Love, Basketball, and Swimming:
What to Tell Your Team After a Big Win.
I told them, “we have to rock the first twenty minutes.” She told me. I told them, “it’s the whole first period. Not the first eighteen minutes. Not the first nineteen minutes. Not even the first nineteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds.”
Coach Kate Mullen has led the Wesleyan Women’s basketball team for nearly twenty-five years – including a 9-year consecutive seasonal winning streak – so it seems odd as she tears up when her girls win their first home match of the season.
No. I told them, she tells me, “if we can rock the first twenty minutes, we’re going to win.” What appears as her evasiveness to the question asked, “how do you handle your team after a big win?” actually turns out as a brilliant response. Her blotchy, red eyes after the game speak for her. Coach Mullen had found a way to answer my question with just one word – highlighting the importance of the team dynamic, as opposed to the individual dynamic that we swimmers are so accustomed to writing about.
We have to rock the first fifty yards. If we can rock the first fifty, we’re going to win.
Take this example of the butterfly sprinter – a kid with a killer technique who knows the 100 fly like the back of his hand – yet can’t seem to rock it. What does his coach tell him, and more importantly, how does his coach phrase it? The coach begins, “you have to…” and already has chosen a path completely different from what Coach Mullen chose to take.
Imagine for a moment, that this swim coach carefully and subtly replaced every use of the word “you” with “we.” The flyer, just moments before the start of his 100-yard-butterfly, is told, “We have to rock the first fifty-yards. Not the first twenty-five yards. Not the first thirty-five yards. Not even the first forty-five yards. If we can rock the first fifty yards, we’re going to win.”
In swimming, we’re told that each of our individual races is what makes up our teams’ scores. While that is correct, there’s another way of viewing it. When learning a language, the goal isn’t to learn the subsequent words that represent the English (or, already known) words, but rather, it is to learn the words that represent the subsequent objects. Take this example – the Spanish word that is the equivalent to the english word for ball, is pelota. And to learn Spanish – such as a native speaker would quickly, naturally, and natively use it. The goal is not to find a way to hear pelota and think of ball so you can use the known word in order to picture the round object that the word describes, but rather, the goal is to hear pelota and have your brain flash to a round object.
Coach Mullen’s players don’t score, then connect it to themselves – to their own individual statistics – in order to then connect to a greater team. Instead, her players score – and almost immediately their brains flash to their team moving forward.
“In the end, college swimming is about the team score.”
Kailey Gardner is the type of dedicated coach who – when one of her swimmers yells, STOP THE CAR! in response to seeing a roadside pumpkin patch – will happily put on her turn signal, look in her rearview mirror, and pull the car next to the pumpkin stand, so that the part of the team she is responsible for shuttling can pick up pumpkins for a team-wide pumpkin carving event (and definitely not a team-wide pumpkin smashing event). Kailey recognizes that the way to continue progressing in swimming, lies in the dynamic of the team.
Kailey is the Wesleyan University Swimming & Diving assistant coach – fresh off the podium as the former University of Vermont swim captain – and when asked if she had any insight to how coaches handle their teams after big wins, she had this to say:
My coaches at the ‘Mont would always say, “You can be happy” she told me, “but this is the time to continue progressing.” I would try to always remember that after something successful.
Kailey’s accolades speak for her (and for her coaches) themselves. Kailey not only holds the UVM school records in the 1000 and 1650, but she also has several academic honors. Perhaps this speaks to Kailey’s nature and to the advice that spoke to her – to not stop at just the school records, but to continue progressing on to earn America East Conference’s Commissioner’s Honor Role – as well as a spot on the America East All-Academic Team. When asked what she says to the Wes team, Kailey had a different response than just repeating the advise that had been given to her.
I think swimming is different… Gardner began, alluding to the uniqueness of the sport, club swimming tends to lean towards individuals, and if those individuals don’t have that sense of team, it can be hard for them to come into college swimming. She holds a pause – then finishes, because in the end, college swimming is about the team score.
“Coach K” – as her swimmers call her – smiles, begins to nod her head, and looks me straight in the eye as she repeats herself, in the end, college swimming is about the team score – and that’s what I tell the Wes kids.
“The players made the plays we needed them to make.”
Patriots head coach (and, go figure, a Wesleyan football alum) Bill Belichick said in a post-game interview after winning the super bowl, Our teams that have won have been able to, by the thinnest of margins, outplay or outlast our opponents that were as competitive as they could possibly be. Belichick went on to say,
In the end the reason [we won] is because the players made the plays that we needed them to make in the critical situations to win the game.
Bill Belichick – the only NFL coach to win three super bowls in four years – stays extremely humble, not crediting star quarterback Tom Brady or even the game-winning rookie Malcolm Butler, but rather, he credits, the players.
The most important part of winning – not just in swimming, but in every sport – is to keep the team in your field of vision. Successful coaches – ranging in experience from just out of college to super bowl champions – all agree: staying humble in terms of appreciation for the team over the individual after a big win is the key to future success – a focus on rocking the next fifty yards.
As I watch Coach Mullen walk towards the locker room – in her grey pantsuit – surely the most powerful force on the court, her words reverberate through my skull.
“It’s not about the first nineteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds.”
She walks into the women’s locker room and instead of congratulating the top scorers, she prepares her team for their next game – with confidence, knowledge, and – most importantly – team unity, a part of the team that includes herself.
I told them, “If we can rock the first twenty minutes, we’re going to win.”