We are honored to feature David Watkins this week. He has seized one opportunity after another, whether a last minute athletic scholarship, a single offer to coach college track and cross country, or the chance to serve our country as a member of the U.S. Military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), aka the Bomb Squad. We know his work has saved countless lives. The amazing thing is, he’s not done yet. David is transitioning come September and is excited to continue being a force of positive change focused on inclusiveness and diversity. Note: He’s on the job market, and we’re going to go ahead and say that any team would be lucky to have him.

David Watkins: Leader on the track and in the heat of battleTLY: You studied Sports Management and Sports Leadership. Did you have athletic coaching in mind as a career or were you always looking to work for the U.S. Military?

David Watkins: I come from what most would label as a poor, broken family. University wasn’t something that was encouraged or even discussed growing up. As a young high school freshman, I had aspirations of serving my country… mainly as I viewed this as the only way to a better life. My intent was to enlist in the Army right after graduating high school, but at the last moment possible, I was offered an athletic scholarship to run track and cross country. With some influence by my best friend’s parents and my personal coach, I elected to go to university instead.

While running in college, I developed a true love for the sport and it became a passion shortly after when I began coaching my wife. When I first entered the coaching profession, I reached out to every collegiate program in the Atlanta area.  The only response I received was from Morehouse College, an all male historically black college. At Morehouse, I was fully welcomed and appreciated straight from the start… and I owe the world to Coach Willy Hill for mentoring me into the coach I am today.

During the beginning years of coaching, I simultaneously began serving in the US Army National Guard. This permitted me to pursue both passions of being a part-time Soldier and developing my talents as a young coach. Over the first few years, these passions led me to different programs that further developed me as a coach and as a military leader.  It was by chance that I decided to pursue the military full-time after completing my undergraduate studies. My original plan was to serve 3-4 years as an Officer and then transition back into coaching full-time.  The only problem with this plan was that I found Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), AKA the Bomb Squad.  This was a profession that I felt deep in my core was impactful and made a difference. Our job is to render safe and dispose of all explosive threats. With the main cause of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan being from roadside bombs, I felt it was my duty to do all I could to save the lives of my Sisters and Brothers in the military and to the innocent people of the countries we fought and died in.

Today, I am able to follow both passions.  The military has treated me well and permitted me to volunteer with USA Track & Field as a manager and a coach. I truly couldn’t ask for anything more.

TLY: You’ve developed extensive U.S. Army training and talent management programs–what is the most critical component of effective training programs?

DW: In my experiences, training must be realistic and it must challenge us to grow, both professionally and personally. If I am training Soldiers on how to conduct electronics diagnostics on an improvised explosive device (IED) or coaching an Olympic hopeful to handle the rigors of racing the 800-meters three times over a four day period, the training must be as realistic as it can possibly be.  Realism provides the trainee the ability to execute their mission automatically, no matter what external factors impede them on race day or in battle.

In running, we train our bodies to go beyond what we believe is physically possible and in the Army we train so we can conduct our mission in the heat of battle. We prepare for and anticipate all possible contingency, and we hone our skills and talents to where our reaction to the various contingencies become automatic. The final piece that is important, no matter what we are training for, is to become resilient. There is so much that can go wrong in training or in execution that we must develop the mental and physical capacity to know we can overcome any hurdle. Even in a race that last less than 10 seconds there is a laundry list of things that could happen. We must enter the race or battle with mindset that we can win and, as Coach John Wooden would say, we must realize there are wins that occur even in a loss.

TLY: You mentor, a lot. What do you look for in those you mentor?

DW: Well, on one level, in the Army we don’t get to pick who is responsible for mentoring us and who we get to mentor. Our chain-of-command system decides this and there are many different levels to the type of mentoring that occurs, such as performance versus potential. For others that are in this position, I urge them to take it seriously and take personal responsibility for those we are to mentor and coach.

On a different level, we do find others that are not in our chain-of-command for mentoring. This relationship tends to be far more effective as it relates to talent development. No matter the type of mentoring or coaching relationship we have, I believe it is important for the mentor to provide candor in their feedback and for the mentee to be willing to accept the feedback in a constructive manner.

In my early years, I was very defensive when I received negative feedback on my performance. I think this is a natural response as we all put in a lot of hard work in everything we do, so when someone tells us it wasn’t to standard it can be difficult to accept. But, it’s important for us to develop, and candid feedback is the only method to grow adequately and timely.

TLY: If you could go back to your younger-self the day you graduated from IUPUI what advice would you give yourself?

DW: Follow your true passion! We’ve all heard it said that if you are doing what you are truly passionate about, you will never work a day in your life. I wholeheartedly believe this and wish I could have taken this to heart earlier in life. I believe my path still got me to the things I am most passionate about, but it was a much slower process as I wondered aimlessly for several years. Even when I knew my passions, I frequently veered off track as I was easily distracted and unfocused. Once I developed a sense of purpose, my path to success became unstoppable. I suggest discovering all you can about your interests, learn what it takes to get to where you what to be, seek out key people that can help you get to where you want to be, and then move out with a purpose and an sense of unwavering motivation to reach your personal and professional aspirations.

TLY: What skill has served you best in your career?

DW: Interpersonal / Emotional Intelligence — the ability to communicate and relate with people of various backgrounds and across difference levels is paramount to being effective in any career. Taking it a step further, if we can develop an awareness to other’s emotions, then we can be more effective at how we communicate with others. These two skills go well beyond being able to talk or present information… it’s the ability to make a connection with others. This is the backbone to influencing those we lead.

TLY: As a Coach and Manager of Team USA Track & Field, what parallels do you see most often between your volunteer and full-time work?

DW: The single most important aspect related to being a Coach and an Army Officer is taking care of people. I’ve always taken a humanistic approach to everything I do, placing a huge value on the people I coach and lead. If we place those we lead at the heart of all our decisions, I can’t see how anyone would ever make a bad decision. The people of an organization or a team are the foundation for what it represents and for what it stands for.  As leaders, we develop the culture and environment that all others will adopt. If we show up ready to lead people instead of managing them, the people will follow you anywhere… even face first into battle.

TLY: Your resume is impressive (and that is the understatement of the century)–what are you most excited about as you transition from your role in the U.S. Army?

DW: Honestly, I am excited about the uncertainty of what lies ahead. I am now mature enough and experienced enough to know what I want and how to get there. I’ve developed long lasting relationships with people that I know I can depend on for help as I venture out on a new path… one that is mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive for both my wife and myself.  One thing is for certain… no matter where I go next, I will make a worthwhile impact and be a force of positive change that is focused on inclusiveness and diversity.

TLY: Quote or mantra to live by?

DW: “Never forget where you are from.” As a brand new Soldier in the US Army, Drill Sergeant Bryant at Boot Camp must have seen something in me when he told me to “never forget your Battle Buddies.” I’ve taken this to heart in every position I have ever held. I know where I am from and I remember all the people I have served alongside. I remember my Battle Buddy, Ryan and all the tough times we went through together in order to call ourselves Infantrymen.  I remember the only fellow Soldier from Boot Camp that is no longer with us when he was killed in action when he unit was ambushed in Iraq. I remember my one and only NCAA All-American, Alan, when he pushed himself beyond his limits to reach the finals and guarantee himself the ultimate honor as a collegiate student-athlete. I remember the key influential people in my life that pushed me to be and do more each and every day. This is the key to networking… developing lasting relationships that are based on substance… not just meeting people you can ask a favor from… but truly getting to know others that want to mentor and coach you to be a better person.

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