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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from John Lupton:
One of the things I like to remind parents of age groupers is that swimming is a really tough sport. Pretend that you have to don a speedo, stand up on a platform in front of hundreds and hundreds of people you don’t know, dive into a cold pool and willfully hurt yourself. That’s swimming, and I’m leaving out all the practice hours that you would have put in leading up to this imaginary competition. Oh yeah, one more thing. You’re 10. Yeah, it’s a tough sport, and as adult onlookers, we sometimes forget this blatantly obvious fact. We want our kids to do their best, to perform up to their potential, and we are disappointed when they don’t. We want to know why they didn’t meet our expectations, why they didn’t execute well, where the heck their brains went, why they didn’t get that time! Sometimes kids just aren’t prepared. Maybe they haven’t had good practice attendance, don’t practice well, or they’ve had poor coaching. Other times, however, they are well prepared and still leave us rolling our eyes in frustrated disbelief. This well-prepared group is the one I mean to discuss, and if you’re the parent of one of these hardworking youngsters, I’m here to prevent any of the frustration you might ever experience at the hands of your child’s athletic endeavors. I posit that there are two ways to explain the seemingly inexplicable gaffes our young athletes make: one, the simple answer, is that, as I have already summarized here, we are talking about young kids, and this sport is incredibly demanding; they are going to fail . . . a lot. A different way to look at it (explanation #2) is that kids, parents, and coaches are all too results-oriented and that we all tend to forget about process and preparation when it comes time to perform. Allow me to explain by sharing the following story of an 11-year-old boy, who had a rollercoaster meet at his first ever USA Swimming competition. His name has been changed to conceal his true identity. We’ll call him Wylie McCall.
First of all Wylie is one of the well-prepared kids. He works hard in practice, takes instruction well, and attends practice regularly. We’re not talking about a kid who goofs off. We are, however, talking about a kid with normal 11-year-old emotions, so when his mother approached me after practice one day to express that Wylie was nervous about swimming the 200 breaststroke on Friday night in Columbia, I was not that surprised. Normally, I told her, I would not put a kid in his group in the 200 breast, but Wylie had been looking good in practice, particularly in breaststroke, and I thought he had a good chance at swimming well. “I’ll do a little pace set with him on Thursday after practice,” I told her. “Hopefully, that will help him feel better about it.” So we did a pace set, I gave him a couple pointers on how to attack the race, and Wylie said he felt confident.
Now Friday comes. I’m at home coaching practice, and Wylie is with our Head Coach Doug and a group of older swimmers at the meet. After practice, I texted Doug the splits I thought Wylie would go and almost nailed it, off by a second. Doug texted me that the race was fine but that Wylie’s head position was bad. I’m a little miffed. We’ve worked on head position a lot, I think, and Wylie has been practicing with excellent head position for weeks. Swimming with poor form that we had corrected in practice was certainly not what I would have expected from this particular kid. Doug must be nitpicking, I thought. I’ll see for myself tomorrow.
When I walked onto the deck Saturday morning, my first thought was, “this is awful.” The a.m. session was well underway, and the deck was packed to say the least. I had parked illegally at a restaurant half a mile away since it was the only space I could find, and upon entering the pool deck, I spent the next 10 minutes trying to locate a bathroom. Then I spent another 5 or so minutes traversing the 30 yards of crowded deck to get to where I saw Doug sitting. Of course, when I got there, my seat was taken. The stands up above the pool? Yeah, those were packed full of parents.
Doug stood up to talk to me, and the first thing he said was, “So Wylie last night was funny. They blew the whistle to get ready, and he popped up on the block. Everyone else in the race was still standing on the deck, and he’s already taken his mark and is white-knuckling the edge of the block.”
That pretty much set the tone for the day on Saturday. Wylie and his teammates were understandably nervous, and they approached their races from a state of mild panic rather than from one of confidence. The result? Disappointment. Kids weren’t executing what I asked them to and were displaying a total lack of discipline in their races, shirking seemingly every bit of preparation that we had put into this meet. I struggled watching kid after kid walk over to the coaches’ table with a look of disappointment and self-loathing and started to fall into the trap: “Why are we doing this? Why are we responding so poorly? Why are we swimming so badly? What’s wrong with us?” I thought. I needed a good slap in the face to wake up, and then I got one: Wylie’s 100 breast.
Wylie came over to talk before his race, and I delivered simple instructions that revolved around what we’d worked on in practice: “head down, work the lift on the insweep, work the glide.” He went behind the blocks, hopped in, and swam with his face up and hips down the whole way, no glide, obviously not thinking about anything we had worked on. As he approached me afterwards, his face said it all. He was utterly frustrated. Finally, I wised up.
His entry time was stale, having been swum many months ago in the previous season, and he barely beat it if he beat it at all. He was upset because he didn’t drop as much time as he had wanted. “Didn’t do as well as you wanted?” I asked. “No,” he said. I spared him a lecture and made a mental note. It was perfect irony. Wylie didn’t get the result he wanted, because he was too focused on the result he wanted. We weren’t thinking like adults; we were thinking like scared little kids who want to see a certain time come up on the scoreboard that will make our coaches and parents proud. We weren’t trusting our preparation; we were throwing it out the window and resorting to old habits wrought from late night sugar induced spasms in 50 meter summer league races. We were thinking, “I just have to drop a little bit for my cut!” “If I just get top 4 in my heat, I won’t be embarrassed!” “If I just spin my arms fast enough, maybe nobody will see me!” Sadly, the prerace hormonal spike and spastic flailing that resulted from this line of thinking was not producing the desired results. We needed to calm down.
The good news for Wylie was that his crappy swim actually earned him a spot in that evening’s B finals, so we had another crack at it. That night we only had three swimmers in the finals session, so Wylie and I had more time to talk. The gist of my point to him was “I don’t care what time you go. Relax, and swim the way we’ve practiced.” Easier said than done, because guess what? Wylie cares a lot about what time he goes, and if I’m being honest, I want to see him go a time that makes him happy; however, you have to remember that young kids just don’t understand the paradox sometimes. If you obsess over the result, you’ll fail to perform. With this in mind, I spent some extra time with Wylie just trying to stay calm. We went to the side of the blocks and stretched for 10 minutes. We chatted. We hung out. And when it was time for Wylie to swim, I reminded him one more time: “I don’t care what time you go. Go behind the blocks, take deep breaths, close your eyes, and think: head down, lift, glide; head down, lift, glide; head down, lift, glide.”
Well, Wylie was very happy after his race, because he went 5 seconds faster than he did in the morning. Results make us happy. That’s why we obsess over them. But the reason Wylie went faster was because he focused, not on the time he wanted, but on what he needed to do. There was no white-knuckling, no face up breaststroke, no spastic flailing, just calm energy, purpose, and clean, rehearsed swimming. Naturally, the adults (myself included) were pleased for him. He went faster, and he was happy. It’s easy to feel good about that, but the real reason we ought to be happy for Wylie is that the kid earned it. He put in the work, and when it came time to perform, he trusted his preparation, and he executed, even with a whirlwind of emotion swirling inside of him and a packed house looking on and making noise in an unfamiliar environment. Pretty heady stuff for an 11-year-old.
The next day I talked to the whole team about Wylie’s swim and about how we needed to relax and focus on swimming the way we practice. Long story short we did better, not perfect, but much, much better.
I’ll conclude with one final thought. One of the great lessons to be gained from youth sports and from swimming in particular is the importance of setting goals. Look on any year-round swim team’s website, and they will likely stress the importance of goal-oriented culture somewhere; however, setting goals is a tough ask for young kids, and it can lead to some of the obsessive, spastic behavior that I’ve detailed above. As adults and role models, it’s our job to make sure that our young athletes understand that the time they write down doesn’t matter a whit compared to the work they do to achieve it. In other words kids need to know that we respect the work they’re doing more than we care about the outcome that they achieve.
Moreover, as they go through the process of striving for their goals, experiencing stress and emotional ups and downs, it’s our duty to be understanding and compassionate in order to help them cope. Rest assured, they will have fears, and they will experience failure, just like us. The only difference is that they are not as well equipped to handle it as we are, and they need us to acknowledge that there isn’t something wrong with them (Don’t fall in the trap: “Why are we swimming so badly? What’s wrong with us?”). One of my favorite things to tell a young swimmer who admits to being nervous before a race is that it’s normal. In fact, when I was their age, I used to get so nervous that I would get sick, so they’re doing better than I did already. Usually, they’ll crack a smile. I like to think that something like“thank goodness he’s not going to give me a hard time” passes through their minds. The last thing a kid needs is an adult making swimming even harder for them. Like I said, it’s a tough sport.
About John Lupton
John is the Associate Head Coach for the North Charleston Water Moccasins of South Carolina Swimming. He primarily works with 12&under athletes and their families. He previously served as the Head Age Group Coach for the Mount Pleasant Swim Club, which is now known as the South Carolina Swim Club.