“I just don’t want to go to the pool one more day!”
Alex* was telling us he was quitting, and we were trying to talk him out of it. Looking back, it wasn’t really because we loved him as a teammate, or that our competitiveness would be affected whether he showed up or not. The truth was, we knew that if we couldn’t convince him not to quit, we would have to confront the nagging feeling we all walked around with. That we were in a bad place, with a bad leader. Once you let that thought into your mind, it was almost impossible to come back.
I recounted this story with an old teammate of mine a couple weeks ago. We agreed that the coach of that team was the worst we had in our entire careers. He was the opposite of inspirational, in many ways you had to overcome your aversion to his coaching in order to be successful. And yet, when I look back on that team, many of us improved and developed. It was the closest team I had ever been on.
As a coach now, I think about this paradox often. I know that I have coached swimmers who did not “gel” with me at all, although I hope I wasn’t as anti-motivational as what I experienced. The following is the best guide I can come up with for all the swimmers out there with bad coaches- how can you find a way to be successful anyway? The following suggestions are for the swimmer that is essentially stuck with a bad coach, for better or worse. However, in reality these are skills that can help you be a better swimmer regardless of whether you have Mike Bottom or the other end of the spectrum.
- Improve your self-coaching: As you get older and more mature in your swimming career, you should become more of a partner in your training with your coach. Sometimes a bad coach can force you to mature in this way- taking ownership of what you want to accomplish. Set goals and and follow up on yourself Become a student of the sport- then try things out and see what works. Finally. focus in on what strengths your coach has. Even the worst coach in the world has some strengths, and you need to figure out what those are as an athlete and exploit them to their fullest advantage.
- Get Tight With Your Teammates: To credit the late, great psychologist Christopher Peterson- “other people matter!” When you are in a tough situation, you need strong relationships to pull you through. Part of learning how to cope with a bad coach is accepting people for who they are, then focusing on what you can control (yourself). Put good vibes out to your teammates- they are probably struggling to. If you have someone that you know cares about you and will challenge you every day, you will go a long way to developing enough motivation to overcome any challenge.
- Stay True to Your Love of The Sport- One of the things I reminded myself over and over again during that time was that I loved swimming, and that I wasn’t about to let anyone ruin the sport of swimming for me. I still love swimming to this day, and staying true to that love has helped me through all the down times I’ve had in a career around swimming. If you love swimming, your attitude should be that you take the good with the bad and keeping putting one foot in front of the other, full stop.
- Forgive– One of the things I didn’t realize until after I was done swimming with that coach was the power of forgiveness. There are very few truly bad people in this world, but plenty of people do bad things. Although I practiced all of the above, I also walked around with anger for a lot of years at my coach. That anger came to affect me negatively in a lot of ways. When I finally realized that I could forgive my coach, it was a revelation. For those who see forgiveness as a weakness, remember that forgiving and excusing are two very different things. When you forgive you do not give permission or tell someone what they did was right, but you let go of the negative emotions you have kept up in response to someone’s actions.
While I would like to imagine a perfect world where every coach is amazing, that is simply not the case. As a swimmer, you need to have a plan to deal with whatever comes your way, even if it’s the worst case scenario., and realize that your relationship with the coach is a two-way street. So if you have decided you want to stick with your coach, make sure your side of the street is up to snuff!
*Name changed to protect identity