Yesterday, I got flooded with texts that contained the same shitty news. Oregon State decided that they would no longer have a Swimming and Diving program. It’s trite but necessary for anyone that cares about college swimming to get fired up at points like this
My entree into the world of “elite” swimming was the 2008 Olympic Trials. It was the first national level swim meet of any kind that I had been to. I was accredited media along with Garrett McCaffrey, my friend and then the man behind floswimming.
The meet was eight days of blowing my mind, interspersed by Garrett and I talk swimming, life and the future. One argument we had early on was about the process for the best athletes at the meet. Garrett frequently noticed how much the top swimmers, like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, would comment that they were dutifully following the instructions of their coaches.
He wasn’t wrong, it is what they were saying. But in my ears it felt deeply wrong. There had to be a better way than “coach says, swimmer does”. And yet I have seen this manifest itself across many more conversations with coaches and swimmers. The swimmer that does exactly what you ask of them is bound to be pleasing to a coach. I have definitely fallen prey more than once to the ego boost that such a swimmer gave me.
Given some time for deeper reflection, I think that most coaches actually don’t want to have this kind of relationship. Because a swimmer who follows instructions to the T is missing the autonomy and motivation that really leads to them assuming their true potential.
This past weekend, I had almost too much fun working with Washington State University just a few days away from their conference championship. One thing we talked about was self-evaluation, and very specifically having expectations for yourself that are firmly divorced from results or the expectations others place on you.
Being able to look at a list at the end of the day and say “I did these things” is very powerful. Some of them may even (gasp) involve not following the precise instructions of your coach. Where I see athletes often feel trapped is that they disagree with the expectations set for them, but don’t form a clear idea of what they think would be better, go after it and actually prove their case.
Instead they often complain about the coaches, chafe against the expectations stay in their corner. This only makes coaches want to tighten their grip a little more.
You also need your own expectations because when you’re trying something really hard, you need to force some perspective. On your way to achieving something ambitious you will fail a lot and quite naturally lose sight of progress, or the base of good things that you’ve already accomplished.
Naturally self-critical people can get pretty far by being extremely tough on themselves, but at some point they need to acknowledge their own strengths and small accomplishments, or their self-criticism will make everything they attempt into a soulless grind.
I’m looking forward to seeing the team compete this weekend at PAC-12s, and may be filing another blog from the meet any insights I get from my new “don’t watch the swimming” perspective.
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
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.
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.