This is how we have crafted a system that puts coaches on a pedestal for the performance of those they coach. The better the “results”, the more whatever means they have used to achieve them are justified.
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.
I'm living the dream.
I'm writing this from my hotel in Downtown Houston. I'm down in the area for the third time in the last six months. Whereas my two previous visits have been solely focused on working with Bridge Bats, this time I have a dual purpose
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Positive Psychology is some powerful stuff. So powerful that the US Military has been using it as part of their Master Resilience program since 2009 with strong results.
But when I get out into the world of swimming, not everyone sees the immediate value of Positive Psychology for their team. I can understand why, because each of the most common objections I get is one I had myself at some point or another. Here are three common objections I get and the best responses to them:
1. We have already incorporated psychology into our program.
Many coaches out there see the value of either including some research-backed strategies into their coaching. Even better, some reach out to professionals and outsource some of the load.
When I started to learn about Positive Psychology, I did what most people do. I went out and bought some books and went through. I was excited and wanted to try some of the stuff I had read about. But it didn't work quite the way I thought it would- in fact sometimes it didn't work at all.
When I went to school for Positive Psychology, I learned the deeper art by getting the full picture of the research that backed up interventions and concepts. I was then able to put it back into practice fully understanding what I was actually doing.
Positive Psychology is distinct from traditional Psychology in that it studies the positive counterparts of the afflictions described in the DSM. It also has distinct roots from Sports Psychology, whose most common interventions revolve around the mechanics of sports.
Positive Psychology is science that will help coaches, athletes and parents to live a better life first and then get a performance improvement from that better life. The performance improvements from a better life are huge.
2. The Kids on My Team Have Problems- What Can You Do About That?
Coaches who are not trained in psychology may nevertheless recognize that some of their athletes are exhibit symptoms of anxiety, depression or social disorders. This is a common objection globally to Positive Psychology, in that it traditionally offers "green cape" solutions, i.e does not address illnesses directly but promotes well-being.
Much as with physical injuries, it's smart to let professionals (orthopedic doctors, physical therapists, trainers) help diagnose and treat problems. Even better, however, is to set up systems to prevent injury in the first place.
By focusing on creating more optimism, better relationship skills and better emotional regulation, Positive Psychology can make mental injury less likely on your team. Doesn't that sound nice?
3. Positive Psychology is New Age Bull**** That Is Everything Wrong With Kids These Days
Here's something I have heard 1000 times while delivering a piece of criticism:
"Aren't you supposed to be the Positive Psychology guy?"
A lot of true Positive Psychology has been co-opted by people who have little to no understanding of it, and the results can sometimes tarnish the reputation of a science that is trying to apply rigor to human betterment.
Positive Psychology is not about never saying no, or anything critical, or smiling and clapping for your swimmers as they leave practice early. By honing Positive Psychology techniques, you will find opportunities to build PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment).
By doing so, you will find yourself having to say no less, be less critical, and your swimmers are more likely to want to be at practice and work hard. While the research is new, many of the ideas underpinning it are not- but they have been crafted to help the modern world we live in.
Want to build PERMA on your team? Contact me!
It started around the third grade. In those far gone days, that was when teachers started to give homework. I, for reasons I won't fully get into because it would dominate this post, didn't do the homework.
Or sometimes I would. I would excuse myself to go to the bathroom directly before homework was due to be checked and furiously scribble something down. As you can imagine, I didn't earn high marks for this kind of effort.
As I progressed forward, I had to come up with increasingly punitive tactics to get myself to "do homework". I'd wait until the homework was late and I started losing a letter grade each day. I'd force myself to get up early the day things were due so I could work under the most possible time pressure.
I was a procrastinator. I really didn't like school, at least the parts you had to do outside of school, and I craved that negative pressure to get things done.
It worked, I guess. But eventually I found a better way.
At some point, I switched tactics. I understand it better now. Procrastinators abuse themselves to get things done. You can do the opposite. You can reward yourself for doing the things you don't want to do.
Here's how most of my college roommates remember me: sprawled out on my futon playing video games (or reading about swimming) for most of the day. And yet, in college I never handed in something late, or worked to the eleventh hour to furiously finish something.
The video games were the end of a process I followed each semester. Upon getting the syllabus for a class (sometimes it was possible to even do this before class started) I sized up which assignments I could knock off immediately. What books could I read right now? What papers could I write.
Then I did it all. Instead of the pressure of the final moment, I gave myself a reward. When I finished most of my schoolwork for the semester, it was video game and swimming time.
BIG CHANGE VS LITTLE CHANGE
If you want to change behavior, punishing yourself or the person you want to change works, sort of. Most people don't crave punishment, and they will naturally avoid behaviors that result in punishment.
As a coach or leader on the team, what does this mean practically? The first intuition might be to set up a reward structure for things you want to encourage, and that's definitely a good idea.
The next level is to teach athletes how to self-reward. It's the difference between feeding someone a fish dinner and teaching them how to fish for themselves. The rewards that individuals come up with for themselves will always be stronger than anything you can dictate from on high.
Want to learn more about incorporating Positive Psychology into your coaching? Write me.
Gratitude is not necessarily the first trait people grab for when describing a great coach. Imagine saying "She's the best coach- she's so incredibly grateful". Sounds weird right? Well, I'm going to make a case for how building gratitude more intentionally into your coaching can really help. Then I'll talk about some really easy ways to start doing that.
Gratitude is (hopefully) something we all practice every day. We say thank you to someone who holds the door. Maybe we tell a loved one how much it means to have them in our life. We are not inherently grateful or ungrateful, we are the sum of the gratitude we put out into the world day to day.
When you practice gratitude, you create virtuous circles, the opposite of a vicious cycle. You send gratitude out into the world and good things come back to you. This exchange of gratitude will put you in a more positive emotional state. Being in a positive emotional state has a host of benefits: it helps your relationships, and you are more ready to learn. Simply put, it can make you a lot better at everything you do.
So how do you cultivate gratitude beyond your daily routine of thank you and please? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Replacing "I'm sorry" with "thank you for...":
For this one I have to credit my colleague Sherri Fisher, who patiently taught me to do this in the last year. There are so many little situations where we end up apologizing where gratitude can fill the space better.
Imagine you are late to a meeting. You burst in the door.
"i'M SO SORRY I'M LATE"
How do you think other people in the meeting feel in that moment? Some of them are probably annoyed. Even though you apologized unconditionally, the statement is still all about you. Try this instead:
"Thank you for your patience in waiting for me"
Now you've shown gratitude to other people, and acknowledged something positive in them instead of making it about you. There are still situations where an apology works best, but gratitude can fill a lot of gaps.
2. Tell people what you like about them
Here's a simple mission: when you show up to the pool today, give a simple appreciation to each person you interact with.
I know the first thing I learned as a coach was to diagnose problems. I could see what was wrong, and what needed improving. On the flip side, I tended to take for granted what was right and what people were already doing well.
But it's hard to have a self-awareness of what you are doing well. Many people, especially younger people, can easily doubt and find fault in themselves. Telling them something you like about them can help them to learn what they are good at.
3. Insert gratitude into tense situations
Do you ever get stressed it starts snowballing? Use gratitude to reverse course. I've been alone with my three year old daughter for a couple weeks while my wife travels, and it's stressful. I try to be a good parent and not let it get to me, but the stress builds.
Last night, my little girl was testing my limits about going to sleep. I was highly annoyed, which wasn't helping. Instead of yelling, I tried gratitude. I looked her in the eye and told her a simple truth:
"I love every day we get to spend together".
A tear welled up in my eye, and all of a sudden I didn't feel so stressed. Neither did she- she looked at me wordlessly and gave me a hug. Five minutes later her eyes were closed.
Want to learn more about how to put Positive Psychology into practice on your team? Write me.
The first year I coached swimming, I had a set that I went to a lot. It went something like this:
I don't remember how fast I specified that the swimmers went, but I wanted them to go for it. I saw it as a "high intensity" set. I would have probably told you that the goal was for swimmers to at least be at "200 pace". AT LEAST.
I was way wrong.
I went to the set for the reason that many beginner coaches go to certain sets. It was something I knew. It was hard- so at least I could look myself in the mirror and know that I was putting a challenge out there.
What I didn't realize was that by putting out a set where my expectations didn't match the reality of how swimmers could actually swim the set, I wasn't getting the best out of them.
Let me back up and make a couple things clear here. If you set dishonest bars for your athletes to get over, they may end up being honest for somebody. This is why we have exceptional athletes in our sport. I would gather some world class athletes could make something optimal out of such a set.
Furthermore, there are ways to get the psychological advantage that many coaches think they are getting by putting out dishonestly hard sets without lying to the swimmers. Being dishonest actually undermines a fundamental piece of coaching that most of us are shooting for.
"Process" is probably one of the most overused buzz words in sports right now. We all want our athletes focused on process. We're supposed to praise process over results. So why give training where an unrealistic RESULT is the primary thing you are trying to communicate to swimmers?
Let me give another example:
12x50 "ALL OUT" on 1:30
Think about how most if not all of the swimmers you coach would honestly swim such a set. They might be able to go "all out" for few, but unless their speed is very poor, they will face increasingly diminished returns. They will learn something you don't want anyone to learn: that no matter what they do they are helpless.
This is akin to something we would not want a swimmer we coached to do. Imagine if your 1:06 100 breaststroker told you her goal in the next race was to go under :58. And she set that goal for all subsequent races. Would you consider that strong goal setting? How many swimmers would be able to come up short on such a goal repeatedly and keep smiling?
Now before you make the logical jump to "no result expectations in practice!", there is some value to setting a "result" expectation as a coach in practice. Swimmers should train with reasonable intensity and know what they are shooting for.
So before your next practice, honestly evaluate where your swimmers are and avoid making "aspirational" result expectations for what's going to happen. What do you honestly expect them to do? How can they do it better, and how can you communicate that to them really concisely?
Be honest about your practice.