At the same time we struggle to define what is not acceptable behavior for a coach, we need to define what a coach should be! I’m all for some hard boundaries on what coaches shouldn’t do, but we need a positive direction too.
I’m going to highlight some of the major points from my Tuesday podcast with University of Houston Swimming and Diving Head Coach Ryan Wochomurka.
Bear with me though, this post might take around 15 minutes to read. Here are three big points from the conversation:
One year before the men's ACC championship, the assistant coaches were tasked with each giving an inspirational speech to the guys. My friend Marty Hamburger stepped up to the plate big.
His speech, which I will paraphrase because this is kinda sorta a family blog, came down to one thing. There was a big difference between talk and action. You could talk about doing something, or what you wanted to do, but doing it was something other entirely.
Marty had two sons. He had done it. I'll let you fill in the rest.
The speech lightened the mood for everyone on a tense evening, and I was thinking about him last week when my son, our second child, was born.
Four and a half years ago, when my daughter was born, I was head coach of a Danish swim club. I had just been selected (and declined to attend) a meet with the Danish Junior National team, because the meet was in Iceland and I didn't want to be far away if my wife went into labor.
I got a little flak from my colleagues at the time. Little did I know that would only be the beginning of the road I would have to navigate in my new dual role. This was Denmark, the land of parental leave. So I had fourteen days, which I won't complain about since many of my American readers probably experience going to work the very next day after their child is born.
I didn't get the fourteen days, however. I got called in a couple times, including interviewing and hiring a new coach just three days into my daughter's life. After that, it was back to the grind. I was coaching almost every morning and every weekday night.
During the first year, I would sleep away from home for 65 days, including several stretches of approximately 10 days. I remember I was in Croatia when my daughter crawled for the first time, struggling to watch on crappy wifi.
There was an essential conflict in what I did. The more successful I got, the more time I would be away from home. Shannon Rollason, a man I greatly admired for balancing his family and elite swim coaching, didn't sugarcoat it for me. I remember him telling me that with the Olympics approaching that time at home was going to grow even more scarce for him.
My own father hadn't taken an active role in raising me. He had, basically, just worked. He was an outstanding provider, and I grew up very well off. I emerged from an expensive, private liberal arts school with no college debt. I am not ungrateful for any of that.
He would often leave for work before I woke up. He would return for dinner from 6:00-:6:30, then go back to work. He worked Thanksgiving, Christmas and most other major holidays. When I started swimming I missed a lot of those dinners too.
It wasn't the path I wanted to follow, not the relationship I had chosen when I decided to marry my wife. I felt constantly pulled in two directions.
At one point, I remember returning from a meet, a frustrating weekend. I broke into tears at the kitchen table. I was exhausted, and I felt like I was failing at both of the things I wanted to be excellent at. I certainly didn't have a road map for either.
In September of 2015, my life changed. I stepped away from the grind and came home. Life was still stressful, to be sure. My mother was slowly dying from a brain tumor. My wife was starting up a new job.
But I had time to focus on doing one job extremely well- being a dad. I was home every morning and most nights. I walked my daughter to and from school, and made most of her meals. I had my weekends back.
To this day I'm extremely grateful that fate intervened and sent me home. I could have missed out on so much. I realized the simple truth that kids really benefit from a lot of time with their parents- my daughter was happy and thriving and our relationship grew stronger and stronger.
My greatest fear, of course, was that somehow my coaching skill would atrophy if I didn't spend all my time poolside. That was far from the truth. First off, parenting a small child gave me a lot more empathy for the children (and their parents) that I worked with every day.
I got patience that I never had, in spades. I relearned how to teach someone something. I got really lucky in that a swim club offered to let me work for them part-time, and basically define my own role. "We want you on the team" they said, and offered to let me do whatever I felt I was best at.
So finally, I learned to stop trying to be everything to everyone and just focus on a few things that I knew I could do really well.
Which leads me to today. I founded this business on that principle. I was not going to try and do anything that I was ok at, or pretty good at. I was going to stick to a few things, and do them really well.
I thought there was a niche to carve out, one that could lead me to continue to do what I love (coach) and still be a father to my kids and the loving husband I wanted to be. I think that there are a lot of coaches with the same goal, trying to chart a similar path in a world that isn't always quite set up to make it convenient.
I got to make up for lost time with my first kid, with the second I won't have to. Later today, I'm going to leave for a little bit, stand next to a pool, and help some kids learn to do it a little bit better. It's a simple thing that I won't take for granted this time around
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
Last week, I wrote about how parenting made me a better coach. The reverse is at least as true. While the old saying "you're never ready to become a parent" is true, there are many ways in which being a coach, and a swim coach in particular, gave me a leg up in my humble beginning as a father.
More than anything, parenting is the ultimate coaching job. It is extremely long term, constantly evolving, and it takes tremendous time and energy. It's also the most rewarding. Watching a swimmer go a best time is crazy fun. Watching your child learn makes you feel like the most important person in the world.
Before I get too weepy, there are some really practical ways that coaching prepares you for parenting:
1. Early morning wake-ups? No big deal- Babies do not come into this world sleeping 10 hours through the night. The early days of parenting are a sleep struggle for all new parents, and sometimes it feels like there is no end in sight.
If you've swum or coached, you've had plenty of tough wake-ups in your life. Waking up to hang out with a very cute little bundle that looks like you is far more pleasant. Even if she is screaming like a banshee.
2. Knowing when to say "no"- As a coach, you'll encounter swimmers at many different ages and many different stages of development. All of them should be at a stage where they can handle hearing "no" from an adult. If you've encountered fifteen year old who can't handle hearing no, you'll be pretty motivated to go differently with your own child
As soon as my daughter started making phrases, she started hearing no from me. Especially when she fixated on "wanting" something and threw a temper tantrum about it. Instead I gave her a hug, reminded her that I loved her, but under no circumstances was I going to accede to a whirling ball of limbs.
3. You know how to trust other people who care for your child- As a coach, you are constantly working with other people's children. You know how frustrating it can be when parents react emotionally to something with their child and lash out at you. When you become a parent, you instantly understand the emotions these parents are feeling.
So when my daughter started daycare, and subsequently pre-school, I started from a position of trust with the people that cared for her. I said "thank you" at the end of the day when I picked her up. When my daughter was struggling with one thing or another, I came to them to ask for help and we tackled problems together.
It's an unfortunate climate in swim coaching that so many workplaces are not good for family life. Workplaces that recognize how much value they can get by giving their coaches the space and time to build these relationships will see a huge advantage.
Want to hear more about how to change the culture of swimming?
There were little bite sized bits of avocado strewn on the plate. Occasionally, Olivia would poke at one before making a hasty retreat.
"it's icky" she said. She eats avocado almost every day.
"I don't like it." She whined. I took a big inhale, and got down on my knees next to her chair. I spread my arms wide and her head slumped on my shoulder.
We hugged and she started to cry. I squeezed a little tighter and she wrapped her little arms around my neck. After a few minutes of crying she conceded:
"I'm tired daddy".
"I know". I replied. "And I love you very much, and I'm going to help you to go to sleep after dinner". I had disengaged from the hug with this sentence, and I was looking her in the eyes.
I sat back down in my chair. Her fork pierced an avocado, and she gingerly lifted it to her mouth. Within minutes, her plate was clean.
We're not so different, you and I
This may come as a surprise to some, but it turns out children are also human beings. There's a lot of advice out there about what to do specifically with "kids" as if they are some foreign species.
Since my daughter was born in December 2013, every hour spent with her I've learned a lot more about coaching than I ever would have spending the same time on the pool deck. While it would be impossible for me to list all the things I've learned in that time, here are some of the big ones.
1. Trust comes before fun- One of the things little kids love to do (especially with Dads) is get tossed around. Olivia likes to be tossed in the air, or tossed on the couch. My physical fitness cannot keep pace with her desire to these sorts of things.
As an adult, we might not find it so fun to be tossed into the air. But she is confident that nothing bad will happen to her. She trusts me to throw her into a soft landing on the couch, and to always catch her in mid-air. Because of that trust, she is able to let go and just have pure, uncut fun.
All coaches want their athletes to have "fun". But do they trust you? Do they trust the people around them? Without trust, fun is pretty hard to come by.
2. People's "Problems" Are Almost Always a Rationalization
Let's return to the uneaten avocado. Olivia did not want to eat the avocado because it's "icky". But it turns out the real problem was that she was tired and feeling overwhelmed. When she was able to express that and get support, she could return a calmer emotional state and eat the avocado.
No amount of "but you love avocado!" or "eat your avocado, or else!" would have helped in this situation. As a coach, pay attention to the "problems" you are presented with by athletes. They may complain about a teammate or something specific that happened at practice.
Too often we coaches focus on rationally fixing a problem, instead of keying into the emotional state of the athlete. Are they feeling sad, angry, or overwhelmed? How can we convince them that as their coach, we acknowledge how they are feeling and can help them?
3. It doesn't matter if you're right if the other person isn't hearing you
One of the most frustrating things you can hear a coach say is "well, I told [the athlete], but they did it anyway."
Parenting will put you in a lot of situations where your well-intentioned, reasonable advice goes unheard. You will think you have communicated clearly when you have not.
With a toddler, you will tell them something many times before you get through. It is not ok to throw your hands up after a few attempts and say "well, I told her". You keep trying and find a way to communicate that works.
More than anything, becoming a parent has given me more perspective on coaching. I love swimming and I love coaching it. I love to watch people go fast, lead good lives and succeed academically.
But I love my wife and my daughter more. On the most disappointing or frustrating day of coaching, I know it's not the end of the world.
Over at Swimvortex, Craig Lord has published an editorial by former National Performance Director Bill Sweetenham on the subject of bullying by coaches. Sweetenham, who was himself accused of bullying but ultimately cleared during his tenure, has a lot to say on the subject.
Before we get into his arguments, I will say I do not agree with Sweetenham on several points. His defense of bad behavior by coaches communicates a message I find dangerous: that elite sports is somehow so special that it justifies behavior we wouldn't accept in normal walks of life.
In his editorial, Sweetenham begins with a cringeworthy comparison between sport and war. Both are "abnormal" to him, in terms of what must be done to best the other side. This comparison is tired, ridiculous and insulting to the real risks of armed combat. No one dies if they lose a swimming race.
The rest of Sweetenham's piece centers on the fact that athletes must be motivated and pushed to exceptional efforts to get exceptional results.
No one would question this, but the issue of bullying in coaching is not this. Concern for the behavior of coaches is not about how hard the training they are giving is or what they are demanding. It is often not a question of "what" or "why". It is a question of "how" they are doing this "motivation".
Ranting and raving and unleashing a childish temper on an athlete at a swimming competition is not coaching. I've seen it many times, it simply shouldn't have a place in sport. I've heard it justified hundreds of times by colleagues because it "gets results".
You can scare an athlete into trying harder in the short term and maybe get a good result, but you are damaging them in the long term, and that's not what coaching is about.
I have seen so much behavior in the coaching world that is totally unacceptable, and the coaches escape any consequence because of the strange culture we have created around sport. This is the real problem, not the very small chance that athletes are lodging false accusations against coaches as some sort of revenge plot.
Sweetenham ignorantly declares that "Any experienced coach knows that sporting administrators, theorists, psychologists, change culture experts, external motivators etc. do not possess a real feel for the athlete and the process." Which is a nice way to justify anything a coach does under the auspices "only a coach can understand what needs to be done here".
I reject this argument. Coaches need to be held to a higher standard, not excepted because others just don't 'get it'. The next generation of elite athletes will have input from many sources, not just one "god" coach, and that will be a good thing. The world outside of sport has a lot to tell us about how we should motivate athletes positively to even higher planes of performance.
Want to learn exceptional motivation techniques that also help athletes succeed in life?
Can you remember the most fun you ever had swimming? For me it was my first year of high school swimming. I stepped up to swim the breaststroke leg of a medley relay. To my right? Future Olympian Erik Vendt.
And although I lost significant ground, it was so much fun to compete with someone on that level, in a distance where I didn't get totally blown away.
We are lucky that swimming comes in so many forms in the United States. It isn't so in the rest of the world, some of the ways to swim I'm about to list are painfully absent outside America. So, without further ado, here are all the ways to compete in swimming, ranked.
1. Summer League/Rec League/Town Team
Is there a focus on the best part of the sport, direct competition? Yes. Is there score kept? Yes. What's the atmosphere like at competitions? Typically people are having a blast, spectators included.
Recreational swimming has the most coaches involved for the best reasons (certainly not money), to have fun with the sport and to enjoy that sport with kids.
2. High School Swimming
Combines everything great about rec league swimming with a concentration on a certain age group. Bonus points for the recognition swimmers can get among their peers when they compete in something their peers actually understand.
The only reason high school swimming isn't ranked #1 is that in contrast to recreational teams, there is a more fringe of high school swimming sucking the fun out of the sport for kids. Still, go to a competitive high school meet and have the slightest idea what is going on and I guarantee a good time.
3. College Swimming
College swimming co-opts some of the best parts of high school and rec swimming. There are dual meets and championship meets that are often exciting and where score is kept. There is a focus on team competition.
Unfortunately coaching in college has a downside. Often collegiate programs exist without much oversight from their athletic departments, mostly for the worse. Many coaches can get away with poor treatment of athletes and maintain their jobs because of entrenched hierarchy.
4. YMCA Swimming
Although YMCA Swimming is similar to club swimming in many ways, there is a greater focus on enjoyable competitions, as well as the context of sports.
The institutional nature of YMCAs mean that more often than not they are more professionally run than most club programs.
5. Club Swimming
Some will say it is unfair to put club swimming last. There are some truly excellent club swimming programs out there, run professionally with the proper focus on kids enjoying the sport, learning and with the proper perspective on swimming's role in a life well-lived.
Club competitions, however, are mostly terrible and drain competitors, parents and coaches alike. The business model for such meets is heavily entrenched and seems unlikely to change.
We do not have good metrics for rating club programs, so instead use club recognition program that is overwhelmingly results focused and skews heavily towards club size.
The most successful club model, the coach run club, can also be the most dangerous, particularly if there are not good internal checks placed on coaching behavior.
Teams run by board of directors often suffer from a board made up of parents of swimmers on the club, leading to huge conflicts of interest.
We've Got A Lot
Although this can sound critical, the good news is that there are a lot of good options should you choose to get involved in swimming. Parents, coaches and athletes should take into account all factors when considering which teams to get involved with.
Disagree? Want to know more about how to make swimming better on your team? Write me!
Post-men's NCAA, the focus is rightly on Texas' dominant victory and the possibility that Eddie Reese is immortal and may go on forever. There were several other NCAA teams that saw their fate dramatically change this year with a common thread.
Each of the programs I'm about to describe added a coach to their staff that was at, near or past retirement age but had success as a head coach. I guarantee these programs are not using these coaches like traditional "assistants". Instead, they are leveraging the strengths of these coaches to dramatically improve the success of their teams.
Mark Bernardino joined the University of South Carolina in 2014 after a long, dominant ACC run at Virginia. Bernardino's ACC championship teams were known for their bruising distance success. Not shockingly, South Carolina saw a significant uptick in distance performance in the years following Bernardino's move to Columbia.
This year at Men's NCAAs, the Gamecocks scored 54 points between the 500 and 1650 freestyle. That could have landed them a 21st place finish at the meet all by itself. Instead it was the driving force behind South Carolina's 15th place finish at the meet. Head Coach McGee Moody has to be thrilled with the results of his hire.
On the other end of the spectrum, Indiana managed to add the former head coach of one of their chief conference rivals, Dennis Dale, also in 2014. Dale won seven Big Ten titles at Minnesota, many on the basis of being able to mold fast sprinters from seemingly out of nowhere and produce fast relays.
Sprinting was a weakness of the Hoosier program before Dale's arrival, and now it has become a big strength. This past weekend they put a 200 and 400 freestyle relay in the A-final, and individually got big scoring swims from Blake Pieroni and Vini Lanza.
A coach once told me that Ray Looze and Dale were bitter rivals, but somehow Looze found a way to make peace, and the results was that Indiana is enjoying huge success. They finished 7th this year at Men's NCAAs and 8th at the Women's meet.
Often head coaches can start a hiring process with a role in mind, then work to fit that role. McGee Moody and Looze found a coach that would make their team better and created a role around that. As we enter another hiring season, those with jobs on offer would be wise to follow suit.
Want more insight as to how to make your team better? Write me for a free consultation!
I cringe whenever someone uses the phrase "team building activities". Not because there isn't some value to setting aside a specific time and place for working on being a team. In fact, far from it. I cringe because team building is an everyday, every practice activity.
Coaches talk a lot about creating an "environment" for success. When you are a leader on a team, the bulk of team building is what kind of environment you create for others. You need to create an environment where a diverse set of personalities come together for a unified cause.
Sounds easy right? But many teams struggle with building a cohesive unit. One area that frequently causes conflict is the athletes perception of team values.
Let me give an example. "Work hard" is one of the most obvious values a team can have. But what does it mean? Unless the coach communicates and leads the way, athletes will fill the space with their own interpretation of hard work.
I once had two swimmers in my group that didn't get along. Both thought the other wasn't "working hard".
One swimmer was consistent- never late, always the first in the water, always repeating times like a metronome through pace sets. He attended morning practices (doubles) no matter what. He was always serious at practice- like an adult showing up to work. Let's call him Mr. Consistency.
The other was a wild card. He got into the water last- but then finished warmup before half his teammates. When it was time to give a "max" effort, no one was better. He laid everything on the line, and often paid for it later in practice. He could never gauge his own effort- his paces were inconsistent. If something was off, he was sick or something hurt, he took a more cautious approach and sometimes missed training. Let's call him Mr. Wild
As a coach, I knew that both swimmers were working hard. They both fit into what I valued as a coach. Were they perfect? Of course not. I wished Mr. Consistency would take a day off once in a while- he often concealed when he was sick knowing that I would send him away from training. I wish that Mr. Wild would learn to pace himself a bit better so he wasn't so useless for parts of training.
One of the things I would say to bring these two swimmers together was to remind them of something that swim coaches often say to each other but forget on their own teams. "There are many ways up the mountain". Coaches can get trapped by their own "philosophy" about "how things should be done" and fail to include athletes who are actually embodying their values, just using a somewhat different looking process.
Instead of valuing "hard work", we valued self-improvement. Were the swimmers doing what they needed to do to get better? In this case, both were, so much so that both would go on to be NCAA Division 1 Championship qualifiers. Eventually they learned that even though they could poke holes in each others approach, they both had a lot to learn from one another.
This is just one example, there are many more situations where you can be inclusive with your values as a leader without compromising high standards. If you do so, you will create an environment where a diverse group of personalities can co-exist and thrive, making you look very good as a leader.
"I think I'm getting closer, but the scenery's the same. Am I a disappointment? "
-AWOLNATION, "All I Need"
The past few weeks have had frustratingly slow progress. I've been sleeping poorly, nothing new in my life unfortunately. There has been one day in February where I have slept uninterrupted for more than six hours.
The lack of quality sleep has hampered my recovery, and in turn my training has been stuck in a holding pattern. I spent two weeks going to the pool and either having to take a step back or struggle to replicate my previous best performance.
Did I Do a Good Job?
Over my life, one of the things I've struggled with most is knowing when to admit to myself I've done a good job. I've always been followed by a restlessness, uncomfortable lingering around any "success".
These days, many people complain about a culture where every kid gets a trophy, but the opposite is even more worse. I grew up feeling that my mom, my most important relationship in my young life, was almost always disappointed in me. I didn't know when I was doing well, but I certainly knew when I had made a mistake, which seemed often. I knew I was a burden and a hindrance to her living the life she wanted. i knew that the sooner I figured out to do things for myself, the less disappointing I would be.
In Swimming, Hope
I've written often about how swimming changed my life. That's not an understatement. Although good coaches were few and far between, the best ones filled a hole that I desperately needed. Every hard set that I pushed myself through, a simple "good job" from coach healed me a little bit.
The clock told its own story- as time flew off and I improved rapidly, I had more evidence. I was doing a good job, the hard work was paying off.
Begging for rest
Just as I started to really get where with swimming, my sleep problems started. Looking back, it was hard for me to understand. I simply found myself laying in bed, my body exhausted but my mind racing.
Older has more perspective. The stress of life only builds through its first half- but I had no safe space, nowhere I could turn for help with the thoughts and feelings that were stressing me. I tried, like everything else, to go it alone. And I failed.
The lack of sleep was one factor on in stopping my progress in swimming for a while, which only led to vicious cycle, where I felt more and more stressed about how I was not "doing well". At one point I started forcing myself to swim bruising workouts on Sundays, especially at night after a disappointing meet, as a punishment for my poor performance. It didn't help.
Better, Than Worse Again
I was lucky to have two exceptional high school swim coaches, both of whom are still my friends today. By the end of high school I gave up club swimming, and through their nurturing and support, managed to move forward in swimming and feel more restful. I spent too much time at the pool, often showing up more than an hour early to practice. It felt a lot safer than home.
All that reverted terribly when I went to college. I found myself with a coach who saw my insecurity and how it could drive me to train harder. He saw that if he withheld any praise I would dig in harder, hoping against hope that he would see me. I spent two years training harder than I ever had, and getting slower.
In four years of college swimming, I was never late, never missed a practice. When I got sick, I would come in and train on my own so as to not get other's sick. It was at this time that I started to sleep truly terribly. I became a true insomniac- having some nights where didn't sleep at all.
A bandaid is better than just bleeding
I went to my doctor, and told them what was going on. At least, that I wasn't sleeping. I was prescribed medication to help me go to sleep. It worked, mostly, at least enough that I slept like a normal person, good some nights and bad others.
I don't blame my doctor for not digging deeper as to why I wasn't sleeping. I didn't give any indication that anything else was wrong. I presented as an otherwise healthy person who for some strange reason couldn't sleep at night. But all the things that kept me up at night where still there- my mind still raced when it needed to rest.
Getting to the bottom (of it)
I spent most of my adult life managing along in this way. I never dealt with the reasons why I didn't sleep, but I slept ok because I had a medication strong enough to overwhelm all of that and get me to rest.
At around the same time I started to even conceive this project, I knew that I would have to start working on the underlying issues for my restlessness sooner rather than later. And while I am still obviously struggling, here is what I have learned so far:
- It is important to recognize when you have done well. This goes both for mundane, continuous stuff, but also small one time things. One of the things that has always kept me up at night is the immense pressure I felt to be my best the following day. Everyone has bad days, but when you can't acknowledge your own good ones you're trapped.
- "Other people matter" The famous simple words of Chris Petersen. But in this context, it means that no one can just handle all their emotions, their stresses and anxieties. You need to have people to share them with that will help you to deal with them.
- Revisit areas of learned helplessness. At many points along this process, I have decided that I could never get better, that I was just a "poor sleeper", and that was that. That mindset is a block to ever getting better, and while redirecting it is a blog post of it's own, you should always evaluate what areas you have closed off for future improvement.
Last week I took a vacation with my wife. No kid. I swam every day but without pressure, without a pace clock. I just felt the water and did what felt good.
We did almost nothing. For the first time in my life I sat still by the pool and took some deep breaths. Although I was still awoken at night, I quickly fell back asleep. There was nothing pressing for me to do a good job on the following day.
Upon my return, I went back to the pool. Can you guess what happened?
I did 30x25 breaststroke, all of them on :15 seconds pace, for the first time ever.