Why Won’t You Let Joey Go for the Gold?
By Coach Deborah Swanson
I was awakened from blissful slumber at 10:30 PM on a Sunday evening with a phone call from a distressed Swim Mom. “Joey doesn’t want to swim anymore… he said if he can’t be moved up from the Bronze to the Silver team he will not swim anymore. So I need you to talk to him because Coach Brad said it was OK with him if it’s OK with you.”
I wish that I could tell you that my response was calm, controlled… “Due to the late hour, I don’t think I am prepared to talk with Joey tonight. Why don’t you and Joey and Coach Brad and I find a time early this week when we can discuss this?”
Regretfully my response went something like this…. “No, it is NOT OK with me, and when I last talked with Brad it was NOT OK with him. Although Joey has improved considerably he is not ready to move up. And I really don’t appreciate your calling my home at this hour and trying to manipulate one coach against the other!.”
…What? Too harsh?
I was furious that this Mom was trying to lay a guilt trip on me by putting this six-year-old child in the middle of two coaches. But taking this personally was not helping this child or this Mom. Although manipulating the coaches was exactly what this Mom was trying to do, the first response would have left more options for everyone and allowed for open communication between all parties concerned. Wonderful thing, hindsight.
This Mom’s next phone call was to the Swim Club’s President, who thankfully agreed to act as a mediator. First on the agenda was an apology from me for my harsh words. Although it helped us to move on, it would have been so much easier if I had held my tongue in the first place. The mediator made a nice statement that we should all work together to help Joey meet his goals. After a meeting with both parents where we reviewed the criteria for each of our groups of swimmers and that “moving up” required an agreement between the coaches, swimmer and the parents. This Mom said fine but we still had to convince Joey and explain to him why he couldn’t move up to the Silver Group.
At this point I think the Mom still felt we would melt and change our minds by allowing him to swim in the next group. He was a dear, doe-eyed child, and a very hard worker. I smiled and told Joey that both Coach Brad and I had seen tremendous improvement and we both enjoyed working with him. I asked him if he thought he had improved any since August? To which he replied that he had. I told him he was seeing the results of all his hard work in learning our progressive drills. That he still had some goals to accomplish in the Bronze group and if he was still willing to work hard to accomplish these goals then we would be all too happy to move him to the Silver Group when the time came. We told him he could take time to consider what we had discussed and if he still thought he needed to quit swimming then we would be sad but we would respect his decision.
Joey continued to swim with me in the bronze group until the following school year when he proudly moved up to the Silver Group and is now reaching for the Gold. So what are the lessons learned from this near disaster?
- When you receive an emotional call at home from a parent, count to ten and consider the response that will allow you time to gather information and meet the face to face. Don’t try to solve problems over the phone. Sometimes it helps to have an objective mediator, especially in emotionally charged situations.
- Try not to take things personally. This is so much easier said than done. Think first what is best for the swimmer, then try to identify the real problem, and more importantly a reasonable solution.
- Make sure you have written guidelines for the progressive groups within your team, and communicate often with both parents and swimmers as to where swimmers stand. Periodic progress reports are a great idea. This Mom had not been to practice during the fall season but had seen great improvement at our first two swim meets. Shortly after this incident I began to give written progress reports every two weeks to my swimmers. I think it helped to keep the lines of communication open, and to demonstrate that I am keeping track of their progress and goals.
- Keep accurate records of the swimmer’s progress. Many parents and swimmers develop amnesia when it comes to remembering how far they’ve come. Joey couldn’t maintain a horizontal position and make progress in the water for more than 20 feet before holding onto the wall to rest when he first came to me. After three months he was competing in three strokes without getting disqualified, and cutting minutes off his times. Don’t you just love those eight and under swimmers! Many times parents of this age group begin to see Olympic Medals for their child after such dramatic improvement. I don’t think it hurts to remind them that their child not only worked hard but their coach had a plan for continued progress. I like to videotape my swimmers now on their first day, then show them the before and after film a month later. I also keep attendance records and dated “lesson plans.”
- Be a professional Swim Coach. Be a problem solver. Be a humble hero.