Yesterday, Swimswam published lengthy interview by Jared Anderson of Swimswam of Ariana Kukors Smith. Kukors Smith continues to provide excellent insight for parents, swimmers and coaches alike. Here were a few crucial points I took away from reading it:
Instead I am echoing what I have heard from victims of abuse. Part of their story that I hear over and over again is the fact that many people had the ability to say or do the right thing to help them but did not.
I am trying to communicate to them that I will not do the same, and also encouraging them to hold me accountable to that promise
While I await more a more forceful response from a USA Swimming board member (I spoke with one who wished to remain anonymous on Friday that promised me something more by today. They said, I quote "No response is worse than a bad response") let's discuss why there is such a wide gap between the state of swim coaching I write about and the one that ASCA President Don Heidary blustered earlier this week.
Since last week, there has been a rush to focus on the problem of Sean Hutchison. This is understandable, Hutchison stands accused of monstrous behavior and was a prominent figure in our sport for the past decade.
However, before we move on, it is actually very important to understand what exactly happened, and the culture that supported Hutchison. It is far more important that we do not replicate the environment that allowed Hutchison to flourish than to just punish Hutchison and move on.
The current head coach of King Aquatics, Michael Brooks, has some important questions to answer in the wake of Hutchison "stepping down" as CEO of King. So far, the only quote circulating from looks is as follows:
"Ariana Kukors is part of the King Aquatic family and we only want the best for her,” Mr. Brooks said. “Our staff is meeting to review this devastating news. Sean Hutchison has stepped down as an executive with King and has had no direct interaction with our swimmers for a very long time.”
This statement still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Here are a few we should demand from Brooks:
1. When did he learn of a sexual relationship between Hutchison and Kukors, and what was his reaction?
2. What does "for a very long time" mean in relation to Hutchison's presence on deck. Specifically, when was the last time Hutchison interacted with swimmers at King?
3. Even though Hutchison has stepped down from his position, is he still the owner of King Aquatics? When families at King pay their dues this month, is that money going to Hutchison?
4. Who made the decision that Hutchison was no longer CEO?
If these questions seem to the reader to be aggressive in assigning blame to Brooks, let me present a counter scenario. If Brooks and others truly were in the dark about Hutchison, they should be furious with USA Swimming right now. They clearly sat on information about Hutchison, and as a result of that lack of clarity, have put Brooks' career and others in jeopardy.
So to MIchael Brooks, I ask for answers to the above questions, and one more. Depending on the answer to the above, will you join the fight for transparency at USA Swimming. Membership of USA Swimming, swimmers and parents at your club, deserve answers about what happened in 2010 at FAST, and who knew what about Hutchison at that time.
If you want to catch up on somebody who was way ahead of their time, Irv Muchnick was reporting on much of what we now know as long as six years ago. Few listened, and far more should now.
Yesterday, I spelled out a couple steps that anyone, anywhere in swimming could do to help change swimming as we know it.
Today I want to focus on the biggest reading audience of this blog, coaches. As a coach myself, I've been working hard to figure out what we can do to improve our sport break the cycle.
The first step for coaches is to admit that our culture, as it stands today, is not a good culture for athletes. A part of any solution going forward has to begin by acknowledging that we should look to athletes for leadership about how they would like coaches to be a part of their sport. Athletes must come first.
With that said, here are the start of some of the actions coaches can put pressure on USA Swimming to take.
1) Release individuals immediately from any confidentiality agreements, period. USA Swimming needs transparency and sunlight. This should include, but not be limited to, FAST, Sean Hutchison, Mark Schubert, and Everett Uchiyama. We cannot move forward with effective solutions, and the maze of confidentiality agreements is a huge barrier to true transparency within our governing body.
We need to demand this even if the response is that doing so will completely bankrupt USA Swimming. No organization is more important than the well-being of athletes in our sport.
2) USA Swimming must release the tens of thousands of pages of coach complaint files that they have. They are sitting on information that deserves a public airing and could potentially save many future athletes from abuse.
These suggestions are just a beginning of what coaches can use their power to demand. Make your demand public, or reach out directly to the people that are accountable to you within USA Swimming. Send your demand as a letter directly to USA Swimming Executive Director Tim Hinchey, or USA Swimming President Jim Sheehan.
In the coming days, I will be asking coaches to use their platforms to amplify this message and more to the power structure of USA Swimming.
It's not even been a week since Ariana Kukors bravely told the story of what happened to her at the hands of her swim coach, Sean Hutchison. Already there is a disturbing trend in the discussion of it. To varying degrees, Kukors has been maligned. The arguments I've heard are something like follows:
"She was a consenting adult to the sex because they had sex after she was 18 years old"
If this is how you read the story, I'm going to ask you to reconsider. I'm being polite today because several friends reached out to me yesterday and asked me to stop being so angry. That's hard for me- abusive coaches have really hurt the sport I love, but more importantly really hurt people that I care about.
It's worth reading Kukors' story several times, even though it is hard. People are fixating on the handshake as the first step to grooming. Don't fall into this trap- shaking hands is not a in isolation. Grooming children who you hold power over for sex is. So if you ask kids to shake your hands,
Power is the key to understanding this story. Hutchison held huge influence and power over Kukors and others. I do not believe that a 16 year old girl can consent to sexual contact with her 34 year old swim coach.
Likewise, Kukors story reveals that Hutchison used another power imbalance to his advantage. He knew what he was doing was wrong- victims are often far less certain about what is right and wrong due to their age and position.
That he "saved" intercourse until she was 18 is a key tell. He knew what he was doing was wrong and was trying to do it in a way that would leave him less exposed to legal jeopardy. Even though he knew he was in the wrong, he effectively transferred the shame onto his victim and used that power to tighten his grip.
So please, spare all of us the insinuation that Kukors somehow consented to any of this.
So What Do We Do Now?
I mentioned that friends reached out to me, and even a few people that I had never spoken to. This is the part where I tell them "I hear you". They wanted less anger and more proactive steps. So here are some proactive steps.
1. Offer whatever platform or forum you have for the girls and women you know in the sport to talk about what they would like to see get better. Many of them will not want to- be empathetic to that.
I believe that prominent female voices within the sport will be speaking out on this very issue in the next few days, and there will be strength in numbers that there has not been before in this moment
2. If you are a man, get out and positively support what these women and girls are saying. Take their suggestions to heart and think about real change you can effect in whatever domain you have.
That's it. I think that step one will reveal a lot about what step two should be. It's time for big change and the moment is now.
Yesterday was a whirlwind. I spoke to more people than I can properly remember, all about the topic of the day. This day there will be more, I'm sure.
Here's a message for all those conversations, and the ones I'm not having. The time is now. Speak your truth.
There are people who know more about Sean Hutchison, FAST, "SafeSport", Mark Schubert and all the other tentacles of this story. Some of them, like Dia Rianda or Dagny Knutson, have been ignored. It's time to start listening.
There are other people who know more who haven't spoken. Right now they are waiting on the sidelines. I hear their stories third or fourth hand. I have empathy for the fact that some of them have also been hurt in this situation. They do not want to be defined by what they know and said.
I think soon they will be defined by what they knew and didn't say. Their silence makes them complicit in this story repeating itself.
Everyone is scared right now, myself included. When I told my wife I would begin writing about this full force again, her first inclination was to beg me not to. Part of me agreed. I knew that keeping my mouth shut, however, just wasn't an option.
Eight years ago, I questioned why big name coaches like Bob Bowman contribute nothing to this discussion. The same question is worth asking today. These are people with powerful platforms, that they have used to advocate for far more trivial issues. What does their silence say?
There is a huge category of silent partners right now who can still play their part. We need more than silence from them too. If you're reading this and you think "I don't have any special knowledge, I'm not a big name, I don't even know what to say". Say something. Use my words if you want. You have a platform. The time for silence is over.
Yesterday, the axe finally fell on Sean Hutchison. For the first time, publicly at least, Ariana Kukors spoke about how he groomed her for sexual abuse from a young age.
I've been known to go after big organizations, like USA Swimming and ASCA, in this space. They certainly can do far better, and USA Swimming in particular is already out there blasting PR that they did everything they could.
I almost got whiplash from how quickly they announced (via their propaganda outlet, Swimming World Magazine) that Kukors had denied a sexual relationship in 2010.
Lets set all that aside, and talk about us. And by us I mean coaches. Because we have a huge role to play in whether abusers get a free pass and athletes live in fear. It was that fear that kept Kukors silent for so long.
There was plenty of smoke when it came to Sean Hutchison for nearly a decade. The crumbling of the center he was running in Fullerton, the facile implication that some part of his relationship with Kukors went beyond coaching.
The coaching community could have held his feet to the fire. We could have demanded answers and transparency from him. Instead we let it go, and he got to re-brand himself as a swimming entrepreneur with Ikkos.
He also, in the past couple years, got to be a headliner at the School of Thought Clinic down at the University of Tennessee.
A lot of discussion around this will center on the fact that "our hands were tied" without Kukors willing to publicly denounce Hutchison. That ignores the fact that we, as coaches, could have chosen a braver stance, that let a victim like Kukors know where our culture stood.
We did not need to continue to put Hutchison on a pedestal. We did not need to fawn over him and talk about what a genius coach he was.
I had the chance to meet Hutchison early in my coaching career. He didn't much like me (go figure). I might have had a chance had I respected my elders a bit more. It would be have been very advantageous to my own career advancement to try and buddy up to him.
At the same time, I was also too scared to put him on blast here. Hutchison used his considerable power to evade this moment for quite a long time, and that made him scary.
Hutchison is not the end, he's still the beginning. As coaches, we need to become less defensive, less scared, and hold each other to the fire a little more. We need to step up for athletes and let them know that we are willing to do what's right for them, even if it means going against powerful peers.
A decade ago, Brown Swimming and Diving was in a dark place. In a league where you can practically set your watch to some order of finish between Harvard, Princeton and Yale, Brown was among the schools fighting to be "the best of the rest". Then, their pool, old and weird but 50m long, broke.
Brown tried to soften the recruiting blow it knew was coming by immediately announcing a new pool, but it would be years, spanning the career of entire classes, before that building materialized.
But this blog is not about pool construction. It's about coaching. In 2014, Brown made a bold decision. They would split their men's and women's team. bucking a nationwide trending towards "combining" programs.
They hired Kate Kovenock, coming off a run as an assistant at Notre Dame that saw her take Emma Reaney, a 1:02 high school 100 breaststroker, to a 57.7. Oh, and she won Notre Dame's first women's NCAA title in the 200 breast.
Kovenock somehow remains underrated and undermentioned. But here's the short story: she was a top Division 3 swimmer. She kicked butt as an assistant coach at Kenyon. She tore it up at Notre Dame. When she came to Brown, the team had finished 6th in the conference the previous year and was non-competitive in relays.
The team would finish 6th again in her first year. But it was the most possible improvement you could possibly get and not make a move in the standings. All of a sudden, swimmers were having "Emma Reaney" like moments.
Kate Dillione, a 53 100 yard freestyle who had swum nicely at Brown, found an extra gear for her senior year and recorded a 49.68. The women's 400 freestyle relay leapt up to title contention with a second place finish.
By her second season, Kovenock's team started to climb the standings, finishing 5th. Ally Donahue, a 2:21 high school breaststroker, was winning an Ivy title in 2:12. By 2016-2017, only a league record from ascendent Yale could stop Brown's 200 Medley relay from coming out on top.
I got inspired to write this because this past weekend, Harvard eeked out a victory over Brown in a double-dual, 166-134. Brown had to absorb the punishment of Harvard going 1-2-3 on both diving boards. I guarantee you the trend line of this dual meet, which as of last year was not close, does not comfort anyone in Cambridge.
Making a swimming powerhouse at Brown University is no easy task, but Kovenock seems up to the task. She's proving right now that she's one of the best young college coaches in the entire country by making Brown an exciting place to follow again.
A lot of people are putting up posts right now, collecting their best content of 2017. That sounded too boring and lazy to me, so instead here's what I'm going with. This blog has always been a space where I've been outspoken, and will continue to be that in 2018.
Despite some of my more controversial takes, I do try to not open my mouth about something unless I feel really confident in what I know. That's why you won't find me putting up articles about dryland, injury prevention or physics. I know a little about those topics (well, maybe not physics) I know I wouldn't want to read a blog written by somebody who just fires off about whatever.
Still, despite being somewhat careful in the topics I choose and what I know about them, I still miss the mark some time. So here's a post for everybody that has gotten furious about at least on the three posts I am about to feature. I'm sorry- I was wrong.
I had a pretty good 2016 predicting some big things in swimming. That gave me a little confidence to keep it going in 2017. But this post, predicting what would happen at the Budapest World Championship, had some big whiffs. To whit:
- I predicted that there would no women medalists in the 100 fly. Then Kelsi Worrell got a bronze. Doh.
- Likewise, I didn't have much faith in the women's IM crew to get any medals. In fact I didn't even think enough of Madisyn Cox to feature her in the post.
I may be stretching the definition of "dead wrong" here, but bear with me. When revisiting this article, I feel two things are equally true:
- Virginia made a good decision to hire Todd DeSorbo, who immediately put together a strong coaching staff and the early results on UVA are really positive. You can't really argue with the decision they made, plucking the top assistant from a top ten program within the same conference.
- There are other schools that will not be mentioned that totally blew it by not hiring Moreno. I have heard from several sources that she was turned down for several jobs where the person hired just doesn't have a resume that stacks up to Moreno. That's wrong and a blown opportunity for those schools.
A year and one day ago, I announced my personal quest to break a minute in the 100 breaststroke. I have not written about that quest for over seven months.
The reason is simple. My own vanity and my desire to protect it hasn't left me very motivated to tell you that I had weeks at a time where I didn't train or just barely sustained swimming.
That after getting down to a svelte 176 lbs for my last competition in March, I have hovered between 195-200 lbs this fall and winter. I can't fit into half the pants I wore last winter, and I'm embarrassed.
But I should have, Because I learned in 2017 probably the biggest lesson of my life, and I still only learned it a little bit, if that makes sense. I learned a lot about the power of failure. I learned the emotional power of admitting that you need some help, and how that makes you stronger, not weaker.
Starting my own business meant more failure in one year than I have experienced in all of my years of swimming, school and coaching combined. That's been hard, but I'm so grateful for the growth.
A lot of us are making resolutions for the new year. My project was basically a resolution, and it fell apart by around May. It's fair to say I have failed, but also fair to say that five months moving towards something is infinitely better than nothing. And it's not over until I say it's over.
Yesterday, USA Swimming announced its Club Excellence Results for 2018. Nations Capital Swim Club led the rankings for fourth consecutive year.
There are a lot of critics of the rankings. The biggest criticism by far? That the rankings favor not just large clubs, but the biggest of the big.
I've never coached a true USA Swimming club, and my livelihood doesn't depend on these rankings. But I know a lot of people that do. So I want to examine the purpose that USA Swimming sees behind ranking clubs in this way, and whether the criticisms are fair.
Ranking is Good
First off, let me acknowledge one obvious but probably understated fact. Ranking clubs is the right thing to do for a national governing body like USA Swimming.
I coached club swimming outside of the US in Denmark, and one of my primary frustration was that we didn't even have scored meets. Medal count (1st,2nd and 3rd) was the primary marker for deciding on how clubs stacked up.
Because of this, clubs were motivated to produce "medalists", and in my opinion, less than focused on helping swimmers who were not potential medal winners on the national level.
That medal focus meant a lot of squandered opportunity for Danish swim clubs. What is important in the US context to recognize is that if USA Swimming did nothing to rank clubs, there would still be some ad hoc way that clubs measured themselves against each other, and it would probably be worse (like medal count). So credit to USA Swimming for stepping into the void.
What Do We Want?
USA Swimming has some stated goals for the program. Let's take them one by one:
"Promote the development of strong, well-rounded age group..." Pretty simple, they want to avoid teams focusing on a small number of swimmers. However, the rankings do not account for age whatsoever. The assumption made by USA Swimming is that producing the high level results necessary for scoring in the program is a byproduct of "well rounded age group" training.
"and senior swimming programs that produce elite 18 & under athletes." They also want senior swimming and "elite" junior swimmers. The standards used for scoring are designed for these athletes, with the "gold times" specifically set to international world rankings from the previous year.
"Provide recognition and resources to motivate and assist member clubs to strive for the highest ideals of athlete performance". They believe these rankings will promote the two above goals.
So Tell Me How It Works Again...
If you're confused, so was I the first 100 times I tried to understand this program. Let me try and give one case of how NCAP got such a high ranking this past year.
The "points" scored are "FINA Points". FINA points are built on a scale where 1000 is equal to a world record swim. So for example, in the 200 Butterfly, a 1000 point swim is 1:51.51, the same as Michael Phelps world record.
Confusingly, USA Swimming has its own, similar, "power points" system that is not FINA points, which you can find when you do a time search for a swimmer.
Anyway, one of the biggest reasons NCAP got a high ranking was Sam Pomajevich. The University of Texas freshmen swam a 1:57.62 in the 200 fly this past summer. That swim gave him 852 FINA points.
Because that time also achieved the club excellence "gold" ranking, that total was doubled, meaning Pomajevich scored 1704 points (NCAP's total was 91,597) with just one swim. A swimmer at Pomajevich's level alone can account for tens of thousands of points in this scoring system.
What Does It All Mean?
It's hard to think of a system that doesn't reward club size. Having a large club with large membership, by sheer probability, increases the likelihood of both there being a swimmer like Pomajevich and a lot of swimmers at the senior level who can achieve these time standards. If the rankings were changed to account for "depth", larger swim clubs would likely have an even bigger advantage.
These rankings ought to have more thought, however. Large clubs are definitely a more successful business model, and consolidation is happening because of that. But USA Swimming doesn't need to provide an additional boost of marketing to this end.
Large club size is not how American swimming dominates internationally, in fact it is the inverse. We are dominant because we have many places where excellence can grow, not increasingly fewer, coupled with a huge population base.
Small countries that punch above their weight (Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands) do so because they create an astounding amount of opportunity for both athletes and coaches despite their small population base.
China flounders for its population base because despite a huge investment in outside coaching and chemicals because you have to be elite of the elite to get access to top notch coaching, and there appear to be almost no development or opportunity for domestically born coaches within their system.
Likewise, Russia would probably have some incredible clubs in this ranking system. Their focus on producing "elite" juniors with similar tactics to the Chinese has payed off at the European Junior level. But they are pathetic on the international senior stage, and again must rely heavily on coaches outside of their system to take swimmers to a top international level.
All food for thought as we ponder another year of "club excellence". Do we want big clubs? I say no, and it's up to us to put pressure on USA Swimming to come up with something better.
Coaching in Denmark was at times the most stressful but also the most fruitful thing I have done in swimming. One experience I am eternally grateful for was the chance to represent Denmark as a coach internationally on three occasions.
When you're chosen as a coach for one of these teams, you're presented with a challenge. You'll be chosen because you're directly responsible for coaching one or more swimmer on the team. But you'll also be asked to coach swimmers who spend the rest of their year under the guidance of someone else. Beyond just going to the meet, we were also asked to coach swimmers on training camps.
That can basically go one of three ways:
1. You can diverge so greatly, both in terms of stroke feedback and practice type that you severely disrupt what is making the swimmer successful. Egg on your face and an angry coach back home, not to a disappointed and dejected swimmer.
2. You can basically try to be as hands off as possible, give little to no feedback and hope that you don't screw it up.
3. Somewhere in between #1 and #2, you can find a way to help the swimmer in a limited capacity, understanding the limitations of the time you have with them, but also taking the time to figure out what has made them successful up to this point and reinforcing that.
It took me a while to learn #3. I didn't do a very good job the first time I traveled for Denmark. By my third trip, I was getting the hang of it. That experience informs what I do now, which involves private work with swimmers that swim year round.
When you're doing private instruction, it can be tempting to draw contrast between yourself and a swimmers full-time coach. After all, you might assume that swimmers and parents want to see something different from you. You would be wrong.
Swimmers don't benefit from you drawing hard lines between multiple inputs. Instead, you have to find a way to give the swimmer confidence in both the intense instruction you're giving and the team environment they will return to.
I always emphasize to swimmers that I work with that their full-time coaches are responsible for teaching them to do many things right, and I often ask questions to get a sense of the kind of feedback that they may be getting in a team setting that their coach may not have had the time to follow through with them on.
When you pull this off, the swimmer leaves with more confidence that they are moving forward, but also a renewed faith in the coach they see day in and day out. Even though the swimmers I work with make great strides, I don't publicize who I work with.
When I began this work, I found that in every case coaches were hostile to the idea of someone working privately with their swimmers. I can understand why. Now, I am getting referrals from year round coaches. Why? Because they've realized that I'm just here to help and make them look good in the process.
The best result for me is a swimmer, parent and full-time coach that are all happy with the progress made. I spoke with a parent this morning who credited our private work with her son's renewed commitment to attend morning practice and dedication to his year round team. I'm proud of that- and proud to work in partnership with other coaches.
Are you interested in private instruction that can make a lasting difference in as few as four sessions? Contact me.
Why am I doing this? It's a question you should ask often when you repeat activities over and over again. Habits can form, and that can be a good thing, but it can also be the way you get stuck in a rut.
As we approach the end of the year, I'm asking myself that question with regard to this blog. Why am I writing it? Here are the big reasons:
1. I love to write and it's my preferred method for interacting with other coaches. I love starting a discussion via blog and hearing from other coaches
2. I love swimming. It's a beautiful sport that I carry with me in everything else I do.
3. I love coaching and coaches, and the powerful influence coaches wield. The best and worst influences I have had in my life (outside of my own parents) have been coaches.
4. I think that Positive Psychology is still in its infancy in terms of being understood and implemented in the sports world. I would like to see that grow
5. I have built a business around the first four and I would like people to know about it.
The Harsh Truth
Here's something else you can expect from this blog: honesty. There are two things that are true about honesty.
One is that most people value it. The other is that somebody who is being a total jerk will usually say "I'm just being honest" in their defense.
To the latter, I know that my honesty often stings, and sometimes that makes me a jerk. In the past week I've heard someone tell me they are glad for the podcast because they can tell (and I'm paraphrasing) that I'm not as big of a jerk as they thought once they heard my voice.
I heard another coach (Steve Schaffer) respond to my post about the prevalence of the kind of coaching tactics that got Rutgers coach Petra Martin removed. Schaffer, who always tells me when he disagrees with something I wrote (which is what I like about him), said I should be "careful about painting with broad strokes".
So why do I do it? Because I'd like to see coaching in the sport I love get better. I know that occasionally I'm going to over the line and make some people extremely defensive in the process. Just like training in the pool, it's impossible to know where the line is without going over it.
Finally, rather than pointing the finger, I acknowledge that I am part of swimming and the swim coaching community. I am part of what must get better, and I hope that being honest about what I have learned and experienced I can help others get better too.
Want to know more? Write me!
Last week, Rutgers coach Petra Martin resigned (not willingly, it seems) after swimmers came forward to say what they had experienced swimming for her at Rutgers.
What shook me reading this story was not the things that Martin was accused of. Unfortunately, experience has taught me that this behavior is common and accepted in college sports and beyond. What troubled me is that Rutgers, because of their own history, felt above-average compulsion to actually do something about it.
Diana Nyad says that she was sexually assaulted by her swim coach, Jack Nelson, starting in 1964. Most recently to the New York Times, she told her story in graphic detail. Nyad is a vexing case to write about, primarily because she has told a lot of tales about her open water exploits.
As Nyad was garnering national coverage for her Marathon swimming exploits, there was a frothing rage in the Marathon swimming community. Many of the things that she said just didn't add up.
So, there's ample evidence that we shouldn't trust Diana Nyad when she starts telling us about her open water swims. Those lies should not, however, cast doubt on what she has to say about Jack Nelson.
Nyad has consistently accused Nelson, despite the fact that the most powerful people in swimming don't acknowledge her. In fact, they instead lauded Nelson, who to this day sits in two Hall of Fames, both the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and the American Swim Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
I'm going to write to a coach today, a coach I've made no bones about my admiration for. I'm going to ask them how they feel about sitting in the same Hall of Fame with Jack Nelson. If someone you admire is on this list, you might consider doing the same.
In the broader cultural upheaval we are all witness to, it's time to revisit what Dyana Nyad has been telling us for decades. We can right this wrong, but only if we choose to believe her on this. Nyad has gained little and lost a lot by speaking out.
Imagine the message we are sending to people who are being abused right now. They can confidently tell themselves that not only will they not be believed, but their coach will be held in high esteem and never pay for his crimes. By believing Nyad we can send a better message to the most vulnerable people in our sport.
Yesterday, I wrote about three common objections to Positive Psychology from swim coaches. Today I want to talk about a fourth, that goes way beyond Positive Psychology. Many coaches (myself included) fear new knowledge.
On its face, it seems ridiculous. Coaches are competitive- why would they fear new knowledge that could help them get better. A level below, however, there are a lot of very rational reasons coaches find themselves pushing back against something new.
Fear of Not Knowing (FONK)
Last week I was at the annual gathering of people who have graduated from Penn's Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program. I was inundated by people asking innocent questions that all went like the following:
"Have you ready book/paper/study on concept/idea/practice?"
Even in the field where I consider myself an "exeprt", it is completely impossible to keep up with all the research, all the books and all the new ideas floating in the ether.
My gut reaction is shame. Despite the fact that it is impossible to keep up with everything, I feel embarrassed. I feel like an idiot. That shame makes me feel defensive. So even though I am speaking to a nice person who just wants to have a shared conversation about something they guess we might have common knowledge about, I can start to get a little cranky.
It's good to be aware of this. FONK and the associated shame and defensiveness can keep you away from knowledge that can help you.
Fear of Being Wrong
So let's say you break through your defensiveness and get to learning about a new idea. Very often, a new idea or concept may challenge an existing set of beliefs that you have.
Good coaches are good coaches because they believe very strongly in what they are doing. That strong belief is essential to their swimmers also believing in what they are doing, and that belief is a huge boon to strong results.
Coaches have to walk an incredible tightrope. They must be open to new concepts that challenge their existing beliefs while believing strongly in what they are doing and giving to the swimmers that they coach.
To do so, they need really strong countermeasures to the fear of being wrong. When I started as a coach, I was more scared than anything of being wrong. Doing so made me rigid in my beliefs and heavily critical of others, which was ultimately not very productive to my own coaching development.
But Is It Better?
If, as a coach, you have successfully navigated your FONK, warded off any guilt about potentially being wrong, you will get to evaluate a new belief your existing one. Any good coach will ask themself: is it better?
This is the final fear: the fear of dropping a belief that "works" for something that in your own mind is yet unproven. This is how I feel when I talk to Joel Rollings about streamlines. I can see what he is saying, I am not scared of not knowing it or being wrong. But when it comes to telling swimmers not to streamline, I am scared. Is it really better than streamlining, a belief I have held since about 1992?
Humility, but not modesty
I think the answer to all these questions, at least for me, is humility. I am learning to be humble enough to realize I will never know everything, nor will I always do the right thing or have all the right answers. Even some of the things that I am most confident in, I am humble enough to know that someone out there may have something better.
It's important to draw a distinction here between humility and modesty. Humility is to acknowledge some basic human truths. Modesty is to create false beliefs that you are less than what you are. Modesty is where you lose your strongly held beliefs that are some important to coaching well, without many of the gains of humility.
So I'm staying humble.
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I'm coaching a high school swim team. After announcing it on this blog, I promised that I would share the letter I would send to the year round coaches of swimmers that are on the team. The following is a template that I will send with some personalized modifications:
This coming season, I will be the head swimming coach for Oratory Prep. It has come to my attention that (swimmer) competes year round representing your team. I am writing you today with the intention of beginning a dialogue about (swimmer’s) swimming career. I believe that this is important to do because if we can find a way to work together, then we will be doing the best thing for (swimmer).
First, I want to recognize some of the limitations of high school swimming and how we can address them. The season is short, and so are the events. If (swimmer) is training to compete in distance events, that information is incredibly important for us. I will ask swimmers to report this information to me and will communicate to them that their season plan all practices will be designed with their long term development in mind.
To that end, there are two huge areas where you can help (swimmer) as it pertains to high school swimming. First, I would like to hear from both of you what the most important competitions are that will take place during this high school season or following it. In turn, I will communicate where the highest priorities of the coming high school season are, and I invite you to discuss with me how we can come up with the best possible way to prioritize these competitions.
Second, your experience coaching this swimmer is invaluable to me and (swimmer). Please share with me as much information as you can about what works well for (swimmer), What kinds of things he responds well to, what he doesn't and all that you have learned about (swimmer) both in terms of swim practice and your relationship with (swimmer)
Lastly, your sharing progress on what kinds of challenges the swimmer is currently working through would be extremely helpful. I will continue this work when (swimmer) is with me. I will be an open book and communicate with you what we have been working on at our practices.
Please let me know what the best way to communicate with you would be: I am happy to talk over the phone, meet you at your practice, or continue this communication in writing
I look forward to working together with you and (swimmer) to help him achieve his long term swimming goals.
Recruiting. If you have ever held a college coaching job, applied to a college coaching job, or talked to a college coach, you have probably heard this word more than you'd ever like to. Recruiting is the lifeblood of college athletic programs, and most coaches will admit that it is at least as important as your actual coaching ability at this level.
That is true. Recruiting is incredibly important. It's also something anyone can learn to do, and may already have a lot of skills for that they don't even know. Coaches who look past well-qualified coaches because of lack of "recruiting" experience do so at their own disadvantage.
This is one of many reasons that college coaching remains a weird, cliquish sub-culture in the swimming world. Every year, hundreds of otherwise nice resumes face rejection from the college ranks because of this.
What is recruiting? For one thing, recruiting is marketing a college swimming program. A club coach who runs their own business may have experience with marketing. Now, in college coaching you have to deal with NCAA rules around how you can market.
These rules are made by what I can only assume are miserable people paid to ask the question "What would the most insane college football coach try to do to get an edge?" and then get their legislative pens out.
Recruiting is also sales. You sell to a family and a student athlete the promise of studying and swimming at your school. Coaching any kind of practice is it's own kind of sales job- after all you will not be successful as a coach if your swimmers are not "buying" the workouts you are "selling".
In fact, career club coaches can bring a lot to the table that career college coaches cannot when it comes to recruiting. Many of them have way more "reps" in their back pocket interacting with families and high school age swimmers.
They have seen the process from the other side and know what works and what doesn't. They have sat and wondered "why doesn't (anonymous college coach) just call me? Don't they know I could help them right now?".
The final absurdity is the notion that coaches without college experience are a great risk to commit NCAA violations. It doesn't hold water- especially when you consider how easy it is to pass a NCAA recruiting test (an open book test on one chapter of the NCAA manual) and the infrastructure that athletic departments have built in compliance to prevent this very thing.
Ultimately, the divide that exists between the skill set it takes to be a successful college coach and a successful club coach is not as great as the hiring market would indicate. College swimming would benefit from a more open coaching pool, and individual programs that see the opportunities in hiring "club only" coaches will gain a competitive advantage.
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It's hard to believe that we are nearly a full year through another Olympic cycle, with Rio a fading memory and Tokyo seemingly approaching at breakneck pace. On the other hand, it's easy to believe when you look at the results of this week's National Championships and World Trials.
Team America is the Golden State Warriors of swimming, only if the team won some ridiculous total like 77-5 in Olympic years and then coasted to 60 win seasons the other three quarters of the time.
The reasons for the slippage make sense. The process of making, then subsequently succeeding as a part of the US Team at the Olympics defies explanation. It is only natural that many of these athletes take some time away from the sport in the aftermath.
Still it's worth to reflect, even when you're the best, or maybe especially when you're the best. Let's set aside the best from Rio: who are the swimmers that could best be pushing the ball forward in this off-Olympic year?
The answer is the post-graduates, the fifth (or sixth) years, the "semi-pro". There are a ton of capable athletes in this group. Relatively few seem to thrive. The answer is not in the 18 and under crowd, of whom there have been some really nice performances this week, and who deserve continued focus on their long term development.
Where are these athletes training? The opportunities for the most part still exist in some awkwardly grafted-on addition to a college or club team. This is not a successful formula for the group as a whole.
The older a swimmer gets, the higher level they get to, the harder it gets to push their performance forward. However, the almost all of these "semi pros" exist in an environment where it would be amount to career suicide for their coaches to devote the big time resources to them that they need. College coaches are hired for college results. Club coaches are paid to coach the paying membership.
These swimmers need a true home, something that is actually designed for them, that gives them the resources that they need for elite performance. It is not USA Swimming's job to do this as top down solutions in this area are usually a mild to spectacular failure.
I've heard a lot of dissatisfaction from the would be sponsors of these athletes. They do not feel they are getting value in return for there sponsorship. This kind of solution would be costly, and it is essential that we identify who is sitting on the sidelines, why they are doing so, and what would be valuable to them in return.
Ultimately, the development of a whole swath of capable swimmers could be a lot better. It will not be easy, but it is possible and, I believe, worth it.
Are you involved in sponsorship of swimming? Write me!