Lessons from Parenting Part III

Lessons from Parenting Part III

I hold my son's head with my right hand, the left hand scooped under his butt. He screams. I bounce. He errantly flails his hands. I bounce and "shushhhhh". He kicked his legs with all his might. I bounce.

Slowly but surely, he gets a little more limp in my arms. His eyes start to get heavy, then close intermittently. Eventually, he will slump entirely into sleep.

Lessons From My Kid: Performance Resistance

Like most parents, I'm proud of my kid. When she accomplishes something for the first time, however ordinary it might be, I get excited.

"Wow she can count past ten now!"

"Did she just use the word excellent? EXCELLENT."

"Awww she said thank you without me even having to ask."

What naturally followed is, however boring it might be for other people, I wanted them to witness the breathtaking progress of learning that I was seeing. So I would ask my daughter to perform, not in so many words, but basically try to trick her into showing off her skills.

She wouldn't. The second she realized that "Dad" was putting her on display, she resisted swiftly. With a wry smile, she'd give the wrong answer, or ignore me altogether. What's up with that?

Jumping in

Now, I happen to be smart enough that I have contracted out teaching my own daughter to swim. She's been taking swimming lessons for a couple of months now, and is just starting to get a little independence around the water.

A couple weekends ago, she jumped from the side of the pool into the water unassisted. I tried to remain composed on the outside, but on the inside I felt pretty much like Chad LeClos' dad in 2012:

My daughter was excited too, but not for the same reason. She just knew that she had been scared but tried something new and it all worked out.

The next weekend being Thanksgiving, there were no swim lessons. I thought to myself- "she's making progress, I should take to her to the pool to reinforce that".

I told her we would go swim together. She was excited. I said "we can practice jumping into the water!" in my best excited dad voice.

Her face turned. "I don't want to go to the swimming pool daddy" she said looking at the floor. I didn't get it at first. Slowly it crept up on me- she instinctively felt that our trip to the pool had turned into another performance. 

I course corrected: "let's go to the pool and play". The response was a resounding "YAY!!!". We drove over and I decided to just get in the water with her and see what happened.

There were other kids there. One of them strode confidently to the side of the pool and jumped into the water, popping up with a wide grin.

"Can I do that daddy?" my daughter asked. I stifled myself, then responded, "yes, of course".

She must have jumped into the water 20 times or more.

Not Only Parents

I know what you're expecting now. There's an obvious lesson for parents here, I can't deny that. Kids want you to be their parent, period, and you should be so lucky to have them remind you of that.

There's a lesson for coaches as well. Yes, our job does involve the performance of athletes, that is unavoidable. But even our non-related "kids" that toil back and forth in the water for us should naturally push back against coaches putting performance first and relationship second. 

No one wants to feel that they are a collection of performances, because everyone has good and bad days, and we all fail many times on our way to success. 

I'll try to remember that when I'm back watching someone else teach the swim lesson this Saturday, but also when I'm the one delivering the instructions to someone else's kid on Sunday.

How Coaching Upped My Parenting Game

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?

How Parenting Upped My Coaching Game

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.