Coaching with Class

Department: Athletics

By Melissa A. Torres-Laing

It’s day one of spring training. Coach Ken Smith, dressed in his signature long-sleeved T, cap, and wide-brimmed hat hanging off his shoulders, stands at the edge of Waterhouse Pool. He extends his right arm into the air, palm up to the sky, and moves his left shoulder up and down in short, quick bursts. From afar it may look like the newest dance craze, but varsity water polo player La‘a Marquez ’14, treading water and observing, gets the message. “If you do something [like this] with your left shoulder, then that could get the goalie jumping,” Smith advises, demonstrating the fake-out move known as a hitch. Marquez nods and swims back to her teammates practicing the strenuous maneuver that heavily relies on lower-body strength. “You’re a basketball player; you’ve got the legs to carry you!” he shouts.

Above, the November 4, 2011, ILH championship game against ‘Iolani led to victory, and a dip in the water for Coach Smith.

Smith’s patient attitude underscores an unflappable nature, but his demeanor also speaks volumes about a coaching style that puts positive reinforcement and individualized treatment at the forefront. His philosophy is one that not only defies the stereotypical image of a win-at-all-costs type of coach, but has also inspired many players during his 38 years as water polo coach.

His approach – to get athletes to perform the best they can in mind, body and spirit – helps his 40 current players dodge the ever-present pressures of sports participation and stay focused in the moment. To do this effectively, Smith doles out a dose of fun along with feedback. “If they’re not having fun, how can they learn?” he explains. Take his theme of the season. At the end of each practice, an athlete, chosen by teammates, moves a glass marble from one jar to another. But each marble represents something they have accomplished. With roughly 90 days per season, the exercise helps them enjoy the experience and refocus their energy on smaller goals rather than a possible win and to realize that every day is a precious one.

“If you don’t play the game for the right reasons you can only go so far,” says 5-year water polo player Griffin Bolan ’12. “Winning never became the sole focus of any season. The only pressure I ever felt was making sure I treated every game with the same devotion and fervor Coach brought to every practice and to every day. When you have that kind of role model in your life, you do everything you can to emulate those values.”

“I think good coaches are good teachers, and I hope my coaching has all the elements of good teaching,” Smith says. And like good teachers, Smith connects with his players on an individual level. Instead of a one-size-fits all approach, he establishes “personal relationships, so you really get to know them as people and not just as students or athletes.” He knows which players benefit from diagramming a new play, talking it through, or simulating it. “I don’t think you can treat everybody the same,” he says, “I have to be able to look at you and know if you’re an auditory, kinesthetic or visual learner. And when I coach, I need to do a little bit of all of those, because not everyone is going to respond to me lecturing.”

Smith knows personal style is everything. “What motivates you?” and “What kind of feedback do you like?” are just some of questions he asks his players that allow him to get to know them. “Once you do that, you can establish more trust. You can’t trust somebody that you don’t really know.”

It’s that type of tailored coaching that prepared Maureen Flanagan ’99 Cole for her role as head women’s water polo coach at UH-Manoa. Having played water polo from grades 9 through 12, Cole cites Smith’s coaching style as influencing her life in many ways. “He made me into not only the best water polo player that I could be, but was able to motivate me to strive for excellence in the areas of mind, body and spirit. So many coaches focus on just the physical aspects of improving their athletes, but that wasn’t Ken. He was always finding ways for us to improve in all arenas.”

Many of Smith’s ideals stem from the late basketball coach John Wooden, and mirror the principles of the Positive Coaching Alliance. The organization’s mission, to create a positive, character-building youth sports environment, is embraced and supported by Punahou Athletic Director Jeaney Garcia. Since taking the reins as director in 2009, Garcia has required PCA certification for all coaches. Smith’s use of constructive criticism reflects the same PCA sensibilities that boost a player’s confidence. Never belligerent or condescending, Smith empowers his athletes by using “If-Then” statements as critique. “IF you want to score more goals, THEN it would be a good idea to shoot cross the goal, or IF you want to perform at a higher level, THEN it would be a better idea to be in the weight room in the off season,” says Smith. “In this way the players make the choice if they want to take the information or not. In other words, the players have ownership for the decisions they make.”

From early-morning practices to hours in the weight room, every water polo player knows the sport is physically demanding. But the disciplined sport can also bring about a level of assuredness that Courtney Miller ’12 says has made her a well-rounded and confident varsity team member.

“What makes Coach so influential is his willingness and enthusiasm to pass on his knowledge. Coach has helped me grow from an intimidated freshman goalie to a team leader,” says Miller.

Part of attaining that confidence, Smith says, is giving them the green light to make the right type of mistakes. The difference between “mistakes by omission and mistakes by commission” is huge, he says. A mistake by omission is when a player fails to do something they know well. But mistakes by commission happen when a player takes a risk and discovers something remarkable about their ability along the way. “Those are the ones that you allow and encourage.” To make a point, during part of one season, Smith charted how many mistakes his players made and based playing time on who made the most. Needless to say, it helped players conquer a fear of making mistakes and gave them the confidence to try new things.

Perhaps Coach Ken Smith’s greatest message to his players can be wrapped up in the sentiments of Chris Duplanty ’84. Although successful in three Olympic games (1988, Silver Medal winner; in 1992; and in 1996 as team captain), Duplanty doesn’t list his accomplishments in terms of wins and losses, but by how he improved as a person and player. “Ken is responsible for giving me an incredibly strong foundation, which enabled me to pursue my passions and realize the tremendous potential that lies within every one of us. … Now that I am a father, my hope is that [my] own boys, during their lifetimes, will have the great fortune of crossing paths with someone like Ken.”

Coach's Stats: Ken Smith

Training / Education

Varsity water polo player for the University of California – Los Angeles, where he competed as a starter on four undefeated teams. Obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA.

Faculty Designation

Grades 6 – 8 Physical Education Teacher

Teams: Water Polo

Head coach: girls intermediate, girls varsity I, boys intermediate and boys varsity I

Fun Facts

  • A friend recommended Smith referee the 3rd Annual Water Polo Tournament in Hawai‘i in 1971. He enjoyed it so much that he moved to Hawai‘i to coach the tournament and eventually joined the Punahou faculty in 1973.
  • Smith has had a player on the U.S. water polo team at every Olympic game since 1988.
  • In 1997, Smith helped create the girls varsity water polo team
  • In 2002, Smith was inducted into the Hawai‘i Sports Hall of Fame
  • Enjoys making stained glass windows


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