The podcast is coming back with a roar. I just finished recording a pod that will go up on Tuesday, August 20th that I’m really excited about. I spoke with Cejih Yung, and without spoiling it too much, there’s a lot in there for anyone who works in swimming and wants to make a living.
I got my first “assistant” coach in 2013. I was an assistant myself, coaching at Georgia Tech. I had a big group (18 swimmers) and therefore I often found myself in the company of our volunteer assistant at the time.
I didn’t know what to do with her. I mean, I had ideas like holding a stop watch and taking times, sometimes I would assign her to work with a certain swimmer on a certain thing. I now realize that having an “assistant” in that capacity is a massive waste of resources.
As I stand here in 2019, I simply don’t believe in the concept of assistants. Nicholas Nassim Taleb sums up part of why in this tweet:
Now, I say partially because there is a second part of this. You may infer from the above that I believe in working alone almost exclusively. Not at all. What I have come to understand is that no matter the relative level of experience or skill or knowledge, you should look for partners in what you do.
This is no semantic difference. An assistant is part of a hierarchy. A partner is not. The nature of many of our sporting structures is that they are very hierarchical, and for reasons well beyond pure performance, I think there’s a much better way to do it.
In order for someone to be at their best in a workplace, there are three things I find absolutely critical. One is that they are highly motivated to do good work. Another is that they have applicable strengths to bring to the table. Finally, that they can work autonomously, that is, they can apply their strengths without constant supervision.
Let’s talk about autonomy first, because it bleeds into the other two. Autonomy is about the ability to make decisions for yourself. None of us have “full” autonomy. We are always limited by external factors in our ability to make decisions.
However, you want someone that works with you, even if you are the boss, to be making a lot of decisions for themselves. Otherwise, you will waste time with them checking back with you about what way they should go, often missing critical windows to do the right thing.
In order to cultivate that kind of autonomy, you’re going to have to let go control a bit and be willing to have your assistant/partner do things differently than you. You’re going to have to have a forum for discussing those differences which both recognizes when you know better but also allows you to be wrong.
Which brings me to my second point. The great part about working with other people is that nobody has identical strengths. So, the synergy of two or more people working together is incredibly powerful. Hierarchies diminish the potential to leverage different strengths by creating more fixed paths for problem solving.
Again, you’re going to need a way to evaluate and discuss what strengths each of you bring to a partnership. I am a fan myself of the VIA Strengths, but you may find your own model.
The great thing about a model like the VIA strengths is that no matter the experience, knowledge or skill level of who you partner with, they have strengths. Knowing what they are is key to understanding how they might work autonomously to apply those strengths to the problems and challenges that you face.
Motivation is such a tricky subject. It often gets mixed with other terms. I don’t really like when it is used as a verb or an adjective. Let me give you a couple of examples:
“Coach is not motivating me”
“I don’t find this environment very motivating”
What I really think the two statements above are conflating is inspiration. Inspiration is very much about how external factors augment internal drive. Motivation, while influenced by external factors, is far more about internal emotional states and thinking.
How does it feel to be trusted and treated like a partner versus an “assistant”. Better yet, how does that feel when you’re keenly aware (and the person you work with/for is keenly aware) of just what strengths you have to bring to the table? I’d argue that’s an environment where I would feel a lot of motivation.
Let Them Draft Their Own
Within the first year of coaching in Denmark, I found myself pulled away for Junior National team duty. On training camp with the National Head Coach, he walked up on me with a furrowed brow typing a workout into an e-mail.
“What on earth are you doing?” he exclaimed. I explained. My assistants couldn’t write workouts themselves, so I just HAD to do this.
“Why have assistants if they can’t write a bloody workout?” was his retort. And he was write.
Later on in my coaching career, I actually scheduled a practice where I was not present, but my two assistants were. They designed the entire workout and coached it cooperatively.
They loved it, the swimmers loved it, and I should have found ways to do more of that or incorporate the same energy into the practices that we coached together. Good thing there’s still time.
Chris DeSantis coaching is currently on vacation, so if you have specific questions regarding this or other posts, expect some delay in response.
This is the second in a series that started in June 2019. As we discuss what boundaries should be set on coaching behavior, it’s also useful to have a positive direction to move in. For the first in this series go here.
I had a coach once that demanded we call him Coach (Last name). When asked why, his reasoning was simple. He believed it was a respectful way to address him.
Personally, I’ve never insisted on such, even though we see the same thing in pretty much all schools. Still, I would say the majority of people I have coached have addressed me in one of two ways, either “coach” or “sir”. The first one is obvious, but why the second?
Well, a few years into coaching I decided to flip the above scenario on its head. Instead of demanding that people I coached address me in one particular way, I started to sprinkle it the other direction. I called people “sir” or “ma’am” or “ms”. Always with my tongue firmly in my cheek.
The kids picked it up pretty naturally, and pretty soon I was getting called “sir” all the time.
Leading by example is a concept with 100% approval but lots of murkiness when it comes down to actually defining it. So I’m going to try to. When it comes to coaching, you’re never going to do 100% of the stuff that you ask your athletes to do, and it would be dumb to do so. So you can’t exactly “lead by example” by simply modeling all the tasks you assign.
You can, however, model behavior and decision-making in the types of situations that your athletes will face on a daily basis. They will see and judge your behavior and decision making far more than you likely give them credit for. You will also see some of your own greatest vulnerabilities manifest in the people you coach.
Here are a few categories where I believe it is critically important to lead by example:
Emotional Regulation- As a coach, emotional regulation is a headline skill that you want to develop for yourself and see in your athletes. Often misunderstood as “controlling” your emotions, it is actually about responding to your emotions. Modeling how to respond to your negative emotions, be it anger, sadness or fear in a way that both allows you to express and deal with those emotions without “acting out” on those around you is crucial. On the flip side, I’ve struggled myself with capitalizing on positive emotions, often feeling most uncomfortable when things are going well. When I coached in Denmark, I took my coaches on a retreat to plan for the year. We ended up discussing for an hour how much our athletes collectively worried about competition. At that moment, I knew one of the biggest problems was how worried I was about competitive results.
Work/Life Balance- Many athletes, especially elite athletes, struggle to find the balance between outworking their competition and leading a healthy life. Coaches face the same struggle. The higher level I was coaching, the more I felt pulled in two directions between my life outside of work and the competition I was engaged in at work. But if we truly want our athletes to lead whole lives and grow up to be great people, they need to see us doing the same. You don’t need to regale them with stories of your time away from the pool, but having the athletes know that you have interests outside of coaching, things that you do for yourself sends a powerful message that they should do the same.
Relationships- These of course are not distinct categories. Relationships are the key to true emotional regulation, likewise an important part of work/life balance. As a coach you have a really unique opportunity to model good relationships for the people you coach. Many may come from abusive pasts whether in sport or at home, and this can warp their sense of a healthy relationship. Showing care for other people in your life, talking about it openly and modeling respectful boundaries can be hugely influential.
Self-reflective- A key part of working on something and improving is the ability to be self-reflective. I think many worry that if they do some of this self-reflection out in the open, it will be perceived as weakness to those they coach. I disagree. It took me ten years, but I finally noticed that coaches often end up “frustrated” with athletes that mirror some of their own quirks as an athlete. I was a mouthy back-talker as an athlete, and found myself perpetually vexed by kids who ‘didn’t listen”. I knew one coach whose youth coaches deemed “lazy” that was always frustrated by his own athletes lack of determination. If you are secure enough to reflect on yourself, it can actually be a starting point for good empathy with the most “frustrating” athletes you coach.
Showing Up- So obvious that I almost left it out. Want to set an expectation that people arrive and are ready to go by a certain time? If you want consistency out of those you coach, you have to be the most consistent person on the team. Consistently on time, there when you say you are, following through on what you said you would do. As simple as that, sort of.
As I said above, I once spent an hour discussing how “worried” athletes were on the team I led. Although I made improvements even during that time, I didn’t make the big leap in progress for helping people I coached until I actually started working on solutions for my own anxiety.
Leading by example is about more than just specific actions, and far more about modeling (and explaining) the complex decision-making process you use as a coach while being open to improvement.
Yesterday I posted to my facebook page a link to a Danish news article. Danish Radio (DR), which does public news in all formats, did an investigative deep dive into the issue of public weighings by top Danish swimming officials. They also produced a mini-documentary that aired on Danish TV in primetime last night.
For the many non-danes who read this blog, there was a lot of curiosity about the story. Because of that interest, I’m going to do my best to answer some of those questions.
How were you (Chris DeSantis) involved?
In November of 2017, I blogged about former Danish national team coach Mark Regan. A top Danish athlete had retired from competitive swimming, citing an eating disorder. While that swimmer did not swim for Regan, it was Regan who introduced the practice of publicly weighing and shaming swimmers in the National training group over their weight, a practice that this report reveals went on through 2012.
One of the journalists who had spoken to that swimmer contacted me. His name was Anders Rud, and we spoke on the phone for over an hour in March of 2018. He wanted to investigate this further and find out how widespread the practice had been. I indicated to him that I believed the practice had continued beyond Regan and perhaps even to Junior level swimmers.
Anders Rud went on to be one of the journalists who worked on this story.
Who was involved
The journalist team at DR spoke to 23 former and current athletes in all who corroborated stories of public weighing and shaming. Some of the biggest names in Danish swimming, including Jeanette Ottesen, were among those to call out the practice.
Regan’s successor as National Team coach, Paulus Wildeboer, continued the practice. Beyond that, it trickled down to the Junior level, where Sidse Kehlet, once a top Danish age group swimmer, said that then Junior National Team coach Michael Hinge called her “fat Sidse” on a team training camp when she was 14 years old.
Another notable source for the story was former European Championship finalist Kathrine Jørgensen. Jørgensen said that repeated weighings and humiliation led to anxiety, depression and ultimately a suicide attempt that led her to be held in a psychiatric hospital for her own protection.
Regan has all but disappeared from the face of the earth. Wildeboer died in 2014. Michael Hinge, the former Junior National team coach, continues to be employed as the head swim coach of a Danish club.
Why is this a scandal?
Several people remarked that this is considerably less than what would be considered a scandal in the United States. After all, when I reported on similar behavior from Dick Shoulberg, there was almost universal public deafening silence over the matter.
There are two things I think it is important to say in regards to this, both of which I believe are compliments to Denmark and Danish culture. First, Danish people in general have a very high expectation of ethical behavior for their institutions. The standards are high, so while far worse behavior goes unchecked at an institutional level here in the US, in Denmark this is a big deal.
Second, your average Danish person feels empowered to call out behavior that they see as wrong. In fact in this case, there were several people beyond the athletes themselves who stood up for what’s right. The first was the club coach at the pool where the National Team practiced in 2004, Jens Frederiksen. He observed the weighings and comments of the coach and voiced his concern to Danish swimming about it.
I recall also in my time there a team official who was taking pictures of female athletes and posting them to facebook without athletes permission. When athletes complained, he was fired and has not to my knowledge worked in sports since then. Such is the general level of expectation and empowerment of even young people to directly call out behavior they do not like.
In 2005, the head dietician for Team Danmark (think Danish USOC) called Mark Regan and his immediate superior, Lars Sørenson into a meeting. She told them to stop the public weighings, stating that they risked athletes starving themselves. She advised them to make the weighings voluntary and take place in a private location away from their teammates.
Her advice was not followed, and the public weighings and shaming continued.
Lars Sørenson is currently the director of Denmark’s largest swim club.
The Head Cheese
But the person who perhaps comes off the worst from this whole scandal is Pia Holmen Christensen, the current and then Director of Danish Swimming. Christensen, I’ve heard, does not like me very much. Here was a previous piece of writing that wasn’t up her alley. Perhaps she should call Tim Hinchey so they can compare notes?
When asked about why she had failed to provide proper oversight in this matter, Christen could only provide the following response (translated):
“I feel very sorry, when I hear these stories, I have to say”
“First I want to say, this is not something that I had knowledge of. I’m not trying to wash my hands of it, but it is just to say, that if we had knowledge of this, or if I received knowledge of this, then I certainly would have stopped it”
One wonders how she can credulously state that she didn’t know what was going on. It only leaves two scenarios- either she is lying or she provided terrible oversight of her employees. Oops, there goes my chances of getting a job within Danish swimming, at least for the time being.
Results over all
There is a direct line from this scandal to what I often write about in American swimming, or sport in general. Its pretty clear that the inappropriate behavior of coaches was overlooked because the “results” were good. Denmark has been more successful over this time period in terms of medals won.
Sports organizations are due for an overhaul worldwide. They are mostly organized around competitive results as a mission statement, and so this kind of disgusting behavior gets excused based on medal counts. Until that changes, we will find out that athletes have been mistreated time and time again.
I often hear the criticism that such an overhaul would naturally lead to a decline in results. Which is why this post, like many others, will be tagged “Dark Ages”. Because that’s where that argument belongs. Russian nobleman of the 19th century also feared what ending serfdom would do crop yields.
The idea that athletes perform at their best under severe mistreatment is a myth that needs to die swiftly.
A couple of stories from my youth swimming career that don’t necessarily have a “point”. Take from them what you will.
Swimming, on the whole, is a fairly predictable sport, one of the many reasons it has failed to grab the attention share of some other sports. We do not get upsets in swimming the way that Michigan State upset Duke last night in the NCAA basketball tournament. Imagine if Duke won those games 100% of the time?