George Block: “Humility and the Common Cause”

In early September, I asked WSCA President and ex-ASCA President George Block to have dinner with our ASCA Staff and give a non-staff view the value of the American Swimming Coaches Association. George, as is usual, was brilliant and inspiring. Hereafter, I have taken George's notes and attempted to reproduce them as a written piece. Any brilliance belongs to George, any mistakes, to me.

A Common Cause…

The ASCA Coach refuses to be satisfied with the status quo. ASCA feeds that dissatisfaction, and gives the coach the tools to act. ASCA Coaches lead the way for other coaches to follow. ASCA helps them to find their way and BECOME LEADERS of our profession.

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What is a Coach?

Coach Paul Bergan
"Without the coaches that have so positively impacted Claire it is hard to imagine her becoming the person she is today." - Connie Donahue, mother of 2012 Olympic gold medalist Claire Donahue
"Over the course of our children's (Sean, Kevin and Kara Lynn) swimming careers we were fortunate to have had coaches who taught them to be the 'complete package'. The complete package is when you are a good swimmer and a better person." - Bob Joyce, father of three-time Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce
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On Swim Culture

OMAHA - Matt Grevers had just come off a dominating win in the 100 backstroke here at the US swim Trials. It was late at night. He was walking across the bridge that connects CenturyLink Arena to the Hilton Omaha and he was walking slowly, very slowly, because about every 10 feet a gaggle of girls was asking for autographs and photos. He was signing and posing and he could not have been more gracious, even when the girls gave way to a grown man who asked if he would pose for a photo with a picture glued to a popsicle-stick of his hometown orthodontist, apparently a swim dad. Whatever. Grevers posed for the photo and the guy gushed, "Matt, you just saved me two-thousand bucks!" "It's a big family," Grevers would say later. "Everyone wants everyone to do well." Every sport has its own culture. A reason, perhaps the key reason, for USA Swimming's ongoing success at the Summer Olympics - and why the team that's being put together here at the Trials is expected to continue that run in just a few weeks in London - is its underlying culture. Read More

From George Block

There was an interesting article in our paper over the weekend on the “1%.”

They are 300% more likely to work over 50 hours per week than the 99% and they are also 300% more likely to own their own business. The final 300% was church membership. They were 300% more likely to identify themselves as a member of a church.

I think this is what we have to keep pointing out to our kids. Whatever the field of endeavor – swimming, surgery, business, music – to be in the top 1%, you have to work harder than the other 99%; you have to be willing to go it alone if you have to and it isn’t about you. There are things bigger in life than you.

Back in the day that I did my leadership research, I found the same phenomenon. All of the coaches who participated in the original research focused for about 2 years on developing leaders (all the same character issues). Within 4 years, all of the programs had reverted to “just coaching.” Working on leadership/character is hard. It takes just as much planning and measurement as any other part of our training.

Character/leadership development requires a season plan for those activities. Sometimes “teachable moments” require us to opt for teaching over training. That is a very tough decision for most coaches. Teeing this issue up will help make that decision more clear for every level of coaching.

Good work, John, and good work, Heidarys!



“A Reminder at Thanksgiving” with Thanks to Don Heidary

Swaziland Swimming

ASCA Level One Clinic - Foundations of Coaching

I had the recent opportunity and privilege to present the ASCA Level 1/Foundations of Coaching Course to the coaches (all of them) in Swaziland, Africa. For them, this was the first connection to ASCA (The American Swimming Coaches Association) or USA Swimming in the country's history. We spent two full days reviewing course material in Power Point and DVD format, watching videos from Olympians to Dr. G analysis, reading articles, and discussing safety and child protection.

The clinic was attended by twenty-five coaches and four parent council members. The coaches included those running small, humble club teams, teachers who offered swimming in schools, learn-to-swim instructors, and even some who run an orphanage (with motto, Orphans Today, Leaders Tomorrow) that offers swimming. Each coach received a USA Swimming pin, sticker, and pencil, and a glimpse into a world that they had only heard about; America and USA Swimming. Read More


Response to “What Will Improve Swimming in the Underdeveloped Swimming Nations: A Thought Piece by John Leonard” from Dale Neuburger

I read with great interest the “thought piece intended to provoke opinions and discussion” from John Leonard regarding the development of swimming worldwide, and I am pleased to respond with my personal viewpoint.

John…you are exactly right: positive role models, whether athletes or coaches, inspire others. Three of the more interesting examples come from Africa.

As we know, Oussama Mellouli has been one of the best swimmers in the world for almost a decade, and his Olympic gold medal in the 1500 meter freestyle was the first ever achieved by a swimmer from Tunisia. But although the bulk of his training has been in the United States, there are young swimmers in his country who have been inspired by his accomplishments. One such young man is Ahmed Mathlouti, who finished 21st in the 200 freestyle in Rome at age 19, with a sub-1:48.00 performance.

For many years, Salim Iles was the most recognized swimmer to compete for Algeria, and he was a consistent finalist in sprint freestyle races on the international level. He, too, did the bulk of his training outside of his home country in France and the United States, but he inspired the “next wave” of Algerian swimmers, including Nabil Kebab, who had a sub-49.00 performance in the 100 freestyle and Daid Sofiane who swam under 1:02.00 in the 100 meter breaststroke in Rome.

And, when South Africa athletes – Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, and Darian Townsend – won the 400 freestyle relay gold medal in Athens, they enabled young swimmers in their country to “dream the impossible dream.” Although the bulk of their training was in the United States, just a few years later, Cameron van der Burgh, Natalie du Toit, and Gerhard Zandberg have established themselves as standouts in international competition.

All six of these swimmers were undoubtedly inspired by their predecessors who had “blazed trails” to achieve international success. And each did so against the odds. Would it have happened anyway? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

And sometimes inspiring swimmers come from other countries, too.

In January 2009, I was in Riyadh performing some work for a Saudi Arabian sports federation. Coincidentally and totally unknown to me, Michael Phelps was appearing at a business conference at the same time, featuring other Olympic heroes like Carl Lewis. Michael graciously agreed to spend a few hours at the pool at the Olympic Training Center, to “meet and greet” young Saudi swimmers.

More than 500 young swimmers showed up at the pool, some of whom came from more than four hours away, traveling by car, through the desert.

Five hundred Saudi kids…six months after Beijing…traveling enormous distances across the desert, just to see Michael for a few minutes.

The power of inspiring athletes knows no reasonable bounds.

And, although there are swimmers who fit the description in your article, there are also many others who use the FINA World Championships or Olympic Games as their inspiration. For some, merely competing will be a lifelong memory;for others, it will be the impetus for continued training and competition. They swim in the same pool as the heroes of our sport, and even if their success is modest, their motivation is great.

And sometimes coaches take tough positions which inspire great performances.

I am reminded of a brash young coach – Dave Kelsheimer – who coached the National Team of the Cayman Islands. Although two “universality” positions were open to Cayman swimmers to compete at the Sydney Olympic Games, he told his swimmers and their parents that none would compete in Sydney unless they achieved a qualifying time. None did, and no Cayman swimmers went to Sydney. It was not only difficult to take such a stance within his club, but he also incurred the wrath of the Cayman Islands Olympic Committee.

Four years later, Cayman had three swimmers with an Olympic “B” qualifying time – Andrew Mackay, Heather Roffey, and Shaune Fraser. From no qualifiers in the history of Cayman swimming through 2000, to three swimmers at the Athens Olympic Games…that’s real progress!

And, four more years later, Cayman was represented by two athletes – Shaune and Brett Fraser – who came very close to becoming semi-finalists in Beijing, both finishing in the top 30 in their best events. Shaune has since won three NCAA individual titles, while Brett had several top 16 performances leading to a fifth place finish in 2010 for Coach Gregg Troy’s University of Florida team.

It took the courageous (and risky) stance by a coach to help athletes aspire to results they had never before achieved nor imagined. He passed up a chance to be on the pool deck in Sydney, which would be a dream-come-true for any young coach, in order to make a point and to create a platform for long-term success of the program.

Yes, maybe it would have happened anyway…but, I think not!

Swimming has an abundance of role models, both in and out of the water, as athletes and coaches. We need to tell their stories, chronicle their successes, and celebrate their ability to succeed even when the odds are significantly stacked against them.


The Issue of Leadership: A Very Short Presentation

By John Leonard to the Age Group Chairs at USA Swimming Convention, 2010 in Dallas, Texas.

Lets talk about leadership for a few minutes. What is it? How Do You Provide It?

What do you do with it?

First, my very personal definition of leadership is your ability to help your fellow human beings live a more fulfilling life. It’s about what you can do for others, not what they can do for you. It’s about serving other people. In my humble view, that’s the meaning of life. We can all exhibit leadership traits and skills at various points in our lives. Sometimes we each lead, sometimes we each follow.

Leadership comes from 4 stages of Earned Leadership….first, you must be competent within the group at question. Second stage, once you prove competent, the next thing is that others must believe you CARE about them first, and not yourself. If you pass those first two tests, you will be watched, so now you are leading by example. If your actions set a good standard, then you will be granted the privilege of leading by voice and you have reached stage four. Thanks to George Block for teaching me about those four steps. They’re good for all of life, not just leading in coaching.

Be careful. Once you lead by voice, you’ll have every word and action scrutinized, and your credibility is all you have as a leader.

Ok, now you’re leading. What do you do?

First, leaders help define the vision. What does the group want to be? Do? Stand for?

Second, leaders keep the group on task. 75% by encouraging, 25% by enforcing.

Third, leaders help their group SUCCEED, by pointing out their strong points, skills and assets.

Fourth, leaders measure and evaluate…..set standards and plan and replan.

Now, what skills are critical to leaders in doing those tasks?

First, you have to be able to sell your ideas. Sales skill is critical. It can be learned.

Second, you need to be able to SIMPLIFY and JUSTIFY. Have the skill to make complex problems understandable, clear and the way past them simple. (not to be confused with easy.) Have the ability to reduce an action to “JUST do this.” Leaders can be WRONG and we’ll forgive. Leaders cannot be CONFUSING. The leader has to be clear.

Third, you need to be able to REFRAME and REFOCUS the group. Inevitably, things will be harder than the group thinks. The Leaders job is to put it in perspective, look at the issue in a different way, and bring the group back to focus and hard work when they bounce off a problem. Resiliency is a great thing in any team. The Leader sets the tone for that. Fourth, we all follow people who can “provide HOPE.” The leader says “we will triumph and this is how…” No effective leaders are grumpy pessimists. Leaders are optimists with a plan. Give the group HOPE and show them the way to victory and success.

Finally, the highest form of leadership is reached when the leader can become invisible and people appear to be “leading themselves.” This of course, requires the oft-sought “internal motivation.” In the book “DRIVE” by Daniel Pink, the author delineates three critical criteria for the development of Internal motivation. They are:

  1. Autonomy – the person has (and/or appears to have) the ability to control their own destiny by their actions.
  2. Mastery – the person has or perceives that they have, the ability to become very good at the task at hand. (If you think you can, you can….if you think you can’t, you are also correct.)
  3. A sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. (A TEAM thus is a perfect fit for this one.)

If the leader can help create a team of internally motivated individuals, the leader will be left with precious little to do…and that is what every leader should aspire to.

For swim coaches, I am reminded of a great line on life from Orinda Aquatic Club and Coach Don Heidary…..”Prepare the child for the path, don’t prepare the path for the child.”

Trust our young people. They can be strong, resilient competent, caring leaders who can lead by example and by voice, if given the chance to face the “slings and arrows of outrageous fate” by themselves.

Let’s give them that chance every day.

Thanks for your work as leaders in your LSC every day. Good luck for your continued success.

Thank you.

John Leonard


Collegiate Athletics As It Should Be

We are all so proud of our men's basketball team for its performance in the NCAA tournament. But it was a triumph for the University as well as for the team.

A friend said to me, "Duke won the game, but Butler won the hearts of the nation."

A president of an educational foundation wrote, "This team, its coaches and staff reflect the character and perseverance that define the Butler University experience. It was a privilege being there to witness a very special team, and to appreciate how the educational values of an institution can be so perfectly reflected in the accomplishments of its athletes."

A fellow university president emailed, "When the announcers were pointing out that there were two Academic All-Americans on the floor tonight and both of them were from Butler, and that eight of your players were in class this morning, I swelled with pride. This is what intercollegiate athletics is all about. I am a member of the NCAA Board now and we are struggling with what is appropriate for college sports. All we need do is look to Butler and we have our answer."

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Why Do It?

I got a letter the other day from a coach in a foreign country, who wanted to know how the USA recognized all the contributions made by its “ordinary guys” in coaching….who give clinics, write articles, take care of swimmers who are not on their own team and don’t score any points for them, help parents who are in need, (and not on their own team) and generally “did good in the swimming world.”

I thought about it, laughed and said, “In the USA, we do that stuff because we want to, not for awards, money or recognition.”

He sent me back a note implying that not only was I lying, but I was hopelessly naïve. Well, I’m not lying and I’m definitely not naïve.

So I thought about it some more. Why didn’t he get this?

And I realized why swimming coaches in this country make contributions like the above.

First, we love our country and the incredible privilege of living in such a remarkable place (not flawless, surely, but…..remarkable….) where we have the freedom and support to be what we want to be and do what we want to do. MOST other places in the world, we couldn’t do that. So we feel blessed. And when you feel blessed, you have no issues in need of further recognition.

Second, we love our sport, and the incredible privilege of working in such a remarkable field (not flawless, surely, but….remarkable..) where we actually get paid something for doing an activity most of us would do for free if someone couldn’t pay us. Because we feel the privilege of working in swimming, we want to contribute back and feel a deep responsibility to do more than take….and it feels SOOOOOOOO good to contribute instead of taking.

Third, we love the other people in our sport, and the incredible privilege of working with such remarkable people (not flawless, surely, but….remarkable).

When you love the people around you, you want to help them, contribute to them, make them feel like family and without thought of benefit, gain or recognition, just “do the right stuff by them.” American Swimming IS a team, as Chuck Warner (Head Coach of Rutgers Women) constantly reminds us, and because it is, it’s not a corporation, (though there are corporations who are a part of it) it’s not a business (though lots of business is involved) and it IS a Family.

And we are all thrilled to be a part of the family. Most families don’t hand out awards to each other. They hand out hugs and knowing and appreciative smiles to each other.

And that’s plenty.

John Leonard


A wonderful line from Chuck Warner…

“Once again, swim coaches know that “impossible” is just defining the difficulty of the task.”