WHAAAAATT???

teampic

Coach: “You need to rotate your backstroke more.”
Swimmer: “What?”
Coach: “Rotate!”
Swimmer: “Do WHAT?”
Coach: “Every time you take a stroke, point your belly button at the side of the pool!”
Swimmer: “OH! Okay!”

The key to effective communication is framing it in a way that makes sense to your audience, using language and images they understand. While this might seem very basic, this is a lesson that took me a long time to learn, and despite my enthusiasm as a young coach, I didn’t do a good job of communicating. I delivered information to younger and newer kids the way it was given to me:  using terminology and jargon. I had forgotten what it felt like to not know what “rotate” or “pivot” or “streamline” meant, forgot what it was like to not have a mental picture to go with those terms. I was enamored of being a Coach, and having the status to tell other kids on the team what to do. I was not noticing the confusion on their faces when I gave instruction, and then not understanding why they couldn’t execute the sets.

There was no “lightbulb” moment on this one. My understanding grew with time and maturity, with doing private lessons and tailoring those to the individual, with teaching group lessons to three-year-olds (ACK!), with having older coaches set an example, with working Special Olympics in high school, with becoming a parent, with working with swimmers with autism and developmental delays. My understanding grew as my ability to empathize grew. The more I could put myself in the place of the six-year-old, the better I became at teaching the six-year-old.

As the giver of the information, it was incumbent upon me to meet my audience where they were at, to give the information in a way that made sense to them, and not just in a way that made sense to me or was convenient for me.  I don’t know about you, but I had too few people in my life who modeled this. I had to learn this by trial and error, motivated by the desire to help my swimmers “get it”, even if it meant I had to say it 10 different ways, and demonstrate it twice.

Remember: if the person listening to you doesn’t seem to understand what you are saying, it just might be YOUR lack of clarity, and not that they are deficient in some way. Try again. And again, if you have to.

Float

rough-sea-2

I am writing this one for myself, as a reminder of a powerful image and lesson learned.

One summer when my family was vacationing at the beach, I had one of my worst scares ever in water. My parents had let my best friend come on vacation with us, and she and I were playing in the surf. It was really rough that day, but we were 17 and both very strong swimmers, so we thought it was no big deal. Plus, we were in about 3 ½ feet of water, so what could happen?

As we played, I got knocked over and rolled by a powerful wave. Coming to the surface, I scrambled to find my feet, only to have them pulled out from under me by the rip current. Wave after wave smacked me down as I tried over and over to plant my feet. I tried to yell to my friend for help, but couldn’t make myself heard before another wave had me. I could feel the bubble of panic form in my gut as I went under yet again.

As I struggled for the surface one more time, the thought, “Stop fighting and FLOAT,” went through my head. Since trying to stand had been an abysmal failure, I trusted that thought and picked up my feet. Instantly, the panic bubble popped and I relaxed. I floated. I let the waves do what they were going to do. The waves that had been so frightening, so cruel, just moments before now bore me to shore and a place where I could find my feet and catch my breath.

We often find ourselves in rough seas in our lives, in places we don’t want to be, being buffeted by circumstances beyond our control. We feel the panic rise as we struggle to find our feet, as our pleas for help go unheard for what they are by those that love us best. The fear that this is the wave that will best us keeps us fighting and resisting.

Times like these are when we most need to just pick up our feet and float. Sometimes we cannot change where we are in life or the circumstances that are beating us down, but we can change our approach. We can choose to accept the rough sea we are in and float, allowing ourselves to be carried a bit. We can float.

That day on the beach, the rough surf took me in to shore and safety, but not where I had expected to be. Pushed farther down shore than I had realized, I had to hike back to where I had begun, but a hike was a small price to pay. It was a good walk, fear replaced by relief and a new confidence in myself.

After all, I had just learned to float.

Still Water

still water

Still Water

I’ve done some pool management in my time, and one of my absolute favorite things is to be the first one at the pool. It’s absolutely quiet, except for perhaps the low hum of the pump. The water is still and perfect. It is a manifestation of peace and potential.

Pools, especially during swim meets or practices, are hectic places, full of noise and hustle & bustle. They are a portrait of motion and sound:  kids’ voices, adults’ voices, whistles blowing, exhaust fans whirring, pump noise, starting signals, and splashing sounds all echoing off the walls in a wonderful cacophony. Everything seems to be in constant motion, a place where things are happening, a place where peace and quiet and stillness seem impossible.

Yet the water was still before all this began. It was a place of absolute quiet and peace, the water so still it looked solid. It was a place poised to be busy, a waiting place, a place where the only thing going on was the unseen circulation and cleaning of the water. This still water was there before the busy-ness began, and it will be there again when the busy-ness is done.

Our lives are full of motion and sound, places where things are happening. They are full of school and work and friends and meals and errands and chores and sports and social activities and Facebook and texting and reading someone’s blog (I can only hope!).  Do we also have time for the still water? Do we make time to calm things down, empty out the busy-ness, and clear our minds? Do we allow ourselves time at the beginning of our day for our water to be motionless, or do we jump from bed into the to-do list?

A still, quiet pool can be a meditative visualization. As we imagine the busy pool slowly emptying out, getting quieter, people leaving, we can slowly empty out our worries, our stresses, our lists. As the pool gets calmer, the water smoother, so can our souls become calmer and quieter. Allowing this time allows our water to be refreshed,  to recover and be ready to face the busy-ness once again.

Bubbles

bubbles

I’m a giggler, no doubt about it. The kids I worked with learned pretty quickly that, no matter how intense I seemed most of the time, if they could get me cracked up, it was worth several minutes of giggling. I had a few swimmers in my career who I believe crossed my path for just this reason:  to lighten me up a bit.

I can’t begin to recount all of the funny things that happened at practices and meets, but a couple stand out. When I was doing my own swimming, one of my teammates loved to do funny things with the lap counter just to watch me burst into a laugh underwater and blow out all my air in a big burst of bubbles. One of my all-time favorites occurred while I was coaching an 8 & under practice:  little girl about 6 years old, swimming freestyle, kept grabbing her stomach with each stroke. I watched this for a few minutes, with growing concern, convinced there was a tummy ache of some sort, and (God forbid!) imminent throwing up.  I stopped her at the end of the pool, and asked,

“Do you feel OK? Does your tummy hurt?”
“Nooo….” was the confused response.
“Why do you keep grabbing your tummy?”
“I’m feeling my belly button.”
Needless to say, I fell out laughing.

Sometimes the best thing in the world to do is laugh. Those moments don’t come by often and  you need to grab them when they do. It’s been a hard week to do that. Between the suicide of Robin Williams and the shooting of yet another teenager leading to civil unrest and the seemingly never-ending death and destruction in the Middle East, it’s been a hard week to laugh. It’s been hard to even find things to laugh about.

But if I’ve learned anything it’s that times like now are THE most important times to laugh. Not at the tragedies, but in spite of them. We must seek and find the humorous moments, AND SHARE THEM. Laugh together with someone, laugh in that side-clutching, gasping way. Laugh hard enough to bring tears to your eyes. Laugh long enough to forget what got you started.

Laughter is the ultimate bonding experience with another human being….good laughter, positive (not mean, at-someone’s-expense) laughter, laughter from your gut….this is a deep down, wide open, vulnerable, joyful thing to share with another human being. Laughter does not ignore the pain, or say it doesn’t matter. Laughter doesn’t minimize the tragedy. Laughter bonds us when we need a bond, and gives us hope that things will get better. When they say that laughter heals, this is what they mean.

To all my swimmers (and my own children), thank you for the laughs we shared. Thank you for the hope you gave me. Thank you for the light you cast into my darkness. I hope I returned the favor.

Get Out of Your Own Wake

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If you’ve ever seen a heat of high level male swimmers racing a sprint freestyle event, you’ve seen the wave they pull behind them. It’s impressive to see the wake caused by a strong, powerful body propelling itself efficiently through the water. Then they come to the wall.

As the swimmers slow slightly to initiate the turn, their wake catches up with them. As they push off, what was behind them is now in front of them, a wave of churning turbulence with the potential to ruin their race. Young swimmers often push off right at the surface, and take that wave in the face. They must learn through practice to push off deep enough to avoid their own wave, and slide through the still water.

We create turbulence as we move through our lives as well, stirring up the water with our selves, our habits, our insecurities. As long as we are moving forward, this turbulence is largely unnoticed by us; it is only when we slow down, when there is a challenge facing us, that our own mess catches up with us. We flounder in the churned up water we have created, making the challenge that much more difficult.

Perhaps instead we could get out of our own wake. We could approach our challenge (wall) with determination, acknowledging that our issues and inner demons (turbulent wave) is right with us, and push away from the problem (wall), aiming for the calm place (still water), where we can once again move forward efficiently.

It is important that we not deny that the wake exists, otherwise we will run into it over and over. Rather, we should accept that it’s there, see it for what it is, and take steps to move past it.

Breaststroke, Multi-Tasking and Change: A Ramble

breaststroke

From the USA Swimming rule book:  Swimmer should push off the wall into streamline position, face down or on the breast. The swimmer should sweep the hands out to just outside the shoulders and turning fingertips down, moving the arms back simultaneously, pressing hands toward the belly and squeezing elbows in toward the ribcage. The hands shall be pushed forward together from the breast on, under, or over the water. The elbows shall be under water except for the final stroke before the turn, during the turn and for the final stroke at the finish. The hands shall be brought back on or under the surface of the water. The hands shall not be brought back beyond the hip line, except during the first stroke after the start and each turn. As the hands are being brought back toward the chest/belly, the swimmer should bend their knees, drawing their heels up toward their buttocks, with toes turned out toward the sides. As the hands are pressed forward, the swimming should execute the kick, both feet moving in unison, whipping back with a slight outward rotation (similar to a frog kick). Throughout the race the stroke cycle must be one arm stroke and one leg kick in that order. All movements of the arms shall be simultaneous and in the same horizontal plane without alternating movement. During each complete cycle, some part of the swimmer’s head shall break the surface of the water. All wall touches must be two hands touching simultaneously in the same plane.

Breaststroke is the ultimate in “pat your head, rub your tummy”. Coordinating the kick and pull is hard enough, then throw in remembering how to hold your feet, where your hands should be, and making sure your head breaks the surface with each stroke and you have the ultimate in multi-tasking metaphors! It’s no wonder little kids struggle with it so much.

Multi-tasking can be trained into muscles—by virtue of repetition, muscle memory will take over and allow us to execute the movements correctly without having to think about each one. It gives us the illusion that we can do many things simultaneously, which excites the Brain, who then yells, “Awesome! I’m going to help!” And it all falls apart.

You see, the problem is that Brain can’t multi-task. It can do many things quickly so it appears as though it’s all happening at the same time, but it’s not. Every time Brain focuses “here”, whatever is going on “there” suffers. (Think about how many times you’ve arrived at your destination not remembering the drive. Brain was thinking about something else.) We see this regularly in swimming, when a coach will advise a swimmer to work on their kick, or think about their head position, and as soon as Brain starts doing what we’ve asked, the rest of the stroke gets messy.

This is another of the hard lessons of swimming. While a swimmer is working to correct a stroke, they will go through a period of feeling awful and awkward trying to swim it. They will get discouraged. They will wonder why they’re trying to make a change if it is only going to result in being worse. They will want to abandon the change and go back to the way they used to do it, because that was comfortable and familiar, but they can’t. They started to make a new habit and now the old way is lost. Even Brain isn’t sure where to focus.

This is a difficult but absolutely normal step on the path of major change. As you discipline Brain to focus on doing something entirely new, everything else will feel as though it’s falling apart. Getting through this is incredibly hard, but you must press forward. You cannot go back: Brain has forgotten that way. You cannot stay in this awful place, neither here nor there, with Brain completely unfocused. You must move forward, with persistence, reminding yourself that this is temporary, that you chose this way in order to grow and make progress, that repetition and focus will make a “new normal”.

Before you know it, there will be a new place and a better habit, one you won’t have to think so hard about anymore.

No Peeking!

swim peek

If you’ve ever been to a swim meet where young children were competing, you’ve seen The Peek. During the race, usually breaststroke, a swimmer will turn his/her head to check out the competition. Some little ones do this occasionally, some almost constantly, some are obvious, and some get very good at being subtle about it. And some never lose the habit.

It is an almost irresistible desire when you’re racing:  wanting to know where your competition is. Am I ahead? Am I behind? How am I doing?  Unfortunately, giving in to that temptation alters the outcome of your race. As soon as you change your head position to check out someone else, you change your body position, and ultimately change how you end up doing. You have no effect on the other person, but comparing yourself to them has changed YOUR race.

That’s pretty powerful.

Beyond the physical detriment to head and body position that a swimmer experiences by peeking, there is a mental/emotional effect as well. By expanding  your focus to include how someone else is doing, you let go of following your own plan and you allow their experience to become part of how you define yours. In a swim race, that can end up as either, “I did well because I beat Johnny” or “I did my best, but I lost to Johnny so it wasn’t that good”. Instead of comparing ourselves against our own plan or our own progress over time, it becomes about the comparison against someone else.

Comparing ourselves to others is the ultimate sucker’s game. There is no winning this one. There will ALWAYS be, for EVERYONE, someone who has more, is better at something, etc. We all have people who make us feel inferior. Social media hasn’t helped, since now we can peek into other people’s lives with impunity, forgetting that Facebook is the ultimate ongoing “Christmas Letter”, full of everyone’s surface wonderfulness. Reading Facebook, one would think that no one is unhappy, failing school, a bad cook, fighting with their kids, in danger of being laid off, unable to afford vacation, or worrying that their spouse is cheating on them. We are all looking around, peeking constantly at our “competition”, and becoming more and more convinced that we are “losing”.

Comparing ourselves to others alters the outcome of our journeys, plain and simple. We cannot be our best selves if we are focused on someone else. We cannot be truly happy and at peace if we define success in terms of someone else’s journey. When we make comparisons, we only hurt ourselves in the end.

So, at least for today, No Peeking!

It’s What You Take Away From It

Swim-wall

As a swimmer and a coach, as someone for whom water has played a major part in life, the thought of drowning is beyond horrifying. Being in my wonderful, peaceful, familiar environment and not being able to manage the situation is the worst kind of helplessness I can fathom.

I was 18 years old, swimming for my summer league team. I had quit year round swimming the winter before, choosing instead to swim for fun and to coach for both my year round and summer teams. Life was good, and I was enjoying swimming wholeheartedly for the first time in a long time.

It was our All Star meet, our end of season championship, and I was going into it seeded first in my best event, the 50 backstroke. Things couldn’t have been better:  great weather, the support of my team, my favorite stroke, the middle lane, my last swim of my career. I was ready to go out on a high note.

I got a great start, but then the unthinkable happened:  my goggles came down. This almost NEVER happens in backstroke, but there they were, right across my mouth, positioned so they were dumping water up my nose, in my eyes, and down my throat. I swam on, thinking “What the heck? It’s only a 50, I’m in good shape, I’ll just hold my breath.”  I was ahead going into the turn, which was usually the best part of my race. As I pushed off, another unthinkable thing happened:  I came up under the lane line. The line was across my right shoulder, and I was stuck there, trying to fight my way up, having not been able to see or breathe since the start of the race. Thrashing my way to the surface, my lungs screaming, I gasped involuntarily, and sucked in water. That was it. The end of my race. I could not go on.

Here’s the kicker:  as I got to the side and an official helped me out, I coughed out a big ball of water and looked up just in time to see my dad make a gesture of disgust and leave the pool deck. No concern for my well-being, just disgusted disappointment in me for “quitting”. I was beyond devastated. Crushed and embarrassed to have disqualified in my best event, scared to death by inhaling water and going under, I then had to deal with my own father’s lack of care and his misunderstanding of what had occurred.

Needless to say, I had emotions about this one for a long time. A loooooooong time. Finally, I was able to put this incident in a perspective that helped me deal with it and get past my negative feelings, by asking myself “what did I learn from it?”  I learned that sometimes, for no particular reason, bad stuff happens. I learned that sometimes, try as you might to fight your way out of it, the bad stuff can keep coming and get the better of you for a time. I learned that sometimes stopping to regroup is the best choice you have. I learned that sometimes the people watching your struggle, even the people who love you the most, will misunderstand and have opinions and judge you. Most importantly, I learned that you don’t have to let any of that define you or become a permanent part of your self-image.

I lost a medal that day, but what I took away was far more valuable. In the end, that’s all that matters.

The Dreaded “Speedo”

swimsuits

I put the name Speedo in quotes here to denote the generic way in which this particular brand name has become synonymous with the really tight, itty-bitty racing suit. I in no way am either trying to endorse or bash the brand name product.

We’ve all seen them, mostly at swim meets, but sometimes (unfortunately) on the beach. When worn by a competition swimmer, they seem like an appropriate uniform for the sport, albeit a tiny one. There is nothing quite like trying to squeeze yourself into the smallest possible, tightest possible suit, then trying to move and move FAST. Oh, unless it’s putting yourself up on a starting block two feet above everyone’s head while you’re wearing said suit. Make no mistake, we swimmers have all heard the jokes and comments about how we look and what can be seen through the tightness of the suit. We know that every ounce of excess skin or body fat gets pushed out to the edges of the suit. We know that every defect, every pimple, every hair is visible through the material.

Talk about feeling vulnerable.

There are not many sports where putting on your uniform means taking off your clothes to this extent. There is an overcoming of self-consciousness and an acceptance of emotional nakedness that swimmers must learn to deal with. (Some are better at it than others, and are usually the ones who, as adults, will walk through the locker room naked while the rest of us are wondering what the hell their problem is.)

It is daunting to bare yourself in any sense, to “put yourself out there”, to open yourself to the judgments of others. Most of us avoid doing that at all costs. We clothe ourselves with degrees and job titles and the “right” house and friends in order to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of showing who we really are. What flaws might be seen? What might people think or say?

It is interesting to observe young swimmers move from a complete uninhibited lack of awareness into the extreme self-consciousness of puberty. Some kids will quit the sport because it’s just too uncomfortable to be that exposed and vulnerable, or develop coping strategies like hiding in the locker room or wrapping in a towel. The really interesting part is seeing how they move through the agony of feeling exposed back into a lack of inhibition, as though just the repetition of being “out there” takes away the fear of it.

Choosing to be vulnerable, to put our real selves on display, to brave the eyes and judgments of others. Repeating it until we no longer fear it, until being our true selves is uninhibited habit. A good lesson for all of us, perhaps.

YAAAAAAAYYY Tired!!

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There is no way to train a swimmer to be fast over distance without making them uncomfortable. The hardest part of coaching in my opinion is getting kids to accept, and even embrace, being tired and uncomfortable.Please note that I am NOT talking about ignoring injury pain, which is sharp and breath-taking and a show-stopper. I am referring to the dull achiness of fatigued muscles, muscles which have been doing their jobs as nature intended and are just tired.

It is a very natural, human, self-protective response to back away from physical discomfort and fatigue. It takes a huge amount of mental control and fortitude to continue to push and move and exert, when everything in your body is screaming at you to stop. It also takes understanding that there are rewards on the other side of that discomfort in order to find the motivation to push.

One of my coaching mantras was “Yaaayyyy Tired!!”  I used this to help the swimmers understand that their fatigue and discomfort was not a bad thing, that it was not a barrier unless they made it one, and that they had control of it. They could choose to have a different attitude about it. Instead of thinking negatively, “I feel bad, I hurt, I’m tired, I want to quit”, they could choose to put a positive spin on it, as in “I’m getting stronger, I’m overcoming this, YAY I’m tired!!”  Being Yay Tired was a badge of honor in my groups, and it was a way of signaling to me that they had pushed past wanting to stop.

Embracing Yay Tired is a crucial mental victory. It is an acknowledgment that things in life aren’t easy, that we need to work and sweat and earn what we want, but that when we accept that and even seek it out, our achievements are far sweeter. This is where true self-esteem is born: in the sweating and discomfort, in the pushing to continue on, in not letting your own fears get in your way. It is in overcoming a challenge and conquering that voice that urges us to quit that we find our greatest strength.