Sunday, April 20, 2014

When parents get it right.

So many times I’ve heard coaches say they wish they were coaching a team of orphans. It is a cry to the fact that quite often parents, although well intentioned, get in the way of their children’s development. Recently though, I was lucky to see good parenting skills put in action. It was a great display of how powerful parents can be when they are prepared to support others who have their child’s best interests in mind, regardless if they completely agree or understand it. On to the story:

At a swim meet in early January, my group was really not following directions, especially with regards to pre race warm-up/post race warm-down. After a full day of telling the kids to do those tasks properly several times over, frustration set in. So, the next morning, I warned them that I would no longer talk, but instead would have a pretty harsh punishment for those who were still not on task: they would be told to go home! The rationale was that if they were not taking care of their bodies during the weekend, they were not there to race well anyway.

The real intention was, off course, to have them perform the tasks they were there to perform in the first place: warm-up, race, warm-down, hydrate, refuel, repeat! Socialize in between those things rather than do those things in between socializing. It went well for our prelim session, and up until almost the very end of the finals session. With only relays to go, I turned to two boys who had been out of the water for a while, about 10-15min before their relay, and asked: “When are you warming up?” At that point, they were already breaching our agreement, but I wanted to be proactive. They both stalled, sat around for a few more minutes, and by the time they got up it was “too late” for them to warm-up, so they headed straight behind the blocks.

I figured there was an opportunity for a lesson to be learned: on being responsible, accountable, and following through. I also thought learning this was more important than any race they could swim that or any other weekend. When I told them they were not allowed to race the next day, to say they were upset would be an understatement. Since these were teenagers, anger was the emotional response. Now, in come the parents’ role:

One of the parents thought the punishment was too harsh, despite it having been agreed to. Let’s just say she stood by her kid. The other told me “I’ll support you 100% with whatever you decide”, followed by some stern words to her kid regarding his behavior and reaction. In addition, the kid was told he was going to come to the meet the next day and support his teammates (yes, the parent was going to drive him there for that!). The next day, this boy came in, apologized for not doing what he was supposed to, and was pleasant company throughout the day, supporting his teammates. I’ve had many great, proud moments as a coach before, at meets and in workouts, but few will ever match watching this kid, recognize he made a mistake, accept the consequence, apologize, and move on. And I’m sure that was only possible thanks to his parents.

Fast forward to our championship meets in late February and March. Guess which one of those boys had better end-of-season meets? Well, let’s be honest, it is not a guess. The boy who’s parents “stood by him” made very similar mistakes with regards of taking care of his body through the rest of the season, including at our last meet, and while he enjoyed time drops (he does work pretty hard in practice, which makes his conduct at meets that much more puzzling), he fell short of his goals. The boy who’s parents helped him realize his behavior and attitude needed changing had one of the best seasons I’ve ever seem, going from not having state cuts to state finalist, swimming 100% best times at the championship meets, and in fact swimming so well we had to re-define his goals for the summer (the ones from January became obsolete within a couple months).

Many would focus on the parents that stood by their kid, and how they almost stood on the way of their child learning an important lesson. However, I can say there is no way the 2nd boy would have taken the lesson to heart if it weren’t for his parents. Therefore, rather than wishing a team of orphans, I with I had a team full of parents who ‘get it’. That might seem like wishful thinking, but it really is up to us, coaches, to keep doing our share of parent education. We might fall short in many cases, but I can say with conviction that the few times in which we get the kind of support we (coaches and swimmers) need from parents will more than make up for every shortcoming.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fired up and ready to go!

After a whole week in Las Vegas, NV, for the ASCA (American Swim Coaches Association) World Clinic September 3rd-8th, last week our team hit the water for the beginning of the season. I mentioned this after attending the clinic last year, but it is amazing how much talking to other coaches and exchanging ideas can re-energize coaches to go back and start the season with a lot of excitement! That is on top of the incredible ammount of knowledge that is shared by all presenters.

This year's clinic once again highlighted how important it is to treat kids not just as swimmers, but as growing human beings. It is a comon comment by all coaches who worked with elite level athletes that their proudest accomplishments are on seeing how much those they work with grow as people over the process. Perhaps my favorite moment of the whole week came in an informal conversation with one of the greatest coaching legends out there - Jon Urbanchek

left to right: Gilberto M. Silva Jr (BEST-PA), Urbanchek, me, and Alex Pussieldi (Davie-FL)

The conversation with Jon was another reminder on how much swimming, even for those that have been at the sport's pinnacle, is just swimming. In his words, he considers himself a lucky man for not ever "having to go to work", but "having a great hobby" instead. Quite a refreshing statement to hear from someone with his credentials. We kept going back and talking about people, rather than the sport, and the biggest lesson I took away was to take swimming issues lightly, and focus on the people instead.

Back at home, it's been great to see those who are already committed to their season goals (one of the best quotes from the clinic: 'peaking starts on the first day of practice'). So far, there's been several swimmers who are showing levels of commitment unlike ever before, and how could a coach not look forward to the next day of practice when that's going on? I'm feeling a great season is ahead of us, but most importantly, I'm ready to help the kids I'm working with grow personally through it. After all, when all is said and done, it's all about the people!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Gearing up for a new season

Last week we resumed activities with all the kids. We have a fairly long SCY season (all the way to the last week of March), and so we take things pretty lightly when we first come back. Up until labor day, our practices are a little shorter than the usual, and we use most of our time to play a game (mostly ultimate frisbee, but I also have plans to teach some gymnastics movements - hand stands, cart wheels, some tumbling, etc.), touch on swimming basics, and play some water polo. It is a great way to get the team back together, start shaking off some cobwebs, and teach them some general athleticism. On top of that we'll still have 28 weeks in our season when we 'officially' start (with a better general conditioning than if we just prolonged our break).

This is also the time for everyone to be getting ahead in their other tasks - that is schoolwork for the kids, and planning for the coaches. Before planning a season, I believe it is important to reflect back on how the previous season played out. So this post is an attempt of doing that in writing.

I remember when, before this season started, I wrote on how excited I was about it, giving that our push at the end of our SCY season was simply great. Early in the season, in our first team meeting, I shared with my swimmers what I consider to be the 'secret' for success: doing little, mundane things, consistently well! The key word there is consistency. Everyone can (and probably will) have a great day here and there, but it's what you make of all the other days, all the days you don't feel at your best, all the days that the skill being worked on and required is not one that you thrive in, that really count.

I believe that conversation resonated with the majority of the kids. I also have to mention Vern Gambetta's 3-step ladder YouTube video. This video was played at the start of every team meeting we had this past season, and I believe the message sank in. My greatest joy of the season was to see the transformation some of the kids went through when they started putting in that consistent, honest work, and see the results. At a point in June, when we had our mid-season rest and swam lights-out at a meet, some of the kids looked mesmerized, as if they were finally realizing "I can actually be good at this"!

After that point, it was pretty much smooth sailing, and when it came time to really rest for our championship meets, it was clear they had put it the work and were ready for it. As a coach, there is little more you can ask for in a season than reaching taper time and thinking "we did everything we could up to this point, now it's up to me to not mess it up". I was lucky enough to be at that point, and that makes it for what I consider a successful season!

Some of the highlights:
- We had our highest finish at the 14&U State meet in years, just one spot shy of getting our first trophy since reconvening the team 8 years ago (we are coming for that trophy next!). It was our highest finish since moving to our current location;
- We had every relay score at the State meet, which had not happened in the past 8 years;
- Two swimmers combined for three State Championships;
- Three swimmers took down as many team records in the Age Group side;
- The Age Groupers also helped push our Senior swimmers, who also combined for our highest finish at the Senior State meet since moving to our current location, with swimmers taking down two team records;
- Team-wise, the most important marker of all: we had our first Jr. National cut in three years! It is certainly another sign of how things are moving in the right direction!

As a coach, I'm very proud of the results we got this past season, but even prouder of the way we got there. I also believe we set a great standard for this upcoming season, where we'll not only try to outdo our results, but do so by putting in even more quality work! The message stays the same: doing little, mundane things, consistently well! And here's to a great season!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mel Stewart to all Swim Parents

Mel Stewart, or Gold Medal Mel, as he is known in swimming circles, posted a heartfelt tribute to his father on his websiteSwimSwam (easily the best swimming site out there today). It is a fantastic text, that needs to be read by all swim parents out there (and parents with kids in other sports, too). I could try to add to the text, but really, nothing could make it better.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Barbell Shrugged

Memphis, TN, feels like home away from home for me. Whenever I have an opportunity, I drive my way there. On top of the list of reasons I still feel connected to the land of Elvis are the friends I made there during the two years I attended Grad School at the U of M. I still have a couple of great, very close groups of friends back in my hometown, and a few ones spread across many states in the US and even Europe and Asia, but the folks I know in Memphis are very, very special to me. Not only are they great friends - those with whom circumstances can make you go several months, or even years without close contact, and when you see each other you pick it back up as if you had never been apart - but they also make up one of the brightest brain collections on earth, equally great for chatting about meaningless topics, or for draining substantial knowledge on areas of interest (training, nutrition, business, lifestyle, etc).

During my last trip there, I was invited to be the guest for Barbell Shrugged, the podcast being ran by the FactionSC crew. If you have not been following it, you're missing out. Although this is only the 9th episode, each one before it has provided a lot of food for thought, along with plenty of funny interactions between the crew and guests. Mike, Doug, and Chris, as well as producers and occasional hosts James Cheney and CTP, all bring in great knowledge in a wide array of areas, and the casual conversation also draws the best out of each guest. This was a lot of fun, and I can say it was a great learning opportunity for me, too. As we dug into the area of strength training, I knew these guys were all capable of providing a lot of good ideas and comments, as they did, regardless of their (lack of) swimming background. I hope people watching can enjoy it as much as I did.

Warning: the casual conversation style of the show also means adult language is used as often as the situation calls for it. It is not over the top, or done with the intention of being offensive, and largely outweighed by the good content, but it is there.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The importance of failing

Plenty of people have written on how failure is part of the development process. Simply put, in order to achieve success, you have to be willing to step outside of you comfort zone, and from time to time that will cause you to fail. What is really important is how you react to failing. Most will tumble, and many will never try again. The success histories we hear about, all involve those who stood up right away, ready to try again!

This swimming season, I was lucky enough to be involved with some failure, and most importantly, with addressing the mistakes, polishing the attempt, and succeeding after another try. The group I work with had a fairly disappointing state meet (with only a couple exceptions). Going in to it, I knew the season had not been good enough, that we had not been training at the level we needed to in order to succeed. In time: I believe this was due to shortcomings from both the kids (who had been successful under a different coaching style before) and myself (who had been successful with a different group of kids). What followed that meet, though, was extremely important and positive: we sat down and talked about our shortcomings. The kids listened to me talk about how we had not been meeting my expectations, and I listened to them talk about what they thought was missing.

I was reminded of a video that has great importance to me (it helped me personally at a time I thought I was 'failing'). You can watch it here.

So what did we do following our conversation? Luckily, we still had one big meet to go, so we got right back at work, and what I saw was a completely different work ethic in action. On my end, I made some small changes on both coaching style and practice design, while on their end they responded by giving me the kind of focus and intensity that had been missing up to that point. With just a couple weeks to train before we started resting, we hit outstanding workouts, one after the other, and by the time taper time came, I was very confident we had done everything we could in the little time we had. The results of our second taper and shave meet were a clear contrast from the State meet, and in many cases the time drops were bigger than they had been for the entire season up to that point! Simply put, I believe we made more progress in four weeks than we had in the 24 before that!

I'm convinced that without the disappointing results of the State meet, we would still be in a limbo, trying to adjust, and perhaps making small gains here and there. Thanks to that failure, we were able to really work together, which resulted in a great leap in performance! Now everyone's looking forward to what the Long Course Season will bring. I have no doubt that we'll be able to keep the lessons learned fresh in our minds, and can only imagine how exciting a full season with that kind of intensity will be!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lessons from Tennis

I've recently become a huge follower of Vern Gambetta's blog. This happened after a friend lent me a copy of his book "Following the Functional Path." I highly recommend anyone involved with sports (especially coaches) to get a copy of the book and read his blog quite often. They are both full of ideas that will make you question the way you do things. Basically, great food for thought. Ultimately, you will either decide changes are needed or feel even stronger about the way you structure and do things. Either way, you win.

Vern's book and blog are not, however, the subject of this post. In one of the articles from the book (titled 'The System', on page 129) he refers to an article from Play Magazine (NY Times' sports magazine). The article, by Daniel Coyle (author of the best seller "The Talent Code"), is titled "How To Grow a Super-Athlete". Curious, I searched the web after it. The article deals with possible reasons to explain why certain places or clubs seem to produce a high quantity of elite level athletes. Its centerpiece is Spartak Tennis Club, in Moscow, a small tennis club with remarkable success. How remarkable? To quote Coyle's article:
"...this club, which has one indoor court, has achieved eight year-end top-20 women's rankings over the last three years. During that same period, the entire United States has achieved seven."

One thing that stood out to me was the fact that Spartak's 'athletes' are not allowed to compete during their first three years of training! The rationale seems to be that they want to first focus on technique, and don't want early competitive success to get in the way of developing a solid technical foundation. I must be honest: I'd like to be able to pull the ultimate experience, and structure a swim team very much like Spartak structure's. However, I'm aware that would certainly be fated to failure. Generally speaking, copying programs and implementing them somewhere with a completely different culture will never work. The culture of the area where the program was first implemented is one of the things that make it successful there.

So, what lessons can we still take from Spartak and apply to swimming? In one of my previous posts I wrote about how important I believe technique to be in swimming. Reading about Spartak made me feel even stronger about it. While I can't keep young swimmers from diving into swim meets and trying to cut time or win (Oh, the glory of being an 8-yr-old champion!), I can continue to educate parents and swimmers on how technique is a much more important benchmark at certain stages of development. If they understand it and make the commitment to improve it, regardless if it makes them faster or slower today, then they are much more likely to be successful in the long run!