’s tiny things, you know, it’s important that we do it. We have, I said last year’s team, I kind of knew I had something special with a group of how strong they were together, where, you know, being on time is price of entry, but it’s so important, like it doesn’t take any talent to be there on time, be ready to work at anything you’re going to do.

Right. If that becomes a habit, you’re going to be short in any job if you can’t just show up on time and be where you’re supposed to be. And so we have a little swim set that the guys do if they are late and started by most of the time they just oversleep. So it was like “Snooze 22” was the swim set they had to do.

But for years I had to be the yard duty most of the time on most teams. I have to be the yard duty. I have to, I have to manage it. I have to follow up. I have to make sure it’s done. And when we played a game in the middle of the season and I’m in my office and our starting goalies on the national team now, has a good shot of being the olympic team goalie.

You know, he was late to the pregame meeting and, you know, we go and play. I’m, you know, I’m not sacrificing the team for one incident. But we go and play and I go to my office and I walk out of my office about an hour and a half, two hours later, it’s dark at the pool and I see the water move and I look over and the kids doing the swim set.

And I didn’t tell him he had to do it. We’d discuss it tomorrow, but I’m like, Oh, that’s interesting. And then I left and went home. And then two weeks later, our best players national player of the year was late to a meeting. And, and I come in the next morning at five o’clock and he’s in the water already doing the swim set.

And I, again, I didn’t say anything. I asked my assistant coaches. I go, do you tell him to do it? Like you’d make them do it? And then no and so somewhere in the locker room it was just, this is important. And I waited until after the season to talk to him like, where did that come from? Was it internal locker room, you know, discipline?

Or was it, and they’re like, no. Just, you know, one guy did it on his own and the next guy did it on his own. And then, you know, over a season, two or three times. But they manage it themselves. They bought into, that’s important. And this is something that we’re going to do because it’s important. And, and at that point you look at a group and you go, it’s going to be really hard to beat them because controlling themselves.

They’re handling the team culture themselves, and it’s not a constant, you know, the coach or the authority figure running around trying to do it because they believe in it. They’ve come to that realization that this little tiny thing is important. And that, that might be the difference in a, in a game down the line.

I believe it, it does make differences, tiny differences.  So if you can get them to buy into that kind of thing and explain to them why it’s important and then they believe it’s important, then they own it. Then they’re doing it because they own it. They believe it. Not because you’re telling them to do something because you can, you can do that, you can tell people to do stuff all day long, but if they don’t believe it at a critical moment.

because they don’t really buy into what you’re trying to accomplish. 

Sam Caucci: I mean, water polo is a tough sport, right? 

Kirk Everist: Yeah. 

Sam Caucci: How do you think about struggle and failure as ingredients to improve performance as a coach? How do you think about utilizing those tools in your practice process and coaching process?

And I ask that from a position of, you know, there are organizations today that sometimes fear failure. They’re afraid of struggle. They sometimes create environments where they avoid it. And I don’t know. I don’t think those produce a certain set of outcomes that are different than maybe once it embraces.

Kirk Everist: Yeah, I think it’s one of the most important things is to understand life is hard. Sport is hard. You’re going to fail. And you know, in the most critical games we have, that is a conversation that I have all the time with our players. Understand that today you’re going to fail no matter what.

We could win the national championship and we host the trophy. But there’s going to be failure throughout the game because the other team’s good too. And so understand that it’s going to happen. It’s your reaction to the failure that is going to create the ultimate outcome. If you react poorly, if you shy away from the opportunity to fail, then you’re not going to create the environment where you can be truly successful.

You have to be willing. You have to be brave, right? You have to have the ability to put yourself out there and know that it might not work. And if you’re locked in on, you know, what are the results of everything, then you’re not going to be able to take that step because I’m emotionally invested on the score or the, where I go or what award I get or whatever it is.

If you’re totally emotionally invested in that, you’ll tend to get, you know, risk averse to things and at the critical moment, it might be the unorthodox thing is the only, you know, the only shot you got. And if you’re not willing to take it because you’re afraid, then you’re not going to win a lot of games because that was the shot to take or, you know, nothing else was working I’m going to try this. 

And then take responsibility for it, and everybody else on the team has to know I’m going to take responsibility for my teammate that took a chance, you know, took a chance, and you got to free him up, I think, to like, it’s okay, you’re going to fail. Sometimes it’s who fails first? Like who’s willing to get into the game instead of just shadow boxing for the first 30 minutes.

Let’s get into it. Let’s make a mistake. Let’s get over the fact. And, you know, door ding your brand new car a little bit. Let’s go. and we’ll get into it. And then you’ll calm down because you, if you’re, you, you can’t be thinking all the time, but I think failure is important in our practices in the spring, you know, spring’s terrible.

They’re games aren’t forever and they can look like, ‘Oh, why am I doing this?’ And that’s the key. That’s the message is we’re creating opportunities for you to fail. And creating opportunities for you to be tired and cranky and not want to do it. and then you’re reacting to those things and is the moment beating you, or are you finding a way to mentally get around the, that opportunity and, and find ways to, to handle the adversity.

And you know, handle creating the ability to be your best when you’re not at your best. Like I can give you what I got today. Right. And that’s all I got. And that might be 80%, but that’s, that’s 100% of what you got right now, and that’s what we need. And consistently every day, creating an environment where it’s okay to fail.

And some days you’re going to conquer the workout. Great. And everything’s great. And then the next day you had midterms and you’re tired and your girlfriend broke up with you and you were talking to her all night or whatever it is. And practice is there and you gotta do it, to the best of your ability at that moment.

And we got to create those opportunities so that you have a bank of things to pull from in December in the championship game when you need them. But it’s not just going to show up, you know, the day before.

Sam Caucci: That’s great. Coach appreciate you taking time. I got one final question for you. Your players are going to go on, and players you’ve had before have gone on and they’ve gone into the workforce and they’re going to work for organizations and companies. They’re going to have, you know, new coaches, or folks that are managers around them.

What’s your hope for the future of work?

Kirk Everist: Yeah, I think, I mean, my hope is that you, you know, in tiny little environments like ours and sport, or, you know, in a classroom somewhere that we’re creating kids that are, you know, willing to learn, that like to learn that aren’t again, aren’t afraid to fail and are going to, you know, lean into challenges, embrace them, seek them out not take the easy way. And, you know, I think in our little Petri dish of college athletics, each little program is trying to create the environment where these kids are going to, you know. 

They’re ready for real world things that matter, you know. When your mortgage is on the line or those kinds of things. And we’ve created people that are willing to, you know, stand next to a teammate and whether it’s in a investment banking firm or a law firm or whatever, and they’re willing to help them out to do the, whatever needs to get done, you know, the windows and floors is a word, you know, a statement my dad used to say all the time if it needs to get done, it needs to get done.

If your business card doesn’t say that you should do that, but it needs to get done, you know. And the job needs it done, then, you know, fill up the printer or change the ink or, you know, wash a window. I don’t know what it is, but if it needs to get done, it needs to get done.

And we’re hoping that we’ve created an environment where, you know, they’re ready to do that or willing to do it. They’re humble enough to do it. You know, and they’re not out there just going, do you know who I am? And I should have this, this, and this they’re going to work for it. 

Sam Caucci: That’s great. Coach, thanks for taking time.

Kirk Everist: You’re welcome. All right.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Workforce, Learning, Coaching, Failure, Struggle

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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