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Winning the Jesuit Way

Winning the Jesuit Way

Two alumni team up to examine the culture of Royals athletics.

Matthew L. Davidson, Ph.D. ’93 calls himself a “strength and conditioning coach for culture.”

The former Scranton lacrosse player and women’s basketball assistant coach created the nonprofit Institute for Excellence & Ethics (IEE) to help schools, companies and institutions achieve excellence with integrity. And since 2014, he has been an instrumental voice in the development of The Royal Way, the mission and vision of The University of Scranton’s Department of Athletics.

Davidson worked with a collaborative team at the University throughout the process of developing The Royal Way, including Dave Martin, director of athletics, Robert W. Davis Jr., Ed.D. ‘03, vice president for Student Life at Scranton, and Toby Lovecchio, who was director of athletics when the process began and is now chief of staff in the President’s Office at Scranton, Ryan Maher, then director of the Jesuit Center, past University Presidents Kevin P. Quinn, S.J., and Herbert Keller, S.J., and current President Scott R. Pilarz, S.J.

The essence of The Royal Way is in the first sentence of its mission statement: “We compete with an attitude of gratitude and greatness, striving to win each day our way.”

“It’s the way that we want to conduct our business,” said Martin, who Davidson and Davis agree was the “heart and soul” of the project. “We want to win. We want to win as much as anybody. But we want to win on our terms, by doing it our way — The Royal Way.”

Davidson, who did his graduate work in character development, moral psychology and character education, and Davis, who oversees the Department of Athletics in his current role, published the results of their work in Jesuit Higher Education: A Journal in January 2019, in an article titled, “Sport at the Service of Human Development,” which they hope will encourage other institutions to take a closer look at how to inspire and guide their athletes.

While each of the Scranton teams are striving for athletic excellence and success on the field of play, winning isn’t the main goal of the Department of Athletics. Rather, it’s winning the Jesuit way.

“In and through the experience of athletics, there is a unique opportunity to experience the Jesuit values in a way that is personal and deeply relevant,” Davidson said. He used the analogy of a golfer having a rough day on the course — bad weather, poor shots, playing from a place of fear and doubt.

“Your ability to find peace, to play present, to let go of mistakes, to be grateful for the moment, even during that tough situation, those are all ways in which — if you are aware of them — you understand what it means to find God in all things,” he said. “Once you can be grateful for adversity in sport, you can extend that to other areas of your life.”

Just as strength and conditioning coaches help athletes get in peak shape for competition, The Royal Way primes Scranton student-athletes for success on the field and in life.

The Royal Way

“Once you can be grateful for adversity in sport, you can extend that to other areas of your life.” - Matthew L. Davidson, Ph.D.

 When Scranton partnered with Davidson’s organization in 2014, it was out of a desire to integrate the University’s Jesuit mission more deeply into the student-athlete experience.

“There was a sense that athletics was operating in a vacuum and that the experience of our athletes was different than the general student body,” said Davis. “Our hope in this process was to create a department that improved the student-athlete experience across the board, which includes things like faith development, academic success and competitive success.”

Enter Davidson, who Davis said, “cares deeply about Scranton and the work we were hoping to undertake. It also struck me that he had an authenticity about faith and spoke the language of athletics with credibility that student-athletes would relate to easily. He and Dave Martin have been the major reasons that this effort was embraced by coaches and student-athletes.”

The work began with conversations and focus groups about the current culture in athletics, and what could be improved. Coaches, student-athletes, administrators, parents and alumni all took part. Then, within the department, leaders and student-athletes worked together to develop The Royal Way mission statement. Part of that process was determining how five distinctly Jesuit values factored into the student-athlete experience at Scranton: magis, cura personalis, men and women for others, finding God in all things and transformational love and justice.

In addition to the conversations, IEE measured these concepts through anonymous surveys of each team, asking them to think collectively about how their entire team experiences these five values. From there, the data informs the programming supporting The Royal Way, whether it is leadership training for all student-athletes or something that focuses on a specific issue or weakness within one team, which could be anything from offering more service opportunities to confronting cliques or a party culture.

Davidson credits the entire athletic department and every coaching staff for engaging in a “time of great trust and soul searching” to create The Royal Way.

And that knowledge and experience stems directly from his time as a student at Scranton, Davidson says. He was an English and philosophy major in the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts (SJLA) program and says he uses concepts and lessons learned in the Scranton classroom in his work every day.

“I have so much to be grateful for from Scranton. I used to joke that I was a ‘recovering academic,’ a cheesy way to get a laugh from the coaches I work with, until my old philosophy professor David Black told me I can’t be a recovering academic if I’m making my living on what I learned here as an English and philosophy major. I’m still an academic,” Davidson said. “At Scranton, I learned not just the philosophical ideas about virtue and character and culture or spiritual ideas, but also how to speak, how to write and how to be passionate about others and causes greater than yourself.”

Davidson also met his wife, Suzanne (Mandia) Davidson ’93, at Scranton and together they have four children. They also launched IEE together, and she currently serves as the organization’s project director. Davidson is one of nine children himself, and several of his siblings went to Scranton. He is grateful for the opportunity to give back to an athletic department that made a significant impact on his own life. 

“It’s hard to even capture — it’s one of the great ‘surprised by grace’ moments of my life,” he said. “Every time I’m working with the coaches or the student-athletes or back on campus, I pinch myself and I count my blessings.” 

More Than Just Wins and Losses

Since implementing The Royal Way in late 2015, Scranton athletics is tallying wins on the field of play. But what’s happening off the scoreboard is equally important to Royals coaches and student-athletes.

"Our student-athletes have become examples for living the mission of the University." - Robert Davis, Ph.D.

“It’s easy to judge athletics success in wins and losses. However, these results alone are not enough to judge the impact athletics has on student-athletes and their formation at Scranton,” Davis said. “The effort we’ve undertaken includes student-athletes having success on the field, but also focuses on their experience and ensures that they have balance in athletics, academics, faith and personal relationships. The results of striving for that balance have improved relationships among student-athletes, coaches and members of the community. Our student-athletes have become examples for living the mission of the University.”

Players can often be heard referencing The Royal Way on and off the field. After its implementation, Chase Standen ’18, a baseball player, wrote to coaches and his fellow athletes about the importance of reflection in “The Royal Way Sunday Playbook,” a method of communication used to inspire and encourage athletes from within the department on Sundays.

“It is important to take a moment at the end of each week to reflect on the work that you have done in order to make changes to improve,” wrote Standen. One question he encouraged them to ask of themselves was: “Did I do everything I could to make my teammates better as individuals?”

Coaches, like students, are learning a new game. Colleen Pivirotto, the head women’s soccer coach, has embraced The Royal Way.

“As coaches, we are able to take concepts from The Royal Way and apply them to everyday situations that happen at practices or games,” she said. “On our team, we talk about ‘finding optimal,’ a concept we learned through Royal Way programming. ‘Finding optimal’ means looking for the positives even in a challenging situation.”

Going forward, Davis has plans to share the success from Scranton with other Jesuit colleges and universities, and Davidson and the IEE are also working with fellow Jesuit schools LeMoyne College and Fairfield University. Davidson sees an opportunity for Jesuit schools to become leaders in bringing a focus on human development into intercollegiate athletics. Most coaches are trained and experts in their specific sport, but Davidson said that few college-level coaches receive the leadership and character training that is so important for coaching student-athletes as people, not just machines primed to win.

“Too often, the competitive experience impoverishes the academic and spiritual experience, and it leaves young people broken, not fortified for life,” Davidson said. “So, I think that the Jesuit colleges and universities — who have always had a commitment to nurturing mind, body and soul — can really be the leaders in showing what it looks like for the rest of the NCAA.”

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