The last few days have brought some really interesting responses to the piece I made last week detailing five separate people who swam at Germantown Academy for Dick Shoulberg and wanted to speak out about their time there.
I have yet to receive a serious piece of hate mail on the topic, but there have been quite a range of responses. One that I want to address today is a particular response I get whenever I write about coaches and systemic abusive behavior.
It’s a response motivated by fear. A coach like Dick Shoulberg is widely respected within the field. His influence is widespread and he has a lot of backers at the top echelon of the coaching world. When there is something critical of him out there, people who like him quite naturally do not believe that criticism.
After all, how could this person they admire so much have done something so terrible? From the belief that the accusations are false, they can fear that accusations of similar behavior will be made up about them, or events from their past will be distorted to make them look like a monster.
Finally, to many of these people, it can seem like I’m setting myself apart. That my purpose for writing it is to draw a distinction between myself and Shoulberg. That he is a terrible sinner and I am without sin.
The truth is, when I hear about terrible behavior by swim coaches, I reflexively feel the same fears. I think back to mistakes I have made in my own coaching. I cringe and I feel ashamed. I see some of myself when I listen to the stories.
Every good coach should be able to look back at their past and see moments where they were totally out of line. Where they hurt somebody they were supposed to help. It is impossible to be perfect. What is critical is that you have the ability to reflect on your failures however painful they might, that you seek to make amends, and that your failed coaching doesn’t become a part of your strategy for making swimmers faster.
One story that I speak about when I work with other coaches is from my time in Denmark. I’m very proud to say that I was part of two consecutive Danish Junior National team coaching staffs. I’m considerably less proud when I think about some of the coaching I did to get there.
I stepped into a coaching situation in Denmark where I had two of the top age group swimmers in the entire country beginning their years as Junior athletes. This is a huge leap in Danish terms and often discussed as a stumbling block. There was at that time 60-70 athletes chosen for National training camps based on Age Group results, and only a handful would go on to be chosen for any Junior activities.
As much as I would’ve liked to be judged based on how I helped a swimmer in the middle of my top group improve, I knew that I would be judged by the results of my top swimmers. I felt immense pressure to get them to perform, and perform well.
One of those swimmers was the reason I got selected to two Danish Junior teams. Her name is Signe Bro and she’s gone onto a brilliant senior career. Look her up if you want to be impressed by the times of a young Danish freestyler.
Just a week after Signe successfully qualified for the European Junior Championships, and booked my ticket as well, we had to compete at the Danish team championships. This was another event where the pressure was on, at that time the only Danish meet where score was kept.
Teams compete in the championship like European soccer clubs. There were multiple divisions and you could move up by finishing high or face relegation by moving down. My predecessor had gotten our club in the 1st Division.
My predecessor had also used some older swimmers who didn’t train day to day with the club to do that. I made the decision to go with the swimmers we had, and as a result we were getting our butts absolutely kicked. We were at the bottom of the meet and it honestly wasn’t close.
Signe was exhausted from the pressure filled lead up to her qualification meet, and not swimming well. I can remember being angry with her as I saw her let up in several of her races. If I’m being honest, a lot of that anger was trapped up in my own ego. I was embarrassed that we were losing and embarrassed that my top swimmer wasn’t swimming well.
Signe and I had a pretty strong relationship up to that point. Her parents were beyond supportive- I consider them friends. I knew that she was a 15 year old girl and that she looked to me for leadership and help dealing with the pressure of everything she was kind of achieved.
So I leveraged that relationship. I sat her down and ripped her for the lack of effort. I didn’t stop there. I pushed her into declaring how she felt about having me as a coach. She stated emphatically that she felt really strongly about having me.
I used that to threaten her. Either she would shape up and swim harder or I would abandon her as a coach. She cried, as I recall, for a long time. And she stepped up, dutifully, in her next race.
I never got called to account for that stupid, manipulative, move that I made. Signe kept loyally swimming for me another year and got me on another Junior National team. I got plenty of back slaps for her performance.
But looking back, I feel absolutely terrible about what I did. I felt that way almost instantly. I remember going home and feeling absolutely wrecked about the whole weekend.
The point of this story is, I don’t really believe that any coach with any measure of success hasn’t done something terrible to get that success.
But those terrible acts should be a bug and not a feature of our coaching. There should be consequences, and accountability for doing the wrong thing. And critically, we should be forced to evaluate and intentionally decide not to return to those terrible tactics, regardless of whether they “worked” or not.
Even the piece I wrote about Shoulberg involved admitting to several friends and former swimmers where I had gone wrong with them. Things I was ashamed about, things I was scared to admit. I’ve been terrified to tell the story above precisely because there haven’t been many consequences for me, and most people besides myself and Signe probably don’t know it even happened. Wouldn’t it be nicer to pretend it just never did?
In a selfish world, it would. But that is not the coaching world I want to live in. If we are going to move on from the terrible old school of coaching, we need to admit what went wrong. We need to be honest about the bad ideas we’ve tried out. We need checks and balances on our own behavior to stop bad coaching from reproducing.
We’ve all done something bad, it’s what happens next that matters.