“You Can’t Win the Derby on a Donkey”

ZUMO Interviews Bruce Watson, Head Coach for San Jose State Men’s Water Polo

As Californians, we at ZUMO were excited to interview a long-standing, respected name in California collegiate water polo - Bruce Watson.

Bruce Watson

A San Jose State alumnus himself and a member of San Jose State’s Sports Hall of Fame, Watson was brought on as Head Coach for the reinstatement of the men’s water polo program in 2015.

In this article, Watson shares his journey to coaching water polo professionally, what has shaped his coaching philosophy, and what makes coaching meaningful to him.

How did you get your start coaching water polo?

I have been coaching on several levels for a long time, and it was by chance that I even got into it. I had just finished my playing career at San Jose State when a former coach and a very good player by the name of Sheldon Elsworth asked if I wanted to coach at a high school. He had been the Bellarmine coach for a while and was going to take over West Valley College and thought of me. Why? I have no idea other than I was unemployed. I had long hair, a Volkswagon bus and had been surfing since before I started playing water polo. It was in the early ‘70s and I have been coaching ever since, outside of a stint doing commercial real estate, which I needed to sell my bus to do, unfortunately. To come full circle, after five years at Bellarmine, he found another sucker in me and asked if I wanted to coach at West Valley College and I had the good fortune to spend close to 30 years there. 

Bruce Watson Coaching Early Years

When I first started coaching, like everyone else who is a beginner, you're not sure what to do, so you draw on what you have experienced from your former coaches and go from there. As you build your own coaching philosophy and coaching technique, you, of course, make mistakes, but try to learn as you go.

What has made coaching rewarding to you as a career?

One of the big things that hit me right away was how rewarding it was and fun to be so involved in the sport that I was totally committed to and loved. When you are part of water polo, you are part of a family. It is a small sport, but over the years I have realized how connected we all are. The rewarding part was especially exciting because it was so fun to watch players grow, learn and evolve as people, not just players.

Who are your role models in coaching?

I drew on my past coaches, especially Art Lambert, and used some of the same drills and concepts, although he was a pretty fiery guy and I was a little more laid back--think VW bus. I learned a ton from him and my other college coach, Lee Walton at San Jose State. Both had different ways of doing things and I took a little from each. Art would be very clear where he wanted us to shoot, and Lee would sometimes ask us where we should have shot, depending on the player, both work.

What are some coaching principles you’ve learned that guide you today?

I think I have learned a lot from coaching, not only about the game and how to get it across to the athletes but about people and dealing with different types of people. As a rookie coach, Art told me early on, when you do a drill with the team, learn when to move on. Some of the players will know the skill right away, some will learn it about halfway through and there will be some who are not going to get it that day, so as not to lose the group, know when to move on. I also learned that players react to different styles of coaching. Some respond to a pat on the back and some respond to a kick in the ass. Figuring out who thrived with which is one of the secrets of coaching. I also learned that what is right is right, it doesn't matter who says it. So if an assistant coach or a player has an idea or input, listen and if it's good advice, go with it, don't let your ego get in the way. One of the most important things I felt I learned was that you need to be positive with your players more than negative. You need to say four good things for every negative, even if you have to make something up, and man did I have to make things up with some teams and players. You have to remember that they hang on your every word and remember everything you say. Finally, as a coach, especially on the college level, you can't win the derby on a donkey, you need good players. In high school you need to develop and create good players, on the college or international level, you need to recruit good players that you can get to play a certain way or style.