10 Life Lessons That Every Age Group Swim Coach Should be Teaching Their Swimmers
Thanks to Cathy Sheafor for contributing this story.
As I sat down to write this list, to in a sense document my coaching philosophy, I thought about one key thing: life is a choice. Everything we do in life is a choice from brushing our teeth in the morning to working in the pool. If we teach swimmers only one thing it should be that they have the power of choice. This simple tenet of life underlies each of the 10 lessons outlined below.
1. It is all about the Journey.
A good coach friend tells his swimmers this often. And, he lives it. He is a coach who stays in touch with his swimmers when they leave his program. Personally. He follows their college careers, their weddings, their careers and their families. He cares. He cares about their life journeys.
Swimming is a journey. That journey will be filled with success and failure. It will be filled with joy and sadness. It will be filled with moments that are easy and moments that are hard. Swimming presents the opportunity for children to learn how to navigate these ups and downs in a healthy and productive way.
Teach swimmers to smell the roses, enjoy their experiences, and value them in and of themselves. Every experience has value.
If the journey mixes fun with work and learning it will be awesome! So, embrace the journey with your swimmers and teach them to do the same.
2. Balance is important.
Swimming presents the perfect analogy for this life lesson since good
balance in the water and in training is key to fast swimming. Balance on the vertical axis and balance on the horizontal axis matters. And the core is so connected to every stroke and every movement in swimming. Of course, these technical parts of swimming are a vital part of good swimming instruction, but coaches ought also to teach about life balance.
If we can teach youngsters to balance work and play, multiple sports, family time and personal time, competition and collaboration, routine and growth, fun food and nutritious food, and success and mistakes, then we have prepared our swimmers for the challenge of life. And, isn’t that what coaching is all about?
A child who has the ability to say to a parent, I need a day off because I have to do my homework and I want to play (but says it with the understanding that there is also value to work and that you can’t take too many days off no matter the reason) will be better able to find balance and happiness as an adult.
How do we teach this? We talk about it. We model it. We lead by example. Make sure your swimmers know you balance work and play, participate in multiple sports, spend time with your family and time alone, etc. Talk the talk and walk the walk. Let them make choices about their balance. It’s their balance. Not yours.
3. Sportsmanship is essential and sportsmanship in defeat is as important, if not more important than sportsmanship in victory.
I am often disappointed by the lack of attention to this issue in youth sports. Yes, in team sports, athletes line up at the end of a game and “shake” hands, but the message is often lost and it is a just a quick slap.
I think youth sports, especially sports that are both team and individual (like swimming), offer the opportunity for swimmers to learn the value of valuing others! So, when I am in charge, I teach my swimmers how to properly shake hands as is done in American culture, recognizing that customs differ in other countries. For me, this consists of teaching them a firm handshake, the importance of looking someone in the eye when you shake, and the words that should come with an athlete’s handshake.
What if all youth swimmers around the world looked their competitors in the eye before exiting the pool and extended a hand and told them “Thank you for a great race!” Imagine the shift in perspective that would ensue. What if as coaches we praised this choice of shaking hands more than fast times and first place finishes.
And, when we recognize the value of those around us, even when they “beat” us, we grow ourselves. Children can do that every bit as well as adults, perhaps better.
Let’s face it. Many children would not race harder if not for their opponents. They would not work harder if not for their opponents. They would not learn and grow if not for their opponents. So, it is time to start teaching our swimmers that to express their appreciation for a good race whether or not they got to the wall first.
4. Challenging one’s self is vital to success.
Teaching swimmers the power of passion and purpose is so important. Coaches and teammates can encourage us and even compete with us, but ultimately we are all responsible for challenging ourselves.
Swimmers have the opportunity to find their purpose and find their passion and then challenge themselves in practice, in meets, in scheduling, and in life. Learning to create challenges for one’s self is a great gift for a coach to give a swimmer.
If a swimmer can learn to meet the challenge of the coach, that is great, but if a swimmer thinks beyond that and develops challenges for herself, that will be more valuable to her as she grows and matures.
As coaches, we can challenge swimmers to set daily goals, weekly goals, practice goals and meet goals and we can check in with swimmers to see how they are progressing. We can facilitate and collaborate and encourage, but ultimately swimming is a swimmer’s responsibility and those who set internal goals to be better than they were yesterday or even just moments ago are the ones who win.
Swimmers who look deep inside themselves and understand the value of challenging one’s self to think differently, train differently, compete differently, and assess differently are the ones who will grow and thrive.
6. We learn from mistakes.
Life is not always easy. We all know this. We also know we all make mistakes. What coaches can teach swimmers is the power and benefit of mistakes. And, we can teach swimmers how to respond when they make a mistake. When a swimmer makes a mistake, ask them what the mistake was and what they learned from it. Smart swimmers are fast swimmers. The more they think about their mistakes and how to fix them, the more likely they are to make the choice to do just that.
Share mistakes that you have made with your swimmers. Tell them anecdotes. It is good for them to know you are human and you have been there. Include the lessons learned, both swimming specific lessons and bigger life lessons. Encourage your swimmers to try new things and let them fail. Let them miss their event. Let them be lazy in practice. Let them swim their own race when they have their own opinion about how to race it. Then, when it is done, revisit those things with a swimmer. Get them to reflect on their mistakes (and successes) and work with them to teach them to see how they have the power to correct mistakes – in practice, at home, in school, and in meets. Empower them to learn from their mistakes and to embrace this opportunity to help themselves improve.
7. Resilience is possible and it is a good thing.
Swimming presents the perfect opportunity to explore resilience with swimmers. There are many challenges and many “failures” and many opportunities to rebound. In practice, swimmers may miss an interval and have to keep going for the rest of practice. They may start a meet with a lousy swim and have to rebound or the whole meet will go down the drain. They may get disqualified. They may miss a cut by a narrow margin. They may suffer an injury or have a physical challenge to overcome. These challenges arise every day in swimming, yet swimmers just keep swimming. What a powerful life lesson – life will bring its challenges, but you can keep going and keep improving in myriad ways. And, how we measure success may have to change as we change, as life changes.
Determination and hard work can ignite resilience and resilience in turn empowers swimmers. They gain confidence and self-esteem. They learn to value hard work. They see that life is not always easy but it can be good. They see that their choices can impact their outcome. What wonderful life lessons!
Stories of resilience in swimming include: Michael Phelps (read the recent Sports Illustrated article), every Paralympic athlete who is competing (read this story!), every special Olympic athlete who is competing (read this story!), and the list goes on and on. Here is a good short checklist about components of resilience for swimmers: 5-things-you-need-to-know-about-being-a-resilient-swimmer.
8. Being charitable is fulfilling.
Any time one works with children, one has the opportunity to teach a lesson about giving. Swimming has its heroes who have given back to the world in many ways, so use these stories to teach your swimmers the value of being charitable. One great story is that of Anthony Ervin. If you don’t know it, read it here. There are countless others.
Use these stories to get your swimmers out in their community and make sure they share their gifts and talents. Whether it is helping to provide free swimming instruction to the poor, participating in fundraising events like Rotary Global Swimarathon and Swim Against Malaria, providing equipment for a needy team, or serving dinner at a soup kitchen, swimmers can change the world and that is a valuable lesson for all of us to teach young people! We can all make a difference.
Besides making the world better and feeling the fulfillment of helping others, being charitable has the added benefit of building teams. As swimmers work together outside of the pool, they get to know each other better and they learn to navigate relationships. As these relationships grow, swimmers will become better teammates, challenging their fellow swimmers to be the best they can be in and out of the pool. That is what the swimming community is about.
9. Collaboration and cooperation get you further than you get alone.
A good coach teaches children to collaborate and cooperate with coaches and with each other. From the youngest child who needs to learn how to negotiate what order they go in their lane to the masters swimmer who needs the support and friendship of other adults to challenge and motivate themselves to the collegiate swimmer who swims their least favorite event because the team needs them there, swimming presents the opportunity for swimmers to learn the power of collaboration and cooperation.
Training alone is hard. Training with others is beneficial. Collaboration and cooperation make you train harder, faster, better. As people, it is good to have others who hold us accountable. Coaches can do this. Teammates can do this. At practice and at meets. Competitive swimming is a collaborative effort.
When I was coaching masters, our swimmers collectively lost over 500 pounds in our first short course season. It was the encouragement and accountability and collaboration with coaches and teammates that produced this result. It was amazing! This can work with younger swimmers as well.
Try sitting down with your group and set 3 group goals: 1) one goal related to group dynamics – I like using community service as a bonding opportunity for even the youngest swimmers (my youngest swimmers sang carols at an Assisted Living Center every year and then delivered hand-made gifts to every resident of the home); 2) one goal related to practice habits – I like getting swimmers thinking about how their individual choices impact a group and how swimmers can make sure their teammates get to practice on time and in the water on time so as not to impact others; 3) one goal for a target set – I like swimmers to pick a practice goal like: everyone finishes well on every finish in a practice with no breaths from flags to finish in either fly or free.
Talking about collaboration and cooperation and our responsibility to help those around us get better is a valuable conversation to start with even the youngest swimmers. And, it works. When swimmers hold each other accountable, individuals begin holding themselves accountable and everyone improves!
10. Appreciating the work done by others is important.
Teach your swimmers to thank their parents for supporting them (driving them to practice and to meets and cheering for them and of course paying for everything). When children thank their parents regularly, a beautiful thing happens — they appreciate their parents more and their parents appreciate them more!
Teach your swimmers to thank their timers and their officials at every meet, after every race. Adults appreciate being appreciated and they are volunteering their time to make competitive swimming possible for everyone. It should be routine. Something every swimmer does every time. If someone held the door for you, you would thank him or her. Thanking a timer or and official is no different! And, yet it is rare to see our young swimmers doing this at a meet. Make it part of your team’s routine.
Cathy Sheafor is an Assistant Coach at LTP Swimming in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Prior to that, Cathy was with Sailfish Aquatics in North Carolina. And before that she was the Head Coach for BridgetonAquatics. She has also coached several summer league teams. An educator at heart, Cathy was the Founder and Head of School for the Charlotte Community School for Girls and taught collegiately at Meredith College and Duke University. She earned a Bachelors degree from Duke, attended law school at Washington University, and practiced law before returning to her true calling of coaching. She is inspired by helping young swimmers to find their passion for swimming, perfect their technique, and sharpen their psychological tool set so that they can achieve their goals inside and outside of the pool. Cathy has twin daughters who swim for Ohio Wesleyan University. She loves coaching alongside her husband Doug when he has time to volunteer.