Almost two years ago, I wrote a blog about all of the possibilities rejection opens up. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had more rejection than I’ve ever faced in my entire life coming down the pike. I was one year into launching an entrepreneurial venture, and pretty overwhelmed.
This is the second in a series that started in June 2019. As we discuss what boundaries should be set on coaching behavior, it’s also useful to have a positive direction to move in. For the first in this series go here.
I had a coach once that demanded we call him Coach (Last name). When asked why, his reasoning was simple. He believed it was a respectful way to address him.
Personally, I’ve never insisted on such, even though we see the same thing in pretty much all schools. Still, I would say the majority of people I have coached have addressed me in one of two ways, either “coach” or “sir”. The first one is obvious, but why the second?
Well, a few years into coaching I decided to flip the above scenario on its head. Instead of demanding that people I coached address me in one particular way, I started to sprinkle it the other direction. I called people “sir” or “ma’am” or “ms”. Always with my tongue firmly in my cheek.
The kids picked it up pretty naturally, and pretty soon I was getting called “sir” all the time.
Leading by example is a concept with 100% approval but lots of murkiness when it comes down to actually defining it. So I’m going to try to. When it comes to coaching, you’re never going to do 100% of the stuff that you ask your athletes to do, and it would be dumb to do so. So you can’t exactly “lead by example” by simply modeling all the tasks you assign.
You can, however, model behavior and decision-making in the types of situations that your athletes will face on a daily basis. They will see and judge your behavior and decision making far more than you likely give them credit for. You will also see some of your own greatest vulnerabilities manifest in the people you coach.
Here are a few categories where I believe it is critically important to lead by example:
Emotional Regulation- As a coach, emotional regulation is a headline skill that you want to develop for yourself and see in your athletes. Often misunderstood as “controlling” your emotions, it is actually about responding to your emotions. Modeling how to respond to your negative emotions, be it anger, sadness or fear in a way that both allows you to express and deal with those emotions without “acting out” on those around you is crucial. On the flip side, I’ve struggled myself with capitalizing on positive emotions, often feeling most uncomfortable when things are going well. When I coached in Denmark, I took my coaches on a retreat to plan for the year. We ended up discussing for an hour how much our athletes collectively worried about competition. At that moment, I knew one of the biggest problems was how worried I was about competitive results.
Work/Life Balance- Many athletes, especially elite athletes, struggle to find the balance between outworking their competition and leading a healthy life. Coaches face the same struggle. The higher level I was coaching, the more I felt pulled in two directions between my life outside of work and the competition I was engaged in at work. But if we truly want our athletes to lead whole lives and grow up to be great people, they need to see us doing the same. You don’t need to regale them with stories of your time away from the pool, but having the athletes know that you have interests outside of coaching, things that you do for yourself sends a powerful message that they should do the same.
Relationships- These of course are not distinct categories. Relationships are the key to true emotional regulation, likewise an important part of work/life balance. As a coach you have a really unique opportunity to model good relationships for the people you coach. Many may come from abusive pasts whether in sport or at home, and this can warp their sense of a healthy relationship. Showing care for other people in your life, talking about it openly and modeling respectful boundaries can be hugely influential.
Self-reflective- A key part of working on something and improving is the ability to be self-reflective. I think many worry that if they do some of this self-reflection out in the open, it will be perceived as weakness to those they coach. I disagree. It took me ten years, but I finally noticed that coaches often end up “frustrated” with athletes that mirror some of their own quirks as an athlete. I was a mouthy back-talker as an athlete, and found myself perpetually vexed by kids who ‘didn’t listen”. I knew one coach whose youth coaches deemed “lazy” that was always frustrated by his own athletes lack of determination. If you are secure enough to reflect on yourself, it can actually be a starting point for good empathy with the most “frustrating” athletes you coach.
Showing Up- So obvious that I almost left it out. Want to set an expectation that people arrive and are ready to go by a certain time? If you want consistency out of those you coach, you have to be the most consistent person on the team. Consistently on time, there when you say you are, following through on what you said you would do. As simple as that, sort of.
As I said above, I once spent an hour discussing how “worried” athletes were on the team I led. Although I made improvements even during that time, I didn’t make the big leap in progress for helping people I coached until I actually started working on solutions for my own anxiety.
Leading by example is about more than just specific actions, and far more about modeling (and explaining) the complex decision-making process you use as a coach while being open to improvement.
Yesterday I posted to my facebook page a link to a Danish news article. Danish Radio (DR), which does public news in all formats, did an investigative deep dive into the issue of public weighings by top Danish swimming officials. They also produced a mini-documentary that aired on Danish TV in primetime last night.
For the many non-danes who read this blog, there was a lot of curiosity about the story. Because of that interest, I’m going to do my best to answer some of those questions.
How were you (Chris DeSantis) involved?
In November of 2017, I blogged about former Danish national team coach Mark Regan. A top Danish athlete had retired from competitive swimming, citing an eating disorder. While that swimmer did not swim for Regan, it was Regan who introduced the practice of publicly weighing and shaming swimmers in the National training group over their weight, a practice that this report reveals went on through 2012.
One of the journalists who had spoken to that swimmer contacted me. His name was Anders Rud, and we spoke on the phone for over an hour in March of 2018. He wanted to investigate this further and find out how widespread the practice had been. I indicated to him that I believed the practice had continued beyond Regan and perhaps even to Junior level swimmers.
Anders Rud went on to be one of the journalists who worked on this story.
Who was involved
The journalist team at DR spoke to 23 former and current athletes in all who corroborated stories of public weighing and shaming. Some of the biggest names in Danish swimming, including Jeanette Ottesen, were among those to call out the practice.
Regan’s successor as National Team coach, Paulus Wildeboer, continued the practice. Beyond that, it trickled down to the Junior level, where Sidse Kehlet, once a top Danish age group swimmer, said that then Junior National Team coach Michael Hinge called her “fat Sidse” on a team training camp when she was 14 years old.
Another notable source for the story was former European Championship finalist Kathrine Jørgensen. Jørgensen said that repeated weighings and humiliation led to anxiety, depression and ultimately a suicide attempt that led her to be held in a psychiatric hospital for her own protection.
Regan has all but disappeared from the face of the earth. Wildeboer died in 2014. Michael Hinge, the former Junior National team coach, continues to be employed as the head swim coach of a Danish club.
Why is this a scandal?
Several people remarked that this is considerably less than what would be considered a scandal in the United States. After all, when I reported on similar behavior from Dick Shoulberg, there was almost universal public deafening silence over the matter.
There are two things I think it is important to say in regards to this, both of which I believe are compliments to Denmark and Danish culture. First, Danish people in general have a very high expectation of ethical behavior for their institutions. The standards are high, so while far worse behavior goes unchecked at an institutional level here in the US, in Denmark this is a big deal.
Second, your average Danish person feels empowered to call out behavior that they see as wrong. In fact in this case, there were several people beyond the athletes themselves who stood up for what’s right. The first was the club coach at the pool where the National Team practiced in 2004, Jens Frederiksen. He observed the weighings and comments of the coach and voiced his concern to Danish swimming about it.
I recall also in my time there a team official who was taking pictures of female athletes and posting them to facebook without athletes permission. When athletes complained, he was fired and has not to my knowledge worked in sports since then. Such is the general level of expectation and empowerment of even young people to directly call out behavior they do not like.
In 2005, the head dietician for Team Danmark (think Danish USOC) called Mark Regan and his immediate superior, Lars Sørenson into a meeting. She told them to stop the public weighings, stating that they risked athletes starving themselves. She advised them to make the weighings voluntary and take place in a private location away from their teammates.
Her advice was not followed, and the public weighings and shaming continued.
Lars Sørenson is currently the director of Denmark’s largest swim club.
The Head Cheese
But the person who perhaps comes off the worst from this whole scandal is Pia Holmen Christensen, the current and then Director of Danish Swimming. Christensen, I’ve heard, does not like me very much. Here was a previous piece of writing that wasn’t up her alley. Perhaps she should call Tim Hinchey so they can compare notes?
When asked about why she had failed to provide proper oversight in this matter, Christen could only provide the following response (translated):
“I feel very sorry, when I hear these stories, I have to say”
“First I want to say, this is not something that I had knowledge of. I’m not trying to wash my hands of it, but it is just to say, that if we had knowledge of this, or if I received knowledge of this, then I certainly would have stopped it”
One wonders how she can credulously state that she didn’t know what was going on. It only leaves two scenarios- either she is lying or she provided terrible oversight of her employees. Oops, there goes my chances of getting a job within Danish swimming, at least for the time being.
Results over all
There is a direct line from this scandal to what I often write about in American swimming, or sport in general. Its pretty clear that the inappropriate behavior of coaches was overlooked because the “results” were good. Denmark has been more successful over this time period in terms of medals won.
Sports organizations are due for an overhaul worldwide. They are mostly organized around competitive results as a mission statement, and so this kind of disgusting behavior gets excused based on medal counts. Until that changes, we will find out that athletes have been mistreated time and time again.
I often hear the criticism that such an overhaul would naturally lead to a decline in results. Which is why this post, like many others, will be tagged “Dark Ages”. Because that’s where that argument belongs. Russian nobleman of the 19th century also feared what ending serfdom would do crop yields.
The idea that athletes perform at their best under severe mistreatment is a myth that needs to die swiftly.
One of the most fascinating conversations I had with Dirk Marshall this past weekend was about college recruiting and humility. Humility is an admirable trait, although modesty is often mistaken for it. But does it have any place in the world of college recruiting, where you are explicitly trying to convince young people to choose your school over all other options?
Sommers is a trainer and coach who works day to day with both Nations Capital Aquatic Club’s Georgetown site as well as Rockville Montgomery Swim Club. He also trained and continues to provide support to a certain female swimmer who may be slightly better than her peers.
Eva was at the most recent Senate hearing where leaders from USA Weightlifting, U.S. Figure Skating, USA Swimming, and USA Bobsled and Skeleton. Those of us advocating for change have put a lot of hope in the hearings, but there is a growing divide between the rhetorical bluster of those attending and what actually happens.
Process. It's a buzz word in athletics now. People talk about "the process" and being "process-oriented" and "process-praise". More than any of those, there is a lot of talk about "trusting the process".
"the reference to the brother, however, was swimming related"
I wouldn't accept that explanation from my four year old. In fact, there is a lot about this situation, despite the adult nature of the texts, that warrants such comparisons. We'd have to have a conversation about the lying on top of whatever she did wrong.
Yesterday, Swimswam published lengthy interview by Jared Anderson of Swimswam of Ariana Kukors Smith. Kukors Smith continues to provide excellent insight for parents, swimmers and coaches alike. Here were a few crucial points I took away from reading it:
Instead I am echoing what I have heard from victims of abuse. Part of their story that I hear over and over again is the fact that many people had the ability to say or do the right thing to help them but did not.
I am trying to communicate to them that I will not do the same, and also encouraging them to hold me accountable to that promise
While I await more a more forceful response from a USA Swimming board member (I spoke with one who wished to remain anonymous on Friday that promised me something more by today. They said, I quote "No response is worse than a bad response") let's discuss why there is such a wide gap between the state of swim coaching I write about and the one that ASCA President Don Heidary blustered earlier this week.
Since last week, there has been a rush to focus on the problem of Sean Hutchison. This is understandable, Hutchison stands accused of monstrous behavior and was a prominent figure in our sport for the past decade.
However, before we move on, it is actually very important to understand what exactly happened, and the culture that supported Hutchison. It is far more important that we do not replicate the environment that allowed Hutchison to flourish than to just punish Hutchison and move on.
The current head coach of King Aquatics, Michael Brooks, has some important questions to answer in the wake of Hutchison "stepping down" as CEO of King. So far, the only quote circulating from looks is as follows:
"Ariana Kukors is part of the King Aquatic family and we only want the best for her,” Mr. Brooks said. “Our staff is meeting to review this devastating news. Sean Hutchison has stepped down as an executive with King and has had no direct interaction with our swimmers for a very long time.”
This statement still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Here are a few we should demand from Brooks:
1. When did he learn of a sexual relationship between Hutchison and Kukors, and what was his reaction?
2. What does "for a very long time" mean in relation to Hutchison's presence on deck. Specifically, when was the last time Hutchison interacted with swimmers at King?
3. Even though Hutchison has stepped down from his position, is he still the owner of King Aquatics? When families at King pay their dues this month, is that money going to Hutchison?
4. Who made the decision that Hutchison was no longer CEO?
If these questions seem to the reader to be aggressive in assigning blame to Brooks, let me present a counter scenario. If Brooks and others truly were in the dark about Hutchison, they should be furious with USA Swimming right now. They clearly sat on information about Hutchison, and as a result of that lack of clarity, have put Brooks' career and others in jeopardy.
So to MIchael Brooks, I ask for answers to the above questions, and one more. Depending on the answer to the above, will you join the fight for transparency at USA Swimming. Membership of USA Swimming, swimmers and parents at your club, deserve answers about what happened in 2010 at FAST, and who knew what about Hutchison at that time.
If you want to catch up on somebody who was way ahead of their time, Irv Muchnick was reporting on much of what we now know as long as six years ago. Few listened, and far more should now.