[introduction, by Steve Morsilli]
My name is Steve Morsilli; I am one of the board members with the American Swimming Coaches Association. I would like to tell you, I am looking forward to this talk. I have heard a lot about Nitro Swimming lately, lately being the last couple of years. There was a great little condensed… I think it was 5 questions, on the USA Swimming website; I found some of those answers fascinating. Looking in your book, some of that information is there, but Nitro, when they first started in June of 2007 and they now have two facilities and the impressive part I think is you built them all, you own them all, and you operate them. (Well, the banks own them.)
So as well as the business-side, the kids at Nitro are swimming fast. So I am looking for to this, from Nitro, Coach Mike Koleber.
Thanks. Hey folks, I tend to be a mover, I run around quite a bit and it’s hard for me to stay in one spot. First of all it’s an honor, a privilege to be here. When John Leonard contacted me, probably about two or three months ago, and asked if I would speak at the ASCA conference, I am thinking, ‘Great. Talk about swimming lessons, talk about how to build pool’, whatever. And he said, Senior track. And then I went “Ooh, I don’t know; these folks know a lot more than I do about swimming. Are you sure?” He said, Yeah, we want you in here and talk about what you do.
So today, I am going to talk… really give you a snapshot of Nitro Swimming. I am sure we do a lot of the things that you do; there might be a few things that we don’t do the way that you do them. And hopefully you walk out of here with one or two little nuggets of information. You say, you know, what, that’s a great idea; I think I can apply that. That’s my goal today. It will be a kind of a smorgasbord, a little bit of a buffet; talking a lot about some different things. I do jump around quite a bit, but hope you enjoy this. Okay.
And before I go any further, my wife Tracy is in front row—she’s going to get a little embarrassed. She does all the non-fun items of running a business. Like we have at Nitro, I get to see the smiles and the happiness and the parents saying how great we are and oh my gosh! this is so good; and she gets to deal with the credit cards that are expired and the non-payment issues, and all the things that we have to go through on the dry-side of the business. And so she puts-up with a lot; and that’s my wife Tracy, she is my partner.
I used this slide in a couple of the other presentations. I know USA Swimming had a… we did an online clinical a while back, and really this slide can work for anything. I want to let you know that everyone has different ways of doing things. If I put a dollar bill on the other side of a brick wall, and said, “Hey, go get the dollar bill.” Well you can go around it, around, over, under, go around the world the other way. The goal is to get the dollar bill at the end of the wall or whatever it is you are trying to get; we have a few ways that work, and we have also found that we do some things that were mistakes and so we hurriedly changed course. There are several paths and this is only one way.
A quick timeline. In 2001, I did coach for a board-run team. Two ladies created Great Hills Swim Team; I came in a little bit afterwards and I kind of took the team. At that point about 70 kids, outdoor, leased pool, six lanes, green water, no wall targets, 3.5 feet at one end—although 3.5 really was 3 feet, if you really measured where the water actually was. My very first day of coaching—or very first two days of coaching—I jumped-in to show the kids how to do a breaststroke turn, and didn’t realize it was really 3 feet or less, and I pulled my knees up and I felt scrapes on all ten toes. And I climbed out and now I’m bleeding: all ten toes are full of blood. And I am in front of the kids and I am embarrassed, I got towels, I am doing this, I am talking to the kids. So it was kind of a fun experience on the very first day there.
When the Board approached me and said: we are interested in you becoming the head coach of the program, are you interested? The timing happened to be right for me. And the very first words before I said yes, were, “Well just so you know, we are planning on building an indoor swim center.” So today you are going to get a little taste of Build-A-Pool Conference. If you are interested in that thing, I hope you are; if not, still kind of ride along with me here.
I did say to that Board, “We are planning on building indoor swim center.” And the board was, alright, that is awesome, that is superb, way to go, we are really proud of you, it is going to be great. Everyone says they want to build an indoor swim center; there are a lot coaches and they all want to build one. And I do not know if they really counted on the fact that we were pretty serious about it and that we are going to actually make it happen.
And so about two years later, in a board meeting, I walked in. And it was me on one side, one chair setup; and everybody else on the other of the board table. And I went this is kind of odd. So I sat down, and they said, “Hey, how is that swim center thing of yours coming along; how is that swim idea?” And I said, well here is the architect’s rendering, here is a partial list of investors, here are our results of the environmental phase 1 survey. And I heard silence; it was very awkward, very uncomfortable. And the next line was from one of our board members, said “How many of our kids you are going to take?”
And as you get older, you tend to listen a little better—hopefully—you tend to put a filter on, and you don’t just say what you want to say right away—which you did when you were probably 30 years old when you knew everything in the world. At about 40 years old, wisdom starts kicking in and you start thinking, okay what should I say here and what is going to sound okay if it comes out? So my response was, “I am not going to take anybody. The market will determine. If people come, they come; if they don’t come, they don’t come. I don’t know.”
The next line was It sure is a long way away. And I said, “Well if 13.6 miles, driveway to driveway, proves to be too far to go to an indoor 50-meter where they can have their team name and their team flag and actually have an identity and they have themselves a home pool; if that is too far in February, when it is 40° and drizzling and raining and cold, then it is going to be too far for them. We’ll just let it play out.”
So, I left the board meeting and called Tracy, and I said “We aren’t going to have anybody on our side on this. It’s going to be us or it is going to be nobody.” So we began to formulate the plan: let’s secure some water on our own, let’s go on our own way. So on August 13, 2006, Nitro was introduced. You can look up the webinar from a few months back, and I talked about the big party we had, and it was kind cool—with AC/DC playing music (I mean they weren’t actually there, but you get the idea).
In June 2007, we opened up our first location. It was 25 yard by 50 meter, 23 lanes of short course space, small lessons pool next to it. Very primitive: it is a metal building with rusty garage doors and two holes filled with water. And that is how I explained it to people, and so when they walk in, at least they are pleasantly surprised. It is not like a dungeon, because there is a lot of energy in the place. So we are very, very proud of it; I love the place.
And that is what it looks like on the inside. Our backstroke flags have been updated though, so there a little bit different now. But that is a typical day of short course, set-up with all of our lanes. Those windows in the far distance, that is our viewing area for the parents to actually watch lessons right in front of them. Ingenious now, looking back on it. Those parents who are watching their kids in lessons also get to watch the swim teams, every single day and night.
You know it wasn’t really by design, that actually was fitness area to begin with; and so it turned-out not to work out in that way. But here is where the parent sits, so they can see their lesson and they can see swim teams, so they are getting an early taste of what is like to be on a swim team. So very proud of that.
Four years later, 2011, I guess sleepless nights and hundreds of emails and angry families and crying kids and everything else, wasn’t enough for us: let’s do it again. And so we built a second facility about 30 miles away, about a 45-minute drive, in a little city called Bee Cave, Texas. It is on the west side of Austin, southwest side, near Lakeway/Westlake area. And another 50-meter, 25-yard indoor, and kind of crazy right? But here’s how it makes it work.
All roads begin when you are building a program: with lessons. And if you are not doing swimming lessons, I implore you to at least look into it. And if swimming lessons aren’t your deal and you are a Senior coach—all you work with are National kids and above—find someone good and have them help you to create a lessons program. The numbers I am going to tell might boggle your mind. I remember reading an article a few years ago…. (There is a lesson pool right there, on a typical afternoon; there’s the parents—this is the Cedar Park facility.)
Does anybody here actually, when they see a picture of lessons, kind of go uooh, and just kind of cringe and they just don’t want to be part of it? (Be honest, it’s okay. Hey, two honest people, good.) Is there anybody here that says, Wow, that’s really cool. I’d love to take a break once in a while from the 16-year-old who is taking so much of your energy, and just pour into one half an hour and see light-years improvement in 30 minutes of your time? Anybody like that? That is teaching lessons. And, if you are one of those folks that want to make a difference, and you are in coaching because you want to make a difference every day, you can make a difference every 30 minutes teaching lessons. And I tell you what, teaching adults how to swim is even more gratifying for me personally.
You know Monsters Inc., the movie where they get their energies from the kids screaming, right? And at end of the movie, they get so much energy when the kids are laughing and smiling? That’s us. And regardless of how tired you are, and how many hours it has been straight, and you get that little 4-year-old that just goes ear-to-ear smile, and the parents are caring them out and going “Oh, my…”; you are their hero. And I don’t care how tired you are, it gives you goose bumps and you are going to drive home saying man, what a day, it was a great day. So that is lessons.
Monthly tuition: $74. The DACA story. Anybody here from De Anza? Because I want to kind of credit you with a little bit of the mindset you gave me. A few years back., the De Anza Cupertino Aquatics, Pete Raykovich’s program, I read an article that said that they were doing a lot of lessons. And the numbers that I think I read back then were may be 1,500, 1,800, whatever it was, that they were teaching lessons. And I went you’ve got to be kidding me. This is how many people a week come to their facilities?
It is September. We have got 2,300 kids taking lessons right now at the one location [Cedar Park], and I want to say about 1,200-1,300 at our Bee Cave location. So let’s just take Cedar Park for instance, for example. Our Cedar Park facility, 2,300 kids right now taking lessons; do the math, times that $74 a month. I won’t say anything else, you can do a little calculating and say holy mackerel. That is how you pay your bills; that is how your keep your pool open.
I know that Mick and Sue Nelson have a presentation in the track—whether it’s today or tomorrow—about how to keep your pool. Is anybody here under threat of possibly losing their pool? One or two, alright. Anybody here wonder gosh, next month might be kind of tight, how we are going to pay those bills. Anybody? (You guys are all sitting that good; that’s cool.) But the number of kids enrolled, it’s absolutely mind boggling; it is crazy what we are doing.
New swimmer evaluations. Once they go through our lessons program, we evaluate them every Saturday. One location has it 11:30 in the morning, the other location has it 12:30 in the afternoon—Cedar Park is 12:30, Bee Cave is 11:30. Every Saturday, no appointment necessary, they just show up and we will evaluate them. The last four, five, six, seven, Saturdays in a row, Bee Cave has averaged 28 new kids every single Saturday, Cedar Park has averaged 48 kids.
[audience member]: You said that’s coming out of your lessons? Or is that just coming-in off the street?
[Koleber]: It is a combination of wherever they come from.
If they graduate our lesson’s program out of Nitro 2… we have two lessons curriculum: one is basic and once is more advanced. Our more-advanced curriculum, they graduate, they know all four strokes. We are not starting our swim team kids, we are not going to take them on our team, unless they can properly execute all four strokes. We do not want our beginning swim coach groups to have to teach butterfly or breaststroke, when we can do it right near the pool right next door. It slows down the kids who already know the four strokes; and you are going to get them out of there, because they are going to get bored, if they are having to slow down too much. Little kids like to run, they like to move,
So that is every Saturday, and it’s crazy. And of those every Saturdays, I know the Bee Cave one for sure… Cedar Park has a lot of waitlist now, but at Bee Cave, our execution from evaluating to actually signing-up to be on the swim team (How high was it, last couple of weeks? Karen said 97%, I think) we are over 90%. I guess you’d call it a conversion rate, from an evaluation, within the next week we see them signed-up on the team. They went through the registration process through, and they are on our team. So I would like to at this as a business; however, I am not going to forget about what it is really about, which I will get to at the end.
(Sorry about the darkness of the picture—taken off of phones this past weekend.) That is an evaluation day at Bee Cave; typical Saturday. That is our evaluation. We’ve got a coach right here at the end—that is actually Nicky Brand/Nicky Collins, she is from Penn State—anybody know Nicky? No, okay. Second lane, a goofy guy in the red outfit. That is Adrian Damasco in the white t-shirt next to them. And we are doing 2, 3, 4 kids at a time.
We make it fun. We have them on the side of the pool and we are saying ok, ready, when I say go, hop in, hop back out; get your hair wet and come back out. Ready, set… don’t go yet! You know, the kids are smiling, the parents are smiling; we are making them laugh. If a kid needs help putting his swim cap on, we do the swim cap trick—you know, we drop the cap on their head. And they just think it’s so much fun. Our evaluations, maybe ten minutes. Show me your freestyle, don’t care how fast you go, go slow as you want. Anyone doggy paddles, I’ll jump on your head. Oh, they laugh; they think it’s the fun-est thing around.
I enjoy entertaining these kids at this age, because you are showing them what it could be. And I heard the Coach Marsh earlier this morning at his talk, mentioning how his, was his son first and then his daughter or vice versa, how they went in and got washed right out at the beginning. Okay, warm-up 800 of this, 400 of this, 400 of this, whatever; and his other child we’re going to go 8×200. You don’t even know your audience; you’ve got to know the audience. This audience right here, all you are doing is seeing if they can swim.
Then during an evaluation, in our minds, we are going: okay I want to have a couple of options for these families. I want to have… in case they say to me we want our child to be on the fast track, I want to know: can I put them in one of our groups that can do that? The other side of it is, if they say… the one question I ask…. That’s the parents again: they are holding those little sheets paper. They all walk in, checking-out our program, get information, here is how you do the evaluation, here is how you register.
So the very last part right there says: what do most parents want? The questions we ask after an evaluation, hey you know I saw little Jasmine she looked pretty good over there, she has all four strokes. Listen, before I tell what I think, how many times a week do you see yourself wanting to be here? That is the one main question. Because when I was growing up and swimming in the ‘70s, there was only one option usually. There is your swim team, here is your group, you are coming. Yeah but, but, but…. It doesn’t matter. I have baseball at this…. whatever it’s you are doing, it does not matter, your group is your group. Here we have created a schedule to give some options for families to give them what they want.
So if they do not want to going 6×200 and the 400-800-whatever, we’ve got some options that are once a week, we have got some options that are twice a week. And generally a swim coach wants that group that’s going to be committed; I want those kids who are here 6-7 days a week—that is what we want, we are competitive people. However, there are coaches out there that really enjoy the theatre, the once-a-week plan; where you have got those kids, who are sitting in their school and they are thinking—they are sitting down at the desk and they are in third grade and they are going—Today’s… it’s Friday. Today is Friday, it’s my swim day! They are excited.
Walk-in to any third grade class, I don’t care what school, if you have a shortage of people on your team and you need more kids in your team, think of the third graders out there: how many of you like to swim? Every hand is going to go up. Now next question: how many of you want to swim the six days a week for the next 15 years of your life including Christmas and Spring Break and all summers, so we can yell at you every single day? You will hear crickets chirping. So that is our point. Introduce them to the sport, bring them in, in a very non-threatening atmosphere.
Bob Gillett came up and saw us a couple years ago and he said our Intro to Nitro program group saved his team. Bob, how can you say… what do you mean? Because I brought your idea back to what we are doing out in Arizona, I believe, and he says it turned their finances right back up where they needed to be by doing what you are doing.
Now here is what I am talking about. Team numbers right now for this new short-course season, our Cedar Park location is pushing about 930 kids, out of one location. Crazy—I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody’s health, okay. Bee Cave location is 650 right now, coming out of the gate. So we have got 1,500 kids out of two locations. Oh my gosh, how do you do that?
Well, if you look at our schedule, if you look at our practice schedule, you are going to see probably twenty different options of what we call Technique and Fitness: once a week, twice a week, once a week, twice a week, once a week, twice a week; 3:30, 4:30, 7:15—whatever those times are. And the parents get to choose what works best for their kiddo that they want for once or twice a week swimming. Because they have siblings that do other things; they have got other family members that.… Honestly, we’ve got two kids; I couldn’t imagine being anywhere with one of those kids more than probably twice a week, doing anything. It’s hard enough to get them to school. So you’ve got to look at what parents really want and what the market is going to want,
So now here is the big thing: our National group pays $220 a month. (Is that about normal for what is happening around the country? I think about normal.) Have you ever figured out what those national kids are paying per hour? Not counting dryland, not counting college meetings, not counting the goal meetings, not counting meeting at Starbucks or whatever it is that you guys do with your senior kids; not counting anything of that, ours is $2.85 an hour for a National-group kiddo. And they are important, believe me; they are waving the banner, they are helping us to do the medal club—the bronze, the silver, the gold—they score the points, all that kind of cool stuff. Love it.
Technique and Fitness, once a week, is $62 a month, for one once a week, one hour. (And we just raised that from $59—first time we raised tuitions in years, this past September.) So $62 a month for once a week for an hour. Now some are going to say, wow, that’s a lot of money. Go price Gymnastics in your neighborhood, go price Soccer, go price whatever it is they are just doing afterschool; and you’ll be in that ballpark. So why is it that swim coaches/swim programs feel well, I cannot charge that much; I’ve got to go a little lower than that. Why? It’s your time. You cannot pay a babysitter that kind of money, let alone provide a pool and professional coach. So $14.41 an hour is what our Technique and Fitness kids pay.
Who is more important to our program? (It is a rhetorical question, they are both important, I know that.) But $2.85 to $14.41: you better believe I’m putting good coaches on those $14.41-per-hour kiddos. And if you are paying an assistant coach $15 an hour to coach, one kid pays for that coach for one hour—only one of those Technique and Fitness. You go three or four lanes of that, five or six kids a lane; and you could start doing some numbers in your head and say okay now I can get our USA membership up, we can bring some more money in and you won’t have to be badgering your parents to do mandatory fundraisers or volunteer hours—we don’t have either. There’s no mandatory fundraising, there’s no volunteer hours. If you want to help us time at a meet; great, awesome. But you’re not man… I have a hard time thinking “required volunteer”; anything that says mandatory and it says volunteer, then it’s not really a volunteer in my book.
$12.24 an hour is what Intro to Nitro’s pay. Intro to Nitro: beginning level, just came out of swim lessons, they know all four strokes; 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds. Twice a week, 45 minutes; you don’t need to put a 6-year-old in water five days a week. And when you dedicate a schedule of five days a week for a kid is going to come two or three days out of that week, you have just kind of shot yourself in a foot to be able to use those lanes for something else that might be producing some revenue for your program.
Again, what I am saying here is that it is not going to work for everybody. But even if you are in a six-lane space, I would implore you to carve out two lanes, a couple of days a week, at 3:30 in the afternoon or something where your big kids aren’t coming in yet, and run a couple of once/twice a week groups. You are going to see what happens; your numbers for your club will just change drastically.
Real quick: here is the Build-a-Pool-Conference part of what I’ll talk about. Is there anybody here whose dream it would be: wow, if I only had my own pool? (Good, got some hands.) A number of years ago, I went to my first a Build-a-Pool Conference. And I highly recommend you seeing Mick and Sue Nelson’s [conference]; if you have a chance, jump on it and see it. I sat right in the front row, several years ago, and my eyes were this big, I was so excited, I was going to change the world, etc. And after the first day, I walked out and it felt like a freight train had just hit me, ran me over, because I didn’t know it was going to be as hard as what they were explaining it to be. And it is difficult. You will have sleepless nights, you will go round the clock, you will have pressures on you that you can’t believe.
And we look at it back now, and I will say, it is 100% worth it. I got tired of having circumstances dictated to us—that’s what I got tired of. I got tired of: Oh, sorry, you can’t use the pool. Oh, I’m sorry, we are changing the lease agreement now; starting next year, your hours are going to go down. Anybody have that?
And there are enough times that you get poked and poked and poked, finally you say, “The heck with this, I’m going to do it myself. And we’re going to do it better, and we’re going to do it the right way.” And if you are stubborn enough, you can see it through and get it done.
Does anybody here own their own facility? One, two, awesome; very cool. Raise your hands again please: those are folks I think you probably want to be talking to, if you are interested in doing that, after the presentation.
So I’m out there and a couple of years later, we have our facility and I was asked to speak at the Build-a-Pool Conference. And there were some folks that spoke before I got up there and had my chance. And one was Lori Klatt—does anyone know Lori Klatt, out in California? Very successful, learn-to-swim, fantastic, nice person, everything else. Her facility: spotless. She’s got mosaic tiles, she has got dolphin scenery—she’s got it all. And she talked about how she built her facility. And she said everyday she would be out there on that job site, and she said she told those contractors, “If I even see one drop of water, if there’s one speck of water, I am not paying.” So she made sure she had a perfect little facility.
Well, my turn to get up there and I say, “If I had a nickname for my facility,” at the time, we had Cedar Park, “I would call it Puddles, because we have got water everywhere.” I mean there is water in the bleachers and we had drainage issues and everything else. But it worked for us; and I wasn’t a Lori and I didn’t know enough to be out there everyday, to know what to say to a contractor. We didn’t know, we just thought people would do what they say they are going to do—little did we know.
Mike Curran; does anybody know Mike Curran out at Carolina? He was a manager of the big facility in Raleigh—Raleigh-Durham, I forget what it was called, Research. Anybody knows what is called? Triangle Aquatics. He was general manager, and he showed pictures of their facility. Gorgeous. I am going to guess that it may have cost—if I am not mistaken, I don’t know—may be $13, $14, $15 million. It was up, way up there.
And they had separate climate control zones for the parent seating area, kept them cool; the deck area, warmer for the swimmers. Lessons pool and therapy pool. Everybody is going ohh, aah, ooh and aah. And then he shows the balance sheet for the last year. And he says, “You see that six-hundred-and-some thousand dollars in parenthesis?” And we are all nodding our heads. And he says, “Let me tell you something about balance sheets: parentheses aren’t good on a balance sheet.” They lost over six hundred grand that particular year.
Now it’s at my turn to get up there. I said, “Guys, I didn’t bring a balance sheet, but I tell you right now, there are no parentheses on our balance sheet.” There’s none. And he and I ended-up talking later, and I believe there are some changes now over at Triangle. And one of their issues was they were renting to teams, they were paying about $10 per hour per lane. $10 per hour per lane. Go back and what’s our Technique and Fitness kids paying per hour? $14, per kid, per hour. You’re going to have parenthesis on a balance sheet and you’re going to lose money, if you’re renting pool space for $10 per hour per lane when you could be making $14 per kid.
Also one last thing about 25 yard/50 meter. The theme of a lot of the Build-a-Pool Conferences are: you can use 25 yard, 25 yard, 25 yard, eight lane, maybe 12; and later you can always add-on or build later. That is what the theme was. When it was my turn, I yelled out to a guy named John McIlhargy who was in the back, I said, “How much more does it cost to build a 50-meter versus a 25-yard facility?” He says: Oh, 50% more.
I asked the whole group in front of me: would you pay 50% more to possibly triple your capacity? Is that a good bet? Pay 50%, get three times the space? Yes or no. And every head is pretty much doing this [nodding yes]. If you can live the fact that your pool will pretty much sit empty from 9 a.m. until 3:15 or 3:30 p.m., if you can live with that; my bet is: go with the 50 meter. If we didn’t have 23 lanes, we couldn’t have a National group, we couldn’t have Technique and Fitness. We could, but they would be much, much, much smaller; and the amount of time you can put kids in there really gets reduced. So spread out 23 lanes from 3:30 till 9 p.m., you can run a whole bunch of groups through there. It has been part of our secrets of success, is going to a 50-meter.
Mick Nelson’s last slide that he shows at every Build-a-Pool Conference is a hand, signing checks in a suit, and then below it are some medals dripping in water. And Mick Nelson says, “Don’t ever forget: if you can’t do this,” if you can’t pay your bills, “you’re never going to get those,” which is the medals.
So I am not saying you have to do it this way—this is just one way. I just want you to leave here thinking: you know what, there’s got to be some way to let us breathe a little easier financially to start doing more things. Maybe we can pay our coaches more, to get a better talent-base working with your kids. Maybe get new lane markers, maybe get starting blocks. Oh, it would be great if we could just afford those blankets this year. Well if you do those things like this, you can start affording those kinds of things for your program. New dryland equipment, some benches, some cords; whatever it is you are looking for, you don’t have to rely on booster clubs or fundraisers or whatever else to do it. You can do it within your program and run it that way.
There is a space advantage when you do have 50 meters, or a number of lanes going across; there is an advantage, it is natural. You have got a number of things happening across…. (By the way those are new backstroke flags at Cedar Park.) You can’t really… this little girl at the very, very bottom, that’s Intro to Nitro; we have got 3 or 4 lanes of that on a typical afternoon at 3:30. Next to that is the Bronze group, which is the next group up. Next to that is the Silver group. At 5:15 National comes in, with Tim O’Brien, our national group coach. Tim and the National guys come in, they take the very deep end. They get about 5 or 6 lanes of 8-feet-wide lanes down there, and they are coming in.
But what are these little guys seeing? They see a progression, right in front of them. So they are not seeing, Oh, this is my time for 45 minutes, and all I am around are my 45-minute group. And we leave, another group comes in that we never see. We have got a lot of staggered group; we try to stagger the schedule quite a bit, for families actually and for parking issues. Like a movie theater: how you never see a lobby really crowded because the movie starts at different times. We try to keep the practice a little bit staggered, as best we can.
But looking across there, there is a pretty good energy in a larger setting when you have younger kids able to see the bigger kids. Even walking-in with their swim bags; I mean, you’ve got these kids, all lean, looking good, and they’re walking. And you see the eyeballs of the little guys going oh my gosh. You know what they want to do? They want to be them. So how do you keep younger kids in your program? Let them be around your older kids, let them see each other. It works out pretty good for us.
We are overprotective; we are overprotective of not doing too much with the younger kids. We actually lose families as a result of that—we do. And that’s something that we’ve just come to say it’s part of our philosophy, part of our values. I guess, if… Dave Marsh was talking about that earlier. Part of our value system is: we aren’t going to throw the whole kitchen sink at a 10-year-old.
The 200 Freestyle Relay, interesting story. We had a coach coaching with us, and he did some aggregate time search, I guess. And he found that we had four 10-year-old boys, they were pretty quick. And he did some checking—he didn’t tell me or any other coach—but he figured-out wow, these guys are only 3.5 seconds off a 200 Freestyle Relay national record.
Okay, first of all, I thought: do they really keep national records for 10&Under boys 200 Freestyle Relays? I didn’t even know. I have been coaching for years, I swam for years; who knew that we had national records for 10&Under boys, 200 Freestyle Relay? And, really, should we? So, that was my first reaction.
He contacted all four of the families, and some of them were at the other pool, so no he’s got two at one pool and two at the other. Hey, this is Coach such and such—by the way, he is no longer with us. Do you know we’ve got four boys that could set a national record, but two of them age-up to 11 in December. So for September, October, November, we are going to hit every meet we can; we are going to deck-enter and create a 200 Freestyle Relay event. I’ll talk to meet host, we’ll give you guys a crack at this thing every single meet. No, you’re not.
So who is the bad guy now? I’ve got to send an email to those four families… you know what? Nah-uh: I don’t want it, not going to prove it, you are not allowed to do this. There was a meet in December; they will get a shot once at a 200 Freestyle Relay in December up at COR—City Richardson. If it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t happen, so what. Right?
Well two of the families: how dare you keep our kids away from succeeding. You don’t want our kids to be good—whatever it was. So I became the devil. And so, it got to the point that they left the program, two families out of four, along with that coach. And I don’t want the end-all, be-all of a 10-year-old swim career to be a 200 Freestyle Relay record when they are 10, because what’s there left? You know, 12-year-old, 13, 14. So our job is to get them to be 16 or 17 and still like the sport, still enjoy it, challenge them enough.
I have to educate a lot of parents on the word burnout. “Well we got….” You know the other way: we don’t want them swimming too much because they are going to burnout. The #1 reason kids quit is when it’s no longer fun. Well it is no longer fun when you are getting beat by people who you used to beat—that is part of it. It is no longer fun when kids are around you in practice and they are sloughing-off and you are working your rear-end off—that’s not very much fun either. There’s a lot of different ways you can classify what is fun and no longer fun, for somebody.
So for us, the constant message we send is… I love what Dave Marsh said today, about we’re not looking at a seasonal development, we’re looking at career development, look at the entire career. I tuned-in to that right there; that’s perfect, he summed-up what I wanted to say. Which is: it is about the career, 16-17 and beyond. When they are done with us, I want them to hang up their suits and goggles and say: You know what, this was the best use of my time I could have; these are best lessons I could have learned in my life from Swimming. No, I didn’t accomplish what I needed to in the pool, from a swim standpoint, but boy, did I make some great friends and I love these coaches. I got hard work and I’m not going to quit. All those things that we like to teach—the delayed gratification, the perseverance—that’s what this is about.
And if a family is going to leave because I won’t let them have a chance for 200 Freestyle Relays to set a national record, then leave. I don’t want you to be part of the program because you are going to be a problem down the road when you are 12 and 13 and things aren’t going quite your way. You will be bigger problem, so save me the headache now. So it is a lot of sticking to principle.
I am technically the Head Coach of Nitro. I don’t work with our older kids; Tim O’Brien is our National group coach. We have got some really good coaches helping him, supporting him, in the Senior level. In fact (today’s what, Friday, I flew here yesterday), Tuesday and Wednesday of this past week, I was in the water coaching four Intro to Nitro practices and two bronze practices. Actually in the water, helping the deck coaches. And people walk-in and they say Who is that? Well that is the owner and head coach of Nitro. Why is he with the 7-year-olds?
Well first of all, they laugh at my jokes, so I like… it is good for my ego. [laughter] Secondly, I handle them on an intellectual level—I am right there with them, I am at same level. And I don’t forget what is like to be 7-years-old, and what it’s like to be 6. And Dave Marsh said—I keep quoting Dave Marsh after his talk today. He asked the people in the car: what did you think of that first meet? He said it was a small pool, low ceiling. And the first thing that little kid said Wow, it was really big, it’s a big place.
A swim pool could be one of the most intimidating places around, for a little kid to walk out there. And you know what is even harder? I think it is harder for the 13-year-old who hasn’t swam before. And you’re lucky-enough to get a kid out of a summer league that shows up, and he has got the big board shorts on or something, he feels so out of place. I want you as coaches to at least feel that empathy towards that kid, and go you know what, I am going to make sure he feels better about this day that he has here with us.
So what we do is we usually assign a big brother/sister, make a big deal out of it. Hey, come here, come here, this is Shawn, he is brand new today. Hey guys, who remembers your first day ever on this pool deck? And every hand goes up. Who felt really uncomfortable? Every hand goes up. Who wished they had someone taken care of that day? Every hand goes up. Okay, good. Who is going to take care of Sean today? And every hand is up, trying to take care of Sean.
You know, that is not what you see in the books when you read; it is not what you…. Can you teach it? I don’t know. I think some coaches have a higher empathy towards another human being, to see what they are going through. To be able to see a quiver of a bottom lip and you know that someone is on the verge of tears; to know enough to send the group off on an interval, and you pull them out and you sit down and you are talking with them. That is the stuff that is going to help everything, including your bottom-line.
But it’s not just the bottom-line. You do the little things right, the bottom line takes care of itself. To me a little thing is—well, it’s actually a big thing—just recognizing the body language. Seeing a parent who is walking out, looking like they shouldn’t be looking and you ask them how it’s going. Ok, it’s ok. “Ehhh, it looks like something’s on your mind, let’s talk a little bit.” And you sit down and you find out that there are really some big, big things happening right now with that family that you had no idea about. You don’t know unless you ask. And if you don’t care, you are not going to ask. If you ask, it shows that you care and you’ve got relationships. And that is what it all really comes down to.
Tracy makes fun of me: I write a lot of emails out to our families. She thinks if I write so much, they don’t pay attention to me anymore. There’s always maybe a handful that will read all of my notes. And in my notes I send out to our team, I’m always including Tim O’Brien’s National group recaps. He does a great job at recapping… a Sectional trip. They went to Nationals this year out in Irvine, and he got a couple of tours of some colleges. He went to USC, UCLA, and he recapped it all. Well guess who read it—well, if they opened it, they read it—but our entire team received that recap.
So they know what’s going on; there’s a bridge to somewhere. And it might not be for right now their kid, but if the kid stays involved and stay plugged-in long enough, they are going to go to the college trips and get the national sweats. And go see USC on a Saturday afternoon, where Coach Salo will unlock the weight room and let them go see USC’s facilities out there. That is cool for a kid to see that. And it’s even cooler for the parents of a 10-year-old to read that saying: you know what, if I stay plugged into this thing long enough, they will take care of us and it’s going to come in time. So any accolades that he sends out, anybody that makes a National Team, we know about it; the recruiting trips.
Bring it back to the pool. Let’s see two summers ago, we had two National Junior Team members. They came back with their sweats, sat up on the bleachers; we had our groups one at a time coming out, sitting in the bleachers, and getting talked to by the athlete—6 minutes, 7 minutes, 8 minutes. It took away time from the workout. Who cares? You are talking to a guy that just went to Hawaii—or wherever it was—and they got their USA sweats, and they are telling their stories about the team cheers and all the stuff they are doing over there. Somebody is going to get the bug; someone is going to get the bug that is going to bite them and it is going to remember that in their head and they are going to go after it in the pool and it makes everybody better.
I remember in early days, you do practices and you are thinking: gosh, just give me one move-in; give me one kid to move-in that knows how to train, it would change everything. Right? And some kid moves-in and their bar is up here. What happens to the rest of the pool? The bar goes up. So you all as coaches really can control that bar. If your kids aren’t looking like the way they should be looking in a meet, it is because they are looking like that in practice.
A coaching tip that I got maybe six months, maybe a year ago or so, was one of the articles—because I read a lot of the ASCA articles. I think that the article was called Deliberate Coaching. Anyone remember that one? And I think the example that they used was: you’ve got two coaches side-by-side, and one coach says, Hey guys, 1000 free, work on your turns. The other coach says: Hey guys, we are going to go 39 of the best turns you can give me. Approaching the walls, tight; coming off tight as you can. Fourth line underwater dolphins, second touch first breath. Oh and in-between those 39 great turns, we are going to have about may be 15 yards or so of just beautifully controlled head-positions swimming, high-elbow recover (whatever it is). Ready, on top.
Now if you are the swimmer in the water—1000 free, work on your turns; 39 of the best turns you can give me right now, make every one better than one before it and describe what I just described—what are you going to get more out of as the athlete? I think you are going to gravitate towards the second coach, that’s says wow, you know what, I’m working specifically on something. So when you prescribe a set, give them something to work on, something specific.
Deliberate coaching. It’s changed the way that I personally coach; it’s changed the way a lot of our other coaches on Nitro are now coaching. We are asking for something specifically on every set. We’ll never say 10×50 on whatever, leave on top, work on this. No; it is something really specific. And give them feedback every chance you get. That helps a lot.
Real quick, I know there is a high school/club part of the presentations coming up. For us, we are not a club versus high school; we’re like whatever works best for the swimmer, it’s fine. What works best for the athletes, we kind of lay a little low. In our area, Austin, the high schools don’t have their own pools; so honestly high school swimming in the Austin area is probably not quite as advanced as it is in other areas because of the pool situation. It’s worked good for us, because we could put a pool in there and there are no other pools around us. So we are okay either way.
I am on-record saying I think every ninth grader should give it a shot, to see if they like it. And if they don’t like it, they’ve got three more years, they don’t have to do it. I think it is important for a ninth grader to feel like they are a part of something, to feel they are already part of a group. I think it is nice to have some older, more senior, eyes watching out for a ninth grader when they go into a high school situation. So I see some benefits in that as well.
But what’s one thing that all high schoolers, that are athletes, want to wear? A what? A varsity jacket. So there is our Nitro varsity jacket—there’s the front, there’s the back. We want this in a whole bunch of high schools around the Austin area representing our team. And we have not been that successful yet in putting these on a whole bunch of kids. Price point might be a little too high right now; we are trying to figure-out a way to do it with maybe a special account that we are creating to kind of help offset the cost, make it more of a presentation, more of a gift. I know way-back in my high school days, we actually had to buy the jacket but we got the letter. (Anybody get varsity jackets in high school for free? Were they given to you? Okay, who had to pay for theirs? Okay.)
But it is kind of a cool thing. It is high-quality, it is a very cool jacket. And we were just sitting around: ok, how are we going to meet this high-school challenge, so to speak. And make Nitro, or make club swimming, a little more cool for a high school kid. Because they do miss out on a lot. If your kids are doing your club and they are not doing their high school, there’s a lot that they are missing. So this is just one of things.
I know Tim O’Brien spends a lot of time and effort taking the kids out to the Olympic Training Center during the time of when there are high school region meets. And we have a lot of kids who do both: swim for us and swim high school. So the push-back he gets back from parents: hey, wait a minute, how come you are planning an Olympic Training Center trip during Regionals? Well, it’s because these kids here don’t everything that these high school kids get, so for us it is a kind of fair tradeoff.
So we are working hard to try to offer… you know, we’re not going to say: don’t do high school swimming. But we’re going to try to offer something that’s really cool, give people the choice, and say, well, you know what, I think there is more if I just do clubs. Nothing wrong with that; try to create a better product. So we are always trying to think and reinvent. It is kind of cool though.
Pat Murphy came out from Chattahoochee Gold—Atlanta area. He visited with us for a couple of days; hung around at the pool deck and saw the lessons program and wanted to see how we are doing things. And he asked Tracy and myself at dinner one night: when was the moment that you realized that you made it; that you were successful in running a swim program? And I said, “There isn’t, and I don’t think we have.”
Because in our eyes, there’s always something that you can do better. There is… The Woodlands kick our butts every single year in spirit, they look good as a coaching staff, their parents are together; and right now, their coaches are all here… they are all wearing the same shirts. Even here! They do so many things, they are so good. They are one of my standards that someday I want to become like. And they got us this year at TAGS [the Texas Age Group Swimming Championships], well-deserved. So “successful”? Yeah, I guess.
But I guess one of the biggest compliments I have ever received—this is how I answered the question to Pat—was Eddie Reese came out on our pool deck a couple of years ago. Walked in the front door; it was blowing and going, a busy day. And he sat there like this, and he’s standing next to Tim. He just stood there about a minute or so—didn’t move, just looked around—and he said to Tim O’Brien that quote: this is what it’s supposed to look like. And for me to hear that, that Eddie thought that highly of our program, just by being there for a minute to see it, is probably one of the biggest compliments that I could have received.
But I want you to know that in 2001, or ‘02, I sat on the pool deck of Loos natatorium in the Dallas area, on cement, with Michael Fitzpatrick on one side of me; and it was either Beanie Harmon or Kendall Webster on the other side. We had two people at prelims for the state championships in Texas [TAGS]; we had two kids there. And I saw these teams walk-in with matching shirts, and oh, it looked so good, wow. And I said to these two: we are going to figure this out; you may not be here, but we are going to win this thing some day. And we’ve put together pretty good string.
And, you all, if you are interested in doing whatever you wanted to do, don’t lose sight of what you want to do. When we swam… how many of you swam college? The week or so you took off after nationals, the next time you were in the water to swim for the next year’s season, usually most programs have a chalkboard or had a board or something with a certain number on it. Ours usually said: 359 or 358 or 355—whatever it was—how many days until the next nationals, next March. And so we always had a purpose; you know, we swam.
So we finished our athletics, we got out of college. If you are like me, you fumbled a little bit, and thinking you know what you needed to do to do well. Well, sooner or later, whatever it was—some of you probably never left, which is good—some of us left for about 10 years. And I was drawn back to the pool, drawn back to water, and drawn back to the sounds. And whether you are in Texas or Michigan or Florida or Alaska or whatever, little kids wearing caps and goggles and suits and splashing in 25 yards by 50 meters, it’s pure.
And there is something so cool about this sport. I love what we do; I think we can make an impact. You can make every day better for individuals. And honestly, I think you can make the world better.
On our pool deck, we attempt to out-coach each other every day. Yes, we’re shouting movie lines to each other, Fletch and Caddyshack and everything else; and making each other laugh and it’s enjoyable. How many of you are on the pool deck by yourself? That’s hard. It’s hard; we’ve done it, I have done it. The cold… if it’s outdoors, it’s even harder. In the winter time, the covers are frozen; you’ve got to keep a pairs of gloves usually in the heater room and you got to take turns. Anybody do that? Alternate gloves? We did it; parka, the whole deal.
What helps us is having eight, nine, ten coaches down that pool deck. And you get a chance, when you’re about to go crazy; you can run down and you could share a story with somebody else next to you and you’re actually talking with kind of an adult—because we are coaches, right? And they come down and talk to me, and I am sometimes kind of an adult. And we can banter amongst each other and not lose our sanity of just being there… all by yourself. So protect yourself from the solitude; it’s tough. It is tough by yourself.
When it comes down to it, I believe your program is really a feeling. How are you making people feel every day, in every interaction? I just… seven years we are going now in our Cedar Park location, and for the first time ever I posted little signs in-and-all-around our swim center and viewing room that say: We’re honored and humbled to serve you and your child. If for any reason you are not 100% happy with the service and/or lesson you receive today, I need to know, I want to know. -Mike Koleber, owner Nitro Swimming, [email address]. (Of course I want to hear the good stories too.) That’s on there in parenthesis.
And the reason why I did that is because we do withdrawals. You have to let us know by the 15th of the month whether or not you are planning to continue with us; if you don’t want to continue with us, let us know by the 15th of the month. If we don’t hear from you, we are assuming you are in our program. We are month-to-month-to-month-to-month just like a health club. You know, we are not doing monthly checks anymore; we ding them on a credit card, just like Lifetime Fitness. And if you want to leave, then you’ve got to let us know you want to leave. We are assuming you want to stay.
But we would see these withdrawal comments, mainly for lessons, not so much for team—we usually can catch-up on the team. And six times in a row, no one’s said “hi” to my daughter—whatever it is. And you read these comments, and by the time Tracy and I get a chance to see this, we are a little behind the curve. So all I wanted to do was to try to find out what’s happening the first time it goes bad. If something’s going kind of south, I have a chance to kind of fix it. If it goes way south, they’re already transferred, they have joined someplace else and I can’t save a family. And they are probably toxic, and they are online on Yelp and Google reviews and Yahoo user groups, whatever, saying what they have to say about how bad your program is. I want to stop that.
So that’s helped and now I am going to get a lot more e-mails. But it also gives me a chance to fix the situation. And I am not afraid to go face-to-face with someone who’s unhappy. I’m not going to yell at them; I’m not going to get in their face. Hey, let’s try to figure out what happened; how can we make it better. Tell me more; tell me your situation. So, I am trying to fix it before it becomes a real problem. Tim always likes to say: you’re only as good as your bad days. We all have bad days; we’ve all had them.
Tomorrow’s Nitro: we are always evaluating. If something’s not working, we are not afraid to change it. We are kind of a big ship, but I kind of want to run it like a jet-ski, you know. We do kind of change. It drives some of our office folks crazy: What’s he doing now? Well, it didn’t quite work, so we’ve got to change something.
Embrace mistakes, admit we were wrong, explain why. You make a decision, I usually explain a big-old why on why we made a certain decision and I e-mail out to all the families. Why do I have to tell them that? Do I owe them that? Not really. But I don’t want them out in the parking lot forming sub-committees and sub-committees and sub-committees, discussing and questioning why are we doing certain things. They may disagree, but at least they can say, hey you know what, I disagree but I understand why he would do it. And usually it kind of ends it right there; I try to keep things low that way.
One of my favorite sayings: All you can do is all you can do. And you guys pour your heart into everything you do every single day; that’s all I can ask my staff to do. And sometimes it isn’t good enough. And sometimes there are people that wake up that morning and say: you know what, I am mad as heck and I’m going to try to take out as many people I can and make people’s days worse. And those are those people in the world, you know; but all we can do is all we can do.
The last thing I’m going to tell you (because we are running short on time) is we had taken… a the little trajectory of Nitro from a 14&Under-standpoint: 33rd place, the next one was 16th, 11th, 6th, 2nd. And that was five in a row. And it was the last day of the meet, and we looked at the psych… this was long course, about three summers ago. And this is going to be a close one; it’s going to be interesting. And in the hunt: Woodlands, North Texas Nadadores, AAAA/Alamo Area, usually Lakeside—there are some very strong programs in Texas.
And earlier that season, there were a couple of moms that came over from a different program to check us out; they brought their kids for a practice. And they are in the bleachers and I had a chance to talk with them a little bit. And one was a little bit snippy, and this mom said, “Well we heard that Nitro all you are just a number.” OK, that’s cool; and I just banked that at the back of my head. And I said, “Yeah, we’ve got 23 lanes, a lot of kids. But you know what, here’s a little village right here, with three or four lanes with two coaches; here is a little village right here with three or four lanes with two coaches.”
We have got coaches on these groups, I would probably say a ratio of maybe 10:1, maybe 9:1; and for a swim team… I think that’s unheard of for a competitive swim team. But we do a pretty good job; I think we are pretty active coaches. But I remember that At Nitro Swimming you are just a number.
And so I made up a t-shirt; and I am big on t-shirts. And we get to the state championship meet, it is the last day, and I have these shirts made up and I put them in a box. And I kept them at the UT Swim Center; no one knew I had them. And I said, “In case we win this thing, I’ve got shirts.” But no one knew—except for Tracy.
And we’re up by 101 points, last day, whatever, we won the meet. And so I walk out, the kids are all sitting in the bleachers, the announcer’s scoreboard is right there. And I throw these shirts out, and there is the front. (You guys see that?) The front said: So Nitro Swimming is just a number…. And on the back, is a big-old #1, with a State of Texas, and it says Texas swimming champions.
So the officials—Ron Zilno and a few others—said, “Mike, you’ve got a lot of guts to buy t-shirts before the end of a meet.” And I said, “Look a little closer; tell me where you see a year anywhere on these shirts.” [laughter] And I said, “There is no year. So whether it is 2010, ’11, 2025; some day, we are going to break-out these shirts and we are going to celebrate a win.”
And so I want to leave you with that today, with: whatever it is you want to do, you have to have a reason. You know, when you wake up, there has got to be a reason why you are doing what you are doing.
I appreciate your time today; thanks for me letting me speak for the hour. Thank you.
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