Kids Will Be Very Brave Once They Feel Safe

On Saturday, there were no Disney parks in our plans. I spent most of the day at the pool, with my four year old daughter, playing. I've long since learned (from her) that I cannot and should not teach her how to swim

So I decided we would just hang out and she would direct what was happening. She wanted to explore, and play. In the beginning anytime her feet couldn't touch the bottom she was gripping me or a wall for dear life. 

Eventually she decided she wanted to start jumping into the water. At first, she wanted to jump directly into my arms. I had to promise her 100 times over that I would catch her immediately upon entering the water. Then she wanted me to back up, and catch her "under the water". 

Finally, she decided she wanted to jump off, the wall, swim a few "strokes" and then I could catch her.

Until Saturday, my daughter had never swum under her own power, and when she started the day she was absolutely sure that it was far too terrifying to ever try.

Safety First

There's been a lot of talk on this blog about safety over the past few weeks. A few readers are probably tired of that, especially Mark Schubert. 

But when we talk about safety, we are absolutely talking about the most important issue in swimming, and we cannot extract it from everything else we do.

As human beings we are hard-wired, for good reason, to put a huge premium on our own safety. When we do not feel safe, we are our most pessimistic selves. Pessimism protects us when our mind sounds the alarm that everything is not all right.

Pessimism is what protected our ancestors from getting eaten alive when they were being chased by a wild animal. You do not want to be "confident" about your chances of surviving a saber tooth tiger attack.

Today, we face different challenges, but our minds are largely unchanged. So, when we feel unsafe the same processes engage.

In a swimming context, I've heard (and said myself) thousands of times that bravery, confidence and determination are key aspects of swimming really well, and having a good time doing it. 

But I've realized, all this is putting the horse before the cart. Especially kids (but also adults) need to feel safe to be their most confident, brave, adventurous selves. They need to FEEL, not just rationalize, that if they fail they will still be safe. They will have the support of their coach and their teammates. Their parents will love them. 

That is why it is incumbent on us as coaches to create the safest possible emotional environments for kids to learn in. We cannot control all factors, but we can do our utmost to make our team a safe place. 

What about now?

Lets get to some practical suggestions. I know some people are reading this and they have just finished a big meet or are in the last days heading to a big meet. Here are suggestions for three different points in the year, starting with the hear and now:

1. Just finished a season- This is a great time for some directed reflection. If you have reason to believe some of your swimmers are holding back or scared (which honesty, I have never coached a team where this has not been the case), then you can be the one that points out the elephant in the room with all sensitivity.

Express to your team that you really want to help the swimmers to have a better environment in the coming season. Tell them that their safety is really important to them, and that you want to start a dialogue about what scares them over the course of practice, competition and meets. Ensure them that you will literally "have your hands out to catch them" no matter what chances they take.

2. About to finish season and big race is coming- First off, recognize that your chances of helping someone change their mindset are about as good as a major stroke change with whatever you have left. So forgive yourself if you fail.

Use your communication with athletes not to focus on expectation of performance, but your relationship to them. Look your swimmers in the eye before they race and tell them that you are proud to be their coach. Thank them for listening you and for putting their trust in you. Finally, let them know that regardless of what happens in the meet, you will support them.

3. Starting Fresh- If you are embarking on a new season and have already done your reflection, there is a great chance to reframe how you communicate safety to kids on your team.

First off, think about re-writing your team's mission statement or description to highlight safety as an utmost priority. Express to your athletes that you have a shared mission for a safe environment, and start giving them the tools to communicate what makes them feel safe.

Culture Change

In a broader sense, this sentiment ties in strongly with conversations of coaching abuse. Coaches who abuse their swimmers (and the multitudes that protect them) are causing a lot of damage to the kids and later on adults who do our sport.

Many times, these coaches will create a false sense of "safety" with kids, to ensure that they will still perform well. This sense of safety is often dependent on the coach alone and, because it is not true safety, has disastrous consequences when it falls apart.

Ultimately, the suggestions above are not a complete guide to this issue. If you want more help with your team, go ahead and write me.