One of the most frequent frustrations coaches relay to me is that they face an overwhelming volume of complaints. In a bygone era, there was considerably more discretion used when making complaints to a coach. Parents were less likely to intervene for their kids. Swimmers were definitely more afraid.
Over the weekend, I was talking to a teenage swimmer about optimism. Like most of us, pessimism came naturally to him. I asked him what kinds of thoughts went through his head after a bad race.
Five minutes later, I cut him off. I had lost count of the personal recriminations he had leveled against himself.
As we walked through the ways he could train optimism, I had a revelation. Not once did I use the "p" word. You know what i'm talking about. Performance.
Why should I? Swimming was the context in which I was helping this young man, but I did not really care whether it helped his swimming. It would be pleasant, of course, but far from the point.
When I started this business with Positive Psychology at it's base, I included this word in a few descriptions of what I had to offer. Today I scrubbed them away.
I had put it up there because I thought it was what people wanted. There are probably a lot who do. But it's not what I'm offering.
Better swimming times is a nice side effect. That's all it is. Competition comes really naturally to us, so of course we think about how we're doing, how it compares to other, and many of us try to improve. That's all fine and good.
Relationships are the most important thing in life. Working on how to have better ones, with your friends, your teachers and coaches, and your own family, is therefore definitely worth some time.
If you get a little faster in the 100 breaststroke as a result of that, great.
I understand that we live in a world (especially as coaches) where we will be judged heavily on results. Club coaches are heavily accountable for how they do in their local area of LSC. College coaches get hounded by their athletic directors about their conference ranking.
In that environment, it can be easy to lose your mind. You can slowly become indoctrinated to focus more and more on results. Your mind will work on rationalizations for why you are sacrificing things that are, in reality, far more important.
If performance is the most important thing to you, you'll find plenty of psychology "experts" out there with the word front and center. I'm sure they'll be happy to work with you.
Want to join the conversation? Write me.
The question was "How do people with jobs that require pessimism: lawyers, firemen, policemen, turn that switch off in the rest of their lives?". It was posed to Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology and the man behind "Learned Optimism".
It was a stumper. Seligman is man with many answers but he couldn't conjure a satisfying response to this one. Lawyers, who must imagine the worst possible outcomes for their clients and do everything to prevent it, or policemen, who must imagine the worst possible threats to their own and others safety, must somehow find a way to flip into a completely different mindset when they put their job down for the day.
It made me think about coaching, a job that doesn't require pessimism. It does, however, on many levels require selflessness. Coaches feel a strong pull to day in, day out, put themselves out to the athletes in their charge and not always get the same in return. Which begs the question: how can coaches switch their selflessness enough to be their best selves?
Too much of a good thing
Some of the best coaches I know are selfless to a fault. Let me explain. They are suffering from health problems related to their lack of self-care. I recognize the trap because I've fallen into it too many times to count.
The last time I can remember was a year ago. My mother was dying of a brain tumor, and I had the time and flexibility to pour myself into caring for her. I didn't set good boundaries. Before I knew it I was deep down in a hole, deeper than I'd ever been in my life.
The best coaches I know can tell a similar story. About how they don't make time to exercise but are there for every kid they coach (including running extra practice for Allie so she can go to that lecture). Or how they've foregone relationships because it was just too hard to fit into their coaching schedule with so many nights and weekends.
Or how they've stayed and coached a team because they felt such strong loyalty to the swimmers that they work with their, sacrificing a better life for their own family so that other families can thrive.
I certainly don't have an answer, but I want to start looking for one. Coaches need a selflessness switch, a way to turn off the thing that makes them so great for the athletes they coach for long enough to be great to themselves.
Long ago, I was taught a very simple formula for delivering critical feedback to a swimmer. For the purposes of this blog I'm calling it the poop sandwich, although it is usually described more colorfully. Here's how it goes:
Positive feedback: "Hey great job having a pulse!"
Negative feedback: "However a heart rate of 85 is sub-optimal for swimming improvement. Let's get it up"
Positive feedback: "You chose a wonderful pair of goggles today."
The idea of the poop sandwich is simple. People do not like getting criticism, so you sandwich it in two slices of delicious praise. Somehow or other, the poop sandwich has had some legs as a coaching technique.
Unfortunately, no matter how well you dress it up, it's still just shit.
The Bigger Picture
There is a kernel of truth to the sandwich. Nobody likes to be nagged. Excepting people who are stuck in abusive relationship patterns, individuals do not seek out overwhelmingly negative feedback.
Getting people to listen to tough feedback as a coach is more than anything dependent on the quality of relationship with that person. Research suggests that close relationships need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions to be successful.
What does that look like in a coaching relationship? Well the first part is that you will need a lot more positive feedback than the sandwich provides. Here are some ways I like to get that ratio up:
1. Express gratitude: Tell swimmers on an individual level what you are grateful for about them. Speak to their character and do not take them for granted things they do day to day
2. Acknowledge progress: In coaching, you can get really far on your ratio by recognizing progress. Sometimes a coach can focus on "not there yet" instead of "one step closer". Acknowledge one step closer, however big or small.
3. Call them out when they help a teammate. Make it explicit!
4. Empathize. Even if it may not seem "positive", letting your athletes know you see them when they are struggling is something that they will carry with them in their relationship with you.
The poop sandwich also doesn't work because people can smell it coming from a mile away. It often feels inauthentic and forced. You know instinctively when someone else is dressing up criticism with some compliments, and often forget the compliments.
Focusing on finding authentic moments outside of when you have to deliver tough criticisms will go a long way to making your critical feedback far more effective.
Want to learn more about how to incorporate Positive Psychology into your coaching? Write me.
Yesterday, America's #1 Swimming Villain Yuliya Efimova got revenge on Lilly King, She capped the victory by wagging her finger, a move that sent your average American booster in a frothing rage.
Lets set aside, for the moment, discussion of whether such taunting has a place in swimming (I believe it does). Let's also set aside arguments about Efimova's doping. Lilly King is an outstanding swimmer who has, ready or not, crossed over into a new stage of her career.
King's meteoric rise has been marked by the kind of brash, in-your-face confidence we rarely see in swimming. In a way, we can all relate to this kind of confidence. It's how you feel when you haven't realized your own mortality yet. It's a teenager speeding down a hometown road without any fear. Now that teenager has had an accident.
The history of world class swimming is littered with athletes who looked like the next best thing, rising and rising. The rising part is "easy", if you can consider anything at this level easy. It is far harder to confront reality after that first big loss, after you're not the rising star anymore.
The pressure is now on- the only not disappointing result for King is to be better than everyone in the world. You don't have to look far back for an example of someone who rose nearly as fast as King, only to struggle after that first big disappointment.
Breeja Larson came on like a freight train leading into the 2012 Olympics. She looked like the future of breaststroke. Remember when she held off Rebecca Soni (who at that time had the world record in the 200 breaststroke) on the back half of the 100 breaststroke at the 2012 Olympic trials?
Larson would go on to a disappointing finish in London. She finished 6th at the games. Every year between 2012-2016, she regressed from her 1:05.92, despite being in a stage of her career where she should still be improving.
King will have to be very purposeful in the way she mentally prepares going forward. She cannot ignore this loss, she must deal with it emotionally re-frame her confidence. She will have to effectively confront the doubts that weren't there before.
If she does that, she can make Efimova an afterthought and do all the finger wagging she wants.
Coaches love to glorify accountability. We love stories of athlete's "owning up" to their own weaknesses and failures, taking responsibility for them and then making a positive change. "If only more of my athletes were like that" we get caught thinking.
"Accountability" may make coaches feel all warm and fuzzy in our stomachs. It may also reinforce a stereotype we have about "kids these days" and their lack of it. It's not the best way to coach. If we want to create thriving, resilient athletes, we should focus much less on accountability and far more on depersonalizing failure.
It's not about you
Funny enough, many coaches think of "accountability" as a selfless attitude. I'm about to argue that it is destructively selfish. In taking your failings and making them personal, you're actually draining the energy you need to make change.
Last week I put out a resilience test for swimmers. The test is based on explanatory style. Explanatory style, put simply, is the way that you explain events to yourself.
One aspect of optimistic people is that they tend not to attribute negative events to themselves, i.e they do not take personal "accountability" for bad events. As coaches we desperately want optimistic athletes- these are the people that will shoot high, push to the extreme and bounce back from failure.
Pessimistic people, on the other hand, tend to be very "accountable". More often than not, the negative things that happen to them are "their fault". They are ones that will "stay comfortable" in training and be haunted by failure.
Again, we tend to think of those that are not "accountable" as egotistical. This is a social concept. I'm not suggesting athletes should not take blame for anything. Then you would just have a team of assholes.
A lot of "accountability", however, is about ego protection. Coaches like to hear their athletes take responsibility for failures because it protects their ego. "It wasn't my fault," the coach can say to herself as the athlete takes the blame.
Coaches need to model and teach optimistic explanatory style for their athletes if they expect to have optimistic athletes. One step is to drop all the ego protection around "accountability" and teach athletes to depersonalize failure so they can move on.
Want to learn about how to make optimistic thriving athletes? Write me!
When I bring up the topic of mental skills with swim coaches, I hear one word more than any other: visualization. It sends chills down my spine. While visualization (a sort of mental dress rehearsal for actual competition) has value in certain situations, it can actually do more harm than good, especially when dealing with athletes that are anxious in competitive situations.
Visualization as a technique has existed for a long time, long enough that I remember doing it in the mid 90s as an age group swimmer. For a long time in my career, I dismissed it. When I did give it a try, it was my most anxious swimmer that convinced me that it was the wrong solution.
You see, if someone is anxious about an upcoming event, asking them to imagine themselves in that event is far from helpful. Anxiety plays tricks on your mind, and intrudes on your rationalizing of what will come in the future with horrible, unlikely outcomes.
If you don't address the underlying anxiety an athlete is facing, asking them to visualize is like forcing them to have a nightmare. The visualization will then have the opposite effect you intended as a coach, as it will make the "unlikely" poor outcome more likely, and only reinforce their paranoia.
I'm convinced that one reason visualization is so popular is that it is a "one off" type of exercise, something coaches can pull out at random interval and declare that they did what they could to mentally prepare athletes.
That is not to say that visualization is totally useless. For athletes that are especially visually oriented, (think artists or designers), it can be very effective in augmenting their performance. Just be careful that those athletes aren't also fearful in race situations, as the negative effect will be even greater.
To address the underlying anxiety athletes are feeling about competition, the solution is much more about a long, sustained effort, just like teaching any other technique. As I have discussed in a previous post, there are concrete steps you can take as a coach to address this situation.
There are a lot better ways to improve the mental skills of your athletes than visualization, with many research backed techniques out there that can make a huge difference. Want to add them to your team or personal practice? Write me for a free consultation.
When I stood behind the blocks last Friday, about to swim the 100 breaststroke for the first time in four years, I was smiling. Was I nervous? Of course. Where I once let my anxiousness overwhelm me to the point that was I relieved that my swimming career was "over", I was excited to swim.
I proceeded to swim a very sloppy race, and my time (1:06.11, with 30.1 and 36.0 for splits) reflected that. Afterwards, my instinct was to beat myself up. I thought about the people who would read this blog and think "this guy thinks he's going to break a minute?". Then I told that part of my brain to quiet down. I know it may always be there, but I don't have time for that crap.
Let me back up for a second. When I last wrote I was having trouble sleeping, something that has improved moderately since then. I cut back on alcohol and started drinking chamomile tea nightly. I began writing an occasional journal where I wrote out arguments against the nagging internal monologue that tries to convince me I'm a disappointment.
Two weeks before the competition, I was at pre-school picking up my daughter. I squatted down to give her a hug. I heard a loud click and felt my kneecap move sideways. Startled, I gathered myself and walked my daughter home with my adrenaline pumping. I woke up the next morning with my knee throbbing.
What should have been my mini-taper was full of limping, careful dadding (I dare you to try to avoid getting down on the floor with a three year old) and a slow progression towards being able to swim breaststroke. I was able to finally do breaststroke with light pain two days before the meet, and felt confident I wouldn't make it worse by competing.
Seeing What Happens
I know it may sound like i'm making excuses, but I'm not. I swam in the meet, unsure of how it would go, but knowing that finding out where I truly would help me no matter what.
And find out I did. My 1:06.11 was full of information for me. Here were my big takeaways:
- I need to do a lot more work on my turns, starts and breakouts. I skied my start, ended up too deep and broke out underwater. My turns were loose, especially my pushoffs.
- I was happy with how my pull worked, with the only minor quibble that I often went into a new pull without really finishing the previous recovery
- I need to get in better shape. Would I have come home better had I felt confident in my legs? Probably. Would I have an easier time finishing without poor starts, turns and breakouts? Sure! But it is also true that it is much easier to execute these skills when you are appropriately fit.
- To that end, my training needs more volume. I spent a lot of my breaststroke workouts chasing 15 second 25s, yet my final 25 on that 100 was around 19 seconds. I believe I could use a lot more volume of 16s before I try to build up 15 again.
Here's the race (I'm in the closest lane, lane 8, as my former college teammate Mindy Williams states off the top)
Back to work
This morning I was back in the pool. This afternoon I'll be back in the weight room. This last few months was only the beginning. not nearly the end.
I swam a 50 breaststroke the next day, and already my start was better with one race under my belt. I even had the fastest reaction (.58) of my swimming career. I'm in the far lane this time, lane 1:
A time, like age, is just a number
This project is titled for the goal of two digit swim in a 100 breaststroke, but that's not what it's about. This project is about the process of achieving that goal. When I stood on the blocks last Friday, I felt like I had already won.
I knew that in the past year, I had worked hard to get to the point where I was, improved my fitness and put myself on the line. More importantly, I knew that I was a good father, a good husband and that I did it all while going through the hardest year of my life.
You can't measure that with a stopwatch.
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.
"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.