Stronger Than You Think

stronger

I was constantly bowled over by the strength of the kids I coached, and I don’t mean in the physical sense. Children have an internal, gut-level strength that we adults do not give them enough credit for, and as a coach I was often privileged to see this in action. The following is a true story, and as usual, names have been changed.

A dozen or so years ago, I was head coach of a summer league team, and part of what we would do at the first practice after a meet was hand out ribbons. You got a ribbon for down to 6th place, I think, and anything else got a participation ribbon; the only kids who didn’t get the coveted ribbon were the ones who had disqualified in the event. I had finished handing everything out and the kids were all trickling away, when one little girl approached me. She was ten or eleven at the time, and had a VERY concerned look on her face.

“Coach, I think there was a mistake.”

“Oh yeah, Mary? What’s that?”

“Well, I dropped eleven seconds off my breaststroke time, and I know I beat some other girls, but I didn’t get a ribbon.”

My heart sank. I was afraid this one was coming.

“Mary, you got DQ’d.”

“But why?”

“Well, you use that nose plug when you swim, and I know you like it to keep the water out of your nose, but when you dove in and came up,  you reached up and adjusted it which is considered ‘breaking stroke’, so you got disqualified. And that means it’s like the swim never happened, so you don’t get to keep that faster time either.”

Silence, and a concerned frown.

“How do I fix that?”

So I explained the technique for blowing air to keep water out of your nose, and assured her we would work on it in practice. I wasn’t terribly worried about it, things like this happen all the time in summer league swimming, and I knew it would resolve over the summer. To me, this was not a big deal.

Fast forward to our next swim meet, less than a week later. The breaststroke event came up, and I noticed Mary behind the blocks, no nose plug in sight. I nudged my assistant coach, and we watched to see how Mary would do without it. She swam fast, and “legally” (no DQ), and dropped 12 seconds off that previous best time! We were ecstatic and cheering, when her mom approached.

“I want to tell you something,” she said, “even though Mary asked me not to. I think you need to know. Mary had me bring her to the pool every day, twice a day, so she could practice not using the nose plug. She didn’t want to DQ again, and have the swim be like it never happened.”

I was floored. What to me was “no big deal” was a huge deal to Mary. In less than a week, Mary had taken it on herself to let go of something she thought she needed, something that probably made her less fearful in the water, and had succeeded. The kind of strength and determination it takes to not only fix a technique detail, but overcome the emotional attachment to a crutch, is something rare to see.

Mary opened my eyes to the strength that children possess, and in fact, I have seen this kind of fortitude far more in children than in adults. I have been honored time and again with the opportunity to share in that journey with a young person, and witness their release of fear, triumph over challenge, and victory over their own insecurity. They are brave in a way I sometimes think adults have forgotten how to be.

My goal for this year has been to rediscover how to be brave. I left coaching, and now I will return in a different capacity, with a new team. Both of these were acts of bravery, and in doing these things I hope I honor the numerous kids over the years who have taught me so much.

Discomfort

swim injury

As a middle-aged former athlete, I live in the frustrating limbo of still being technically able to perform the sports and activities I want while also being stymied by pain. Things hurt. Every day. Good weeks, it’s the same pain each day; most weeks, it’s something new and multiple things each time I exercise. I’m trying very hard to recall my lessons from swimming to help me get through this.

While coaching teenagers, I spent a lot of time talking about the difference between pain and discomfort. Pain is severe, and means injury, and injury prohibits going forward until healing takes place. Discomfort, on the other hand, is a byproduct of hard work, and moving through discomfort is a mental discipline as much as a physical one. The ability to bear discomfort and move through it means one will ultimately be stronger. In athletics, discomfort is a step in the process of growth and improvement, while injury is a show stopper.

Learning to sort pain from discomfort is a skill, and when one is young and strong, most of what is felt is discomfort. It is the tiredness, fatigue, and achiness of pushing your body to its limits, over and over again, in the hopes of getting stronger. When one is young, the body responds easily to this push, and gets stronger quickly, repairing itself rapidly, ready to face another practice, and another challenge.

There is a different combination of pain and discomfort when one is older. There is still the achiness and fatigue, which takes longer to subside and longer to recover from. There is the pain of aging joints and muscles, twinging and zinging as we move, disrupting our workout flow. There is also the discomfort of the self-doubt which creeps in with every tight muscle, every sore knee, every white hot nerve. Things that never used to be a problem zing and hurt with every streamline, every push, every kick…and suddenly the battle I’m fighting isn’t physical anymore. My “demon” isn’t the 5000 yard workout my coach just set in front of me….it is the fear and insecurity that has crept in with each workout I’ve missed due to pain. It is the unsettling realization that my body is different, that I don’t know it and can’t count on it the way I used to. It is the trust I’ve lost and the panic I’ve gained over muscles and joints that no longer respond the way I want them to, the way they did for so many years.

If I were my own coach, standing outside myself, what advice would I give?

I would say this:  What you’re feeling is a normal and natural part of where you are in life right now, and the first part of defeating the mental discomfort is to accept that the fear and insecurity and frustration are a normal step in the process. Before you can move forward, you have to realistically accept where you are starting from. This “new normal” is now just normal…it is what it is, for now. Then you have to set goals: where do you want to be in a year? What are the milestones along the way, at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months? What do you need to do each week to make each milestone? And what are the self-care techniques, both physical and mental, that will help you stay on course each week?

It sounds so simple when I say it as though I’m talking to someone else. Although I’ve been talking primarily about the pain and discomfort that accompany physical challenges, I think this applies across the board. Accept where you are. Think about where you want to be. Set goals, and stair steps to getting there. Take care of yourself along the way.

Swimming really DOES have all my answers.

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?

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.