mental health

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. 

Three Common Objections to Positive Psych By Swim Coaches

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!

 

How To Reverse-Procrastinate

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.

Reversing Course

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.

Simple Gratitude Exercises for Coaches

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. 

 

 

Be Honest About Your Practice

The first year I coached swimming, I had a set that I went to a lot. It went something like this:

10x100, 2:00

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. 

 

Shaming is Not a Coaching Technique

When I was a senior in college, just finishing my swimming career, my teammates laid down bets. Their gamble? How much I would weigh by the time I finished school in just a few months.

I was in the best shape of my life that year, a slim 6'1, 180 lbs. The heavy money was on 200 lbs,. and they ended up being right. Inside, I felt shame. Shame was just one end of a pernicious cycle- wherein I would isolate myself emotionally and try to push away shame with food and alcohol. Doing so would only lead to more shame.

The swimmers didn't come up with the idea to shame me on their own. A permission structure was already in place from my coach. His primary tactic for getting me "in shape" was to shame me. 

A lot of coaches think that shame works. It certainly invokes strong emotion, and sometimes that strong emotion can lead to change. But use of shame is playing with fire- a game that many coaches may not even be aware of.

Shades of Shame

Let me ask you a question. Have you ever publicly reprimanded an athlete in front of their peers? I know I have. That's shaming. Although it may feel "right" and "necessary" in the moment, I want you to reconsider.

Have you ever used group punishment for individual behavior? 

I cringe thinking about the time I pointed out that a 13 year old girl should "close her mouth" when eating. As a mom chaperoning our trip pointed out, her braces prevented it. 

Have you ever compared one athlete to another? Even if your intention was to use one athlete as a positive role model, there's a good chance you elicited shame. 

As with any good rule- ignorance of it is no excuse. Shame has serious consequences. So what kind of positive coaching can we replace it with?

Tough Positivity

One objection coaches will immediately say to me is "so I have to stop telling people they are wrong ever? That's how we got this spoiled generation". I am not saying that at all. There is a way, however, to still set boundaries around what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behavior.

It's harder, but you must communicate one-to-one to swimmers the specific action you consider inappropriate. Be clear that you do not believe that the action is a part of who the swimmer is. Express optimism that they can improve in the future.

For swimmers that struggle with fitness, as I did, there is often a lot of emotional coaching to be done. All of the commonly employed shaming techniques (weighing in swimmers, public comments, etc) only make things worse. As a coach you cannot start from expectations of fitness, but you can have a huge impact on the emotional health of your athletes.

Instead, you can help your athletes to feel positive emotions. Make them feel connected to you- communicate often that you care about them and show it with your actions. Express empathy for what they are struggling with. Show them what they are capable of doing and empower them to do it. 

Learn to recognize shame and talk about it openly with your athletes. Teach them to be empathetic to each other and recognize what things may be leading them to shame. 

Let's drop shame from the coaches toolbox forever.

Want to incorporate Positive Psychology into your coaching? Write me!

Efimova's Revenge Will Define Lilly King's Career

Yesterday, America's #1 Swimming Villain Yuliya Efimova got revenge on Lilly King, She capped the victory by wagging her finger, a move that sent your average American booster in a frothing rage.

Lets set aside, for the moment, discussion of whether such taunting has a place in swimming (I believe it does). Let's also set aside arguments about Efimova's doping. Lilly King is an outstanding swimmer who has, ready or not, crossed over into a new stage of her career.

King's meteoric rise has been marked by the kind of brash, in-your-face confidence we rarely see in swimming. In a way, we can all relate to this kind of confidence. It's how you feel when you haven't realized your own mortality yet. It's a teenager speeding down a hometown road without any fear. Now that teenager has had an accident.

The history of world class swimming is littered with athletes who looked like the next best thing, rising and rising. The rising part is "easy", if you can consider anything at this level easy. It is far harder to confront reality after that first big loss, after you're not the rising star anymore. 

The pressure is now on- the only not disappointing result for King is to be better than everyone in the world. You don't have to look far back for an example of someone who rose nearly as fast as King, only to struggle after that first big disappointment.

Breeja Larson came on like a freight train leading into the 2012 Olympics. She looked like the future of breaststroke. Remember when she held off Rebecca Soni (who at that time had the world record in the 200 breaststroke) on the back half of the 100 breaststroke at the 2012 Olympic trials?

Larson would go on to a disappointing finish in London. She finished 6th at the games. Every year between 2012-2016, she regressed from her 1:05.92, despite being in a stage of her career where she should still be improving.

King will have to be very purposeful in the way she mentally prepares going forward. She cannot ignore this loss, she must deal with it emotionally re-frame her confidence. She will have to effectively confront the doubts that weren't there before.

If she does that, she can make Efimova an afterthought and do all the finger wagging she wants. 

 

The Power of Crying In Sports

Two weeks after my daughter was born I found myself a blubbering mess. I was watching the Star Trek movie (the 2009 reboot). The opening scene has James Kirk's father sacrificing himself so that his wife (who is in labor) and crew can escape certain death. He lives to hear the first sounds of his son but never sees him.

 

In that moment I was heartbroken for a movie character. However silly it might have been, the catharsis was real. Like most men, especially athletes and coaches, crying was not something I did often. It was much later that I realized how weak that made me. 

A League of Our Own

Sports suffers from a hyper masculinity complex. To reference another movie, Tom Hanks said "there's no crying in baseball", but he was absolutely wrong. There should be plenty of crying in baseball.

 

Think about what crying actually is: a raw display of emotion. Sometimes we cry when we are sad, or feeling great joy or love. But crying is just a physical display of the emotions we are feeling. 

We cannot control our emotions, but we can control our reaction to emotions. So many of us, especially men in sports, have learned that despite the sadness, joy or love we might feel in a moment it is bad and weak for us to wear that emotion so visibly.

Worse yet, as coaches we can often struggle to deal with athletes who cry when they are in a heightened emotional state. I have often heard coaches mutter about athletes crying, especially around big competitions. 

The truth is, at least athletes who can release their emotions in this way are in touch with how they are feeling. Yes, crying can cross over and be "too much", but I find more often than not, it is over-suppressed in sports. 

Coaches should be working on emotional skills with their athletes rather than shunning tears. That means bringing some of our less in touch athletes out of their shell. It also means that we need to build a runway for emotional athletes to land their plane safely.

Sports should not be an arena for emotional suppression, rather it should be a healthy place where we learn to harness powerful emotions for the good of ourselves and those around us.

Want to learn more about getting athletes out of their shell or safely landing the plane? Write me. 

 

 

A Frustrating Listen: What Comes First

Yesterday, I took a listen to the Gutter Lane podcast's return. Zac Adams, the host, had one of the most well-regarded coaches in the country on. Todd DeSorbo has received a lot of well-deserved praise for his outstanding work with sprinters at NC State.

But I couldn't help but get frustrated very early on in the podcast. As both men admitted, they were recording just after the funeral of Jason Turcotte, a coach admired by so many in the swimming community. The issue of work-life balance in swimming could not be more topical at the moment.

Adams tried to engage DeSorbo on the topic. Surely, on a staff with multiple coaches at the age where they have young children, they must have discovered some secret sauce for work life balance. If they have we didn't hear it.

Instead, DeSorbo demurred (all that follows are not direct quotes and paraphrasing:.. "I could certainly do better, we could certainly do better" he said. "Our goal is to outwork everyone" was almost a defensive response to any suggestion that they were taking less time to do an outstanding job. Finally, I heard the same old tired story I've heard a hundred times before "my/our wives are very understanding".

I'm sorry, but screw that. I got angrier and angrier the more I listened to the podcast. DeSorbo had plenty to say about recruiting, training sprinters and the professional career of Cullen Jones. Family? We'll figure that out later. I totally understand that many people would like DeSorbo to "stick to swimming", but it clearly seemed like Adams knew something really great about how they do things at NC State but never got DeSorbo to get it out.

As pretty much everyone knows, "we'll figure that out later" almost always turns into "never". It shouldn't be a pre-requisite to high level success in the swimming world that your spouse just "knows how it is" and accepts a lesser standard from you.

As coaches, we have a higher calling. We talk about coaching people first and athletes second. We need to walk our talk. Our athletes need to see us leading healthy complete lives. They need to see us putting our families first, and asking our work to understand that.

The coaches that look up to us need to see that the path to the top is not paved that way.

I have to imagine DeSorbo's family life is better than it sounded. If this post makes me sound angry at him, I'm not. I'm angry at the culture he describes, but for him I feel great sadness. Having met Todd many times, I've found him to be a kind and humorous. I have no doubt that he loves his family very much. 

When people are dying, no one thinks to themselves "I wish I'd worked more". But you can bet they do think "I wish I'd spent more time with my family". I truly believe that you don't have to change your measures of success to live that way. I think there's an even higher level of athletic success we can find when we as coaches start living a healthy, full life. 

 

The Pessimism Trap

Over the last weekend I had the pleasure or presenting on the skill of optimism to swimmers at the Midwestern Elite IMX Camp. It's a tough conversation to have with anyone, but especially young athletes. Why? Because pessimism can be a performance enhancer for young athletes.

First, let's back up and define both terms. By optimism and pessimism I am talking about explanatory style. Explanatory style is the way you explain events to yourself. Pessimistic explanatory style involves taking good events and depersonalizing them while making them seem specific and unlikely to happen again. Let me give you an example.

Let's say you had an athlete that broke through and qualified for Sectionals for the first time. A pessimistic athlete might explain it themselves the following way:

"It was so easy" (It had little to do with my effort to create the result)

"I was really feeling good in the water" (It was specific and not pervasive)

"I had the swim of my life" (Once in a lifetime events are by nature not likely to happen again).

Some coaches might find those statements to be "positive" or even praiseworthy. While most coaches wouldn't encourage all of those statements, pessimistic young athletes have a certain false humility that can be tempting for coaches to encourage. They are "tough on themselves" and "accountable". They don't "rest on their laurels". I say false humility because humility is also a term we misunderstand in sports contexts.

The core of humility is putting yourself on an equal plane with others and recognizing that in the words of the late, great, Chris Peterson "other people matter". Humility is not dismissing your own personal role in the positive events that take place in your life.

Young athletes often succeed with pessimism for a couple reasons. One is pessimism can work as a motivator in the short term. Sometimes we call it "staying hungry" in sports. The second is that younger people are in many ways nearly as emotionally resilient as they are physically.

This morning, my three year old transitioned from crying to singing happily within about three minutes. Teenagers are known for their "mood swings", which are really an evolving emotional resiliency. Adults are far more "steady". This is when pessimism's positives for athletic performance get overwhelmed by the damage it does.

The motivation that pessimism creates is not enough to overcome the downward spirals of pessimistic thinking. The older an athlete gets, the harder time they have pulling out of these spirals. Eventually, they are left "burned out" or worse.

It's incumbent on us as coaches to teach optimism as a skill for the long term development of athletes (and people). Otherwise, we are sacrificing long term life success for very short term athletic success.

Want to learn more about how to up your mental game? Write me!

 

Step Outside Your Swimming Bubble

This past weekend I traveled to Fremont, Nebraska, for the first Midwestern Swimming IMX Elite Camp. It was my third trip to the cornhusker state, the last two being for Olympic trials in 2008 and 2012. This time I was leaving the enclave of big city Omaha for "real" Nebraska.

I grew up in one of the smaller swimming communities in the US. Over the last decade plus I've had the chance to explore the swimming world. I haven't nearly gotten to it all, but I can't recommend this strongly enough: if you get the chance to meet people far away from where you are, take it!

Stepping into middle America, it was easy to see why the US is the world's greatest swimming power. It wouldn't be hard to come up with a list of excuses for American failure. Instead everywhere you look there are thriving pockets.

What I saw in Nebraska made me feel more hope for the future of our sport. For all the talk of "kids these days" and the associated problems, I saw great strength in the young people in and out of the water.

Much is made in coaching circles about how there are "many ways up the mountain", and that's true I guess. But I think it often misses the point. Young people are exceptional at adapting to many different kinds of training and stimuli, finding a way to take imperfect coaching and make great results.

As the weekend wrapped up, that great promise was on display. We did a start session at the end of the weekend. Ten repetitions for each swimmer over thirty minutes, and there was measurable improvement all around. Coaching is a hell of a drug.

Do you want to supercharge your team's or your own swimming? Write me!

When Should You Do Double Practices?

Here's a question I see coaches asking all the time: "What is the right age for swimmers to start doubles?". Or "What level of swimmer should be doing doubles?". These are questions worth asking, for sure, but they miss the real question. Because the decision for swimmers to do "doubles", or train twice a day, has to do with a lot more factors than age or ability level.

Double practices are extremely popular at high levels of swimming, and in many cases seen as a bare necessity to be competitive at those levels. However, there are a minority of coaches who even at the highest levels eschew at least two swimming sessions a day. So how do you decide? Here are the biggest factors:

1. Are the swimmers making the best use of once daily practices? An easy indicator that you may have swimmers ready for doubles is that you feel as a coach that the swimmer or swimmers are practicing with good quality on the once daily training sessions.

There is no point at all in adding practice times if you don't have quality on single training sessions. Your job as a coach is to ensure quality in these once daily sessions first and foremost.

2. Are you training in a way that the swimmers can recover from a morning practice to an afternoon practice? The vast majority of coaches are training swimmers that attend school. Therefore you must consider that between a morning and an afternoon practice, there will be little time for passive recovery (like sleep). Can your swimmers bounce back and put in a quality training.

Training programs that need to put in regularly scheduled "recovery practices" are very inefficient. Why waste everybody's time like this? Rather, make your training such that swimmers can push their fitness at each training.

3. Do you have swimmers that want to train twice a day? This is probably the one I find most disagreement with other coaches on. I mean, who "wants" to come to morning practice?

In my experience, plenty of swimmers do, but only if you give them space to make the choice. In my career I have dropped morning practice altogether (at the NCAA Division 1 level, training a swimmer who won the ACC in a 200). When I brought it back, it was only for swimmers that wanted it.

Having swimmers bring a sullen attitude to morning training is a killer for the competitive climate of your team. Swimmers that choose morning practice are seldom sullen, because no one is forcing them to be there. You need to insist on creating an environment for this level of motivation.

As a coach, you need to look at the psychological and physiological big picture when considering double practices. Too often, coaches make a simple decision based on limited factors, to their own competitive disadvantage.

Want to make your training more efficient? Contact me for a free consultation.