The Level Playing Field

I think part of why we all love sport so much is that every game, match, or meet starts off even, with everyone having an equal chance to win. Teams of equal size, equal opportunity, the scores all at zero, the playing surface identical…a tableau of possibility and hope that we spectators can pour our emotions into, rejoice or mourn the outcome, then start fresh the next time.

As a coach, the absolute essence of competition was based around the idea that both teams were operating from the same basic framework of rules, events, and number of available lanes, with the only differences being who was on our team and how we chose to use our entries to maximize our chance of doing well. NEVER ONE TIME did any coach try to alter the rules in their favor, eliminate members of my team to gain an advantage, take away my assigned lanes, or outright cheat to win. Imagine your favorite sport:  your team shows up to play, and part of your team is barred from entering. Your scoring area has been reduced while the other team’s is larger. You’d be pissed, right? You’d scream, “NOT FAIR!!!”

That is exactly what is and has been going on in American politics for years. Gerrymandering has reduced the scoring area for Democrats across the country, which to my mind is just flat cheating, despite how “legal” it may be and no matter who is doing it. Writing cheating into law doesn’t make it right, and the concept of the winners getting to draw the districting map for voting was a BAD idea from the start. Gerrymandering has given a huge advantage to Republicans, who are now using that power to further abuse the rules of fair play.

Let’s think about this in terms of the NFL. All of the coaches get together to pass a rule that whoever wins the Superbowl gets to make a rule change that the rest of the league will live under. At the time, the coaches (all being confident in their ability to win the Superbowl) would think this was a great idea, and imagine some minor tweaks they would make. For a few years, the NFC and AFC trade wins, and the changes are relatively benign; then AFC teams win three or four years in a row, and the NFC coaches are disgruntled. A few of them get together, and decide next time one of them wins, they’re going to take advantage of the rule change ability to really make it hard for the AFC to win again. An NFC teams wins, and the rule change that year is that AFC players must play with their ankles tied together during the playoffs and Superbowl. It would be in the rules, but it would make it so no AFC team could ever win the Superbowl again. The level playing field would be gone.

Just this week, Republicans in Tennessee used a violation of a procedural rule (not a LAW, just a rule of behavior in their workplace) as an excuse to expel (not reprimand, EXPEL) members of the House who represent a large, mostly Democratic, portion of Nashville. They used their power to tilt the playing field in their favor and remove their competition and silence their “fans”. This idea offends me to my core. It goes against every single thing I operated under as an athlete and believed in as a coach.

I have to wonder sometimes if any of these Republicans ever played sports. If they did, they’ve certainly forgotten the lessons, and the concept of the level playing field.

If you have to cheat to win, is it really winning? If you have to bully to get your way, are you really strong? I have never understood how the people who do these things can possibly feel as though they’ve achieved something.

Where to Start?

I haven’t written in a while, and with everything going on, am struggling with where to start. To steal shamelessly from Julie Andrews:

“Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read, you begin with A-B-C…”

When I started this blog, it was intended to bring forward some life lessons I’d learned from coaching and apply them to life more broadly, and perhaps if I was lucky, be a bit inspirational now and then. I need to depart from that format for a while in an effort to try to make sense of what is going on in our world, and perhaps through talking it out, find a way to move forward in a way that feels positive and productive.

I read recently that Kansas has passed a law banning transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports…a law that apparently affects ONE person in the state. One. In a state of nearly three million people, THIS was the issue that rose to the top of the priority list for the time and attention of the elected officials of the state. THIS was the most important need to be addressed. Not the educational system (ranked 27th in the nation, with over 497,000 students in public school), or improving state-maintained roads and infrastructure (over 10,000 miles worth), but something that affects a vanishingly small percentage of the population. Really?

When I look at this, and at how legislators across the nation are spending their time and political power, I can’t help but wonder “why?” Why is so much effort being expended to stop people from expressing themselves freely, exploring new and different ideas, or taking care of themselves and their families in the ways they see fit? Why is this level of control being exerted?

When I was coaching, the teenagers always wanted to wear “technical suits” for their championship meets. These are suits that provide some degree of compression and water resistance, and the kids believed passionately that they wouldn’t be fast without them. No matter how much I assured them that it was the work they had done to prepare their bodies to race, and not the suit, they believed otherwise. Why? The suit was something tangible they could put their hands on, and it gave them a sense of confidence and control they didn’t have in themselves. The suit pacified their fear.

Coaching gives you the opportunity to observe people in a lot of different emotional states, and fear was one I saw regularly. I think humanity as a whole is particularly gripped by fear these days: fear of changes in our climate, fear of dwindling resources in an ever-expanding human population, fear of disease, fear of each other. These fears are real and valid and overwhelming, and hit at our deepest fear, which is our inability to fix any of them. When everything feels out of control, you seek to control anything you can.

I think leaders in churches and governments very sharply feel this fear of not being able to fix these things; they know they don’t have answers or solutions, and they share the fears we all have. Unfortunately, some are responding by inventing issues and targets that we can aim our fears at, that they can then “solve”. Like the technical suit, it provides a sense of confidence and control, as long as they can get us to believe that fixing these invented issues will pacify our fear.

Their solutions are lies because their problems are lies. Like the Wizard of Oz, they’re trying to distract us from the truth, and the real problems only get worse while they waste time driving us apart over who people love, how they dress, whether they choose to have a child, and what words are in books. They could 100% get their way in all of these things, and we would still be facing climate change, dwindling resources, possible pandemics, and even more fear of each other.

I find myself getting angry with the people who believe these lies and latch onto these invented issues as though they are the real problem and what is “destroying” America. When I feel that anger and frustration (and my own fear), I have to remind myself that they’re scared and overwhelmed too…they’re just more comfortable believing the comfortable lie with the easy answer than I am.

I believe we need to work harder to connect with each other directly and not fall into believing lies and easy answers. We need to not listen when a newscaster or preacher or legislator tells us how someone else feels, or what someone else is trying to do to us. It is not gay marriage or men in dresses or books about racism that are making our daily lives feel hard or the future feel hopeless. I have been trying to train myself, every time something elicits an emotional response, to ask “Why do I feel this way? What does the person telling me this gain from me being upset?” For me, it’s been a step in the right direction, and I’ve realized that most of the time the people telling me the bad things want my money or my clicks or my attention.

My other small step has been to try to listen and calmly respond when someone speaks out of their fear or ignorance or judgmentalism. I tell a story from my life that has shaped why I feel differently about what they said. If they don’t listen, or persist, or get hostile, I tell them we have to change the subject or I’ll need to walk away. It’s worked surprisingly well with some people, but full disclosure: it’s a work in progress for me to not just avoid the conversation to begin with. Introvert here.

I’m considering volunteering as a way to reconnect with community and do something tangible toward fixing the real problems we face. I’m not sure yet what that looks like, and am having a hard time figuring out what to do. More to come.

Whatever you can do to manage your own fear, find some peace, take a positive step, or rebuild community helps in this world. At a minimum, it helps your own stress go down. If you have good ideas, please share in the comments! Hopefully, I will be writing more soon.



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.

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.

The Breakout


You wouldn’t think we would spend so much time talking about pushing off a wall, but I’m willing to bet that at least a quarter of our practice time was routinely consumed with just that: how to push, how to hold a body position, how long to kick, which arm to begin pulling with first, when to breathe. When you consider that a third of the race yardage in a short course pool takes place around the walls, the “breakout”, or how to get away from the wall and take those first few strokes, becomes enormously important.

Those first few steps in any endeavor are crucial. That’s where you set the tone and pattern for everything that follows. In swimming, a breakout done poorly, haphazardly, thoughtlessly, can limit what you can achieve and put you behind significantly, as well as waste your energy as you struggle to catch up. Being out of position or caught in your own turbulence creates resistance that tires you out needlessly and has a negative effect on you mentally as you fight to resurface and gain back that time just lost. A well-executed breakout, on the other hand, is an opportunity to leap ahead and improve one’s position, causing the swimming that follows to feel more powerful and efficient.

One of the uniquely beautiful things about swimming is that every length of the pool is a chance to start over, to do the breakout again, to readjust and set a different tone. It’s all part of the same race or the same training set, but it is still a fresh start in miniature. “THIS time I will push hard with both legs. THIS time I will squeeze into a tight streamline. THIS time I will kick hard. THIS time I will not breathe on the first stroke. THIS time my first strokes will be strong.” As a consequence, THIS time there will be a new outcome.

What an awesome life lesson! How many times do we face moments where we can choose to make some changes or continue on struggling? How many times do we choose the struggle simply because it’s familiar? How many times do we choose mindless habit, no matter how much it wastes our energy?

Our breakouts, our fresh starts, should always be mindful moments, moments of focus and concentration, because these are the moments where the pattern is set for what is to follow. Small, positive changes right there in that moment of pushing off and starting anew can lead to larger positive outcomes as you swim away. Capture those moments. Focus. Be mindful. It can make all the difference in your life.



I’ve said it a million times AT LEAST. Most of the time, it’s been said with less than a second of hesitation between the words, with the implication being that the person I was talking to really should have been “ready” before I told them to be. Think about that. Be ready before the warning comes, and know what to be ready for. It reminds me of the old Boy Scout admonition to be prepared, and I think it carries the same meaning. Be ready, be prepared, for….anything!

Beginnings are so important. They can often lay the stage for what comes next, but mostly just the act of starting is an act of faith. In swimming, the start is literally a headfirst jump through the air, trusting in the work that’s come before to land you correctly in the water to begin your race. The start, the dive, is one of the hardest skills to teach a beginning swimmer because it is absolutely counterintuitive for humans to voluntarily fly through the air headfirst. It takes countless numbers of repetitions to make it comfortable to do so, and a countless number more to make it an instinctive response to a visual or audible cue. It is practiced vulnerability.

I’ve worked with many children for whom that leap was almost impossible, and who would look forward, or raise up, or bend like a crab to get those knees under them. Unable to leap headfirst, they instinctively protected themselves, and the older they got without mastering this skill, the more entrenched their caution became. The imagined hurt became more and more real, the avoidance more and more justified. No amount of rational discussion will change this, so coaches learn to rearrange circumstances to result “accidentally” in the desired outcome, breaking the dive action into small, doable, seemingly unrelated pieces. In other words, we trick them into success by making it almost impossible to fail.

All too often in adult life, we forget this type of process. We put enormous pressure on ourselves to be a certain way, or have certain things, and we become daunted by even trying to begin. Where to begin? How to begin? We have our eyes fixed so firmly on the end of the race that we have forgotten the beginning…or even the pre-beginning. What have we done to get ready to leap? How have we prepared? How many countless times have we practiced the kind of vulnerability it takes to begin?

A successful swimming start is far more about the being ready to leap than it is about the efficacy of the push off itself. In coaching, we talk a lot about “reaction time”, or how long it takes the swimmer to react and begin motion once the cue is given, and we measure this to try to help athletes improve. But to my mind, this is not just physical, not just a matter of having fast twitch muscles in the right proportions. It is about the readiness of the mind, and the willingness of the spirit. It is about having confidence in the practiced vulnerability of the headfirst leap, about being “ready” in a gut-level, faith-filled kind of way.

I retired from active coaching several months ago, in an effort to “ready” myself for whatever comes next. It is a sabbatical kind of time, but also a time of practicing vulnerability. I have been training myself to let go of what is familiar, let go of my preconceptions or my ideas of what my life should be, and ready myself for the leap that comes next. I am trying to live my own lesson, and rearrange circumstances to accidentally result in the desired outcome.  Whatever the task is, break it into pieces, small enough to do just a little each day, and set aside some “practice time”, with the only measure of success being whether or not you went to practice and moved things forward, no matter how slightly. I hope to trick myself into success.