A One-Person Coaching Staff of Thousands by Dana Abbott (2010)


Hi my name is Rick Shepherd. I’m a member of the ASCA Board, and it’s always a pleasurable experience to be able to introduce speakers that I haven’t heard before, speakers that particularly address topics that I’m really interested in. The topic this afternoon for our speaker is “a staff of one that equals a thousand” or something very similar to that. So many of us coach in situations where we have to do a lot without the resources we would like to have. And the challenge of doing that and presenting the best program in camp for our kids is always explain more. Coach Dana Abbott has introduced star, which I just heard for the first time. The coach with Katye High School for 25 years, after which he retired and became board—I think that was the word to use—and decided to get back into it. But since connecting with the high school coach, he’s now on his 23rd year where he is currently coaching. Previous to that he’s been an assistant for Eddie Reese first two years of Texas, and he’s originally from Florida. My pleasure to introduce to you Dana Abbott. [applause]

[talk starts]
Thanks Rick, I appreciate it: thank you. The title, like I selected, is a little ambitious, One-Person Coaching Staff of Thousands, but I probably coached a couple-of-thousand kids over the years, like many of you who are just adding to the numbers of kids you’ve worked with. Every one of them has helped out in one way or another, so that’s where I came up with that number.

At the time that we were talking about having presentations in the high school track, I thought the concept of the title was very good, because so many of us—as Rick said—start off as a one person staff and we face a lot of challenges in what we are trying to do with our programs. A time machine is a good concept too. It proves to be a little more challenging to build one, and when I started thinking about thousands of people on my staff, it became a little interesting. But you have to, when you first get started, look over your situation, see where you are; and I think that the title might have been over-stated.

So, I came up with two additional titles. One is: OK, you’ve got the job now what do you do? My first team at Katy High School, I was basically—and this maybe similar to your situation—they basically say “congratulations, here is the keys to the pool, have a good year”, and that’s a little daunting. I thought about it a little bit more, explored what it actually meant, and I thought one of my friend suggestion was actually very good one and that was: All I really want to do is coach, I don’t want to do all that other stuff. So you are probably pretty good at coaching swimming, at least I think you probably want to be, but there is a lot of other stuff you don’t want to do. You probably are capable to handling the wet side, the actual on-deck coaching, but there is—as you’ve discovered probably—there is a lot more stuff that goes with that job than just being the on-deck coach. When you have a large staff at your own facility, it’s a lot easier to delegate task and responsibilities. But when you are all by yourself, trying to run your facility can sometimes be so daunting that you don’t even know how you have time to coach.

So, thinking all those things over, and how my 25 years at Katy High School progressed and how things developed, I began to see patterns. And I thought of, if we could share some of those things, it might resonate with you or maybe give you some ideas on how to solve some of problems, if you are the only person there.

Do you remember your first job, I mean when you first walked in? Was it scary when you found out that there was a lot of other stuff to do besides the on-deck coaching? Did you feel like the Lone Ranger? You know, ‘How am I gonna do all this?’ ‘You know, I can barely handle kids and the on-deck coaching and all this other stuff. What do you mean budgets? What do you mean inventories? Locker combinations?’ There is so many different things that you have to do, that you don’t think of when you are an on-deck coach.

Over the years, one of my good friends, Lanny Landtroop, has said: the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. You’ve got to stay focused on what you’re doing, on what you do best. You get distracted with all these other things. There was a TV variety show years ago, and I remember one of the acts that came up. This guy had some sticks and platforms, and he got these china plates and he started one spinning—you ever seen that? Then he got another one spinning, and he worked his way down the line; and he had seven arrays of these plates, all spinning at the same time. But this one back here started slowing down and stated wobbling, and he’d have to run back here and he’s spent you know… the whole act was running back and keeping these plates spinning up to speed. You ever feel like that?

I mean you get something going at the expense of keeping something else going, and so we have to try and figure out ways to keep that from driving us crazy, because it really can. You’ve got to figure out what you do best and then keep doing those things. And the things that you don’t do good, you’ve got to find people that can do them for you. So the task then is: how do you find those people that can help you do the things that you either don’t have the time to do or you don’t have the skills to do. Or, probably more realistically: the things you don’t want to do.

When you first get started, it’s helpful to separate your needs from your wants. What are the things you absolutely need to do, or the things you would really like to add? You know, sometimes those wants have to pushed aside, because you’ve got to take care of the things you need to do. I was talking with Lanny about this a couple of months ago, and he said probably the thing you need—your number one need—is not coaching knowledge. It’s not the things we think of. He says the number one need is organization: you’ve got to be organized.

Now when we hear that word organization, a lot of time you think of paperwork. Organizations are not just paperwork and keeping the office set-up. Organization, in Lanny’s words, it’s looking for a better or a more efficient way to accomplish what you need to accomplish. Now, if you take care of that, you are taking care of the main thing. Remember that: the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing. Don’t get distracted; take care of what you do.

Let’s start with the assumption that you are an experienced veteran, accomplished coach, and you know everything there is to know about coaching—that’s fantastic, and I’m going to assume that you all are. But suppose someone isn’t. Suppose they are just getting started, and they don’t know how to be the best coach they can be. We can deal with that later, but there are some other things you have to think about first.

If you are a one person… and how many of you all by the way, are a one person staff? Yeah. You feel like, I think, the phrase we heard, “like a one-armed paper hanger in a hurricane”, sometimes. There are so many things you try to do, you go nuts trying to do all of that stuff. Your main job is to do whatever is necessary to get the athletes to be the best that they can be, as includes physically, mentally, socially. It’s not enough just to get them as fast in the water as they can be, although that’s a big part of the job. These are whole people; they are not just a little swimming machine. You’ve got to help them develop in all these areas.

The wet issues… you know what dry issues are? Wet and dry: have you ever heard them refer to as wet and dry issues? The wet issues are the stuff that you do basically around the pool, in the water—that coaching stuff. The dry issues: most of the stuff that we really don’t like doing. So we have to separate those things. But here are some examples, and you can probably come up with some other ones too. The wet issues will be: the water training, dryland, strength, flexibility, goal setting and monitoring those goals, performance monitoring and evaluating, race strategy, meet strategy. If you are coaching high school, meet strategy is real big, because you got to decide where people go. These are things that are on the wet side. On the dry side—we really don’t like these, but we have to do them anyway–you’ve got: budgets, maintaining, taking care of facilities, practice schedules, meet schedules, administrative paperwork, publicity, promotion, parent communication (probably one of your favorites), monitoring the academics of the kids, and so on. Now these categories are by no means complete, and you can probably think of some others, but they do fall into those two categories.

Let’s look at that coaching thing a little bit, the actual swim coaching. If you are the one coach, and you have no assistance, you want to get better. So what do you do? You go to clinics, alright. At a clinic—I can’t remember how long ago it was—but somebody asked my old mentor, Eddie Reese, you know, ‘What’s the secret? You know, is there a secret to doing all of this?’ And Eddie just said: “There is no magic bullet.” You know, simple answers, simple truth. That’s Eddie: put it in it’s basic, understandable form. But he was absolutely right. Think about it. In every US Senior National Championships, at every NCAA Championships, at every high school state championships, at every Olympic finals; there are eight people up on the blocks, and almost every one of them has been coached by somebody different. Yet, here they are, they are all in the championship finals—so there are different ways of doing things. You are gonna do things different than you, and you are gonna do thing different than you and you, and so on. Okay, so everybody is doing things differently: you have your way, I have my way. There is no right way; there is no “the” way. And we all know there are no short cuts.

How many of you coaches in here are former swimmers? I am… golly, that’s great. Okay, well that’s a problem, because you probably coach like the way you were coached. If that’s the limit of your coaching preparation, then you are probably about half-a-generation behind. If you are fortunate enough to swim for a great coach, you can probably bring your program from here to here, but you are doing the same thing that your coach did 15 or 20 years ago and if you haven’t stayed up with the times, you are gonna be behind.

If you are young, you, a lot of times, tend to think you know it all. I remember Eddie saying at one time that when he was a younger coach, he thought he knew it all. But the older he got, the more he realized what he didn’t know; and so he had to increase his ability, he had to increase his knowledge, he had to increase his skills. So, he still comes to these clinics, and it’s not always to be a speaker. Has anyone ever met Dick Hannula? Do you know who Dick Hannula is? He is probably one of the best known high school coaches in the United States. Dick freely admits to being 80+ years-old. He is a NISCA member; he goes to NCAA finals every year. And every year at NCAA finals [the Division I Championships], you would see him sitting with us in the NISCA section, staring at every single race. And he is not saying ‘gee, that was a good time’; he is thinking ‘look what that guy is doing with his stroke, that’s different’; and he is making observations and he is critiquing in his head. He is over 80 years old and he is still trying to learn.

You go to these swim meets: they’re the best clinics in the world, because you are watching what the best are doing right then. You never stop learning and you never should. You walk around this clinic here, and if you know some of the icons in our sports—you know that Eddie Reese is, the Peter Dalands, Mark Schuberts, Jack Bauerles; all these big names that we’ve come to recognize with the pinnacle of coaching success in this country—and you listen to them, they are often times talking about swimming. They are always saying: ‘How do you this?’ ‘Why did they do that?’ ‘I wonder if you could do that.’ They are always picking each other’s brains.

Do you find yourself in bull sessions sometimes after a swim meet or at a meeting, and you are not talking about going camping or fishing, you are talking about improving your program. You are trading ideas, you are trying to get better. They always ask ‘why,’ they always ask ‘what if,’ they always wonder how they can get better. It’s what you should be doing; it’s what you came here for, right?

Your kids are whole people, you should be developing the whole person—not just how fast they swim. One of my former high school swimmers started coaching a few years ago, and that’s how he approaches coaching: it’s the whole kid. I hear him say stuff like this all the time: ‘You know it’s not just how fast you swim, it’s are you being civil?’ ‘Are you treating other people right?’ ‘Are you putting forth your best effort?’ Not: are you hitting your splits? He is a good coach already, and he is gonna be a great coach.

When many of us were younger, we might have been hesitant to ask questions for fear that if we ask questions about swimming, we might be seen as not knowing everything that we should know—that other people will see us as incomplete. I can remember going to theses clinics and having a question in my head, and being afraid to raise my hand because, if I ask a question about something I didn’t know, I was afraid that other people would have it as common knowledge and they would think I was some sort of doofus. Have you had questions and you were afraid to ask by raising your hand? We don’t like to raise our hands, we don’t like to be put on the spot; but it’s something that you ought to do. As soon as you just start asking questions, you start getting answers and you become a better coach.

The great thing about our sport is that coaches love to share. I bet you can’t find a single coach to go up to and ask questions, who’s not willing to give you more than you wanted to know. If you eavesdrop a little bit walking through this clinic, or around a swim meet, you are gonna learn stuff just by listening. Yogi Berra said: “you can observe a lot just by watching”; or can learn a lot just by listening. There are coaches out there that would be happy to share lots of stuff with you.

In preparing for this today, the topic is supposed to be staff. You… how do you get people to help you do your job? And so I started doing some research on coaching staffs, and, surprisingly, there is not a lot out there. I googled every combination of phrases I could think of on how you get people on your staff, how you divide the task and duties and responsibilities on staff so you can delegate things to do. There is not a lot out there. But then I found a book on my own book shelf—I have no idea where it came from. It’s one of the best books on coaching and sport that I have ever seen, and it’s not about swimming—which made me wonder where I got it—but it’s about wrestling.

They are sort of like us, a little bit, individual team points. The book is called the USA Wrestling Coaching Guide to Excellence. The author is USA Wrestling. It’s an effort by a lot of wrestling coaches. I’m gonna share some ideas from this book with you, and I encourage you to add it to your library, USA Wrestling Coaching Guide to Excellence.

The first thing I think to consider in how to get people to assist you in furthering your program / the goals of your program, it’s important to understand that interpersonal relationships often comes first–what we refer to as people skills. Because without them, you are gonna be floundering. You’ve got to have people skills; you’ve got to know how to develop good personal relationships. In our business, there is lot of different people that you have to develop relationships with.

If you are in a high school… are there any club coaches in here? Oh my, okay. So you came here expecting to hear ‘you are a one person coaching staff’ at a club—that’s challenging. I think that might even be more challenging than the high school. I’m speaking from a high school perspective. This might have some crossover or carryover that you might be able to apply to your club situation.

But in high school, let’s start with the boss: unfortunately, you are not it. The principal is the boss; the principal is the boss of the school. The principal has the best interest and the welfare of all the students at stake. You need to have a relationship with that principal. The principal can help you get things done, if you are having a problem getting things done. If you show that principal that you care more about just the swimming program—that you care about the whole school, the students, the school district—he or she is gonna be a lot more inclined to give you a friendly ear when you come to them with a problem.

I got a couple of examples I want to share with you—and I do have a former swimmer in this room and I know he can remember this one. We had the pool that I started with at Katy was built in 1955. The floor was terrazzo throughout the whole building, including the dressing rooms. And you know terrazzo is? It’s polished cement and stone. Now, is that a great surface to have in a dressing room or what? You step-out of the shower, and you’re stepping onto wet terrazzo. We had slips and falls almost every day. And the kids… we had asked for stuff to put on the floor. We had coconut fiber mats—boy those are a challenge to keep clean. We had these rubber runners with the ridges on it. We had the adhesive, non-skid stuff, that you see around diving board steps sometimes. None of the stuff worked; none of it worked. We kept complaining.

The kids stopped coming to me to tell me that ‘I had fallen again, my leg hurt,’ because they said: well, nothing is gonna get done, so we are just not gonna bother coach about it. Till one day, one of my swimmers stepped out, because there is a little threshold you have step over out the shower, step over it and slipped like that. His foot went right-up into the protruding corner; we had all sorts of non-safety issues at this pool—I guess, in 1955, it was a lot easier to get things built. He went skidding across; his foot, this part of his big toe and his first toe went up, and got cut on a protruding metal corner of the lockers and just cut him all the way… I mean you could see the tendons—it was nasty, absolutely nasty.

So I called my principal, and I said, “Bill, you know, I’ve been trying to get this stuff done here. Maintenance says that what they’d put in is adequate for us, here is what happened today.” He goes, ‘Coach, let me make a couple of calls.’ This was about 4:00 in the afternoon, maybe. The next morning, after morning practice, I had a crew of maintenance people show up and say ‘Coach, what kind of tile do you want in your dressing room?’ The principal is the manager of the campus; the principal can get things done. If you have a good relationship with your principal, you are gonna be alright. Our principal, Mr. Hasket, was not a forceful, bold, energetic man; he was rare, some people will see him as meek. But when I said this is what is the result of our Maintenance people not taking care of things, he says ‘let me make a couple of phone calls, this is not gonna happen again.’

We had a pool deck where, if you are practicing after school—and I did this for the club and team that came in after us—if somebody got hurt, there was no way to call for help. Because we had a pool deck which went into the dressing rooms, which went into the lobby, which is where the coach’s office was; but the coach wasn’t there during club practice. Me, I didn’t coach club at that place. We needed a phone. ‘Well, we can’t put a phone in there, we don’t have a line available,’ ‘we don’t have an extension available’; and this is before cell phones were even used. So again, I said you know, we just can’t have this. So I called Mr. Hasket again, and I said, “Do you think it’s a safety issue not having a phone on the pool deck?” And he goes, ‘I would have to agree.’ And I said, “Well, this is what they are telling me over at Communications, we don’t have an extension they can put a phone on the pool deck.” And he goes, ‘let me make a call for you.’ The next day, by afternoon practice, there was an installed, working, wall telephone on that pool deck. The principal can be your friend.

The athletic director; now if you are in a single-school district, one guy is the campus and the district, but it’s the same thing. And in our school district, we had 2 schools, then 3, 4, 5; now we’ve got 6 schools. We’ve got an athletic director that watches over everything. They got an awful lot of things to keep on their mind, they don’t want to hear problems, but you do need to stay in touch with them. They can usually make things happen for you. They have the background where, if there is an athletic problem, they probably know how to deal with it.

You ought to stay in good connection with them; good communications. Share things that are going on, good and bad, in your program. And the thing that they want to hear most is potential problems, not potential successes. Yes, they’d like to win the state championship, but they’d probably rather avoid a lawsuit. So you keep letting them know what’s going on, possibly good/possibly bad, they will appreciate that.

Our campus athletic coordinator told me once, and you probably can identify with this… I have a year-end evaluation, and I went in and sat down with him. And he says, ‘Coach, I know you are running a good program. You know how I know that? Because I don’t get any parent phone calls from swimming.’ He says, ‘Now that soccer program,’ he says. ‘I wish he could settle his parents down.’ If you are doing a good job with your parents, and you are keeping them off the phone to your athletic director, that’s gonna help you in the long run.

All of this that I’m sharing with you is laying the foundation for some things coming along later.

Have you ever seen the movie Office Space with Ron Livingston? You know what TPS reports are? Okay. It’s a mindless, meaningless report, that your bureaucratic superiors will insist on having, even though they have absolutely no function and they never use them. You probably have some forms like that—you have to do with at the end of every season if you are in an educational system–that means absolutely nothing. But, boy, if your superior doesn’t get your paperwork turned in on time, you are gonna have a problem with them. So do it, turn it in and then forget about it, because they are gonna forget about it too.

Talked about the parents…. Now talking about parents in club and high school, we could probably go-on for hours. You know good stories, war stories. I swam in college for a well-known coach. He is getting up-there in years now, but he had a club program. A very large, very successful, club program that practice in our college pool after the college guys were done. This is back in the ‘70s. And more than once, he used to joke with us college guys that the best place to coach would have to be an orphanage. “Sir, why is that?” And he goes: no parents. Parents can be a blessing; they can be your bane. What would you rather have? Rather have them on your side, rather have them be helpful.

This is probably where I get more help than anywhere else with my high school program—from the parents. And it was where we probably like: I don’t want those parents on my deck, I don’t want to see them; I want them to stay out of here. Their job is to feed their kids, get them to practice, stay out of the way, pick their kids up, take them home, make sure they do their grades, feed them and just stay out of my hair—I don’t want to have anything to do with parents. Did any of you feel like that? You’re not being honest. We all feel like that at some point.

I have to admit that earlier in my coaching career, I probably shared the same thing about wanting to coach in an orphanage, probably not more than 5 or 12 or 70 times. But it was… it was something that really crossed my mind: I wanted to get away from these parents. There are probably some parents on your team that are certifiable—and I don’t mean that in a good way. They are probably crazy, and they drive you crazy. So you have to engage them; you cannot continue to have to do battle with them.

You’ve no doubt heard the quote: “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” The first impression you make with those parents better be a good one; in fact, it better be a great one. So at the beginning of every school year, and you probably do this too—we do it with our club program—we have a parent meeting. It was a little different in high school, because I was the only coach and all the parents would come because they were required to come—because, I think there was some consequence to the swimmers if your parents didn’t show up for that meeting (I don’t know visions of people running around the track for miles and miles the next day crossed my mind, but something like that).

At the parent meeting, I told them I had some very specific priorities. You’ve got to let them know where you stand: “Now your priorities may not be what mine are…,” but I told them what mine were. I told them these were my expectations, these are my priorities, and this is the way it is gonna happen. And then as long as you follow along and maintain those priorities, and you’re consistent with what you said you were gonna do, those parents will more-often-than-not back you, or at least understand you.

There are a lot of jobs parents can help you do, but just like I said earlier—some of you are a little hesitant to raise your hands in a meeting, ask a question—you’re probably more hesitant to ask parents to help you. Why would I want to engage a parent to help me? Because then I’m gonna owe them something? Ever crossed your mind? Yeah, that’s why we want them off the deck and out of the picture. But they can really be helpful, if you have a good relationship overall.

And you’ve got to remember you’re working with the whole swimmer here. You’ve got to engage that parent; they’ve got to be supportive. Just as you have been hesitant, maybe, to ask or to raise your hand and ask questions, you might also be hesitant to ask a parent for help. They might want to help, they might see some area where they could help; but they don’t know how to ask, or they don’t want to ask. They don’t want to intrude. They don’t want to stick their nose in there, and have you think that they’re trying to get too involved. But they can be a tremendous, tremendous help.

First, don’t wait for a parent to volunteer to help you, because they may not. This morning, in his talk on ‘Attitude and Motivation’, Lanny talked about planting seeds: you know, give some ideas that can grow. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable going up to a parent and asking if they can help you in a certain area, then you can plant a seed. You can say matter-of-factly, ‘we could use…’ and then fill in the blank. Or, ‘You know what we need? It’s this…’, and then let the parent think about it for a little while and they can come back to you. I’ve got some great examples of how those things have happened.

If you’re really bold, and have no problems opening your mouth, just go up and say, ‘I need this, can you help out?’ ‘Will you do this for us?’ Very rarely will a parent say ‘no, I’m too busy,’ because they don’t want to tick you off—you might take it on out on their kid if they say no. That’s not the best way to approach things, obviously.

I was reminded this morning of another source of help. One of our NISCA coaches said, ‘You know, I get the most help from parents who come to me with complaints. Because when they come to me with their complaints,’ he says, ‘You know we got a problem with this…, or Why don’t we do this…, or They have that, why don’t we have that…. You say, That’s a great idea: will you be in charge of that?’ Do you have parents that don’t come to you with complaints? Do you have complaints? Do they come to you with complaints? Can you turn it around, and put it back on them? Yeah. ‘Oh, that’s a fantastic idea; I bet you’d be good helping us out to do that.’

I want to share a couple of examples with you. These are great, and all you’re doing is planting seeds. These are things you need. These are things you need that are dry issues, that if they will get taken care of, you can do your job: coaching. You can be on the deck, coaching.

We had a problem with kids hanging their wet suits after practice in their lockers. The lockers rusted, the paint came off; it was just… it was a terrible situation. And, of course, the suits didn’t last so good. So I came to one of these ASCA conventions. I’m walking up and down the exhibiter hall, and I saw this machine that was like a little mini-washing machine, it’s called a Suitmate Spin Dryer. You know what I’m talking about? Alright, they’re not cheap; they’re more expensive than a real washing machine and they’re only about this big. But I had money in our budget; we had a coke machine—we made profits off of that. Not Gatorade, real Coke, real Pepsi; all that good stuff that’s needed for coach hydration.

We had the money, and so I just went ahead and ordered these things. I said this is gonna be great. So I get in there, and I call maintenance, put in a work order: ‘come hang these on the wall, plug them in.’ and they say: ‘Coach, we can’t put them on your wall, because it will weaken the wall.’ What? ‘Yeah, because it’s so old….’ And they gave all sorts of excuses, which I found out later were not really true—they just didn’t want to do it.

So I’ve got these beautiful machines—one for the girls’ dressing room and one for the boys’ dressing room—and they work fantastic. If you’ve got one in your facility, you know that; they’re wonderful, you ought to get them. So I mentioned it to one of our parents, who was really good with handy work. I said, “You know, Mr. Dietrich, I wish there was some way that we could get these things hooked on the wall and plugged in, because the kids’ suits will last longer and we’ll get rid of all these other problems.” And he goes, ‘Let me think about that a little bit.’

So he came up one afternoon with a tape measure; and he just measured one of these machines, disappeared for a couple of days. And one day after practice, he backed his pickup truck to the front of the pool and I saw him unloading some sort of cart… some sort of contraption. He’d gone home and—with marine-treated plywood and 2x4s—had created these carts to install these machines on, that had wheels. And so we could: we installed these machines. We wheeled them over to where the outlet was, we plugged it in, we had something that worked. ‘How much do I owe you?’ ‘Oh, nothing: it was just some scraps I had laying around.’ Do you ever have parents volunteer to help you do stuff like that? They become real valuable to you.

We try to… off and on, we try to play water polo. Finally, one year, I used some more of that coke-machine money to buy some more water polo goals. They arrived from a vendor who is well known here, and it’s supposed to be a really-good water polo goal. We took things out, and I tried to hook-in the net on it. And it was like the net had been created like that dog in that Paul Bunyan story: been cut in half and put together backwards. There’s just no way to fit this net on there, and then the screws didn’t fit the bolts. I have a very low tolerance for frustration, and so I quickly went through my sailor’s vocabulary—I picked that from my dad in my early years. I run out of words to say, and one of the water polo dads apparently had been in the Navy and understood what I was saying, came over and said: ‘can I give you a hand?’ I said, ‘I am so frustrated. this is the stupidest set of instructions, you know the… you know they… I’m sure they did it in other country, because the English doesn’t make any sense. I don’t have this to fit this.’ he says: ‘Coach, got you covered.’ He says, ‘Just put it over in the corner, you’re back to the coaching water polo.’ I said: okay.

We had about two-hour water polo practice. While I was busy down at the deep end with them, he got… he went home, got his tool box, came back, and I didn’t even notice him. He had it all put together, ready to stick into the water, when water polo practice was over. You got a problem? Sometimes a parent is a great solution.

We would go… in our early years, we would go to these meets, and you go to meets and you see these banners all around the pool all the time. You know, you go to NCAAs, and you see, you know, Texas and Stanford and Tennessee and their great looking banners. But they’re sort of expensive, and we did not have a very affluent area—we’re blue color. We didn’t have a lot of money in the budget. You know, I had probably indicated to you that I was depleting the Coca-Cola funds at this point. So, I mentioned it to one of our parents: man, we ought to get a banner.’ And then he goes, ‘Yeah, you really ought to.’ Next meet, he shows up with this cardboard tube, and he says, ‘I got you something.’ I went: oh, what is it? And he says, ‘Well, open it up.’ And I opened it up, pulled out this banner. It’s the one you remember, and they still use it—this was like in 1985 or ‘86.

Mr. Beck had gone out and spent his own money—and he was not a rich guy. He was a blue color. He was… what’s two levels below blue? I don’t know what it was. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he knew that we needed a little team pride. So he went out, and he maybe dipped into his kid’s piggy bank and he had a banner made for us. ‘Wow, that is great. How much was it?’ And he goes: ‘I don’t know, it’s not important. Just think the kids ought to have one when you go to a swim meet.’

We started seeing these swimmers at this meet and they were… they had these little bags and they had food in the bags. They had bananas, oranges, crackers, a bottle of water; no, they didn’t have bottles of water, they probably had a Coke—it’s before the bottled water became real profitable. And I said, ‘Man that would… I wish we had somebody do that.’ Well, fortunately for me, I had a girl’s parent standing next to me. She goes: ‘You’d like to have what?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, the kids ought to have something to eat during the meet. I can’t keep… you know, handing out these free Cokes, because that’s what is keeping our funds down.’ So she said, ‘let me think about that.’

So she came back the next day, and she had a list. She says, ‘This is what would be good.’ I looked it up, and a banana, an orange, half a peanut-butter sandwich, some crackers… I mean, she just wanted us to eat the stuff you prepare for your kids. She said, ‘And we’ve got 11 more meets, this is what it costs. So we need to ask every kid’s parent to chip in 10, 11, 12 bucks and it will get us through the season—because I shop at Sam’s.’ I said: okay. So she said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can bring it in a box; who’s gonna hand it out?’ She says, ‘I’ll take care of it.’

So the very next meet, she shows up with a big cardboard box, and it’s got all these little… looks like a little lunch bags in it. Every one of them is decorated with decal sticker: they’ve got the kids name on it. Obviously, this woman didn’t have enough to do, but she got real busy and she did this. And so the kids said: ‘Oh coach, I’m so happy.’ And I said, ‘Happy, alright,’ so we started calling it a happy basket. You know the box and the happy bags became the happy basket, and to this day, they have happy baskets at Katy High School. They charge them a certain amount of money, fill them up, take care of them.

Getting timers who know how to push a button seems like an easy job, but apparently some people haven’t used their thumb very much on a stopwatch, because… you look up in the stands and you say you… we need timers. And again, I was a having… I had a couple a parents that had volunteered to help set-up for the meet. Don’t you love setting-up for the meets? You know, especially now, when you’ve got the cables and the touch pads and the computers and the timing boxes… you know, unless you’re smart and have one of those smart IST, one computer does all, but you still got cables and cords and buttons and all this stuff.

And while you’re trying to set this up, your team is supposed to be warming up. And we know that they are so responsible that all you have to do is tell them what they need to do and they’ll do it perfectly. They don’t: they’re having chicken fights, they’re having a splash contest, they’re trying to surf on a stack of six kickboards. They’re doing everything but what they should be doing.

So I had a parent come-over and say, ‘Coach I’ll take care of the timing for you.’ And I think he was doing it because heard some of my sailor-talk again, but he got it taken care of.

I had one parent start with me… I had a summer team, and his kid started with me when he was 6 years-old and he got really involved with the summer team. Now summer-team parents—if you think high school parents and club parents are nuts—summer-team parents are absolutely from another galaxy, because they can drive you absolutely crazy. But he was a good one, and he wanted to become as good as he could. So, he learned how to push a button on a stopwatch, to start with. Then he learned how to pull a trigger on the gun, because that’s what we used back in those days. When his son got older enough to get into high school, he said, ‘How hard is it to be a high school official?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. Can you read?’ You know, so he got the rulebook, he took the test; he wanted to be in my starter. We developed a really good relationship, which is really handy because he ran for school board.

I mentioned before that our pool was built in 1965. Our pool was 25 meters long, 3 feet deep in the shallow end—and which of course is where they put the starting blocks—and it was 4 lanes. We never had a meet… a home meet, except for fun twice, in the course of 17 years. In 1997, our pool was… (what is that?) 42 years old. I mean: it’s old; it was old in 1970.

They pushed through a bond issue to include money to renovate our high school campus. He’s on the school board. But he’s also on the school board with two parents who had kids in our summer program, who really liked what they experienced there. Those guys pushed through two-and-a-half million dollars to build us a new, state-of-the-art pool, which became a model for building every future pool in our school district.

Okay, because he came and was treated right; but it wasn’t him that was treated right: it was his kid that was treated right. You’ve got to treat the kids fair, and that’s probably one of the hardest things to do: make sure you portion-out your attention and your communication and your instruction to all the kids evenly over the course of your coaching. I did not like setting-up the pool for meets; parents took care of that. Parents can be a great resource.

The faculty is somebody else you need to establish some relationship with, because they can help you. I had a teacher call me one day and tell me about one of my students, one of my star swimmers. He was not paying attention in class, causing a disruption; repeated comments from a teacher and nothing happening. And I said: I’ll take care of it. So when he came to practice that afternoon—you’ve probably done this—this is nothing new, but the quieter you talk to a student, the more serious they know you are. And I said, ‘Trey, I got a call from Miss Smith this afternoon.’ Got his attention real quick. I said, ‘Do you know what she called me about?’ ‘Yes sir.’ And I said: ‘Good. Let’s make this real simple: she will never call me again about your behavior in class. Do you understand what I’m saying?’ ‘Yes sir.’ And I said, ‘Do you really understand what I’m saying?’ And he says, ‘Yes sir.’ And I say, ‘Okay, thank you.’

Two days later, I got the same call from the same teacher. As soon as she said this is Miss Smith, I went: oh, lordy. She says, ‘What did you say to Tray? He has been an angel.’ The coaches at our school are really good about conveying that to their athletes: you don’t misbehave in a teacher’s class. And the teachers know that all the coaches support them. This is gonna help you a lot. If they have any problems with an athlete, they don’t call their parent, they call the coach. The kid would much rather you call the parent, you call the assistant principal, you call the S.W.A.T. team; but don’t call the coach—because coach will make their lives absolutely unbearable. When the teachers know they have that support from you as a coach, you’re establishing really good relationship.

So, one of these teachers, was a shop teacher, and I had these long fins. And I just heard—I’m gonna say it again—I heard Lanny talking at a TISCA clinic down in Texas about he couldn’t afford Zoomers, because those were like $40 a pair. (Is that right, $40.00 a pair for Zoomers?) But you can buy these long, generic fins for about 10, 15 bucks a pair. He says: so we just cut them off, and we call them Zoomies. And I said: what do you cut them off with? And he goes: we took them to the shop, put them on the band saw. So I said: that’s a great idea.

So I went down to the shop teacher, who I had an experience with a misbehaving student in his class too, and I said: ‘Norman, got this problem, I need a band saw. Can I come in and use it after school?’ And he goes, ‘Coach, let me send these two boys down to the pool with you. You give them your fins, and we’ll have them ready for practice this afternoon.’ That was nice.

I got asked to come and video at the football games. Now in Texas, football is… some people say it’s like a religion down there, but it’s not—it’s more important than that. And we film everything. So they needed, they wanted, somebody to come and help them film, because you know even with a staff of 12, that wasn’t enough to coach the team. So they needed somebody to help with the video, so I volunteered to help with the video. “Volunteered” meaning: they asked me, expecting a positive affirmative response, and I said yes.

So after the football season was over, our swim meets were really starting to get into a full-swing. And I go to one of our first meets getting ready to start the meet, and this football coach—who is our defensive coordinator—showed up with a camcorder. And I said, ‘What are you doing? You trying to learn something about swimming?’ He says, ‘No. I’m here to videotape your meets for you.’ I didn’t ask him to, he just felt it was a good relationship we had, and he wanted to give me back what I had given to him.

The biggest help I think we had was in trying to get these people… you know there are some problems we referred to earlier: finding timers. It was really difficult to find timers for swim meets. So, at our… we’re not like New Trier, or some of these big schools, where 300 people may show-up for a home meet; we needed some timers. Now I’ve made good friends with the special aid teacher, because she was involved in Special Olympics and I got involved with that a little bit. She appreciated that; and we got to be real good friends, talked about her needs, our needs.

I took one of her kids with Down syndrome to be one of my managers. He handed out the cards back in the days where you had to fill out the little IBM cards. David would hold on to the cards, and the kids, the swimmers, were absolutely wonderful. They knew that he was mentally challenged and… ‘David, could I have my card, please?’ And he just hold it out, and they’d look for their card and they’d say thank you. It did wonders for David. He was a wonderful kid, wonderful kid.

But the special aid teacher had heard me comment, grumbling and complaining—which is so unlike me—but heard me complaining about having a problem getting timers for the swim meet. So she goes to tell her friend, who is the drill team lady—and drill team is also big in Texas, it might be bigger than football. We have only about 400 drill team girls, and they have to earn some service hours doing volunteer work. So the special aid teacher went and told the drill team lady; drill team lady called me up, and said, ‘I hear you might benefit from having some bodies on the deck. I’ve got some girls who’d love to come and time at your meet.’ ‘Thank you.’ And that worked out really well too.

The student body can give you some sort of support too. A lot of times you look at them as managers. Where would we be without managers? Who are your managers? Did you advertise for managers? I never advertised for managers. I looked at the kids that… in the old days… I developed a no-cut policy later in my career. But I used to cut kids, because as I told you we only had 4 lanes and we had 40, 50, 60 kids showing up. I just did not have any space to put them in the water, and I had to cut kids.

And then I started thinking: why don’t you keep these kids involved? So the kids that were in the ‘cut’ category, I started asking: ‘Would you like to be my equipment manager?’ ‘Would you like to be in charge of this?’ ‘Be in charge of something?’ They said yes. ‘You can be our equipment captain.’ ‘You can be our communications captain.’ We had a lot of captains, lots of managers; and they could help out tremendously. These student groups, you can get a support group, an all-out support group which can come, and they can share, and they can work timing for you. They can be a big part of your program, if you let them.

It can be as big a deal as you want it to be; as special a deal as you try to make it be. There are so many ways to do this. Give them a fancy name. We broke off a group of those drill team people, and—our school mascot was the tigers—we started calling them Tiger Timers. Got shirts for them; big deal.

When I went to Texas back in 1978, there was an interesting phenomenon: a bunch of young ladies called… this is probably so politically incorrect these days, but they were called Bevo’s Babes—Bevo is the big, longhorn-steer mascot for the University of Texas. And these girls wore t-shirts and burnt-orange shorts, and they timed at the meets and they were called Bevo’s Babes. I don’t think you can get away with that now, but we thought it was rather interesting that first year there.

In the spring, after we got back from NCAAs, I was informed, as one of the assistant coaches, that we were going to have 2 assistant coaches and 2 senior swimmers doing an interview: some girls who want to be on Bevo’s Babes the next year. I had no idea how popular this was. So I and another assistant and two senior swimmers went over to this classroom in this old building, and we got ready to interview a couple of dozen girls, we thought, for Bevo’s Babes. You would have thought it was auditions for American Idol: the hallway was filled with a couple-of-hundred girls who wanted to be part of Bevo’s Babes. So that was a big student support organization.

Can you do anything at your school like that? I wouldn’t suggest calling them babes or hunks, or anything like that. But, if you can come up with a group, if you can get started, you make it really big and make them feel really special, you’re gonna have an awful lot of help, an awful lot of help.

There are a lot of areas you can use help in, I might have touched on a couple of them. What I’d like to do is to ask you for some help right now—I’ve learned how to ask for help. So I’m gonna ask for some help, and ask you to share a problem that you may have faced and then solved in your program, to increase your virtual staff. It’s not a paid staff, it’s a volunteer. How have you had a problem and have solved it getting someone to help you? What unique ideas have you had that resolved something? Yeah would you…

[audience member]: Yeah, this is one that kind of backfired, a little bit. I have this mom that kept complaining about… this is when we had to write out results, pre computer. And yeah, I’m… and anyway, so she had been complaining. So I said: well okay, how about you do this? And she said, ‘I would love to do that’. And our times were so screwed up after that, I actually had to say ‘we’ll get somebody else to do that’, and she was not very happy. So that backfired.

[DA]: They can backfire. So, you have to use some of that coaching discretion and insight that you develop over the years. And knowing these people, you say like, ‘You know, I never want to ask Debra…’. I can think of a couple people right now I would never ask for help. But I can think of some that I really like to have help.

Anybody else? Yes.

[audience member]: I’m a big believer in parent’s organizations. I’ve always had one; go back 30 years, I’ve always been in a parent organization. I invest part of the team in that. I talk about the triangle: the coach is on one side, and the swimmer is on the other side—we all know about the triangle—and the parent. And I say: without the parents, we’re not gonna be a success. So I tell them; each year I have a meeting. I set my captain’s parents basically as the president and vice president—or whatever you want to call them—and I tell them what I need. And then I have a parents meeting the first week of practice, and I tell all the parents the philosophy of the team: what we’re expected to do this year, and how we can’t really succeed without them, so their very important people to the team. And since I am the only coach, I tell them: ‘Look, I’m not gonna micro-manage you. I’m gonna tell you what I need, and I expect you to set it up and do it.’ And it works.

And I will share one, if you’ve never set-up a parents’ organization. I walked into a school that has always been at the bottom of a 10- or 11-team league—or some place near the bottom. Never had a parents’ organization; so I said: we’re gonna form a parents’ organization. And I told my swimmers—I had about 40—I said: I need at least one of your parents at this meeting. I think probably about 98% showed up with at least one parent for each swimmer—and they never had a parents’ organization. So I told them, once again, about the whole… my idea about the triangle concept. And I said these are the things that I’m gonna need done this year, and I need your help doing them. Talked about banquet planning, we talked about raising money, we talked about helping, others needs, whatever else you need. So I went through this deal for about half-an-hour, and then I said, ‘I told you what I need, I’m not gonna tell you how to do it. I just want you to figure it out. So, please, help me out.’ And I walked—we were in a parents’ house, their rec room—and I walked out the door, and there was this silence. And I’m thinking: God, what did I do? It lasted maybe 30, 45 seconds. Finally, one person says: I think I know what we can do here. That was it, it went from there.

[DA]: That’s great. I know we’re running right-up against the two-hour cut-off for this. I want to thank you for being here; I hope something made an impression. But I just want to close by saying: treat your kids fair, and work real hard to establish positive personal relationships with everyone you work with and especially the parents. But remember that kid in the water is a person. The swimming-time in their life is a real-small portion of that life-pie, and they’re gonna gain so much from you besides the swimming. So make sure you invest in them, because it really will pay back. Thank you very much.

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