FACETIME- Paradigm shift: Coach takes Tandem to state finals

John Davis

Tandem Friends School had never been a sports powerhouse. The small independent school south of town was known for nurturing artistic talents including the bass player for the Dave Matthews Band. Tandem sports were more about recreation than competition.

Now the school finds itself with several sports successes including its boys varsity soccer team that ranked number one in the state last season and came in second in the division II independent schools state finals.

"There was a remarkably relaxed attitude around athletics," says John Davis, the man who leads the soccer team.

The 47-year-old coach and history teacher says the sports program he found when he arrived at Tandem in 2000 was "very elastic." Tandem teams required no try-outs, attendance at practice was inconsistent, and a few boys' teams were co-ed. When Head of School Paul Perkinson hired the former middle school director from Chesapeake Academy in Irvington, he expected Davis to raise the bar.

"This is a guy who just loves soccer," says Perkinson. "He has that very happy collision of loving kids and loving soccer and really wanting to share that enthusiasm and excitement."

Before he could raise the bar, however, Davis had to level the playing field. The first change he made was to insist that only boys play on the boys' team.

 "You coach boys very differently than you do girls," says Davis. "When you're trying to do both at the same time, it's very difficult. For me, that was one of the biggest obstacles to cultivating a more competitive, focused team."

Davis then began insisting on longer, more structured training sessions focused on skills and technique. He drilled players in receiving, passing, and handling the ball before even mentioning tactics. Eventually, the group of individuals coalesced as a single unit to become the first Tandem team in any sport to reach the state finals.

"I was just lucky enough to have a group of young men who were able to embrace that selfless, hardworking, showing-up-for-everything attitude," says Davis. "That was where our success lay: with their hard work. I just supplied the structure."  These days he's also supplying the structure and inspiration for individuals– adults as well as young people– as a private coach through his business, TouchLine Soccer. But the philosophy is the same.

"It's about being part of something bigger than yourself," he says. "It doesn't matter about being tiny little Tandem. I wanted them to cast off this cloak of learned helplessness, of losing before they walked onto the pitch, and start seeing themselves as winners. It was a real paradigm shift for some of these guys."