From Competitor to Coach: A Conversation with David Boudia

Gabriel Ellsworth, Contributor

Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) talks with U.S. Olympic diving champion David Boudia.

David Boudia has had the most successful career of any American diver in this century. After making his Olympic debut at Beijing in 2008, he brought home two medals from London in 2012 (gold, men’s 10-meter platform; bronze, men’s synchronized 10-meter platform, with Nick McCrory). His gold medal was the first won by an American man in 10-meter since Greg Louganis’s in 1988. At Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Boudia won two more medals: a silver in synchro (with Steele Johnson) and a bronze in the individual platform event. USA Diving named him their Athlete of the Year eight times.

After a remarkable career as an athlete, last year Boudia retired from active competition and began a new career as a coach. He took up the position of Assistant Diving Coach at Purdue University, his alma mater, in July 2021. Boudia is the most-decorated athlete in the history of Purdue University.

In February, Purdue hosted the Big Ten Men’s Swimming & Diving Championships. Boudia took time to sit down with me during the Big Tens to discuss a wide range of topics including leadership, humility, mental health, faith, and family.

Gabriel Ellsworth: In the RC LEAD course at HBS, we talk about how we’ll be making a transition in our career from individual contributor to manager and leader within a few years after business school.

Professor Tony Mayo said to my section that this transition is very hard for a lot of MBAs; you’ve gotten here because you’ve been a strong individual contributor, but soon after HBS, your career is going to involve more managing and leading than being an individual contributor.

You are making that transition right now, going from competitor to coach. What has that transition been like in your career or between careers?

David Boudia: Athletes’ timelines are unique. At a young age, I was able to accomplish a lot of success in my diving career. [Author’s note: Boudia, now 33, was 23 when he won gold in London.] And I stuck with it because, first, I loved to train, and I loved the competition, but it also provided for my family well. It was a job that I loved to do, and it helped us financially.

But there came a point, in June of 2021, when I knew that I was going to have my last try at the Olympic Games. And for about a year before that, I had been saying to myself, “If I go into coaching, then that’s a step down from what I’ve been doing.” There’s an enormous amount of pride that went into that—like, “I should be going off to do something bigger and better”—and I think that was my ego getting in the way. Once I began to dabble around in coaching, I realized that I still love this atmosphere, but I don’t love to train and compete as much anymore. So I wanted to be able to fuel that love, and coaching was a natural fit.

One of the greatest coaches at Purdue in history is the diving coach, Adam Soldati, who was my coach when I dove for Purdue. He’s not looking to retire anytime soon, but we figured out a way for me to be the assistant coach.

This was a humbling thing for me, but the transition to coaching has turned out to be pretty easy and natural. I trained from when I was 11 years old until 32 in this sport, so diving has been my entire life. And what has made this transition from competing to coaching so fulfilling is that I’m still in this atmosphere that I love. I think I crave the intensity of this atmosphere, the pressure, having to be on your toes and figure out the problem at hand and solve it. That’s what correcting a dive comes down to. While I’m no longer doing that as an athlete, I’m now trying to do it as a coach.

GE: In my career, I’m just starting to manage people instead of being an individual contributor, and it felt as though overnight, I was doing a different job, in terms of how I structure my time and what my priorities are at any given time. Has it mostly been a smooth and easy transition for you?

DB: Yes, for the most part. The hours have been an adjustment. When I was an athlete, I trained for two two-hour blocks each day but was off in between them. Now it’s more like a standard job in terms of hours.

But the hardest thing about the transition is that when I was an athlete, I was their teammate, but now I am their coach—I guess you could say their “boss.” And the hardest part of that role is managing the emotions of the athletes. There are ten different personalities on this team, and I’m still learning what helps each one the most and how best to communicate it. I’m only seven months into my role; to some extent, we’re still learning how to develop a relationship to be able to create change in their diving.

GE: How do you define success now that you’re in this role, compared to when you were competing?

DB: That’s a hard question, because everyone’s success is different. I’ve often quoted John Wooden (1910–2010), who was a Purdue basketball player and famous UCLA basketball coach. Wooden would say, don’t focus on the things that you can’t control; that adversely affects the things that you can control.

When we think about the word “success,” we often think about comparing yourself to somebody else, instead of what you are able to achieve. But my hope, my vision of success as a coach, is to do my best to help the athletes become the best athletes they can become.

As a competitor, and even as a coach, one of the hardest things is to learn how to manage my competitive nature. I didn’t become a diver and want to go to the Olympics because I just wanted to go through it—like, “hopefully I make the Olympics and then hopefully I win!” My drive was, I want to become one of the best in the world. But once I’m in a competition, now all my competitors are gone. The challenge is “How am I going to get through these six dives in this competition?” I’m not worried about Tom Daley from the UK or the Chinese divers, who are phenomenal, because going back to that Wooden quote, I have zero control over what they’re doing.

And so I think it’s a hard balance, but an important balancing act to learn when to focus on a competitor and when to just focus on what you’re trying to accomplish.

GE: When you’re a competitor, success is your own success, by definition. But as a coach, the definition of success is “do my athletes perform well,” right?

DB: Right, totally. If you’re a basketball coach and you just went 0 and 15 for three years in a row, I doubt your university is going to continue to allow you to coach.

GE: You mentioned that there was some pride there when you were thinking about what to do after retiring from competing. And in your book, Greater than Gold: From Olympic Heartbreak to Ultimate Redemption (2016), you talk about how you struggled with pride and arrogance and self-centeredness when you were younger and as you were growing up.

What does humility mean to you, and what should humility look like ideally?

DB: That’s a tough one, because sometimes if we say “I’m humble in this area,” there can be a kind of arrogance and pride in that. But to answer your question, I think we have to put others before ourselves. In the Bible, Jesus says, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16).

The key to putting others before me, even though everything inside of me is like “No, you need to get out in front,” is to have a circle of people close to me who will hold me accountable for it. My wife, my coach (Adam), and some other friends I trust would tell me hard things, like “You probably didn’t treat that flight attendant as you should.” When you have a circle around you like that, that’s what helps you tear down your pride, and hopefully you respond to them graciously and grow in humility.

GE: Has it gotten easier to cultivate humility now that you’re no longer as directly in the spotlight?

DB: To some extent, yes. But I’m still pretty recognizable around here. [The Morgan J. Burke Aquatic Center at Purdue features a large portrait of Boudia painted on a wall over the main entranceway.] People still approach me about my success. And what’s tricky about cultivating humility is that when you’ve had success, you often go to one of two extremes. At times you become super numb to it, or at other times you’re entitled, like “Everyone get out of my way because I’ve done marvelous things and you need to bow to me.” And again, that circle around you of wise people you trust, who can say the things that you don’t want to hear but will help you, is so important.

GE: So how do you practice humility authentically, in a way that includes a healthy recognition of how much you’ve achieved?

DB: I think the easiest way to practice humility authentically is to serve somebody, even when they’re the last person you want to serve. Sometimes there are moments when people have just been hurtful to you emotionally, and two minutes later they’re asking something of you, and the last thing you want to do is go help them. Those are the biggest moments to be able to step outside of yourself and say, “I am not the point of this life. I need to go and serve that person.”

Doing that genuinely is hard, and it goes back to what is your purpose in life? Why are you here, what are you doing, and where are you going?

GE: You’ve spoken about your faith and written about it. Now that you’re leading as a coach, how does your religion inform your approach to leadership?

DB: After I won gold in London, I was able to speak at a lot of different places, and in my speech I would use a lot of Biblical principles. People would come up to my wife and me and say, “That was so profound; I’ve never heard something like that before.” This would make us laugh afterwards, because we’d say to each other, “Well, it’s in the Bible, and it’s been there for 2,000 years. It’s nothing new!”

Everyone on this team knows about my faith and knows about Adam’s faith. But I’m not going to shove it down their throat. I’m focused on developing relationships with our team members, and using Biblical principles in those relationships. So maybe one day, there would be an open door for me to say to them, “You are different. Why are you different?”

I can’t say I’ve always been perfect at this, but the best way that I know how to lead is to look at how God is leading, and use his principles and his Word.

GE: How, if at all, has your faith been evolving as you’ve started this second career as a coach?

DB: [laughs] I chuckled because having four kids, I think my faith is growing more at home than it is here at work. You want to learn how to be humble? You go serve someone who just screamed “No!” at you three times. But here at work, too, I’m growing and learning how to be patient with others. Just the other day, I was talking to one of the divers, and I said something to him that I’ve said to my seven-year-old.

When you’re in any sort of leadership role, whether parenting or coaching, the biggest things that you have to do are one, learn how to be patient. Two, learn how to die to yourself. And finally, learn how to communicate and cultivate relationships. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a coach at Purdue University or a CEO; those are probably the hardest things to do, and I would love to meet someone who has mastered them.

GE: Next, I’d like to talk about mental health. You’ve been outspoken about the mental-health challenges that Olympic athletes face. You’ve written about your experiences of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts in the past. Was it hard the first time you disclosed publicly that you’d experienced these things?

DB: Honestly, no, but the only reason I say that is I know what my foundation is, and I know my identity is not tied to my depression. If someone wants to define me as “the kid who’s depressed,” that’s fine, but I know that’s not who I am.

GE: What advice would you give to MBAs who are pursuing high-powered careers and might experience similar challenges?

DB: Whether it’s the Olympic Games or your career and life at work, it’s going to be a huge roller-coaster ride. There are going to be extremely high highs: you could accept an offer at the company of your dreams, you get the promotion that you’ve been working for your entire life, whatever it is. But there’s also super-mundane, everyday low lows.

I wasn’t prepared to ride that roller coaster after my first Olympic Games, where I was on the highest high, and then all of a sudden it was done. But it became easier after my second and third Olympics, and then you get knocked on your face trying to make the Olympic team for your fourth … you just learn that there’s going to be lows, and it’s okay to have lows and struggle with them, but sitting in it by yourself is, I think, sometimes not okay.

GE: Going back to family, how do you think about balancing the demands of work and family? Many men at HBS are concerned about how they can be good husbands and fathers while also succeeding in their careers. What advice would you give about how to make the right trade-offs?

DB: Probably the hardest thing is turning off work once you get to the driveway, and that’s one of the most crucial things that you can do. The way I think about it is, during the day I’m at my first job, and then when I’m driving home, I’m not “going home,” I’m going to my second job. That can sound cynical, but I’m there to work. I’m there to help serve my wife. I’m there to help love and play with my children, and it’s not a time for me to just veg out and say “I had a long day; I’m just going to go rest for the rest of the night.” I’m there to be dad and husband and to work hard in our house.

My father-in-law has always said, “You make time for things that are important to you.” So whatever it is you’re making time for, that means it’s probably important to you. That’s always stuck with me. Like if I’m lying on the rug when my son’s asking me to play tractors, I have to ask myself: what’s more important to me—my kids, or me sitting on my phone scrolling through this?

GE: You mentioned purpose earlier. My ALD [Authentic Leader Development] professor told us that “knowing and living your purpose is the only sure way to resolve the tensions at the heart of the struggle to live an integrated life.”

What is your purpose in life?

DB: You had a whole semester to answer that, and you’re only giving me a minute! But I would say, on a complex but also simple level, my purpose is to love God and to love others. What does that mean? I was created, and so my purpose is to glorify the Creator. And out of that, to love the people that he created.

Am I going to do that perfectly? Absolutely not. Am I going to win a bunch of people because I loved them and told them about my faith? Absolutely not. But as long as I’m striving to make God known more than myself and continue to be thankful and praise him, then I would say I lived out my purpose.

GE: And specifically for the leadership part of your work and career right now, what do you think is your leadership purpose?

DB: I would have to adopt Adam’s, because that’s what I’ve known since I started diving at Purdue in 2008. Adam’s and my leadership purpose is to create an environment where a champion can be made. My job is not to make each of our athletes a champion. That’s their job. But Adam and I try to create the right atmosphere and equip them with all the tools that they need to reach their greatest potential.

GE: One last question. Out of curiosity, when was the last time that you were on the [diving] boards yourself?

DB: I haven’t done a dive since my last dive at the Olympic Trials last June. Maybe this will change at some point, but at least for now, I don’t miss it.

Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) was Editor-in-Chief of the Harbus in 2019. He now works as a consultant in Bain & Company’s Boston office. As a young boy, he fantasized about becoming a novelist, but he quickly realized that he did not actually have any ideas for novels. His athletic career peaked when he was in his teens competing (at nowhere near the Olympic level) as a 1-meter springboard diver.