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.

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!

Integrity

floatie

They say integrity is defined as doing the right thing even when no one is looking. Performing well, or behaving ourselves, only when there is outside pressure to do so is not a character building trait.

I always knew when my swimmers were not working to full capacity, even when they swore up and down that they were. There is a focus and demeanor that is different, a physical expression of fatigue that is unique, when a swimmer is giving it their all. I could always tell.

I often got argued with when I called someone out on it. The funny thing was, the more strenuously they argued that they were trying as hard as they could, working as hard as they could, the more I knew they weren’t. They knew deep down inside that they weren’t, but it was too hard to acknowledge, so they needed me to believe they were. If I believed it, then they could believe it, and override that little nagging voice that was saying, “Nope, you’ve got more in you.”

Integrity is a hard path. It’s listening to that little voice, and doing the right thing, the true thing, even when there is no one to applaud the effort. It’s resisting the temptation to tell ourselves those “little white lies” about how we’re doing our best, or how our shortcut was justified. Integrity is about owning our imperfections publicly and not trying to make excuses for  them. It’s about doing the thing that is right no matter how difficult or time-consuming it may be.

When we fall short or take the easy route, we often will think to ourselves, “It doesn’t matter. No one will know, no one will get hurt,” but that’s simply not true. WE will know. WE will be hurt. Tiny bit by tiny bit, our self-esteem is devoured by those little shortcuts and dishonesties, by those lies and justifications we give ourselves. When we lie to ourselves over and over, we lose the ability to trust ourselves when the time comes that it does matter and others will notice.

Those swimmers that argued with me may have felt they won the day by pushing their conviction that they had done their best. However, on the block, facing an important race, the truth would be in their gut, and they would know whether they were ready or not.

Are you ready?

The Game Changer

game changer (artwork by Hannah Grace)

This is a true story, and one that changed my life. I lost touch with the people in the story, as we do with so many who cross our paths, and they will never know that their moment laid bare was so momentous for me. I have no idea if they even remember it, if it was profound or meaningful in any way for them, or if it was just another moment like so many others in the life of their family. I have changed their names, to preserve their anonymity, but the rest is their story. And mine.

Jenny was a prodigy. At 6 years old, she knew all four strokes, did them legally, and flew past the other 8 & unders who were still swimming as though they had just had arms and legs installed the day before. Her parents were super-involved with the team, and strutted the deck as though swimming had been invented to showcase their daughter.  Jenny’s older brother, Luke, age 9 and very sweet, still limped awkwardly through his races and was largely ignored. I wish I could say Jenny was a nice child.

Fast forward 7 years. I was a young coach on the team, aged 17. Jenny’s prodigy status had faded, as the height and curves of puberty had taken hold, changing her hydrodynamics significantly. The other girls had figured out their own arms and legs in the intervening years, and grown in strength and ability, and Jenny was no longer easily winning every event. Luke was now one of the best in his age group, while Jenny struggled to keep her place. Mom and Dad, never particularly pleasant people to be around, were NOT happy with the change.

It was a Saturday morning meet, and freestyle was the first event up. This had been Jenny’s biggest struggle lately, and the place where most of the other girls were catching up to her. She had talked to me before she swam, nervous about the race. Jenny was a nice kid by this point, having learned some humility through her struggles, and we were all on her side in wanting her to succeed. She raced well, and out-touched her competition to win the race. I remember how happy she looked, and I remember cheering. She hopped out of the pool and was coming toward me, big smile on her face, when it happened.

Jenny was intercepted by her father, in front of the clerk of course where about 20 kids were sitting and waiting for their races; there were also about another 30 spectators and volunteers in the area, so this was not what you would call a private area. In my mind’s eye, it is a tableau:  Jenny and I facing each other, about 10 yards apart, smiling and excited, with Dad in between us, his back to me. Then he began to yell. He berated her for the race, calling her names, thundering at her for being slow, being lazy, being out of shape, for not beating the girl by enough. I felt frozen to the deck, horrified as I watched her smile fade and her body shrink, tears filling her eyes. He might as well have been hitting her with his fists, the way those words, those hateful words, pummeled her.

I hated him, and I hated myself for not moving, not making it stop, not knowing what to do. The moment finally broke when Jenny, unable to take any more, bolted for the locker room. I followed, and did what I could to console her. To her credit, she rallied and swam the rest of her races, but didn’t enjoy any of them. I have always wondered what happened to Jenny, and whether the events of that day stuck with her, or whether that was just normal life in their family.

That awful moment changed me forever, and became the defining story of my approach to coaching. I promised myself that day that I would NEVER AGAIN allow anyone, parent or not, to treat one of my swimmers that way as long as I was around. This is why I did not allow parents to hang over the pool or fuss at their kids in practice, this is why I have physically intercepted a large, angry dad on his way poolside to yell at his child, this is why I told parents not to “help” me coach, this is why I tried to help parents understand productive ways to give their kids feedback about their races. Parents probably have wondered about my approach, some have certainly called me tough (and worse), and I know it’s bothered some, but the truth is, I wasn’t  there for the parents. I was there for their kids. I was there for Jenny, perhaps trying to make up for the fact that I was too young and shocked to help her that day.

To this day, telling this story gives me goosebumps and makes me cry. I will never forget her face. I will never forget that feeling in the pit of my stomach as I watched her get beaten with words. I will never forget her.

Why I Love My Sport

 

Swimming benefits

I was resting between sets, and saw him come onto the pool deck. He was elderly, moving slowly, and a  bit awkwardly. He sat down at the edge of the pool, removed his prosthetic leg, slid into the water and began to swim. He no longer looked elderly or awkward, no longer showed any sign of the missing leg. I realized then how much I loved my sport.

Why I love the water/swimming:

  • Water is a great equalizer
  • All of us must face the same challenges (breathing, moving, floating)
  • Weightlessness and lack of impact are a godsend for folks rehabbing from injury
  • It’s a forgiving environment for those dealing with the side effects of aging
  • Things considered a “disability” on land often don’t matter in the water
  • Having more body fat actually helps you in the water (fat floats better than muscle)
  • Swimming uses every part of your body, and uses it bilaterally
  • Having even rudimentary skills in the water can save your life
  • It’s some of the best cardio exercise you can get
  • Everyone feels equally vulnerable in the lack of clothing
  • You don’t stink at the end of your workout

I feel like I probably have about a million more reasons and examples, but I won’t go on and on about it. You’re welcome. 🙂

 

Going Under

going under    (artwork by Hannah Grace)

It doesn’t happen often, but swimmers in distress DO happen and coaches are required to be certified in lifesaving or coaches’ safety, first aid and CPR for this very reason. We need to know what to do and how to do it even though the vast majority of our swimmers are very adept in the water.

She had come to my high school team, like most of the other kids, to get better at swimming. She told me she knew how to swim, but there was something in her tense body language and ill-fitting swimsuit that raised a red flag for me. I put her in the lane next to the wall, and stayed close. Sure enough, as soon as she realized she couldn’t feel the bottom anymore, she went rigid, flailing, body vertical, eyes bugging out. She was drowning. I could see the panic in her eyes as I reached for her hand, panic that did not fade quickly even as I pulled her to the side.  I was ready for it, I knew it was coming, so was able to reach her, get her to hear me, have her grab my arm and let me pull her in.

The panic finally left, and in its place was embarrassment. The teenager, self-conscious in her lack of skill in front of her peers, had tried to bluff her way through and gotten caught. Too proud to admit her weakness and ask for the help she needed, she floundered. She needed help. There is no harm in that, no stigma, other than what we put on ourselves. She needed help, yet by not admitting it up front, she ended up risking real harm.

We all do this, although not usually in such dramatic ways. We act cool in a group, feign knowledge in a meeting, keep a stiff upper lip when our marriages are falling apart….why? We hold it together and try to bluff our way through, only letting on that we are in over our heads when it’s too late, when panic has us going under…why?

I have no answer for this, I only know it’s true. I see my friends do it, and I do it myself. Like that teenager, we seem to think we need to have all the knowledge, all the answers, all the strength, or we are weak, or we are failures. In our pride, we risk a greater fall. In our self-conscious unwillingness to admit we need help, we create a larger problem.

The great tragedy of that day is not that she floundered and almost drowned; it is that, overcome by embarrassment, she did not stay. She left, never to return. She left, stuck in her fear, her pride, and her self-consciousness, never having learned that in asking for help to begin with, she could have learned to save herself.