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Building a Culture of Balance and Success, The Coach O’Boyle Era at VCU

Building a Culture of Balance and Success, The Coach O’Boyle Era at VCU

It was a rare break in the grueling pre-season schedule for new VCU women’s basketball Head Coach Beth O’Boyle and she graciously took time to sit down and discuss the very exciting transition currently underway for the Rams.  Even on a non-practice day, the offices are buzzing with activity and there’s a positive energy emanating from every member of the staff in the office,  and the players who ebb and flow in the hallway.  There is smiling and laughter and electricity in the air generated by a team that is passionate about their school and their program. As I observe the interactions and the chemistry amongst the group, I take a moment to appreciate my surroundings and the foundation of something that is going to be very special for VCU and the women’s basketball program.

Upon entering Coach O’Boyle’s office, my eyes are immediately drawn to the famous corn hole boards that she mentioned in her pre-season press conference.  They are VCU branded and this is just one of the touches that make the room a welcoming space.  As she approaches and extends her hand, I notice how easily she smiles and that she is just as comfortable here as she is on the court demonstrating techniques to players or yelling out plays.   O’Boyle is one of those unique people who balance being easily approachable with being a leader who drives results.  She is all business on the basketball court, but when she isn’t coaching, she’s spending quality time with the team who she describes as a “very entertaining” group.  She is creating balance by keeping practice intense and competitive but making everything off the court the opposite. According to her it helps create buy in for the culture and makes players want to play hard.  O’Boyle says “It’s ok to not like me or be made at me on the court, but once we step off (it’s important to know) we have each other’s back.”  The emphasis on this distinction gets the players out of their comfort zone and it’s also helped a very tight group of players and a tight staff of coaches new to VCU integrate into a cohesive unit in a very short timeframe.

O’Boyle is what might be best described as confidently optimistic about what they are building at VCU.  Nothing worth building comes up overnight, and just like the new practice facility that’s taking shape behind the Siegel Center, there’s a lot of work behind the scenes in creating this new culture.  One of the essential building blocks is the dynamic coaching staff she has brought together.  She believes in her staff and their ability to help the student-athletes become successful both on and off the court, “One of the things I’ve tried to do is hire superstars and then let them do their thing.” One of the things the coaches bring every day is that you have a passion.  O’Boyle adds that “our coaching staff, in everything they do, has an unreal energy level and it spreads.  Our players have picked up on that.”  One just needs to look at the results from this team of superstars in their last endeavor together to recognize the caliber of talent that is now putting their skills to work at VCU.  Prior to joining the Rams she executed a phenomenal turnaround during her tenure as head coach at Stony Brook and several of her team who assisted in the complete rebuilding of that program have joined her at VCU.  Consider what type of leadership it would take for you to relocate with your boss and start over in a new state.  Now imagine 3 people from your team doing it.  During her 3 year tenure the team went from 4 wins their first year to 14 their second to 24 and a spot in the conference tournament in the third.  It took a lot of effort from the staff and the players, but that kind of dramatic turnaround is the kind of success story that draws attention.  O’Boyle says the experience and work she and her staff put in at Stony Brook helped prepare and position them for this new opportunity at VCU.

There are a few interesting details in O’Boyle’s journey to become a Ram.  Current Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics Ed McLaughlin played a key role in her decision.  O’Boyle was an assistant coach for 4 years at Canisius College and she knew of him and had heard wonderful things from Niagara University’s women’s Head Coach Kendra Faustin while he was an AD there.  She says she was “sold” after her first phone call with McLaughlin because “from a leadership perspective when you are looking at a job you want to go to a place where you feel like there is value and that came across right of the bat with Ed”.  She also recalls that VCU used to host one of the biggest AAU tournaments.  She was familiar with the campus and seen the facilities. The importance of basketball and being part of the A-10 conference were big draws as well.  “There has definitely been a buzz around VCU basketball over the past several years and the success that the men have had has been only a bonus when you are talking to other coaches.  They clearly know about VCU’s run to the Final Four and Coach Smart.  The way VCU basketball has been good on a consistent level for so many years; I think that is something that stands out.”  One of the perks though, is the proximity to her family in MD again.  When the job opened at VCU her mom wanted to know “How does your resume look?” O’Boyle says she didn’t even want to tell her mom that she was interviewing until she knew she had a shot at getting the job.  As it turns out she landed her “dream job” when she joined the VCU Athletics team and her family is excited that she is close again.

O’Boyle knows from her research that being close to home is a factor for high level recruits as well.  It shows that they prefer to stay in a 3.5 hour radius from home when possible.  She points out that there are great “pockets” of girl’s high school basketball in Richmond, Norfolk, DC, MD, and NC and that the location of the VCU campus is an asset for recruiting from these areas.  The timing of her move to VCU was post recruiting, but she was still able to attract a transfer, Ashley Pegram, who she refers to as “Richmond’s finest” to this season’s roster.  Ashley played for Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield, VA prior to attending Junior College in Maryland and has returned home by joining the Rams.

In the O’Boyle Era the vision for VCU women’s basketball extends well beyond the current season.  It reaches past wins on the court and achievements in the classroom and seeks to position players for success in the world beyond their collegiate experience.  It aspires to inspire future generations of girls to wear a Rams jersey and to develop a community of fans to support them.  It is focused creating a culture that gives back to the community that supports their program.  Under the guidance of Coach O’Boyle and her staff the players are starting with the little things that really make a difference – appreciation for the opportunities they have, kindness, and maximum effort both on the court and in the classroom.  O’Boyle says she and her staff would credit “Our success and where we have gotten in our careers from our playing experience, our college experience” and because of that “Everything we try to teach them and value will hopefully translate when they graduate to being really successful.”

The first team expectation is to be kind.  There are so many people that support the program including managers, athletic trainers, and sports information staff.  O’Boyle wants the players to know how many people are invested in them and that the most important thing is how they treat others.  She says it’s a “very simple thing that we echo every day”.  It may be simple but it’s something that will serve them well in any situation. The schedule of student-athletes is intense and there is a very high accountability placed on being on time.  It’s a finite resource and O’Boyle says they’ve tried to balance how they are preparing for the season because everything is new – the drills, footwork, even the terminology.  It’s a balance between teaching all of these things and then incorporating it into play.  Learning is important but without some practical application of the principles in practice it’s not going to be effective in a real game.  The early season schedule will give the players a lot of on the court experience, which O’Boyle says is great, but it doesn’t leave a lot of time for the coaches to fix or work through the things they see with only 1 day of practice prior to the next game.  She believes that she has to let her players play through some mistakes.  “When you let them (play through mistakes) it helps build their confidence in a different way.”

O’Boyle acknowledges that there will be times when the team will be playing hard and working hard and lose a game.  That’s not what matters.  She doesn’t want a loss, whether it’s by 1 point or 10 points, to take them away from what they do.  The culture they are building is to compete: sometimes it’s against each other and sometimes it’s against an opponent.   Even when they bring that competitiveness out in practice they are still balancing the team aspect as well.  “We’ve got Rams written on the back of our jerseys.  We’ve got VCU on the front.  That’s the most important thing.  We’re a team.  We’re a program and it’s not about the individual…it’s not just about 1 game.  It’s about doing what we do.”  The team had an existing bond when O’Boyle arrived.  She says “our team is great because they support each other so well.  They get excited when their teammates score, get a block, or take a charge.  It’s great that they we have that type of chemistry.”

O’Boyle is a big believer in utilizing film for educational purposes and for emphasizing positives.  She likes to send her players highlight films to see themselves doing well and build their confidence level.  She says “It’s more about how you react when they aren’t doing things the way that you want them to be done, or probably the way that they want them to do them, to help that confidence stay high and move on to the next play.” It’s about building a trust so they know the coach has confidence in them and that they’ll get it right the next time.

Something that this staff is doing that’s really innovative and exciting is their “Hoops to Heels” program.  O’Boyle credits the staff for always having an investment in teaching life lessons, but Coach Kate DeSorrento put it all together and marketed it.  The first session worked on financial literacy and educating players on managing their money.  The second topic, led by Coach Vanessa Moore, focused on body language on and off the court with some assistance from some player skits it was also a success.  The goal is to try to do something different every month (schedule allowing) to help prepare the players for life in professional careers.  O’Boyle is so impressed with the interactive program she believes one day Coach DeSorrento could probably sell it to other NCAA teams to add to their programs.   Shaka started the Seal Team Training trend, so why not start a “Hoops to Heels” revolution in women’s basketball?

It’s not just the staff doing great things this year.  Melanie Royster, a red-shirt junior, is getting some practical experience in interior design by contributing to the work on the new basketball practice facility currently under construction.  The $25MM project has been garnering a lot of attention and Royster was featured on the front page of the VCU website for her work.  O’Boyle describes the team as “fired up” over the success. She believes that Melanie’s opportunity shows what a “special place VCU is – you have great student-athletes and they want them to feel invested.  Something as big and monumental as a $25MM practice facility and that they get to be a part of it.  That’s why I’ve really enjoyed VCU so far.  Everyone is really supportive and it’s about the student-athletes first in everything that we do.  It’s also showed in the experience Mel’s getting working with them.”

Since the staff will be looking to build a roster with some local talent and we know one special fan with a goal to one day become a VCU Ram, this was a great opportunity to get some advice for aspiring student-athletes and their parents.

For the kids – Play as many sports as you can.  Gets experience playing with different teammates and coaches.  Just enjoy it.

For the parents – Try not to focus on making them choose.  Don’t go crazy with travel and special teams and worrying who they are playing. Help them enjoy it as long as possible.

In summary, “So the little ones, I think you get to go to camps, you get to go to clinics, but for the parents keep making it as simple and as fun for as long as they can.  I think really makes a big difference.”

Here’s why this advice is important.  “Kids that enjoy it and can keep that fun approach to it the longest are the ones that end up being the most successful because it doesn’t feel like work to them.  They want to go out for runs because it’s going to make them a better basketball player.  They want to get in the gym because it’s going to make them stronger and a better player.”  She says they also try to keep that same element with their players so that they remember “at one point they were that 10 year old that just loved to play.”

One of the things that she has enjoyed most at VCU is the camaraderie of the coaches across the different athletics programs.  O’Boyle is excited to be a part of a group of coaches and teams that come out to each other’s games to show support.  She said she learned about field hockey this year and one of the things she learned was about field maintenance, “I didn’t know that we were watering fields in the middle of field hockey games”. That happened to be one of my first observations too, and it’s fun to see her sense of humor come out occasionally. O’Boyle adds, “It’s great for our players too.  They have a keen understanding of what other athletes go through.  I think they should be out supporting each other because they know how much it means to them when they have fans at their games.”

O’Boyle says that one of the things that has to be a priority to work on is building the fan base.  VCU has an incredible established base of supporters and she’s hoping that they will come out for the team.  The coaching staff and team are constantly working as ambassadors for VCU and women’s basketball to build that community that wants  to come out and watch games.  She’s also challenged the players to bring 5 people to each game.  It may be grass roots, but that’s how some big things get started and there are BIG things in the future for this program.

A founding member of 400 North Media LLC, Pamela was the original editor and primary contributor for when it launched. She currently serves as communications liaison, videographer, and ad hoc contributor. During the day Pamela is a learning consultant for a Fortune 500 company. She's also an avid volunteer who works with several non-profits in Richmond and beyond.

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