Watching a Swim Meet But Not the Swimming

I touched down in Seattle mercifully early yesterday morning, 9:30 local time. I had time to grab a coffee (with Nerd Alert companion Trever Gray) and zoom over to the King County Aquatic Center to catch the first individual prelim session of this year’s PAC-12 Championship.

I’m at the meet as part of my work with Washington State University. This is the second time this year I’ve gone to a meet in this way, the first being the University of Houston invite.

Attending these meets is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Because of NCAA rules about countable coaches, in both cases I am not allowed to do any “swim coaching” in the traditional sense. I am contracted to help the teams coaches and athletes to improve skills of the mind, and that’s what I look for.

Sometimes I think I’m better off just looking at the scoreboard than the pool itself. That way, I can see whether the race went well without feeling too tempted. I keep my eye on the pool because, if I can filter past the coordinated body movements, there’s still valuable information in how athletes swim

I cannot give tips on hand entry or stroke rate. I can’t troubleshoot a pullout. I most definitely cannot hold a stop watch and call out times. I do confess that I may have watched an Abbey Weitzel swim or two and admired her brilliant movements.

This leaves me to observe a few things more closely than I’ve ever had the chance in my career. The title of this post is a little dramatic. I still watch the swimming, but I do my best to silence the part of my brain that sputters technical feedback. 

I listen to conversations before the race, and after. I watch for how they did- how do they react based off how they did? What kinds of thoughts are they forming based on the race they just swam, or whatever kind of season they were having up until that point?

I watch for how swimmers react to what their competitors are doing, or what happens next when they slip up a bit. Are they executing the movements they’ve practiced, or struggling to replicate them?

The first meet I attended was an invite. An important meet for sure, and the stress on all involved was palpable. Athletes had a tremendous amount of themselves invested in the result of each race. Coaches felt the weight of team performance and rode an emotional rollercoaster. They felt the high of excellent performances and tried to redirect disappointing ones.

These stressors will only be heightened this weekend. An Invite is one thing, a conference championship is quite another (I’d love to compare NCAAs as well, but its easy to imagine an entire new tier).

In meets where stress runs this high, so does emotion. I’m looking for emotional regulation skills. When the extreme highs and lows come, do athletes and coaches have a plan to steady the ship for the duration of the meet. Do they have other people they can turn too, and safe ways to express intense feelings? 

Finally, while some of those intense feelings can seem “all of a sudden” to one party or another, just like the swimming training themselves, it’s really important to see them in the context of an entire season or year.

I’m looking forward to another weekend looking beyond what nuts and bolts of what’s happening in the pool, and noticing even more things that I never did before.