Ripples

 

 

 

It’s an old metaphor, to throw a stone in a pond and watch the ripples spread and multiply, to remind us that the things we do have effects that we don’t realize or even intend. Sometimes, you are lucky enough to find out where a ripple goes. A conversation recently with a friend reminded me of one of my own; as usual, names have been changed, and quotes are somewhat paraphrased.

Coaching high school swimming was a mixed bag of frustration and reward. Grueling schedules, uncertain weather, convoluted rules, facility issues, kids not showing, flu season, low pay…the frustrations were many. The rewards felt fewer, but man! The rewards were huge when they came.

I was a great believer in a “no cuts” policy. This was a public school sport, and unlike other sports, swimming is a life skill, and a “save-your-life” skill as well. Over the years, we had many kids come to try the team who didn’t know how to swim at all, and just wanted a chance to learn. We took them all.

In my 2nd or 3rd season with the team, a young woman, a senior,  came to us during the first week of practice, and shared that she didn’t know how to swim but wanted to learn. Tiara was tall, thin and muscular, and looked like she had about 2% body fat, which is not really an ideal combination for an adult learning to swim. Fat floats, and learning to float is immeasurably important when learning to swim, so I knew we had our work cut out for us. It was a challenge, but she was determined, and so was I. We used aerobic float belts, kick boards, pull buoys…basically whatever it took to assist her with the float part so that she could learn the swim techniques that would eventually overcome her lack of flotation.

She was without a doubt our most dedicated attendee at practice, and worked hard. By January (our season began in November), we talked about her racing in a meet. She very nervously and somewhat reluctantly agreed, so we taught her to dive, and in a meet toward the end of that month, she raced a 50 freestyle for the very first time. It was one of my proudest moments as a coach, and I didn’t think I could be happier or more gratified with our work together.

I was wrong. You see, I hadn’t seen the ripple yet.

Fast forward a couple years to another meet, another group of kids. During a break in the action, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find a grinning Tiara at my side. We shared a big hug, and the talk naturally moved straight into “What are you doing these days?!”  She caught me up with what she had been up to, and then shared that since she left school, she had been teaching swim lessons to kids like her, teenagers who didn’t know how to swim. My recollection is that it was her appreciation of what we had done for her, what she had learned and overcome with the support of the swim team, that had inspired her to pay-it-forward.

I was floored. I thought that the reward from that stone I’d thrown in the pond was her personal accomplishment, but that was just the beginning. It was a stunning reminder that our actions have ripples, and that we don’t know the lives we end up touching without ever knowing.

This was a humbling moment. Fortunately in this case, the stone I threw created positive ripples, but the ripples of our actions can just as easily be harmful. It is a reminder to be careful and mindful in our interactions with others so that the ripples we make are positive, and that what others pay forward in our names are things we are proud to own. We may never know where the ripple lands, but if we throw our stones with care and love and concern for others, chances are the ripples will carry that as well.

Stronger Than WE Think

(Sequel to Stronger than You Think, published Oct 2014)   Recent events have had me reflecting on the items in this blog, and reconsidering writing. I am inspired by the actions of young people in these early months of 2018, and my writing may veer from my theme of lessons learned from swimming at times. My love of young people is a huge part of my love for swimming, so perhaps the “theme” will not deviate too much.

In October of 2014, I published Stronger Than You Think, a story about the gut-level strength and resilience of young people, and one swimmer in particular. I was in awe of her, as I am currently in awe of the young people leading the #MarchforOurLives movement. I’m not sure how many people are aware of what an important and pivotal moment we are in. I hear too many adults either being dismissive (“kids shouldn’t be doing that, saying that, thinking that, leaving school, marching, blah, blah, blah…”), or being completely patronizing (“you kids should be so proud of yourselves…look at you taking action like you’re grown ups!”)

We need to hush for a moment and really pay attention. We need to hear them, really hear them and what they are saying. We need to think long and hard about how difficult it is to stand up and stand apart when you’re in middle school or high school…you know, that age when conformity is EVERYTHING. We need to see, feel and appreciate the gut-level strength it takes to do what these kids are doing, and their persistence in the face of some pretty ugly backlash.

Working with teenagers taught me a lot of valuable lessons, perhaps the best of which was that as an important adult in their lives, I needed to not just react to them, but to think, to listen, to consider, to look underneath the surface, to seek understanding. The other lesson I learned was that teens tolerate ZERO bullshit, and they can smell it a mile away.

Watch the talking heads and you will see adults patronizing, dismissing, condescending, and generally engaging in bullshit trying to deal with the young people in this country. They couldn’t be responding in a worse way. They have no credibility, no trust and no traction. These kids have discovered their strength, both individually and as a group, and they will not give it up. I, for one, am a huge fan.

Swimming is an individual sport in many aspects, but one with a team element. The best individual swimmers have a strong and functional team they train with. Their focus and strength, their ability to persevere in the face of adversity, to fight for their goals…this all comes from the support of the team. #MarchforOurLives is a team worth watching.

Sportsmanship

sportsmanshipAt a summer league meet one year, against a team we were going to beat soundly, my 15-18 boys asked if they could swim “silly strokes” against the competition in the 100 free, and didn’t initially understand when I said NO. I explained that being so sure you’re going to win that you don’t do your best, that you don’t even compete “for real”,  showed immense disrespect for your competitors, and was terrible sportsmanship. I recall asking them how they would feel on the receiving end of that. Luckily, I was able to dissuade them from this behavior. Luckily, they asked me before they did it.

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”  Wise words.

As a coach, I was a stickler for sportsmanship. I didn’t engage in “trash talk”, and discouraged my athletes from doing so. I insisted that they showed respect at all times for themselves, their teammates, their competition, and the volunteers. I made them stay in the pool until everyone had finished the race; I encouraged them to congratulate their competition, win or lose; I would not allow temper tantrums or throwing of goggles over a bad race; I pulled my best swimmers from competition for unsportsmanlike behavior; and I was always on the lookout for anything that smacked of poor sportsmanship, to the point where I’m sure many of them thought I was just not any fun. So be it.

Sportsmanship is a demonstration of character, and was always one of my highest priorities. Honoring the rule and spirit of competition by competing fairly, honoring yourself by doing your best, honoring your competition by being gracious in both victory and defeat, holding yourself to a standard of behavior that exhibits respect…these are all incredibly important life skills, and athletic competition is a natural place to learn them.

I have become distressed in recent years to see the growing lack of emphasis on sportsmanship in athletics, from beginner levels up through professionals. Increasingly, talented athletes are being given a free pass for their bad behavior as parents and fans clamor for the win at all costs. Ugliness creeps into the team culture, accountability on the athlete goes out the window, and the ultimate result in the long run ends up being toxic players and, ironically, fewer wins. Allowing poor sportsmanship is the “path of least resistance” in the short term, but ends up eating the team alive from the inside like a cancer.

It was painfully evident at the Olympics that neither Chad Le Clos nor Hope Solo were ever held to a standard of sportsmanship. Le Clos’ behavior prior to competition, running his mouth, trying to “psych out” Phelps by waving his fanny in his face, simply served to make Le Clos look the fool even before he entered the pool. If he had been able to back up his talk, chances are many of us would have shrugged it off, but that would have been the wrong response. His trash was called out and mocked because he lost, but should have been called out had he won as well. Regardless of the outcome, he exhibited a lack of respect for his sport and for his competition, and that is NOT OK.

Hope Solo played badly during the Olympic competition, and instead of taking responsibility for her share in the team losing, she bad-mouthed the team that won. Having to denigrate the winner to mitigate your loss is the definition of “sore loser”, and is a lesson she should have learned by the time she was 12 years old. Behaving that way at the world champion level and at her age was pathetic and embarrassing; the ensuing  prolonged hand-wringing about how USA Soccer should respond was equally pathetic and embarrassing.

When talented athletes are given a pass to behave this way, whether they are 10 years old or 30 years old, we send the message that sportsmanship does not apply to some; that only those not as good should know how to behave with respect. To that, I say POPPYCOCK! When we, as parents of the prodigy, don’t back up the coach when the child is reprimanded for mocking their teammates or competition, we are creating a monster. When we as a culture excuse a Bobby Knight for throwing chairs because he is a winner, or when we excuse the remarks of a Hope Solo because she is so good at playing soccer, we are creating a monster.

These are not just lessons and behaviors for athletics. Athletic endeavors are where they are most often learned, but respect, manners, graciousness and good behavior are life skills, and we disregard this at our own peril.

You don’t think this spills over into real life? Think again.

Our current election cycle was a prime example of poor sportsmanship in real life. It was filled with people who have either never been exposed to these lessons OR who have been exempted from having to learn the lessons because of their talent or wealth. A major party candidate announced that he would only accept the outcome if he won, and continues to question the integrity of the process, despite winning, because he cannot emotionally accept how many people voted against him. In my own state, a sitting governor refuses to accept the results of the election, repeatedly demanding recounts and alleging fraud…presumably because he can’t believe he could lose in a state that was heavily gerrymandered to make sure those of his party won. It is an understatement to say that I’ve been disappointed with the behavior of the adults who have been tasked with leading our government, at every level. Their behavior would never have been allowed on my team.

America is suffering from a lack of sportsmanship, and the lack of character that follows along. People are appalled by the young athlete who throws a fit over losing, but will defend that behavior when it’s their own child. People bemoan how “kids these days” don’t say please and thank you, but do not demand that their own child do so with volunteer officials. People are furious with the rudeness of others, but dismiss their own rudeness as “speaking their mind”. People gripe about the sore loser who complains and whines about losing, but when their favorite star athlete trash talks, they see nothing wrong.

You can’t have it both ways.

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Wise words, indeed.

The Space Between Breaths

breathe-deeply-wooden-sign

I have this tshirt from my full time job that just says BREATHE on the front. My swimmers use to say that I wore that as a cruel joke because of how much I enjoyed giving breath control sets. Controlling breathing is crucial for the physical aspects of competitive swimming, but I’ve long maintained, somewhat secretly, that it is a psycho-spiritual discipline as well.

I’ve been a swimmer longer than I can comprehend. I turned 50 last week, so swimming, both the doing of it and the coaching of it, have taken up a majority of my time on this planet. To say I love it would be an understatement. Swimming itself is a spiritual experience for me, and I get very “zen” about the feel of the water, the sensations of movement through it, and the mindfulness of breathing that swimming requires. I have yet to find anything, any exercise or discipline, that is as truly mind-body-spirit as swimming.

Until today. I went to my first yoga class today, after resisting the urge to start for several years. I had let fear and many excuses block my path, but the time had finally come…I turned 50, the stars aligned and the universe kicked me in the butt and said, “NOW!” So I went.

It was tough, physically and mentally. But I fell in love with the breathing…it’s so much like my first love! The core of the practice is managing your breathing and being mindful of it, using it to aid the movement of your body. I kept thinking, “I can do this! I know it! I’ve taught it!”.

There is a moment when you are doing deep rhythmic breathing when you realize that you can inhale more than you thought you could. There is a moment when you realize there is no rush to exhale. There is a moment when you learn how to expel all the air, not just the “stuff on top” like we do all day, but ALL of it, pushing your diaphragm with intention up into your lungs to push out the last bit. This is all super cool, but the best moment, my favorite moment, is the space between breaths.

It takes a little time to get into the rhythm of those really profound breaths and intentional exhales, but once you adapt, you can find the space. What I’ve discovered is that once I expel all the air, there is a moment, sometimes a second or two, sometimes more, where I don’t feel the urge to breathe at all. There is no urgency, no stress, no worry, no physical pressure to begin the next inhale. It is a moment of absolute perfect awareness and tranquility, floating, yet being 100% present at the same time.

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to share this. Perhaps it is because I haven’t written in a long while. Perhaps it is because I’m in the throes of a new “crush” and wanted to babble about it. Perhaps it is because I enjoy how one part of my life connects and prepares me for another, allowing me to honor what has gone before and use it to inform my next steps.

Or maybe I just thought it was cool. Namaste!

The Right Fit

goggles2

It’s amazing how much having things fit right affects performance. Swimmers spend a lot of time trying (and rejecting) brands and styles of suits, goggles, caps, fins, etc, in order to find the right fit. Once you find it, you pray the manufacturer doesn’t change anything before you can buy a lifetime supply of what “fits”. I’ve seen kids reduced to tears over the “good” goggles breaking, and I know my own workouts are impacted by a new suit that rubs in the wrong place.

Having equipment that is just the right fit might seem a trivial concern, but not having to think about something leaking or rubbing or falling off while you train or race is crucial. The wrong fit is, at the very least, a distraction and at worst, the cause of minor injuries. No athlete wants to have to waste time thinking about what their uniform and training gear are doing while they train….they just want to train, so a lot of non-training time is devoted to finding the equipment that is just the right fit.

If only we spent that kind of time and care making sure other aspects of our lives fit right! How much happier would we be if we dedicated the time to making sure our colleges, our jobs, our friends, our homes, our communities, our churches, our life partners, were truly the right fit, the BEST fit for us. In those really important and crucial parts of our lives, we allow ourselves to be swayed by the opinions of others or by the reputation of the institution, or by money, or by convenience, rather than choosing what fits us.

I have witnessed a lot of conversations between swimmers regarding goggles, why people use these or those, and I have yet to see anyone change what they use just because a friend uses something else. They might try them out, but it’s usually more in the vein of “Let me use your goggles for a minute and see how they fit”. When it comes to suits and equipment, fit is a choice they make and stick to with confidence.

Yet we are so easily swayed when it comes to our choices in important matters. Sometimes the wrong fit is just a distraction from being our best selves, sometimes the wrong fit can cause us injury of some kind, whether physical, emotional or mental. Forcing ourselves into situations that our gut is telling us is the wrong fit certainly will cause stress if nothing else.

My recent coaching experience was an example of a wrong fit in my own life. For various reasons, I ignored some signs and gut reactions that this was not the right place for me, and as a result, I wasn’t happy, and certainly was NOT my best coaching self. It has left me dissatisfied with the experience, but also a bit annoyed with myself for not honoring that inner voice. Despite all my years of experience with suits and goggles, I tried to force something to fit when it just wasn’t the right thing.

You would think I would have known better.

A Break

resting

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve taken a little break from writing. I was coaching, and the truth is that I have a very hard time waxing philosophical about coaching while I’m actually doing it. I will probably be sharing some things from this most recent experience, but I’m still “processing” how I felt about the whole thing, and trying to figure out what I learned during those months.

I’m going to try to be more regular about posting again, and may stray from swim metaphors on occasion as the mood strikes. I hope 2015 has been treating you well!

Connections

HSSwimDay3 KR 13

I swam for 8 years in the Northern Virginia area. I swam for a summer league team with over 100 members, my high school team of over 40 kids, and a year round club team which had between 600 and 800 members, over 50 of which swam at my practice site on a regular basis. I have no friends from that experience. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. Not even one peripheral acquaintance located on Facebook. Given the thousands of hours I spent in this pursuit, that is a sad and pitiful statistic.

Given my own experience, it has been an ongoing wonder for me to watch my swimmers interact and build friendships. I have to confess that there were times I simply didn’t understand when a kid changed teams (or refused to, despite bad coaching) because “that’s where their friends were”.  I have learned from them how much better the intensity of practice and the stress of meets can be when shared with people you care about. I have learned, mostly from my high school team, that the motivation for attending a 5:30am practice can be gleaned from the sharing of the misery. I have learned that while parents and coaches can say a lot, the most powerful words come from your friends. The swimmers I’ve coached have taught me what my own experience lacked.

That emotional connection, that love, is truly the glue that holds it all together, as well as the prize that makes it all worthwhile. Having folks in your corner, cheering for you and rooting for your success, offering a hug and a shoulder when things don’t go well…isn’t that what we all want? Whether it’s a dozen people, or just that one best friend, no one matters quite the way those friends do. They are the lift, the security blanket, the laughter, the tears, the scream of joy, the quiet understanding, the ones who are there solely because they want to be. They are the ones our eyes seek first, the ones who will understand best both our joy and our disappointment, the ones who do not judge or critique or point out where we went wrong. They are the ones who know when we are not feeling well, or having relationship issues, or family problems, or ate too much ice cream. They are the ones willing to go to bat for us and ask for help when we can’t ask for ourselves.

While I know that my attention and presence were important to my swimmers, they taught me how much more crucial that friend, that love connection, was to their growth and success. They have friends that are friends away from the pool, friends they will keep because they laughed and cried and understood and cheered and hugged and sang songs and offered a towel and sometimes just stood there next to them. I’m glad I got to see it, and share in its warmth.