One of the things that has never quite made sense to me in my swimming and coaching career was the sport's loyalty code. Recent developments have brought that even more sharply into focus, as swimming's stringent culture of loyalty remains one of the most significant barriers to real culture change.
Don't Do It Again- or You're Fired
In case I was in doubt about how much loyalty was expected, I found out in my first year of coaching. My boss had instructed swimmers on our team, in a dual meet, to swim purposely as slow as possible on a relay in order to create extra rest for a teammate.
I knew exactly what he was asking- for swimmers to purposefully do something that would surely earn them a disqualification. When the opposing coach boomed from the stands "You've got no class" at us, I knew he was right. What we had done was totally unsportsmanlike not to mention completely against the rules.
We had a four hour bus ride home, and myself and the other assistant coach at the time talked about it. We were embarrassed. We made up our mind to do a silent protest- instead of getting off the bus with our bus as we usually did, we exited with the swimmers.
Our rebellion did not go unnoticed. The next day our boss spent an hour dressing us down. It all culminated with a not subtle threat: either toe the line or look for another job.
I was terrified. I apologized profusely. I wanted so badly to get ahead in my coaching career, and I selfishly didn't want to do anything to hurt that. What I didn't realize was that there would be countless situations from that point forward where my loyalty promise would put me in a similar position.
Common coaching wisdom says you should keep disagreements behind closed doors. But is that always true? I don't think so anymore. There are many situations where you should absolutely put that disagreement out in public and counter inappropriate behavior where it stands.
I should clarify this- there was far less expectation of loyalty in existence when I coached in Denmark. I quickly discovered that people of all places in a team felt far more comfortable disagreeing with you publicly.
You know what? The world didn't end. Swimmers still swam fast, coaches grumbled a bit but were fine.
I still feel a twinge of fear when I manage to question the behavior of some powerful swimming coach, but why should I? If we can't have disagreements out in the open we're going to have a huge challenge pulling ourselves into the future.
We are not the military or some clandestine service. Lives do not rely on us solving everything behind closed doors. in fact, the quality of many lives rely on us confronting a great many things out in the open.
There's Still a Place for Internal Debate
I don't mean to declare that all disagreements need take place in the open. Day to day, normal judgment calls still belong between coaches and behind closed doors. How to set up practice, or what the content of practice will be. Meet lineups or decisions on who to recruit for sure. There's a great many things that don't need sunshine.
I tell those that work for me that rather than be bound by loyalty, I expect them to speak out loudly when it comes to ethics, safety and the well-being of the kids and adults that are in our charge. That includes me, if I'm the one that is overstepping boundaries.
It's a bit messier, of course, and can put you in some challenging situations. It's worth it, and ultimately it leads to loyalty that is actually earned, not expected from the beginning.