A Radical Reimagining of How We Do Swimming (Sport)

A Radical Reimagining of How We Do Swimming (Sport)

I think swimming needs dramatic change, that change will be very hard. I think it's worth it, however. Not just for stopping the terrible, abusive, horrible things from happening to people. Reimagining sport around the experience and well-being of people doing also offers the chance for a lot more good things to happen.

What's to Come With Nancy Hogshead Makar

Later today I will be recording a podcast with Nancy Hogshead Makar. It's a conversation I've been wanting to have for a long time. Because the podcast with Nancy comes at such a crucial time, I'm treating it a bit different than a typical podcast.

For one, I'm doing way more homework than usual. Hogshead Makar is probably best known currently for her fight to get the Safe Sport Act through congress. But that is just one angle that she's used to chip away at the maltreatment of athletes in sport. Her personal story is deeply moving and important to understanding what she stands for. 

In swimming circles, Hogshead Makar spearheaded an effort to prevent the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) from inducting Chuck Wielgus in 2014. She was successful in that effort, which only looks better and better the more that we know about Wielgus' reign at USA Swimming. 

Although Wielgus was kept out, there are still a lot of ignominious names in both the ISHOF and the ASCA Hall of Fame. I plan to ask Nancy about these. Specifically, what I continue to here from ASCA loyalists is that it would be a violation of rights or due process to keep people like Paul Bergen in the Hall of Fame.

I'm not a lawyer, but as far as I know there isn't any law that gives you a right to stay in a Hall of Fame. Here's a list of honorees from one or both halls with serious questions surrounding them:

  1. Paul Bergen  CORRECTION: I made a mistake in asserting Bergen was in the ASCA Hall of Fame. He is only in the ISHOF 
  2. Jack Nelson (both)
  3. Murray Stephens (ASCA)
  4. Don Easterling (ASCA) . Not often mentioned, the NC State coach was found liable in 1990 by the State Industrial Commission in the death of one of his swimmers. 

But Hogshead Makar is about a lot more than just Halls of Fame and legislation. She has fought this problem from all angles, and I'm eager to here about them and share that knowledge with listeners. I have heard from many that are eager to find out how they can make their own corner of the swimming world go above and beyond USA Swimming's "efforts". 

Finally, we will discuss the departure of Susan Woessner and Pat Hogan from USA Swimming, and what possible changes may be yet to come in Colorado Springs. This is an ongoing story with Scott Blackmun resigning from the USOC yesterday. All in all, I expect a packed conversation.


Grooming, Bravery, and Boundaries

Ariana Kukors has given us an amazing opportunity. I reflected on that yesterday as I field another phone call, criticizing me for pointing the finger everywhere but myself.

So here it goes, I failed too. I did not like Sean Hutchison, I thought there was too much smoke in 2010. But I did nothing. I was afraid. I feared that in doing so I would face a retaliation from Hutchison and others that would be career ending. 

Kukors' bravery allows us to have a conversation about how we can improve our culture. We must not allow that opportunity to pass us by. We cannot just say "Sean was bad" and move on as we have many times in the past. 

So I would repeat my call to my coaching peers. Rather than nitpicking my posts or sending me your hushed encouragements, join me in demanding change, especially in the form of transparency from USA Swimming. And don't let up.

Can I still shake hands?

One of the biggest missed opportunities I see in coaches discussing this topic is the way they misinterpret Kukors' description of the grooming process. Kukors says that it started with a handshake, and I've seen coaches lose their mind about whether they can still shake hands with athletes.

They are missing the forest for the trees. It's not about handshakes, it's about being compelled into physical contact whether you want to or not. Rather than focus on whether or not their hands get shook, coaches should speak to their athletes and be clear that they can set their own physical boundaries with the coach, and that the coach will respect that.

Coaches should also communicate what true and appropriate boundaries are, since young people can often be unclear on that. 

Likewise, many coaches bemoan the fact that part of Hutchison's grooming process involved getting to know Kukors life outside of swimming. They pride themselves on seeing the whole person, not just a swimmer in the water. Do not interpret this description as "no talking about anything but swimming".

Once again, make clear to athletes that they are free to set the boundaries of what is discussed with their swim coach, and what a clear set of appropriate boundaries are again, since young people can often be confused about what those boundaries are. 

One thing I have seen discussed is that a coach can help people if they are struggling with mental health. This is correct, but only as a supporting player. Coaches are not a one stop shop. if they believe an athlete is struggling with a mental health issue they need to get a mental health professional involved as quickly as possible. 

The point is, this is about the swimmers, not us. They have a right to show up to swimming practice and get great coaching regardless of whether they touch us or tell us anything about their lives. If they want more than that, let them make it clear to you that is what they want.

Recognize that, the younger athletes are, the harder time they will have setting boundaries with you. So you must be extra careful. 

Ariana Kukors bravely gave us a form to discuss these topics, and we should use that opportunity to talk about how things should change and get better. 

Why I'm Ditching the Word "Performance"

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.

Optimism is a real skill and worth working on, even if you never set foot in a pool ever again in your life. It might save your life, in more ways than one.

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. 

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.


Chris DeSantis Coaching and Pro Swim Workouts

Today, I'm really happy to announce Chris DeSantis Coaching's first partnership. I'll be working with Pro Swim Workouts, beginning with a podcast, to continue to my mission of providing better conversations around swimming.

The partnership grew out of a conversation with Nico Messer of Pro Swim Workouts shortly after I revived the Swim Brief podcast. Nico saw a gap in the swimming podcast world. When he presented it to me, I agreed wholeheartedly, and we agreed to try and fill that gap together.

Don't let me get too far ahead of myself. Why Pro Swim Workouts? Because I believe that Pro Swim Workouts walks the walk when it comes to making the swimming world better. It spreads knowledge, including the type of practical stuff (workouts from top coaches) that you used to have to fly, book a hotel and sit through hours of a conference to see.

Pro Swim Workouts puts money in the hands of swim coaches in exchange for their valuable work, and I like that. It also gives that valuable work to beginning coaches who so desperately need it. Now, we want to take a conversation into a dynamic format. Each podcast will feature a discussion of workouts, addressing all the questions you might have as a coach (or swimmer) about a given workout.

What is the point of this workout? Why should I do it? How do you implement the workout the best way possible? How does this workout fit into the greater context of a week, month, cycle or season?

These are the kind of questions we'll try answer. and we don't pretend to know everything. This is a podcast for people who want to hear an intelligent conversation about swimming training, and although we can't deny that we'll bring our own biases to the table, we're also going to work hard to not treat training like religion. Part of the journey will be trying to figure out how workouts neither Nico or I would ever use ourselves can work for other coaches.

The podcast will start with a bi-weekly format, with room to increase depending on demand. So get ready to join in the conversation with us and talk some workouts.