This article was written by Cathy Sheafor.
I love the Olympics. I love the spirit of sport. I love seeing the product of hard work. I love the stories. Most of all, I love to witness the moments when someone exceeds world expectations as well as their own.
Yet, as a coach, I am always worried that when young swimmers watch elite swimmers they will either 1) try to copy those elite swimmers without understanding what they are copying OR 2) they will miss the details and focus only on the joy of gold, silver and bronze.
So, as this year’s Olympic swimming comes to a close and I get ready to return to the deck in September with my young swimmers, I took a moment to figure out some simple shareable lessons from this year’s Olympic swimming.
Here are a few simple video lessons I will use from this year’s Olympics:
1. Finish strong/Accelerate to the finish/Swim through the wall, not to it. Examples: This race from Simone Manuel and Penny Oleksiak. This race from Maya DiRado in 200 back.
2. Use underwaters off walls. Example: Phelps in the 4 x 100 free relay.
3. Swim your own race/stay in your own lane/don’t waste time watching. Example: Phelps and Le Clos in the 200 fly.
4. Don’t breathe from the flags to the finish. Example: This race from Katie Ledecky in 800 free.
5. Finish on your side/get long. Example: Anthony Ervin in 50 free.
As for life lessons, I think I will focus on these:
1. You don’t have to win a gold medal to win. Winning is about living that dream that Michael Phelps keeps referring to when he is interviewed. The silver medal in the 100 fly does not diminish Phelps’ accomplishments. He is still the most decorated swimmer in the history of the sport. Yet, he knows that it is about the journey and the work that it took to get to the Olympics. Just the fact of being in the Olympics is success. That makes all Olympic swimmers winners. Fu Yuanhui of China showed us this with her enthusiasm after winning her bronze medal! Nathan Adrian put it plainly when interviewed after the 100 free: “I can’t be upset with that.”
2. Resilience, balance and perspective are important. Michael Phelps has shown us all this and we shouldn’t be shy about talking about it with our swimmers. Phelps isn’t. He made mistakes. He sought help. He demonstrated resilience. He found balance. And, most importantly, in this games, we saw him find perspective. We saw him enjoying the journey and this is part of why we should celebrate him and his accomplishments in the pool.
3. While no one wants to lose, losing with grace is vital. Missy Franklin set a marvelous example ion losing with grace. Although clearly disappointed (we could see her say to Maya DiRado that she was so sad after her 200 back), Franklin turned to congratulate her competitors on their swims. Annie Grevers has aptly labeled Franklin Miss Sunshine and eloquently written about how Missy has set such a beautiful example for our youth in terms of sportsmanship and grace.
4. Self-reflection is a critical component of success. The best swimmers do this. Always. In numerous post-race interviews, we heard athletes make note of things they could improve.
Cathy Sheafor is a volunteer Founding Head Coach at Swim Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. An educator at heart, prior to coaching, 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 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. She loves coaching alongside her children, Tirion and Haley, and her husband Doug.