Creating Talent in a Small Talent Pool by Michael Brooks (2008)


[Introduction] My name is Bill Rose and I am here to introduce to you, Michael Brooks. I can only tell you a few things about Michael that are very interesting. Dennis Pursley,on one of his travels, had occasion to work with me a couple of years ago and we always talked about different coaches around the country and so on and I asked him when we were talking about age group coaches, “who do you think, over your period of time, have you run into that is probably the best age group coach”? He did not hesitate and he said, “there is only one and that is Michael Brooks. He is the most intelligent – the most dedicated age group coach he has ever seen and one of the most intelligent people in our business” and I said – that is a lot to say and he says, “well, I will tell you what – the guy doesn’t have a life. He works 24 frigging hours a day”. Also, this morning, I ran into his brother Ian and I said, well – can you tell me something about your brother? “He doesn’t have a life”, and the fact is, but he is best known in the area for his fluorescent shorts and I don’t know what I was supposed to say to that but the bottom line is we are in for a treat today – please listen and you are going to see some amazing stuff – Michael Brooks.

[Coach Brooks] Well, thank you very much Bill and I would also like to thank John Leonard for giving me the opportunity to speak here and also. Unlike this morning, I am actually going to talk about what I was supposed to talk about so this is creating talent in a small talent pool or subtitle – “Lake Woebegone Swimming where every child is above average” and I think you can do that, but the expectations have to be there for that to happen and I want to start with a little poem. Bob got to talk about Beethoven and Frank Lloyd Wright and I am going to talk about Thomas Grey who was an 18th Century English poet, most famous for his “Elegy, Written in a Country Church Yard”. In one of the stanzas – it is a fairly long poem is:

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

That is – well for one – beautiful, but second – it tells a lot I think about what happens in sports and in swimming in particular. There is a lot of talent out there that isn’t getting noticed and isn’t getting developed. One of my goals in my program is to make sure that I look hard enough to see whatever talent is there and that I give my kids as many different opportunities to show me what they can do as is possible. I think that generally, if you only give kids a limited range of things to do in practice or events to swim or what have you, you miss out on a lot of opportunities of seeing real talent. I will give you some examples of that a little bit later.

Just a very quick overview of who I am and where I have been: For the past two years I have been the head coach at York YMCA which is in York, Pennsylvania. Previously I spent two years working for Denny Pursley at Brophy East swim team in Phoenix. I was his Head age group coach and then the five years before that, working in York, same place I am now, running a site of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. I think that the two stints – both at North Baltimore Aquatic Club and Brophy, taught me most of what I know. With Bob and Murray, it was an amazing chance to get to work with geniuses who were fanatically driven and with Denny it was an opportunity to work with a person of the highest integrity I have ever met. It was very important in my becoming the coach I am and hopefully will be later.
About York in particular – it is not quite as well known as Boston or New York. We are about 45 miles North of Baltimore, 15 South of Harrisburg and 25 West of Lancaster. There are about 40,000 people in the town itself so it is not super tiny, but it is not New York City. A fairly small place, it is the snack food capital of the world. Yes, so put that on your vacation itineraries for next time. It is also home to a Harley Davidson plant and it used to be the home of York Peppermint Patties, not any more, unfortunately. The York YMCA where I am coaching right now is a team of about a hundred. We have two sites; a smaller one a bit south which has only about 20 kids, the main downtown about 80 and I would say a total of about 70-80 swim year around USS and the rest swim seasonal and participate primarily in local dual meets. We have 5 coaches on our staff. I am the only one who doesn’t have a separate full-time job. Three of the 5 are volunteers – it is working for a YMCA and volunteerism is very, very important and there are some ramifications to that, but I am the only one who is there at the pool all the time and contrary to what Bill said, I do actually have a life.

Over the past two years since I got to York – we have come a long way. On the club virtual championships or virtual club championships we have moved up around 680 spots. It started at about 920 and are at about 240 right now and until we get more kids it is going to be hard to make a big jump from where we are. This summer we had our first National Junior Team member, qualifier, four kids qualified for Seniors and a few others for Juniors and four kids in the Top 10 Nationally for IMX and we take IMX really, really seriously so for me – that is a really big deal – trying to get as many kids as possible in the top 100 and the top 50 and the top 10. I have coached in a number of different areas – a number of different LSC’s and every place is radically different. Swimming is built in different ways – whether high school is more or less important – how long the high school seasons are – how important USS is in comparison with the rec leagues or summer leagues or country club leagues or what have you and while the aim of coaching I think is pretty similar anyway – you are trying to get kids excited about being fast – there are certain differences and certain challenges when you are coaching in a very small place, compared with what I think the situation – that’s not good – there we go – there are certain differences when you coach in a small place that I think are fairly important.

I want to talk first about the rules and I think these are pretty fundamental. First, you don’t need to coach in a big city to get kids to swim fast. Second, you don’t need to train in a great facility to get kids to swim fast and third, you don’t need to coach a huge team to get kids to swim fast. The assumption is – there is talent in your pool or potentially in your pool – the goal is to find it, spot it and develop it and you are going to be doing it one swimmer at a time, as opposed to huge groups if you have got a team of thousands and the challenge is to recognize what potential there is in your situation. It is so easy to complain about what you don’t have. I don’t have a 50 meter pool – it’s a pity, but we swim better in long course than we do in short course because we have decided that we are going to train in ways that allow us to do that. You know, we are jammed into a six lane 25 yard pool where there is not nearly as much potential to individualize practices. You just do not have the room. As a result, we get a lot of kids racing each other all the time. That is a great advantage that we wouldn’t have if I had a different lane for breaststrokers or a different lane for butterflyers or what have you so there is a way to do things and we always tell our swimmers, at least I tell mine – no whining. Do not tell me about your excuses – do the job and I think that same attitude needs to hold with coaches and I have talked with a lot of coaches in places where they just couldn’t do it because they didn’t have access to a 50 meter pool or they didn’t have an 800 member team so they couldn’t compete with the big boys – the Rockville Montgomerys, the Novas – whoever and there is always a way to be successful. Sometimes you need to re-adjust your goals – decide what a realistic goal or measure of success really is and this generally.

I think there are some real advantages/opportunities to being in a small place. Now when you are terrible it is easy to get a lot better. If you are already the best – you have got to be very creative about finding ways to get better. It is easy for a team that is starting at the very bottom. No matter what you do you are going to improve so it is easy to get kids and parents – easier – to get them to buy into what you are doing because they can see improvement – I mean – it is so obvious and in a small town it doesn’t take very long before you are the big fish and not just among swimming programs, but by and large among athletic programs. Where the expectations are low, if you are fairly motivated, it doesn’t take long and the next thing you know you are attracting talented athletes from other sports – other teams and in the process becoming hated by the coaches of those other teams, but that is different. When you are coaching in the middle of nowhere and the neighbors are really slow – all you need to do is throw a little work at them – make them kind of pretty and kids who seemingly aren’t very talented at all are being very successful and if you want to get kids into swimming and not have them also participate in soccer and lacrosse and student council and cheerleaders and baton twirling and everything else that kids are into these days – get them successful because if they can be successful in your program – more successful than they can be on this recreational soccer team or the basketball team or whatever – they are much more likely to be in your pool more often – commit to swimming. So in that sense, it is easier to succeed when everybody else is pretty slow.

Another advantage I think – cuts both ways, but another advantage is that as the head coach I can work with every swimmer in the program. If I had 200 – 300 – 2000 members on our swim team there is no way that could happen, but when you come into a place and you want to change a culture it is important that the message gets out to everybody and if I had to work through a team of 20 coaches or 15 coaches – I couldn’t be at all certain that the message I wanted to get out was really reaching everybody there, but as it is now – it is getting out because I am getting it out and I have control over the message to all of the kids. If I want to make sure that our teaching vocabulary is the same, I just need to talk the same. I mean – in that sense – it is fairly easy and it is easier to make quicker changes in a smaller team because one person – one coach is able to do more with a much greater range of kids; and then also with a small town or a small team, you can’t waste any kids and I think that is a real advantage. I have seen at some big meets where one of the larger teams will have an A relay in 11&12 boys and a B relay and a C and a D and an E and it goes all the way to the J relay and I really think it is probable that the 4th member of the J relay isn’t getting quite as much attention as the top 4 kids on the A relay. Well, when you have only got four 11 & 12 boys, you need to make sure that all four of them are getting tender loving care and you are paying attention to their development because you may have three studs, but if your breaststroker goes a 47 for a 50, you are not competing.

You have got to make sure that everybody is moving forward. I think that is an advantage. I think it is a good thing that you have got to pay attention to everybody and not everybody is going to reach the same level, but you are giving every kid the tools to reach as far as they possibly can and then encouraging them to want to.

There are, of course, disadvantages – for one thing I am probably not going to win a national team title in York – never know – it is on the list of goals, but that is a little ways down. One disadvantage is we can’t depend on talented kids walking in the door from good local clubs because there aren’t any good local clubs. There are probably 10 or 12 smaller, recreation-oriented seasonal teams that are affiliated with the high school programs as feeders in our area and if a swimmer comes from one of those programs – generally they come with very poor strokes – no physiological background at all and very low expectations, so essentially they are batting 0 for 3 and that has made it very challenging when an older swimmer – say 14 – 15 – 16 has come to try out because they have decided that they want to get a lot better. I have a very hard time figuring out where to put them because they cannot keep up with our kids their own age and you have to start working backward and the next thing you know they are getting dusted by our 10 year olds. It is very difficult for a 15 year old who thought he was pretty good to take that blow to the ego. Unfortunately because we are not big enough – we do not have a big enough staff to have a separate training group for kids in that situation. We have lost a lot of kids like that and I know that if we had had the place for them – if we had been able to take the time and start from where they were we might have been able to develop some you know – pretty decent kids – maybe not any superstars, but some kids that could get a real benefit out of our program. We haven’t been in a position to do that. We are moving into a new pool next month – thank goodness – which is going to give us a lot more space – a lot more pool time than we have had and one of my top goals or intentions at least is to start a training group for kids who are older – who don’t have the background, but who have the interest in being part of our team so that we can give them a place that they can get a lot better. And obviously, it is a lot easier to remedy deficiencies if you can get kids young, so unless swimmers join our team between 8 and 10 – it is hard to fit them right into the program and get them up to speed quickly – that is definitely a disadvantage.

One thing that usually doesn’t get thought about is that obviously you don’t have as many swimmers in a town of 40,000 where there isn’t a developed swimming environment as you would in San Francisco or Boston, but also there isn’t a well-developed infra-structure of coaches. We don’t have 2- pretty good programs in the area whose good coaches I can steal. I would love it if I could do that, but instead because there really aren’t any out there, I have got to take people who have been maybe teaching lessons and been doing a really good job at it and then bring them into coaching. There are nice things involved with creating a coach from scratch in that you can teach them exactly the way you want it to be – how you want them to coach and you don’t have a lot of bad habits to break. On the other hand – I am already stretched in a lot of different directions – trying to coach a whole lot of different ranges and ages at the same time and the last thing I really need is to have to spend half of my attention teaching somebody to coach while I am trying to give the kids the attention that they deserve, and as a result I haven’t been able to do nearly as good a job of coaching as I have wanted to because I have had to try and do two things at once and it hasn’t worked out nearly as well as I wanted so we have got to try and build our own coaches, just as we have to build our own swimmers.

And I mention that if you are really motivated it can be easy to get discouraged if you are going to a small place. There are always goals for a program – just as there are always goals for swimmers and some faster kids might have a goal of reaching Nationals – some kids might just be trying to make sectionals – others a local Junior Olympics – well – teams are exactly the same way and just because you might not win a National team title and take down Club Wolverine or Longhorn doesn’t mean that you can’t build a highly successful program and be doing a really, really good job. I mean – there are a lot of great coaches around that nobody has heard of – you know kids or coaches rather who are doing an amazing job with what they have got – they just don’t have 800 or a thousand to start with you know. So I think that you need to have a lot of goals. I like to have short term goals that if we work pretty hard we can accomplish fairly quickly so that kids and parents – just as important for the parents – can see the progress of the team and can use that as motivation to get better and they can use that as a reason to believe in what we are trying to build. I think you have to be able to show them fairly quick results and if you start with a goal at a lower level it is easy to achieve, it then you just keep knocking it up one rung at a time and it is not that difficult to keep people onboard and get kids and keep kids motivated to get better.

The long term goals – you know – trying to put kids on the National Junior team and then the National Team and then the Olympic team – those are long term goals that are great for keeping a program going in the right direction, but I think you need both a series of short term goals and you need those long term goals to make sure that everything gets focused. And trying to find meaningful goals to track our progress – we do use team goals and I mentioned the virtual club championships that I used to pay more attention to than I do now – at the moment I am paying a lot of attention to meets that we attend regularly – like for 2 or 3 years in a row and essentially the first year we go to a meet and we were pretty slow – it was – was York Y at the meet? And the second year it is wow – York Y sure looks stronger this year and the third year – jaws dropped – that is what I hope will happen and people will be saying good God – can you believe how strong York Y is? And I want that sort of progression as we go to the same meet and I want people to be able to see other people from other teams, but also our kids and in a lot of meets my first year we would get 10th or 11th in the team standings which was a jump from 20th or below previously and then this past year we got 2nd in a bunch of invitationals which was really nice.

It was irritating as all get out because I don’t like getting 2nd, but it was really nice because we moved all the way up from 9th or 10th so the goal for this next year is pretty obvious and we do look at that really carefully – making sure that our progress as a team, as a whole, is making significant jumps from one year to the other. But, by and large, when you have a smaller team you are not going to be steam-rolling people with your numbers – and particularly Nationally. So, individual achievement becomes really important and we have a lot of different ways to gauge that and to help motivate kids to try and get better. We use the motivational time standards all the time and we post on the wall at our pool whenever anyone gets a new A time or double A or triple A or what have you and we have a goal of having at least half the team at double A or better and we achieve that and at least a third of the team at triple A or better and now of course we are trying to move that percentage of the team up every year and this is sort of what I meant at the beginning about Lake Woebegone Swimming where every child is above average. If your swimmers think it is normal that an everyday average swimmer is going to be double A and you tell them that and they believe you – well they will go out and do it and if you tell them that an everyday average swimmer is going to be double B, well they will believe that too and I would much rather have my base level as a double A and then have everybody else kind of working from that and kids just end up being a whole lot faster when they have that expectation and I think it is up to the coach to determine what normal is.

I mentioned previously that we use IMX – USA’s swimming program very extensively and we post updated scores after every single meet. We have another section of our wall at the pool where we have got 11&12’s, 10 and unders, 13&14 – we have got them posted top to bottom – kids can see their overall score. They can see their scores in each of the events and we are trying to get as many kids scoring well – placing well nationally as possible and I have come up with a separate really – a separate scheme for judging IMX where if you get a certain number of points you are a platinum level or diamond level, platinum, gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin and it doesn’t take much to get on the tin – so just about everybody who has done all the events can at least get their foot in the door and get an award at the end of the season, but by the time you have worked all the way up to the platinum and diamond – kids have got to be scoring really high and the motivated kids are killing themselves to do that and I prejudice individual medley swimming over everything so having IMX as an excuse for kids to work on their weak strokes is wonderful. You know it is sometimes pretty difficult to get a terrible breaststroker who is a great butterflyer, backstroker and freestyler to work on breaststroke or even care about breaststroke, but when they know that their breaststroke can – if they work on it a little bit – improve their IMX score by 400 points – you know – that is a pretty good incentive and we have had kids who really progress from being terrible breaststrokers to being pretty respectable in the course of one season – just because they wanted to get their IMX score higher and they wanted to get their IMX score higher and they wanted to beat this other kid on our team who was better than they were. So, we have been very creative I think at using programs like motivational time standards and IMX to give our kids reasons for being fast.
We look at team records. The kids this past year in the last two seasons broke something like 335 team records and that was pretty good. Just about every meet we were knocking down 10 – 15 or more and then 40 or 45 at the Championship meets and it wasn’t just one swimmer who was setting all of the records. It was spread out among a whole bunch of different kids so we look very carefully at that as well and then you know trying to get kids to National camps – the Zone camp – The national select, the National Junior Team – the national team – for some of the kids who are maybe a little bit stronger at the moment – really nice.

I want to talk a little bit about York and some of the particular challenges that we had in trying to build and get to where we are right now. In York it is pretty well true that high school swimming rules the roost and if you have ever seen anything about high school football in Texas – it is a little bit like that with high school sports in general in Pennsylvania and each of the high schools in our area, and there are about eight of them, have or has a feeder program, club rec program associated with them and the loyalties to the high school teams and the loyalties to these recreational programs are very, very strong and it has been interesting trying to break into that established structure and do something different because in York – different is not good. Change is not good. They have been doing things in one way and they like it that way and people who rock the boat are usually suspected and I am suspected. But as I mentioned earlier – most of the kids with any experience at all that we are going to get in our program are coming from these other rec programs – feeder programs and the high school teams and their coaches have not been at all pleased that we were in town because we were stealing swimmers from them. They tended – these rec programs tended to be very dual meet oriented. They race the neighbors. They were very seasonal in that they would swim for three months and then take three months off – swim for three – take three months off.
It is a little bit hard to build a base like that and since they had really just raced in sprint events a lot of times the younger kids – the scrawnier kids – the kids who were a little bit behind biologically just – they had no place. You know, the sprint events were won by kids whose talent was for being big and a lot of kids didn’t stay in swimming because their only option was participating in the 25 free or the 50 free and at the York Y it was very much of a piece with all of those other programs. It wasn’t the high school fear because it was a Y and it was separate, but just about everything else was the same. They swam for three months – took three months off – the vision was very constricted and a few things were highly interesting in that the novices – the little 7 year olds swam for the same amount of time and the same number of practices as the top seniors. An hour and a half four days a week and when I tried to change that and move the novice practices to only an hour three times a week you would have thought I had tried to shoot their dog – like how is my child going to progress if you don’t let him swim for an an hour and a half and I always asked them well, how is he going to? If he swims for an hour and a half when he is 6 – where is he going to go from there? By the time he is 14 he going to need to be spending 8 hours a day in the pool so there was a real job at educating people about what swimming was all about and how high performance swimming really worked and changing the culture was really very difficult.

There were a lot of times the first year that I didn’t think I was going to make it and I tried to change as much as I could without completely alienating everybody and losing my entire team, and I had come from North Baltimore Aquatic Club and then Brophy where the level of expectation was quite high and came to a place where the level of expectation was abysmally low and trying to bridge that gap without my going crazy and losing all my swimmers was pretty interesting, pretty difficult. One of the most important ways that I think that we have done that so far is we had to make swimming important. If you are only paying about $100.00 a year to swim and you are only swimming for a total of maybe 6 months a year – if swimming is really just one of 12 activities you do and not something that you commit to – it isn’t important and I had to convince these folks that swimming was important. For one thing, if I wanted to eat I was going to have to charge a whole lot more and we charge five times more than anybody else in the area and if swimming isn’t important, they are not going to do that so we had to make it important by giving them opportunities that they were not going to have elsewhere. We tried to get our kids out of town and traveling – all around the country for swimming meets and then every time we do – we try very hard to get publicity for that in the papers because I know that with these other rec programs they are not going anywhere further than 15 minutes away and if I can get my kids to California for Far Westerns or Ft. Lauderdale for YMCA Nationals then that is an opportunity that somebody out there is going to want to have and they do not have elsewhere.

We are continually preaching that swimming is more than just being fast and that the lessons that you learn from being part of an excellent team matter and are life transforming and that it really does matter if you are part of a great team or at least potentially great – future great as opposed to a team that is thoroughly mediocre and has no vision, that makes you a different person. It makes you a better person. It is worth the money – it is worth the time – it is worth the commitment and we also need to show folks that we are different and we are better and I have thrown in my face so many times – the elitists charge and you just think you are better than we are. I never want to answer that, but we are trying to be really good and we are not willing to settle for just being the best in the neighborhood – we are trying to be the best team in the entire country- sorry to let it slip – we are out to beat you all, but we are trying to be the best and if that means we are elitists – then bring it on – we love it, but we are different and we are doing things better and a lot of the educational process and a lot of trying to convince people that it really is important to be a part of a good swim team is that we can do things that are not just different in kind – not just different in degree – pardon me.

We are so much better teachers. We teach strokes. We give kids a background that is going to enable them to be national caliber swimmers when they are older and they do not get that anywhere else. We are – and I talked about this extensively this morning – we are giving kids the tools to reach as far as they can dream when they are older and that is not happening in other places and then you just also have to get them to swim really fast. If they are qualifying for a Junior Nationals or a Y Nationals or Nationals and they are not coming anywhere near that anyplace else – that is a good advertisement too. Another way and there are a few others that I am going to mention – of identifying talent and developing it when you are in a small place is the training program itself.

A lot of times coaches, and I do this too – get very wrapped up in wanting to have a lot of variety – we don’t want to bore kids – we need to entertain them to some extent because they are used to playing Nintendo or whatever, but you throw in an occasional 3,000 straight and suddenly you have the opportunity to spot a talent that never had an opportunity to show itself when all you were doing was 50’s and 25’s and easy drills, etc. And this was thrown in my face the first month I was in Phoenix and that I had been doing short stuff because they didn’t really have the background that I had expected and I didn’t want to overwhelm them so we did short things and kept it easy and all that and then I could pretty well tell the pecking order – just after that few weeks. Then I gave them a 3,000 for time – just out of the blue totally and there were a couple of girls – one in particular who had been at the very bottom of the barrel for the first three weeks and she started at the back. The slowest person in the group – over the course of 40 minutes she moved from last to about 2nd or 3rd. I thought – oh my God – this girl can actually swim. I had no idea and I wouldn’t have had any idea if I hadn’t given that aerobic talent an opportunity to surface and this girl went from being a double B swimmer in her very best event to being triple A in one season and qualifying for Far-Westerns in the 800 and the mile. I thought that was really impressive.

I think, we spend so much time trying to make kids excited or what we think will make them excited with and a lot of variety that we sometimes forget to give them real sets that they can sink their teeth into and I know right now my better swimmers love long sets because they just rip each other’s hearts out. They race. They love just putting it down and seeing who is fastest and they do not have an opportunity to do that on some of the more variable sets that we give them a lot of times and it is not like I am going to kill them and just throw 3,000’s at them every day or repeat 500’s, but occasionally that can do wonders. You spot talent that you wouldn’t otherwise and I mentioned that we are an IM team so that we do not let anybody focus on one thing – even our older senior swimmers swim everything and we try and make them good at everything and maybe great at something and with USS we push that very hard and with most of you – you are thinking well of course – because you are USS teams – we are a Y team and there is in some areas, York for instance, huge antipathy among the Y programs and among the rec programs toward USS. It is seen as the evil empire and one of my jobs was convincing people that USS isn’t evil – it really isn’t. It is an opportunity for kids to swim a range of events and against a range of competition that they don’t have the opportunity to if all they do is swim 25’s against the neighbors in local dual meets. It gives kids an opportunity to swim different events and discover different talents and again – it has been amazing how many of our kids have exploded when they joined USS – finally filled out that registration form and were able to compete in these different meets – previously they had just done the 50’s in local dual meets so little things like that I think can go a long way.

When you can’t depend on talented kids – fast kids walking in and you have to build them for yourself – age group swimming becomes crucial. You have got to do right by your kids from the moment they walk in – preferably as 8 year olds – 7 year olds – because what you are going to have when kids are 16 is determined by what you are giving them to do when they are 8, 10, 12 and 14 and I am very fortunate in that I am my own head age group coach and that I have been an age group coach and know how important those 11-14 years are for developing kids who ended up at a national level so I have a pretty good idea of what it takes and those 10 and under years – if you are not teaching them to be pretty – it is going to take twice as much effort when they are 11 & 12 to get to the same place. It is so much easier if you can engrain those strokes and that attention to stroke detail when they are young and for the 11 & 12’s – 11-14’s – that is when you are building an engine that is either going to go to Nationals or be a local level swimmer. Those 11-14 years – they are deciding what level of swimmer they are going to be later on and I am not talking about the super duper talents – I am talking about your run-of-the- mill kids – the kinds that fill up my pool and probably most of our pools, and that you can take a swimmer who doesn’t seem to be much of anything when they are 9 and with a girl – she can be at nationals at 13 and 14 if you give her the right things. She can also be a thoroughly mediocre high school swimmer if you don’t or if you offer the right things and she decides not to take you up on the offer so those developmental years become absolutely crucial when you need to build every single swimmer who is going to be one of your senior swimmers later on down the road.

I am going to spend a few minutes about creating a culture because in reality if you have gone to a place where the level of expectation is low and you are intent on building a really good program – you have got to change everything. People say that it is easier to follow a fool than a genius – absolute rubbish. Just try it. If you follow a genius who has built a successful program where people have high expectations where they know what it takes to succeed and they are willing to do that – it is easy. You are going to be changing a few things, but 99% of the puzzle is already there. If you are following a fool – what you are following is someone who hasn’t built a good machine – nothing works. The level of expectation is low and one of my favorite sayings is – great teams are great for a reason and lousy teams are lousy for a reason. And when you are trying to change a culture it is really hard because everything about a program needs to be changed – not just how fast kids swim and how much yardage you give them, but the way they think. Their expectations – their goals – their assumptions – their priorities and that is really hard. That is a lot harder than getting kids to swim fast and so creating a culture is maybe the most important job when you are coming into a small place and you want to build a great program. You have to essentially create a parallel universe and it sounds kind of silly, but I really mean it. You have to get them to think completely differently from the way – about swimming at least and actually not about swimming at least – of about everything. You have to teach them to think differently from the way everyone around them thinks. The good enough mentality can’t be good enough anymore. You have got to teach them that excellence really matters – that they should want to be excellent – they should care about it. They should do everything they possibly can to reach it so you have got to completely rock their world.

You have got to teach them how to think again. And I started a little program when I first went to Phoenix – kept it up for the whole two years and I am still doing it now with my junior kids – say 9-13 or 14. Every single day – we take 15 to 20 minutes and have a philosophy talk. I have got quotes from everywhere. I read voraciously and not just swimming stuff – everything and I have got a pretty good library of quotations – 400-500 by great people in various avenues – talking about how they got to be great, which are essentially a recipe for high achievement and I post those all over the pool – it is ridiculous. There are 2-3 rows of quotations all around our pool and these are absolutely crucial. It is getting kids to think like champions and that is our dry-land with our 9 and 10’s and 11 & 12’s and our level 13 and 14’s every day. We do not do a lot of extra stretching. We don’t do a lot of running. We do not do stretch cords. We don’t do medicine balls with them – we talk – because I figured out my first week in Phoenix that if I wanted these kids to swim like champions – they were going to have to think differently. They were going to have to think like champions so from that moment we had a discussion about how to think like champions and I think after doing this for about four years that it is the most important part of our practice every single day. More important than how many yards we do – how hard we do it – even how prettily we swim – it is how we think and if you can get kids to think right – it is relatively easy to get them to do what is necessary to swim fast so that is huge and important.

We make a game out of what I think is important. I mentioned the IMX levels and the awards that we get and the motivational time standards. We make games out of those and we reward accordingly. I am telling people implicitly what is important and praising to the skies when people reach those standards so I am deciding what normal is and I am praising or blaming accordingly and my standards are different from the ones they would be getting at the local rec programs. I have had to create that parallel universe that I talked about and they have in front of them all the time – real and exacting standards of excellence. We’ve got meet qualifying standards from everywhere – at every level – from the YMCA District Meet for our smaller or younger age groupers all the way up through Olympic trials and every single rung of the ladder between those so that every single kid on the team – no matter how fast – no matter how slow – has some goal just out of reach at the moment that they can be shooting for so it is not just for the fastest kids and we are also not jeopardizing the progress of the fastest kids by just putting the goals that everybody can reach. We are trying to make sure that every single swimmer on the team has something they are shooting for – something that they can get motivated about and give them a reason to come to practice and swim hard – swim fast and we do that – like I said – for every level of the program. We have got our entire pool area covered with the quotations – with our IMX part of the wall – with our road to the top which has everything from A qualifiers all the way up to Olympic trials.

We have got goals in front of those kids all the time and as far as that road to the top – which is the A, AA, AAA qualifiers – you do not get on that list until you have got an A time so BB’s do not really enter on the radar screen and that is my way of showing the kids that I think they can do it. That every single swimmer on the program is capable of making an A time or better if they are willing to come to practice – do what we tell them to do and work hard, so A level is a base, AA for about half the team and I am working on 60%, but it is just trying to raise the level of the entire program by showing kids what fast is and what is worthy of public praise. And when you have got some older kids who were there – who have swum fast, who have done the program that you are asking these little guys to do – it really helps – having a role model there and this past year we were fortunate to get some of our senior kids to a pretty high level and they have targets on their back from the kids who are one or two years younger than they are and even from our 10 year olds. I have got 10 year olds thinking – okay – when I am 14 – how can I break that team record? It sounds crazy, but it is great.

You know, you have got kids who are looking at our seniors and already deciding how they are going to knock them off and role models are great. It is wonderful to be able to point to Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, but it is even more wonderful to point to someone in your own program who has done exactly what the little guys have done and who is normal. You know – who is getting yelled at by me because they are not streamlining well enough or not making a goal on a repeat or whatever so the younger kids can see that these older kids are not perfect either – they get yelled at just like everybody else does – in a nice soothing tone of course, but you know – they can see that these kids who are all swimming fast are just like they are and it gives them a reason to believe it when I tell them that you are going to be even better.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news