Soldier Coach of the Month April 2024

Master Sergeant (Ret.) Neil Wattier U.S. Air Force

Soldiers To Sidelines is proud to honor Master Sergeant (Ret.) Neil Wattier U.S. Air Force as Soldier Coach of the Month April 2024 for his incredible empathy, commitment to coaching mastery, and selfless service. Coach Wattier serves as Mental Performance Coach for Grand Canyon University Men’s Rugby. He has had an incredible coaching journey his entire life exploring the depths of how to motivate people to achieve peace of mind, resilience, and extraordinary performance. Neil certified with STS in 2021 and has been highly engaged since. Learn more about Coach Wattier by reading the interview below.

STS: Tell your story about how and why you go into coaching. Discuss how coaching has impacted you as a person.

Coach Wattier:  My coaching journey began as a sports-loving dad. When my children were young, I coached soccer, baseball, softball, football, and ice hockey. As they grew and surpassed my dad-level technical expertise, I shifted my focus to supporting in other ways, such as strength and conditioning and play-by-play broadcasting.

During my service in the military, I was encouraged to engage in community service. This led me to volunteer roles, assisting with high school wrestling and coaching semi-pro women’s football. Additionally, I spent over a decade as a CrossFit instructor at various military affiliates.

My interest in the psychological aspects of performance was piqued after I encountered the Air Force and Army Master Resilience Training programs. This experience steered me towards a master’s degree in performance psychology, enriching my coaching toolkit and leading to a teaching position at Grand Canyon University where I continue to serve as a Mental Performance Coach with the men’s rugby team. I expanded my role as mental performance coaching by volunteering with youth sports programs across the Phoenix metro area, including volleyball, swim, and competitive cheer teams.

Recently, I’ve taken a significant step in my career by accepting a Cognitive Performance Specialist position where I will provide mental skills coaching to Air Force pilots at Holloman AFB, NM, leveraging my extensive experience to enhance pilot performance under pressure.

Coaching has profoundly impacted me, continuously inspiring personal growth and a deeper understanding of human potential. It’s a journey that has not only allowed me to help others but has also been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling personally.

STS: How has your military experience influenced you as a coach?

Coach Wattier:  My military experience profoundly shaped my approach to coaching. It instilled in me the values of servant leadership, which is the foundation of how I build and lead teams. This approach emphasizes the importance of serving others and prioritizing the development and well-being of team members, which directly influences their performance and cohesion.

My leadership style focuses heavily on combining empathy with accountability. I strive to understand the individual needs and challenges of each athlete or team member, fostering a supportive environment to encourage open communication and mutual respect. At the same time, I maintain a clear standard of accountability, ensuring everyone understands their roles and the expectations placed upon them. This balance helps in nurturing a disciplined yet caring team culture.

My coaching is deeply rooted in the psychological theories of performance. This theoretical foundation allows me to design and lead skill-based learning experiences tailored to enhance both the mental and physical aspects of performance. Integrating these psychological principles helps athletes develop resilience, focus, and a growth mindset, which are crucial for achieving excellence in any performance environment.

My military background equipped me with a unique set of skills and perspectives to enhance my effectiveness as a coach, enabling me to lead by example and inspire others to reach their full potential.

STS: How has Soldiers To Sidelines impacted your life?

Coach Wattier:  I first engaged with Soldiers To Sidelines in 2021 when I registered for a virtual coaching seminar. This event came during the socially isolating times of the COVID pandemic, making it not just an educational opportunity but a vital source of connection and community. The seminar was immensely valuable, allowing me to connect with other military veterans who were also eager to transition their skills into sport coaching. This shared experience and common purpose were particularly uplifting during a period when physical interactions were limited. Through Soldiers To Sidelines, I gained crucial knowledge that furthered my understanding of sports coaching.

Soldiers To Sidelines also expanded my professional network significantly. The connections I made through this program opened up new opportunities for collaboration and growth in my career as a mental performance coach. It also kept me focused and motivated, reinforcing my commitment to advancing in the field. The support and camaraderie found in the Soldiers To Sidelines community have been instrumental in my continued development and success as a coach.

STS: Describe a coaching interaction with a player, or group of players, that has a special place in your heart?

Coach Wattier:  My experience as the Grand Canyon University men’s rugby team mental performance coach has been the most memorable year of my life. Despite being a young program, GCU is aiming for national contention and has committed to fostering a culture of excellence with an elite mindset.

When I joined the coaching staff, the team was receptive and quickly acknowledged my value. Inspired by the young US Air Force Airmen, I wanted to instill a similar sense of responsibility and pride in the team. Airmen working on the flightline often have their names stenciled on the aircraft they maintain, symbolizing ownership and accountability. Drawing from this, I introduced the motto: “Put your name on it!” This concept resonated deeply with the team, especially since 80% of the players were underclassmen. It encouraged them to take extreme ownership of their roles, actively participate in developing the team’s culture, and clearly define what behaviors are considered above and below the line. The motto also supported the integration of empathy and accountability into their daily interactions and overall team dynamics.

The impact of this philosophy was profound. It not only united the team but also propelled GCU men’s rugby into the national spotlight. The team achieved a ranking as high as 13th in the 2024 season and secured a spot in the national championship tournament. Although they exited early from the tournament, the experience was invaluable, and the players are already eagerly planning for a productive offseason, with high hopes for the next season.

This interaction remains special to me because it underscores the power of meaningful coaching interactions that can transform a team’s ethos and propel young athletes towards achieving their full potential, both on and off the field.

STS: What was your most challenging experience as a coach?

Coach Wattier:  The most challenging experience I have encountered in my coaching career occurred in December 2016, when a devastating vehicle accident claimed the life of my friend and fellow coach. Shayne was not only a colleague but also the father of my stepson, Tyler. Overcoming initial potential barriers, Shayne and I forged a strong friendship, and he invited me to help coach Tyler’s youth ice hockey team.

This tragedy was a profound personal and professional loss, but it also imparted significant lessons. The most impactful was the willingness to look beyond the immediate environment and anticipate opportunities to build bridges. This perspective has guided me in fostering relationships and creating healthy environments within teams, emphasizing the importance of understanding, collaboration, and mutual support.

From this experience, I learned the value of resilience and the importance of maintaining connections that transcend perceived boundaries. This has deeply influenced my approach to coaching, where I now prioritize relationship-building and the emotional well-being of my athletes as much as their physical and technical development. This holistic approach helps in creating a supportive, united team which grows and thrives through stress and adversity.

STS: Is there anything else you can share with us about your coaching story?

Coach Wattier:  My coaching journey has been both enriching and challenging. A key practice that has profoundly influenced my perspective and effectiveness as a coach is the deliberate practice of gratitude. This habit has helped me to not only appreciate the many opportunities, but also to continue striving for more. It serves as a grounding mechanism, reminding me of the good things, even during times of stress or disappointment.

My coaching career has been filled with moments of joy and instances of frustration, a testament to the dynamic nature of this profession. The ability to grow and thrive through stress and adversity has largely been due to my focus on developing resilience and enhancing mental performance, not just among my athletes but also within myself. These are not merely concepts I teach; they are integral to how I manage my own challenges in coaching and life.

A significant portion of my success is attributed to the unwavering support of my best friend and wife, Cindy. Her role in my life goes beyond personal support; she provides encouragement when I need motivation and holds me accountable, ensuring I stay true to my values and goals. Cindy’s partnership is indispensable, reinforcing my resilience and complementing my professional goals.

This holistic approach—balancing professional growth with personal support and self-care—has shaped my coaching philosophy and my approach to life. It is this blend of gratitude, resilience, and supportive relationships that fuels my ongoing passion for coaching and my desire to continue making a healthy impact in the lives of those I coach.