mental health

Emotional Regulation for Everyday Coaching

Emotional Regulation for Everyday Coaching

What is emotional regulation? To me, it’s the ability to manage the thoughts that follow from an emotionally charged situation. Crucially, it is not the ability to change your actual emotions, and this is where I’ve gone very wrong with it in my own life and career. Your emotions are your emotions, stuff happens and you will have an emotional reaction

Podcast Preview: Monica Strzempko and Sarah Ehekircher

Podcast Preview: Monica Strzempko and Sarah Ehekircher

Later today I will record a podcast with Monica Strzempko and Sarah Ehekircher. If that first name sounds unfamiliar to you, then you’ll want to read this before you listen. We’ll go over some points of the story of both Monica and her daughter Anna in the pod, but the piece I linked to gives a lot more detail than we can cover in an hour.

Where Parents Should Coach

Where Parents Should Coach

have read a great deal about "parents these days", written by youth sports coaches. There are refrains that often come through that ring false to me. They ring false not because I have not had my fair share of bad interactions with "parents" (I have), but because I now see them in a new light.

This excellent piece from a week ago delved into a serious flaw in the "Safe Sport" materials that USA Swimming puts coaches, staff and volunteers through. I realized that in many parts of my coaching career, I internalized a culture that demanded that I be allowed to coach "my way" without being questioned by the parents of children I coached. I was wrong.

Swimming Myths: Holiday Training and "Mental Toughness"

The holidays are approaching, and all across the country coaches are getting excited. Not for presents underneath the tree, mind you, but for the opportunity that is afforded by the vast majority of American swimmers, who are in some form of school, having a break.

Freed from the shackles of day to day schoolwork, there's an opportunity to train: more, faster, harder. To what extremes varies from coach to coach, but it's often this time of year that I see the type of sets that have no place in the modern swimming world:

12000 IMs (seen in person as recently as 2013)

100x100 (discussed ad nauseum on the internet with plenty of back-slapping)

You don't need more than a couple sets to get my drift do you? My high school swim coach, a person I love and admire, does the dreaded 100x100s around this time of year. I've never been able to convince her not to. I try to keep an open mind to new people I meet who feel these are productive swimming sets, even though I disagree.

There exists absolutely no quantitative evidence for this training whatsoever. Its defenders often fall back on anecdotal or wholly subjective evidence for continuing it.

One of the most frequent anecdotes passed around is the story of Erik Vendt swimming 30x1000 in 2000. While many take away from this story that there is value in insanely long swimming sets, I see it completely differently. To me, this story and the accompanying picture hammers home three things:

1) This type of swimming set can only be justified for the elite of the elite, the .0001 percent of athletes in the sport like Erik Vendt. I have never coached one of those people and very few of us have. 

2) Consent is incredibly important. Erik Vendt did this set when he was 19 years old. He was old enough to ask for it from his coach and do it willingly. I do not believe that 14 year olds can willingly ask for this type of training

3) Phil Spiniello, despite having a very well-shaped bald head, still looks better with hair.

The most maddening and frequent reasoning I see for these types of sets is as follows : that the shared misery of these sets builds "mental toughness".

First, let us rid ourselves of the term "mental toughness" altogether. It's meaning has been so warped and misshapen by false sports masculinity that it has lost most of its tether in reality.

It is used as a catch-all for processes both real and imagined. Swimmers who win are often described as "mentally tough" after the fact. When they're winning, they are "tough". When they lose, all of a sudden not they are not so tough.

When I was a little kid, Mike Tyson looked extremely "mentally tough" until Buster Douglas punched him in the face.

A New Definition

What is it we really want from athletes in our sport? We want resilience in the face of adversity, we want them to thrive and feel real purpose and meaning in what they do. We want them to love to swim.

There are so many ways to build resilience, purpose and positive emotions that do not involve scientifically unsound training that may be effective for only the superhuman outliers on your team. 

Rather than an opportunity for pushing crazy training, the holidays are an opportunity to make more modest adjustments. Swimmers can recover better, and if you do it right, they can emerge from the holiday break refreshed, swimming faster than ever, and with joy to take them through the hard times to come. 

As my colleague Rick Madge and others have pointed out, swimming suffers from a huge survivor bias when it comes to this type of training. The swimmers that can "survive" these types of sets are, like Mike Tyson, described as mentally tough after the fact when they succeed.

We hear about Erik Vendt because he survived. This is another reason to avoid doing this type of training with young kids. Younger kids are very resilient in many ways- that doesn't mean we should force crazy training on them just because they can bounce back.

The biggest problem with building this false sense of resilience is that once the swimmer cannot "survive" this type of training anymore, which comes for many with age, it's absolutely crushing. All across the country, hundreds of college swim coaches, particularly of women, are nodding their heads at that last sentence.

This holiday season, as you head to the pool to train swimmers, think hard about what you are going to do with the opportunity afforded to you.

Give swimmers something challenging, of course, but give them something that lays just beyond their sense of what they can accomplish. Give them something based in scientific evidence so that they can better understand the purpose. Coach them like you would coach yourself.

Happy Chanukah.

Lessons From My Kid: Performance Resistance

Like most parents, I'm proud of my kid. When she accomplishes something for the first time, however ordinary it might be, I get excited.

"Wow she can count past ten now!"

"Did she just use the word excellent? EXCELLENT."

"Awww she said thank you without me even having to ask."

What naturally followed is, however boring it might be for other people, I wanted them to witness the breathtaking progress of learning that I was seeing. So I would ask my daughter to perform, not in so many words, but basically try to trick her into showing off her skills.

She wouldn't. The second she realized that "Dad" was putting her on display, she resisted swiftly. With a wry smile, she'd give the wrong answer, or ignore me altogether. What's up with that?

Jumping in

Now, I happen to be smart enough that I have contracted out teaching my own daughter to swim. She's been taking swimming lessons for a couple of months now, and is just starting to get a little independence around the water.

A couple weekends ago, she jumped from the side of the pool into the water unassisted. I tried to remain composed on the outside, but on the inside I felt pretty much like Chad LeClos' dad in 2012:

My daughter was excited too, but not for the same reason. She just knew that she had been scared but tried something new and it all worked out.

The next weekend being Thanksgiving, there were no swim lessons. I thought to myself- "she's making progress, I should take to her to the pool to reinforce that".

I told her we would go swim together. She was excited. I said "we can practice jumping into the water!" in my best excited dad voice.

Her face turned. "I don't want to go to the swimming pool daddy" she said looking at the floor. I didn't get it at first. Slowly it crept up on me- she instinctively felt that our trip to the pool had turned into another performance. 

I course corrected: "let's go to the pool and play". The response was a resounding "YAY!!!". We drove over and I decided to just get in the water with her and see what happened.

There were other kids there. One of them strode confidently to the side of the pool and jumped into the water, popping up with a wide grin.

"Can I do that daddy?" my daughter asked. I stifled myself, then responded, "yes, of course".

She must have jumped into the water 20 times or more.

Not Only Parents

I know what you're expecting now. There's an obvious lesson for parents here, I can't deny that. Kids want you to be their parent, period, and you should be so lucky to have them remind you of that.

There's a lesson for coaches as well. Yes, our job does involve the performance of athletes, that is unavoidable. But even our non-related "kids" that toil back and forth in the water for us should naturally push back against coaches putting performance first and relationship second. 

No one wants to feel that they are a collection of performances, because everyone has good and bad days, and we all fail many times on our way to success. 

I'll try to remember that when I'm back watching someone else teach the swim lesson this Saturday, but also when I'm the one delivering the instructions to someone else's kid on Sunday.

Rutgers Isn't Unique

Rutgers Isn't Unique

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.

The Failure of Self-Esteem and Other Movements

I was raised in the hey-day of the self-esteem movement. Or at least it seemed like it. When I was young, I can remember coaches, teachers and adults all-around fretting about the self-esteem of youngsters. Self-esteem was the answer to all life's challenges.

Depressed? You need high self-esteem! You'll feel better about yourself and won't be so sad.

Eating disorder? It's because your self-esteem is low, so you're seeing a fat person in the mirror.

Anxious? Relax! We weren't so good at even recognizing anxiety in those days, so we often didn't graft self-esteem on 

Bullies had low self-esteem, and somehow so did the kids they were bullying. Criminals? Suffering from low self-esteem. If only we could raise the collective self-esteem, we could sure solve a lot of problems.

The Solution Graft

Seen with 2017 eyes, all of the above seems ridiculous. In fact, the pendulum seems to have swung so far in the other direction. "Kids these days" are criticized for their excessive self-esteem. They want everything right now because they are so special, so precious, right?

Meanwhile, all the problems that self-esteem was supposed to solve are still there and getting worse. 

The lesson here is not about self-esteem. Rather, it's about how we graft whatever piece of psychology that goes mainstream to the problems we want to solve, occasionally to disastrous results. It's how we fail to interrogate the solution as we race to apply it.

For all the talk about how people are throwing pills at their problems, there is an almost equal willingness to plug the solution du jour into any situation. Last week I wrote about how "mindfulness", especially in the form of meditation, has grown as a "solution" that can be grafted onto a lot of problems. 

As a coach and writer, I know there is a long list of concepts I don't write about because I simply don't know enough about them. I don't know enough about a lot of things to ensure that if I put it out there I wouldn't do harm. It's humbling, even sometimes crippling, to consider all of the things you don't know. 

When it comes to the psychological trends of the day, the best way I've found to avoid the "self-esteem" problem is to cast doubt on them until I'm out of disputations. It's one of the reasons that, while my ego absolutely hates it, my rational mind loves when people are highly critical of what I write.

They've often come up with a new argument, one I hadn't thought of, and i'm a little bit wiser for it. So, I guess what I'm saying is, to all the biggest critics of this blog: thanks. 

More than Mindful: Five Ways to Transcend Without Meditation

Meditation. It's all the rage right now. Elite athletes are doing it.  Schools are teaching it. Maybe your very clever swim coach is having your team do some yoga and at the end, you are laying flat on your back trying to find a meditative state.

Why is meditation so big? Well, in a world where anxiety is on the rise , where many people feel stressed and overwhelmed and get less rest than they should, it offers solutions. Not only that, but heavily research backed solutions to those problems.

But meditation in a traditional sense isn't for everybody. I want to suggest a more inclusive model for sports coaches to use when they seek to help themselves and their athletes find peaceful, mental recovery in an otherwise stress ridden world.

Strengths of Transcendence

The VIA Strengths category of transcendence holds five strengths. Each one offers a window into how you can bring purposeful, mindful respite to your life. I myself am not a meditator, but I've used each to achieve the same benefits many people cite from meditation.

1. Appreciation of Arts and Beauty: Do you stop and smell the roses? Do you stop and LOOK at the roses? Maybe you should.

I'm not much for museums myself, but spending time admiring whatever you find beautiful is a wonderfully transcendent experience. When I lived in Denmark I used to stroll through downtown Copenhagen because the architecture itself knocked my stress down a few pegs

Likewise, when traveling for competition I scheduled time to see something cultural like Old Baku whenever possible.

2. Gratitude: I've already written a whole post on gratitude, so I'll add little here. But Gratitude is a great way to get out of a vicious circle of thinking about all your problems and share a good moment with someone you appreciate.

3. Hope: Like gratitude, Hope is a great strength to tap into in relation to other people. Sometimes it can be very hard to find hope in our own lives, but we can see it clearly for others. Also, writing out reasoning for why you may allow yourself to hope for some ambitious goal is a great step to having that hope and following up on it.

4. Humor: You know what helps me more than any amount of sitting cross legged with my eyes closed? Laughing.

The colleague I miss more than any I have ever worked with is a man named Mark Toburen. Why? Because almost every time I spent extended time with him, he succeeded in making me laugh so hard that I cried. I knew that Mark too, got a huge release from making me laugh.

5. Spirituality, Sense of Purpose: This is the strength that people most often associate with meditation. There is so much more here.

People who pray get a similar benefit to meditation. Religious faith in general can have extremely positive effects in the way that you manage stress and anxiety.

Non-religious people like me need only use our rational brains to figure out why faith is so impactful. So much of stress and anxiety comes from worrying about things that are beyond our control or we can't explain. Imagine believing that there is an omniscient being out there controlling the uncontrollable and explaining the unexplainable. Sounds pretty comforting to me.

I hope by now you see that there are far more ways up the mountain when it comes to transcending our daily lives than just meditation. Finding what works for you can change the way you manage daily stresses so it doesn't overwhelm.

Want to learn more about how to use your character strengths? Contact me.