SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]
This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Cathy Sheafor, a swim coach in South Carolina.
Every once in a while, we, as a team, revisit our mission, our vision, and our goals. This year I decided to try to articulate some reasons behind them. On our team, we have 3 pillars of excellence. They not only help us to define our team and our goals, but they help us to define success. They are particularly useful when thinking about 10/under swimming where excitement for the sport is vital, development is crucial and retention is critical.
What makes a successful swimming experience for a 10/under swimmer?
- Valued and Measurable Effort (Hard work)
Kids do just want to have fun. When people have fun, neurons activate in a part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area. Long lanky axons of the neurons reach into other parts of the brain. When the neuron fires, the tips of the axons release a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is then absorbed by neurons in other parts of the brain. Dopamine results in feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation, and even concentration. So, how can coaches and parents ensure 10/under swimmers have fun and activate dopamine producing neurons?
Fun is vague and subjective. It is defined by the swimmers themselves. For one swimmer, it may be playing with friends. For another, it may be conquering a challenge for the first time – e.g., a flip turn, diving from the starting blocks, or competing in her first meet. For another 10/under swimmer, it may be a personal best time. Another may find fun in receiving praise from a respected friend, parent, or coach. Whatever the fun, kids are really good at savoring that moment. We see their fun in the form of smiles, laughter, and concentration (all the results of firing neurons releasing dopamine).
As coaches and parents, we must become keen observers and find what triggers fun for each swimmer. What made her laugh? Why did he run around high-fiving everyone? Wow, he is smiling a very big smile right this minute…wonder why? She almost seems to be dancing – moving to some kind of beat that’s all her own. Why is that happening right now? Then, when we figure out what makes swimmers have fun, we must make it possible for them to do more of that. We must create an environment that makes fun probable for the largest number of kids.
When kids are born, they are born with an instinct to work hard — they work hard to crawl, to walk, to talk, etc. They are not afraid of failure. When they don’t succeed at walking the first time, they get up and try again, and again, and again. In fact, they appear to pursue hard work. And, upon observation, they appear to enjoy hard work as well. For them, hard work opens up all sorts of new experiences and opportunities and they embrace this.
By the time they are school age, though, many children have been acculturated to define themselves less by hard work to meet challenges, and more by a fear of failing. This is because kids learn early on that ‘failure’ has a negative connotation, (e.g. parent disapproval, peer disapproval, or a ‘bad’ grade on a test). Unfortunately, kids learn the negative connotation of ‘failure’ from adults. When we adults focus on the growth aspects of mistakes, ‘failure’ takes on an entirely new meaning. It becomes a factor in developing resilience, courage, strength, and wisdom. Not one person is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. JK Rowling was rejected by twelve publishers before she was able to publish the first Harry Potter book. But she didn’t quit. She didn’t blame someone else. Instead, she practiced a growth mindset. She learned. She was resilient. She was courageous. She worked hard.
Another factor that lessens the natural instinct to work hard is that kids themselves and adults with whom they interact, start playing the ‘comparison’ game. How does she compare to her friends? How does he compare to the competition? How does she compare to her parents’ or coaches’ expectations? Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
What if this framework shifted, we eliminated the comparison game, and 10/under swimmers defined themselves by how hard they worked — what if they re-learned to embrace and celebrate the hard work it takes to get smoother, faster, longer in the water? Or the work it takes to be a better teammate or friend?
A wise teenage swimmer recently shared her graduation speech with her coach who shared it with me. In it, she shared some important swimming wisdom on which we should all reflect. This graduating high school senior wisely came to understand just recently that everyone was climbing their own mountain with different obstacles. She discovered that she was happier and more successful at reaching her goals when she accepted that it was her mountain to climb and her hard work that made swimming fun and fulfilling for her.
As coaches and parents, we must celebrate the journeys of each child and the hard work each puts in to climb his/her mountain. We must not stress the breadth of the obstacle on the mountain, or the height of it, or the duration it takes to overcome it, or the weather encircling it. We must not emphasize the rate of the progress or the timing of it or the definition of it, but instead we ought to celebrate when children work hard to scale their mountain at their pace. Every step is progress. Every small challenge conquered puts our swimmers closer to their mountain peak. Every failed first attempt is success because it is part of the process. It is hard work. Let’s celebrate the work NOT the outcome.
Remember those stages of childhood where children ask ‘why’ all the time? I believe in a 20 minute lesson with a 2 year-old, I answer 40 questions. Some are about swimming. Some aren’t. Children have a natural instinctual desire to learn. They love learning. Everything is an investigation and an exploration. And, learning is fun. It is fun to walk for the first time. It is fun to swim for the first time. It is fun to complete something we doubted we could complete. It is fun to learn why and how and when to do things.
Why shouldn’t competitive swimming be the same? Shouldn’t 10/under swimmers be continually uncovering new ways to move forward in the water, new ways to get fast, new ways to have fun? It is fun to blow bubbles. It is fun to feel the water more effectively. It is fun to learn how to drop time.
Shouldn’t they be learning all of the time and asking questions and experiencing new things? If so, shouldn’t coaches and parents, work to create an environment where learning opportunities and exploration abound and where learning in and of itself is celebrated. Shouldn’t we create opportunities for laughter and smiles and fun around successful learning?
Coaches coach because we know the impact we can have on lives. Let’s be a part of redefining success as fun, hard work, and learning and let’s shift the focus away from comparisons. Isn’t that the best path to success?
We believe so. And, that is why our formula is fun, hard work, and learning.
About Cathy Sheafor
Cathy Sheafor is the Founding Head Coach at Swim Charleston in 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. She was named Age Group Coach of the Year for South Carolina in 2019. In her free time, she likes to write and paint.