It's Not Fair to Idolize

When I was just trying to break into coaching, I called John Trembley. He was then the head coach of the men’s team at the University of Tennessee. I told my friends early and often about the conversation.

Trembley was encouraging. I had been frustrated in all my attempts to break into the college ranks. He told me to keep pushing. He talked about graduate assistantships he had. I was calling to see if I could work at swim camp that summer (I was too late).

I thought to myself: John Trembley must have gotten to where he was by being an amazing man. I grafted so many wonderful qualities onto him based on just a short conversation. It was a few minutes of his life that didn’t cost him anything, but I thought for a while he had earned me as a lifelong fan.

Trembley doesn’t coach swimming anymore, of course. His career ended when in a hailstorm of drug addiction and illicit messaging.

Although I had barely spoken to him, it was still painful. I had to reconsider all the qualities I had attributed to him.

I only understood quite recently how unfair that idolization was.

The Age of Heroes

John Trembley is not the only swim coach I idolized coming up in the sport. There were plenty more, with names bigger and smaller. They followed the same trajectory:

I met them, or heard them speak, or watched their results. My mind clicked! This person is GREAT.

Afterwards, regardless of how much I knew, I filled in the gaps with wonderful things about them. Later I would discover, of course, their humanity. It was terribly disappointing, although thankfully few suffered as precipitous a drop as Trembley.

It’s natural to idolize, but completely unfair. I see it everywhere in sport. Tiger Woods is a master of the all he surveys, until we find out his personal life was a complete wreck. Urban Meyer is a genius, then a quitter, then somebody bravely speaking about mental illness, then a scumbag who protected a domestic abuser.

It is equally unfair to reduce somebody to the lowlight of their life as it is to focus on only their top moments. But our rational mind is incredibly lazy. It fights for simplicity, and categorization. Is this person good or bad?

When I wrote about Dick Shoulberg last week, many people (including some of my friends) felt deeply hurt by what I wrote about a man they deeply admired. I called several of them in advance to let them know what I was publishing.

Even in the title, I strove to make my point clear. Nowhere in the piece will you find me saying that Dick Shoulberg was evil, or a monster, or the worst human being on the planet. What I did say, was that he doesn’t deserve his legendary status. That underneath all the incredible swimming results made by swimmers in his care, there were countless scarred individuals that no one has ever heard about.

The point is, no one deserves legendary status. The hero making of sport is an essential part of the culture we must change if we are going to improve the environment for all involved. Because legendary status imbues people with unchecked power.

You do not tell the “god” of a pool deck that what he is doing is wrong- it is RIGHT because he does it.

Beyond that, I also mean to say that it is completely unfair to idolize people even if you find them to be worthy of plentiful admiration. There is a line between admiration and idolization. Idolization is to make someone into a vessel for perfection. Admiration is to look onto certain qualities of a person and admire them. Admiration leaves room for them to still be human. Idolization denies them all humanity.

One facebook comment stood out to (among the hundreds, mostly negative) that I read last week. An individual praised the Shoulberg piece, but said he disagreed on one point: whether or not it was appropriate for a coach to be “worshipped”. He said that worship was a natural outcome of doing your job as a coach.

He may be right about that, but I think that it is incumbent upon coaches to actively work against any kind of idolization. You can and should take compliments on a swimmers performance, but you must always fight the urge to be put on a pedestal, no matter how tempting.

You might think that you will be be an enlightened despot. I say there is no such thing.