Dark Ages

Danish Swim Scandal Explainer for Americans

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”

Then later:

“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.

Coaches: Lets Demand Action

Yesterday, I spelled out a couple steps that anyone, anywhere in swimming could do to help change swimming as we know it.

Today I want to focus on the biggest reading audience of this blog, coaches. As a coach myself, I've been working hard to figure out what we can do to improve our sport break the cycle.

The first step for coaches is to admit that our culture, as it stands today, is not a good culture for athletes. A part of any solution going forward has to begin by acknowledging that we should look to athletes for leadership about how they would like coaches to be a part of their sport. Athletes must come first.

With that said, here are the start of some of the actions coaches can put pressure on USA Swimming to take.

1) Release individuals immediately from any confidentiality agreements, period. USA Swimming needs transparency and sunlight. This should include, but not be limited to, FAST, Sean Hutchison, Mark Schubert, and Everett Uchiyama. We cannot move forward with effective solutions, and the maze of confidentiality agreements is a huge barrier to true transparency within our governing body.

We need to demand this even if the response is that doing so will completely bankrupt USA Swimming. No organization is more important than the well-being of athletes in our sport.

2) USA Swimming must release the tens of thousands of pages of coach complaint files that they have. They are sitting on information that deserves a public airing and could potentially save many future athletes from abuse.

These suggestions are just a beginning of what coaches can use their power to demand. Make your demand public, or reach out directly to the people that are accountable to you within USA Swimming. Send your demand as a letter directly to USA Swimming Executive Director Tim Hinchey, or USA Swimming President Jim Sheehan. 

In the coming days, I will be asking coaches to use their platforms to amplify this message and more to the power structure of USA Swimming.

 

 

Coaches Can Do Better for Athletes Like Kukors

Yesterday, the axe finally fell on Sean Hutchison. For the first time, publicly at least, Ariana Kukors spoke about how he groomed her for sexual abuse from a young age. 

I've been known to go after big organizations, like USA Swimming and ASCA, in this space. They certainly can do far better, and USA Swimming in particular is already out there blasting PR that they did everything they could.

I almost got whiplash from how quickly they announced (via their propaganda outlet, Swimming World Magazine) that Kukors had denied a sexual relationship in 2010. 

Lets set all that aside, and talk about us. And by us I mean coaches. Because we have a huge role to play in whether abusers get a free pass and athletes live in fear. It was that fear that kept Kukors silent for so long.

There was plenty of smoke when it came to Sean Hutchison for nearly a decade. The crumbling of the center he was running in Fullerton, the facile implication that some part of his relationship with Kukors went beyond coaching.

The coaching community could have held his feet to the fire. We could have demanded answers and transparency from him. Instead we let it go, and he got to re-brand himself as a swimming entrepreneur with Ikkos.

He also, in the past couple years, got to be a headliner at the School of Thought Clinic down at the University of Tennessee. 

A lot of discussion around this will center on the fact that "our hands were tied" without Kukors willing to publicly denounce Hutchison. That ignores the fact that we, as coaches, could have chosen a braver stance, that let a victim like Kukors know where our culture stood.

We did not need to continue to put Hutchison on a pedestal. We did not need to fawn over him and talk about what a genius coach he was.

I had the chance to meet Hutchison early in my coaching career. He didn't much like me (go figure). I might have had a chance had I respected my elders a bit more. It would be have been very advantageous to my own career advancement to try and buddy up to him.

At the same time, I was also too scared to put him on blast here. Hutchison used his considerable power to evade this moment for quite a long time, and that made him scary.

Hutchison is not the end, he's still the beginning. As coaches, we need to become less defensive, less scared, and hold each other to the fire a little more. We need to step up for athletes and let them know that we are willing to do what's right for them, even if it means going against powerful peers.

Coaches Need to Believe in Swimming's Reckoning

Right now, the leading story in Olympic sports is Gymnastics. Specifically, the actions of one team "doctor" Larry Nassar, who was allowed by many people with the power to stop him to molest hundreds of teenage girls.

Many are asking the right questions in this moment. How did we let this happen? How did so many people fail to protect these young athletes and enable such monstrous behavior?

Gymnastics is having a reckoning, with no end in sight. If anything, the pace of change only seems to be accelerating, with the stunning move to no longer have national team athletes train at Karolyi ranch.

I know a lot of people in swimming that think our "reckoning" is mostly over. What's closer to the truth is that it never happened. 

USA Gymnastics CEO Steven Penny had to resign in disgrace last March, and new CEO Kerry Perry is basically in constant damage control for the very existence of USA Gymnastics as an organization.

In swimming, Chuck Wielgus was able to assume a defensive posture, black out media except for the groveling Brent Rutemiller of Swimming World, and slowly start to implement "SafeSport" measures. He was able to retire with many people within USA Swimming considering him some kind of hero. 

New CEO Tim Hinchey has also been allowed to ignore USA Swimming's legacy altogether. In the near future I'll be asking him to come on a podcast to do a bit more than the current gestures toward SafeSport.

We can make all the rules we want. We can ban coaches, and make educational programs. None will address the true problem that our greater society is actually talking about and finally seeing a reckoning on. When "men" hold nearly all the power in anything, it will be abused, and anyone down the power food chain will suffer.

I've watched my "group", coaches remain mostly silent on this topic. We are the on the ground leaders of this sport, but we have failed to provide leadership. The major coaching organizations have shied away.

So I've decided that we need to organize as coaches to stand up for the most vulnerable people in our sport. I'm starting a group "Coaches Who Believe".

What does that mean? Instead of the status quo, (which is do nothing), we will trust people in our sport who come forward to say that they have been abused. We will work to verify those claims, instead of ignoring them or reflexively dismissing them. We will not leave the victims of abuse in our sport on an island, with only a handful of people to support them.

As for leadership of the organization, I hope that as soon as it gets some members I can cede that to someone else, preferably non-male. It's time to let somebody else run things for a while.

 

Teri McKeever Got Screwed Again

Here's a shocker for you: the 2017 American World Championship coaching staffs are out and there are no women. As usual, Teri McKeever is the biggest snub, but the fact that she stands alone as a female with a strong objective argument for being on the team is a problem of its own.

So let's discuss McKeever's case first, before we get into the extremely alarming state of women in coaching. The decision to leave McKeever was probably made on some objective grounds, so as to avoid any sense that this was personal. 

It's worth noting that head coach Greg Meehan was rightfully lauded for using his powerful position at Stanford to promote female coaching.

USA Swimming's official selection criteria does not specify how coaches were chosen, so the following is an educated guess on my part. 

Coaches were selected by having the highest level performer- This system is used across the world in many cases and many different forms. Perhaps swimmers were rank-ordered in terms of FINA points, the measure that purportedly compares performances in different events.

They also could have made the coach selection based on number of events qualified for, in which Leah Smith of Virginia has more events than Abbey Weitzeil and Kathleen Baker of Cal. 

Selection on such criteria reveals a deep flaw in the way in which we evaluate coaches, all the way down to the lowest levels. We tend to single out coaches best possible result instead of the totality of their work.

McKeever's longstanding track record of producing top international results would be a huge asset to the US squad. Any subjective criteria should have selected her to the staff, as she would provide much needed "big meet" experience to the squad.

To the larger point, male coaches need to continue to advocate for women at all levels to right this situation. On the college level, this means going beyond the silly "quota hiring" and actually finding and retaining top female coaches.

At the club level, we should all be pushing together to make coaching swimming less of a "family killer" because that would be better for all of us, not just women. 

Warren Buffet famously said that he only had to compete with half the population, and the same could be said for many of the elite male coaches out there. If you truly love the sport of swimming, you want to see the best coaches on the deck. It's on us to make sure that this far from fair system.

Want help improving your hiring process? Write me

 

 

 

 

Sports Bullying and The True Fight

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?

ASCA Is A Waste of Money That Hurts Our Sport

Hundreds of times, I've uttered the sentence "I didn't get into this sport to get rich" to a fellow coach. There's always a knowing laugh on the other end. Most swim coaches get into this sport because they love it, and they love sharing that love with others. The feeling of doing so is so addictive that they will even go so far as to threaten their own health to get that fix.

So it makes absolutely no sense that many coaches, with so little in personal resources, let an organization like the American Swim Coaches Association (ASCA) have some of those resources. The organization persists for all the wrong reasons.

I'm writing this knowing it paints a target on my back. The American Swimming Coaches Association, and its Executive Director John Leonard, hold immense sway in the world of swimming. 

Leonard is a con-man. He paints himself as a crusader against corruption. He is corrupt. With one hand he rails about drugs in the sport, a safe "controversy" as you would be hard pressed to find any American swim coach with a "pro-doping" stance. With his other hand, he fights the culture change swimming so desperately needs.

John Trembley, MItch Ivey, RIck Curl are just a few of the big names that could rely on Leonard/ASCA's support right up to the very end. Joe Bernal got inducted into the ASCA Hall of Fame a few months before being banned by USA Swimming.

The more benign con of John Leonard and ASCA is that they institutionalized themselves to such a degree that even ethical, well meaning coaches often feel compelled to dance for ASCA. Look at nearly any club coaching position and you will find some sort of "ASCA level" in the job qualifications.

I don't blame the parent boards who include ASCA certifications in job postings. They are desperate for some sort of independent body to tell them whether a coach knows there stuff. Unfortunately, the ASCA education program, and even the performance qualifications for coaches to reach levels, is no such guarantee.

The final piece of the puzzle is ASCA's annual convention. Again, many ethical, fine coaches feel compelled to attend. It's the biggest such gathering of swim coaches in the United States, and almost nobody goes to conventions for the talks. They go to be in the same space with other people who are doing the same thing. They go for the social scene.

However, as long as the good coaches out there hand over their hard earned cash to ASCA it will continue to exist in present form. There's nothing inherently wrong with a coaches organization, an educational program for coaches, and the people in it. But ASCA is not the organization swim coaches deserve.

It's time to choke it off, so please stop sending money for useless certifications and plan your own weekend getaway with coaches you like. You'll be doing something really great for the sport of swimming.  

Sexism in College Swimming: A Man's Guide

Yesterday, I wrote about the stunning inequity between men and women in college swimming. The blog focused a lot on the describing the problem that's out there. What it didn't do is talk much about solutions.

Now, rather than mansplaining to female coaches about what they should do, I'd rather reach out to my fellow men. We hold the most power to do something about this situation, and with that power comes the responsibility.

Here are some things you can do as a man to address this issue. For the purposes of this advice, I have split these into a "boss" category and a "colleague" category. We'll start with the most powerful:

For Bosses

1. Actively recruit women to coaching positions- One of the most frequent complaints I hear from men about the lack of female coaches is that they can't find any "quality" candidates for their open positions. This is lazy. Yes, if you have an open coaching position at school you will most likely be deluged by men applying to that job.

That does not mean that there aren't actually a lot of well qualified female candidates out there. Spending time recruiting them will give you a competitive advantage because you will tap into a market for assistant coaches that many of your competitors are ignoring. Imagine if you got to recruit in areas of the country that your competitors totally ignored. Wouldn't that be an advantage?

When I was a head club coach, I easily filled my staff with over 50% women, helped them find opportunities for advancement and generally felt as if I had a competitive advantage because of it. It was a win-win-win.

2. Create a family friendly workplace- The world of swimming jobs is notoriously bad for families. Between the odd hours, the lack of off-season in many Division 1 programs and often non-existent family leave policies in athletic departments, it's a tough world out there, especially for those looking to start a family. Also, don't forget about the bad pay!

Men can be at work the day after a child is born, although I wouldn't suggest it. Women, on the other hand, have unavoidable disruptions with work should they choose to have a family. Some of the worst attrition in among the ranks of women in college coaching comes after the birth of their first child.

If you're a head coach, go ahead and read this excellent guest article on Swimswam. Please realize that Greg Meehan and Tracy Slusser did not lead Stanford Women's swim team to a NCAA title despite her being six months pregnant when she started working there. They made a conscious decision that coaches having a family would be a strength of their program.

There's a giant talent pool of female coaches that have left or never tried college coaching because of the poor work-life balance. This inequity can be a huge advantage if you are bold enough to make a change. 

For Colleagues

1. Don't be a bully- Women are far fewer in number in college swimming. They are often excluded from the socializing and casual deckside banter that is pretty much the lifeblood of coaching relationships and hiring.

They are also easy to pick on. As I pointed out in my article on Teri McKeever, female coaches often get criticized for characteristics that are praised in male coaches. As Toni Armstrong points out in the article above, female coaches are also pushed to "masculinize" their coaching style. Isn't that some paradox?

No wonder female coaching attrition is so high. Isolated, pushed to act a certain way and then criticized for it. The situation can feel hopeless. As a male colleague, you need to break out of this system and rise above it.

2. Be an ally- As a male coach, there are so many things you can do to shift the power balance towards women in swimming.

Cultivate female mentors (there are some amazing ones out there), and talk openly about that mentorship. If you're a male coach and don't have female mentors you are really missing out on some amazing wisdom.

Look for situations where your female co-worker is selling herself short and be the person who tells her she deserves more. As we approach salary and evaluation time, be open with your co-worker about how you will approach the head coach.

At least start

These suggestions are just a beginning. There is so much work to be done! Ultimately, the more we improve the standing of women in our sport the more we improve our sport for everybody involved. 

Are you a woman who would like to speak out on this issue? Write me for a guest posting spot. 

This is a Pay Chasm, Not a Pay Gap

There is a silent crisis going in college swimming. Silent because it's happening so slowly and to an already disadvantaged set of people (women) that it hardly gets any attention at all. That women are disadvantaged in college swimming is obvious. What is not obvious is that things are getting worse.

I sat down last night to comb through publicly available salary data for college swim coaches. Due to public accountability laws, salary information for state university employees exists in searchable databases in many cases. Many large state universities are also some of the highest performing college swimming and diving programs.

I had a theory- that much like many other fields, women were getting paid less. What I found was horrifying. Not only are women getting paid less to do the same work, they are sometimes getting paid less than their male counterparts despite more experience, time served and education at the same institution.

The Not Bosses

I looked at combined (men's and women's) programs from power conferences (SEC/ACC/B1G). Why? Because these are programs with large coaching staffs (allowed up to six coaches on the same staff). In all cases I looked at there was at least one female staff member, (in one case two).

I excluded head coaches, because head coaches of combined programs in these large programs are overwhelmingly male. Courtney Hart (my former boss) remains the only woman coaching a combined program in a "power" conference. Likewise if you look at the collegeswimming.com top 50 ranking of Division 1 teams (men and women), there are only one female head coach of a combined program, Mandy Commons-Disalle at Cincinnati.

Any comparison including these two women would unfairly single them out, something which I have taken great pains to avoid. 

I averaged the salary of non-head coach staff members (male) and compared that with the female average for twelve schools for which such data was readily available. The average male salary was $70,000 a year, while the average female salary was $56,000. This is means that women are earning 79% of what men are for similar positions at these institutions.

The "Good" Jobs

Here is where you may interject and say "well, this post has a dramatic title, 79% is pretty much the same as the nationally cited pay gap". A couple of reasons why this figure is more dramatic than you might assume:

First, the biggest reason for this huge gap in non-head coach salaries is that the better positions are overwhelmingly filled with men. The "special" assistant coach titles like "Associate Head Coach" or "Head Assistant Coach" or however coaches are promoted internally, are almost unanimously male.

Likewise, diving coach positions, which often pay better than normal assistant coaching positions, are almost unanimously male at these top programs. In one of two instances where a woman held an associate head coach position, she dramatically swung what was going to be a far worse gap in salaries.

If you think that a fair, merit-based system has resulted in men almost unanimously having these jobs, then I have a membership fee at ASCA to sign you up for. Finally, these are the schools where salaries are easily researched. The people making these salary decisions know this information can be found! Imagine what is happening at private schools or other places with less public accountability.

But wait! There's more

Other highlights/lowlights from my research:

-At one school, despite a female coach having nearly a decade of experience, she was paid less than two fresh faced male assistant coaches added within the last couple years

-At the other school with a female associate head coach, she was paid half (!) the salary of the male associate head coach.

-In the only program with multiple female staff members, a female staff member with a Doctorate (in a relevant field) was payed a lower salary than the men despite two of those men only having bachelors degrees.

'Tis The Season

The college hiring season is in full swing. Here are some things you can count on:

-If a female assistant coach leaves a position open and she was the only female working for a male head coach at a women's program or a combined program, it will be "unofficially" required that the opening be filled with a female.

This unofficial affirmative action does little to help women, and in fact allows Athletic Directors and Coaches to pat themselves on the back as if they are actually making an effort to make a fair playing field for female coaches

-Returning assistants often are evaluated around this time, and have their one year contracts renewed in June/July. Salaries are negotiated. Want help researching if you're getting a fair salary? I can help

-One of the most powerful women in college swimming, Susan Teeter, is retiring. Whether or not her job is filled by a man will determine whether it follows a national trend, where female coaches from the early days of NCAA sports have generally been replaced by men as the salaries and stature of those positions improve.

Up next, how can we as stakeholders in college swimming make this situation better? 

Do you want information on how to improve the gender diversity of your team or coaching staff. Write me

 

 

 

 

Ways to Compete in Swimming, Ranked

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!

Stop Doing General Warmup

Today, I'm swimming in my first swim meet for four years (more on that in another post after the weekend). I will not be attending the general warmup sessions. This is something I haven't been doing for the entirety of my post-college career, and a practice that trickled into the college and club swimmers that I coached.

General warmup is just one of a large group of things that "we do" in swimming that don't make a lot of sense. What is the purpose of a general warmup? To get you ready to race in the subsequent events, right?

Let me use my own meet this weekend for an example. General warmup is taking place as we speak, from 8:00-9:00 AM. My race is due to jump in the water at 2:57 PM this afternoon. There is no way on earth that a warmup from 9:00 in the morning will carry forward six hours to my race.

"But wait!" you say. What about getting accustomed to the blocks at a new place, learning to sight the walls, etc. I happen to be swimming at a pool (Harvard University) where I have swam so many times I've lost count.

Chances are, many swimmers that you bring to a particular meet will be familiar with the facilities. If not, consider organizing some way for them to familiarize themselves with the pool well in advance of an early morning warmup that will not actually warm them up for their race. After all, you wouldn't be trying to teach them a whole knew technique the day of the meet, right?

Lastly, don't even get me started on the "wake-up swim" people. There are plenty of ways to get somebody fully awake well in advance of their race that don't include some useless laps. Oh, and please, please do not swim timed sprint or pace 25s in the warmup. I'll have to write an entire different post on that subject.

The real reason to skip general warmup is not what I've written above, dismissing some of the common reasons people do it. People who choose to do general warmup often see only the benefits without realizing the great costs that general warmup inflict on swimmers. Let me summarize

  1. These warmups are often early, and interrupt the natural sleep cycles of athletes, therefore interfering with recovery. The longer the meet, the bigger the impact. Seriously, try no general warmup at your next three or four day meet and see how much fresher everyone is by the last day.
  2. Time spent on the pool deck is not healthy, particularly at crowded meets where there is often poor air quality. 
  3. With anxious athletes, general warmups can often build tension for them, as they spend hours at the competition site waiting to compete. Bringing them to a competition site without a clear progression leading directly to the race can cause problems.
  4. Most swim meets are way too long. This causes cascading problems for us, as parents and swimmers start to weigh the cost of endless hours on the pool deck versus other things they could be spending their time on. Finding a more efficient way to do a swim meet can be a welcome boost.

All that said, there are some situations where you might find it best to have a particular swimmer or set of swimmers at a general warmup. I think those situations are fewer and farther between than what I witness at most swim meets.

Why the Hardest Working Athletes Struggle With Rest

It's championship season. That means racing suits, fast times, shaved heads (check that, it's not still 1996) and the end of the season tradition all coaches hate. That's right, I'm talking about the swimmer who worked their butt off all year and falls apart on taper.

The great Jim Steen once said, "you can't miss a taper but you can miss a season". He was right, but how do we explain the swimmers who seemingly follow the process all season long but falter when it is time. Why do some of the most dedicated athletes in our sport actually face what should be the funnest part of sport, resting and swimming your absolute best, with dread?

The reason falls with how many of these athletes have motivational and emotional wires crossed in their brains. I have suffered from taper dread in my lifetimes, and with the power of hindsight can see where it all went wrong. Like anything else for the big meet, you need to start working on this wiring early and often to be successful when the pressure is on.

As coaches, we love motivated athletes. We want them to feel drive to work hard "internally", without much prodding for us. What if I told you that some of that internal motivation is the reason why a swimmer really struggles to compete?

I was one of those strongly internally motivated swimmers. But my motivation came from a yawning emotional crater inside of me. I was constantly worried that coaches and teammates were disappointed in me. I believed that at the slightest failing, they would turn on me and question my dedication.

That "internal" motivation drove me to do a lot of things that were counterproductive to my swimming, like training when I was sick. I once developed a habit of going to the pool by myself on Sunday nights if I felt I had a disappointing meet and forcing myself through a practice as punishment.

When it came time to rest, I wouldn't be able to give myself credit for what i'd done. Instead, the easy practices would allow me to fixate on whether or not I had done enough. Even as my body grew stronger, my mind grew more tired from foreboding approach of that day I would find out whether or not I was a disappointment.

You've probably read several times over about how well exercise works for treatment of anxiety and depression. It's better than drugs, they say. I agree with a lot of the research in this field, but suppose you are an athlete that is using exercise to treat your depression and/or anxiety. Then suppose you cut your "medicine" in half? Do you think that would have a positive effect? 

Coaches should be aware of whether swimmers are using their negative emotions and life experiences to feed their motivational furnace. It's imperative to find these athletes and try to help them find the right kind of internal motivation. Y

You want athletes not training or racing scared, but swimming because they love the sport, because they want to do well and improve themselves. You want to use sport to help people who are anxious and depressed, but not as the sole treatment to paper over their anxiety and depression.

So coaches, my plea to you, please never shake your head at the end of the season about how an athlete is a "headcase" or just isn't "mentally tough". Do the work for your athlete all season long to improve their motivational and emotional health.

Want to learn about how to identify and change unhealthy motivation in swimmers? Write me to find out more. 

 

Project Under Update: Slowed But Not Stopped

"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:

  1. 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.
  2. "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.
  3. 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.

Baby Steps

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.

 

Remember Bill Belichick When Hiring Your Next Coach

Photo By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bill Belichick is the greatest football coach of all time. That's at least up for argument this morning after he won his fifth super bowl and crowned a dynasty in a free agent football era. For all the things written about his coaching "genius", one thing has always stuck out to me. In a world where coaching hires are still often made on the basis of playing ability, Bill Belichick stands as the strongest possible counterargument.

Football wasn't even Belichick's best sport. He was better at Lacrosse, where he managed to become captain of Division III Wesleyan University varsity team his senior year. Think about that for a second. Bill Belichick was a below average Division 3 college football player (Wesleyan plays in the NESCAC, a Division III league that forbids its members from post-season play). 

Look further down Belichick's coaching staff, and you'll be hard pressed to find a "star" athlete making game plans. Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia played at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was also a Division III player. 

Coaching and playing a sport are two totally different skill sets. I've often compared the practice of hiring coaches based on what they achieved athletically to hiring a competitive eater as the executive chef of your restaurant. Yet despite the obviousness, coaching hires continue to happen.

You don't have to look far in the swimming community to see the wealth of coaching opportunities given to former "top" athletes. While some do turn into great coaches (I'm looking at you Rick DeMont), many contribute heavily to the stagnation of coaching development. They try to coach the way they were coached and don't look to advance coaching.

I can guarantee you that Bill Belichick coaches very differently from his coach at Wesleyan in the 1970s. The innovations, the tactics, the ability to get players who "didn't fit" elsewhere to be stars on his team all came from a humble athletic career. That career forced him to think a lot about what it took to influence the winner of the game without his own playing prowess.

So the next time you're making a coaching hire, look for those inquisitive minds. Look for the nerds who never caught your attention between the lane lines but did plenty of thinking on the poolside. 

Curious Eagles: The Impossible to Define Boston College Team

Curious Eagles: The Impossible to Define Boston College Team

With the holidays came the quiet resignation of Boston College's 45 year Head Swimming and Diving Coach Tom Groden. Coaches have been openly salivating at the prospect of taking over Groden's program since before I even swam in college. Over time, just as the article indicates that BC's swimming future is clouded, so is the prospect for any new or interim coach to make a meaningful difference in the team's performance.