Mastering the Art of Practice: Old Ideas for a New Generation by Rev. Ed Richardson (2006)


I know that you just can’t wait to hear what an overweight, bulging seminary professor can tell you about coaching swimmers. I could remind you that as a minister, in an around about way, I work for a person who actually walks on water, but that would be a little bit too obvious. Maybe I would take more of a worldly perspective perhaps making my connection to the swimming world that way. It comes through my wife who is a middle school teacher in Towson, Maryland. She had one Mr. Michael Phelps in her home room for a year. She regales of telling how she would give him detention and that she is sure it was her detention that made Michael the swimmer he is today. Now I am not sure that is valid, but I learned a long time ago, as did Michael, not to argue with middle school teachers. I really would like to thank you for the opportunity to come here and share with you this afternoon.

I did not know exactly how to prepare for this talk so being the resourceful professor that I am; I went to that all-knowing, all great source, the internet. I found the ASCA website and looked around for a while. There I found an online test for coaching skills and discovered that I could take it for free, so I did. I took the foundations for coaching Level I test. I answered all 95 questions, thoughtfully, and to the best of my ability. Guess what? I failed. I am sure you aren’t glad about that, in all honesty, but I did score 64%. Now I don’t know what passing was, but I was pretty pleased with 64%. Though I may have failed the test I did learn some things about coaching, besides the fact that you have to study the material before you take the test. I discovered that part of being a swim coach requires you to focus on outcome. Coaching involves management skills, interpersonal skills, technical skills – all these skills working together to put together the best team possible. I also learned from taking that test that coaching is not just about winning. It is not about the end product. It is not just about the results you get.

There is an important dimension of coaching I discovered that focuses upon the process to success, and that is where I wanted to plug in. It is about entering into a relationship with those you coach and how you guide them along a journey. Now I am not here to talk about technique or strategy. You have had a great opportunity this week to hear some of the best in those fields at this gathering. Instead, I am here to talk today about how to relate to those around you along this journey of coaching. How can coaches better understand swimmers? How can they better understand those they work with and communicate ideas and techniques in such a way that each swimmer will become the best swimmer and the best person that he or she can be? Now, more likely than not, I will not tell you anything you don’t already know. The problem is, you may not know that you know it. I am here to help frame the situation and look at some issues before us and try to bring them into focus.

Let’s find out exactly who is here. This is a little audience participation thing, so get ready. I would like for you to raise your hand if you have ever been to a restaurant and been asked this question, “would you like coffee or Sanka to drink”? There are a few hands. Okay, thank you. Now, raise your hand if you can complete this phrase from a 1967 Paul Newman movie, “what we have here is a failure to communicate? Too easy wasn’t it? Okay, now raise your hands if you think you can explain the REM music video, “Losing my Religion” or if you even know that REM is a band? Now raise your hand if you have ever linked more that one X box together to play Halo 2 or that you are a member of X box live. Now my son, who is 16, is really mad because he just found out that there are only 400,000 Play Station 3 units being sent to the United States this fall. He is afraid that he might actually have to wait to get one. Next, raise your hand if you are not really listening to this and you are waiting for this talk to come out on a Pod cast. Well, what we have done here, hopefully in a comfortable way, is just get a very succinct idea of the concept of generation and generational issues. I have loosely grouped you by one experience that might be a standard in your formative years and in your formative development. Right now in the United States there are four major generations interacting at every conceivable level in society. I think it would be beneficial for us to kind of take a thumbnail sketch.

Let’s talk about the four generations that we are encountering. First, there is a GI generation or that great generation for which World War II is the focal point. They were probably born well before 1940. They are seen as the sacrificing generations, the heroic generation. These are the individuals you had basically two choices of coffee growing up, real coffee or this new fangled decaf called Sanka. These are the people that are very confused when you ask them to go out for coffee and when you get there you order a double latte almond mocha with foam and cinnamon sprinkles. They want to know where the coffee is. The second group is the baby boom generation, born basically 1940-1960’s. They were told that they could be anything that they wanted to be and were all out to change the world. They were also the generation that would not trust anyone over 30. I can’t believe I used to say that. It was a movie called “Cool Hand Luke” that all the boomers knew right away that it was about “sticking it to the man.” The baby boomer generation was about rebelling and sticking it to the man. We are the generation that brought you, thank you very much, sex, drugs and rock and roll. Then there is the third generation, generation X, born basically between 1962 and 1982. Now this is the first generation not to be better off than the generation before it. This is a group of kids that grew up as latchkey kids, coming home to empty homes, letting themselves in and perfecting their video skills on Nintendo and Atari systems. This is the group of kids that always seemed to be in trouble. Their main goal was survival. This is the group that was constantly asking the question WHY? The thing of losing my religion in the REM video reflects this sense of abandonment. It begins with a pitcher of milk being spilt onto a ground and then an angel figure starting to cry over the spilt milk.

Finally, we come to the fourth generation that is in our group today. We call those the Millennial, born in 1982 on up to the present time. That is our focus of who we are going to talk about today. They have been called lots of different things, like mosaics. They have been called generation Y. For the most part you hear them referred to as Millennial because they are breaking into the new millennium. Do you know that nearly half of all the dorms in the United States have at least one game system and a Personal Computer? Now, if you don’t know what Halo 2 is, your homework is to find out what it is. You get extra credit if you actually play Halo because back in the spring when Halo 2 was released 6.4 million copies were sold within the first six months and 1.5 million people, mostly millennial, hook up to X-box live and play against each other around the world. If you don’t know what Pod casting is, well, I will at least tell you. It is a phrase that was coined in 2004 combining the term I-Pod, a popular portable device that hopefully you have at least seen the commercials for on television, and the concept of broadcasting. So we have four generations around us today. The one thing that we have to be careful of is avoiding stereotypes. We can talk about generalizations and avoid the concept of stereotypes. Generalizations are flexible. Stereotypes are rigid. What we say today about generations and especially about millennial are generalizations intended to help you begin to understand the largest of all generations. What we say about a group is not necessarily true about the individual standing in front of you. We have to always remember to see that person as an individual and that is how we can better understand this person that is sitting in front of me.

Now let’s go on to the good stuff. Let’s look at some cultural factors, characteristics, and events that helped shape this millennial group. Those that lived through the influential seminal focal years had one of the cultural factors as a tremendous focus on children and family. These are the kids that grew up being told that you are special. You are a “baby on board”. Did you ever see those bumper stickers? These are the babies on board. Now, they are in your pools and everywhere. It is quite a shift from the latchkey kid to the previous generation who were left to basically fend for themselves. Now as an aside, Generation X’ers and millennial really have a lot of trouble getting along with each other. A millennial will see X’ers as too edgy and X’ers will see millennial as being way too entitled. Now, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, not only were 100% of all mothers present at birth, but 75% of the fathers were there as well. I have to admit, I was one of that 75% and in retrospect my role was not as great as I thought it would be. I was more of a support person. I was told that repeatedly during that time. In the 1990’s we saw kids being taken out to eat, at fancy restaurants no less, which was only once upon a time an adult thing to do. Well, for gosh sakes, Las Vegas and Club Med went family in the 90’s. How much more family oriented can a society get than Sin City and Club Med catering to the family?

One of the second cultural factors is that these youth live in a scheduled structured environment. It has been documented that indeed this generation is the busiest generation of all and because of that they are facing pressures usually only reserved for adults. Parents and teachers and dare I say, even coaches, have micro-managed schedules for them, leaving them with very little free unstructured time. I will tell you something that really broke my heart that I read about some schools in California. I am not saying anything against California, but this is where they were cutting out recess in kindergarten because they cannot get all the academic stuff in. They go to soccer camp, karate, ballet lessons, and swim team, all with mom and dad shuttling them from place to place. They even line up times on their palm pilots so that every one will be on the same schedule. My 16 year old has a palm pilot that I gave him when he was 12, but now he has replaced it with other more fancy things that I cannot even begin to use, but he had one.

Another cultural identity is that this is a multi-cultural group. This is a group of young people that have had more exposure and more interaction with other ethnic groups than ever before. A recent UCLA higher education research said that the freshmen coming into the dorm last year had the highest inter-racial reaction of any group in history. They were used to being along with different people. Now again, another cultural factor is that of terrorism. Many of them remember the Federal Building in Oklahoma. They remember the Columbine incident which culminated three years of the trend of shootings. Then finally, the major event that would bind them all together was 9-11. As a result of these cultural factors there is a sense of patriotism, a sense of heroism developing in this generation. One report that ten months following 9-11, the word hero was used more in the media than in the previous ten years altogether. The word hero was used more in ten months by media persons than in ten years previous to that. Flag companies could not keep flags in stock as the demand for flags was so great.

Another cultural factor that helped shape who these young people are is parent advocacy. They are raised by active, involved parents who often intercede in their behalf. I know that comes as a big surprise to you as coaches. Well, they are coming from protective baby boomer parents who want to ensure that they grow up safely and treated well. Parents challenge low grades. They can negotiate schedules with swim coaches and soccer coaches. They go and visit college campuses with their children and there are even reports of them going to army recruiting stations with their children, but there is something strange about all of this – these kids actually like their parents. All the Harris polls routinely show that mom and dad are among the top people that these young adults admire. It feels normal for their parents to intercede for them. One of the final cultural factors is that of globalism. The world is small to this group of people. No longer do you send letters and have pen pals across the nation or across the world that you wait two and three and four weeks to get letters back from. No, you have instant access to people around the world 24 hours a day. If you want to buy Michael Phelps’s book at 3 am in the morning, guess what? You can do that because it is always open. Now the result of all these cultural factors result in some compelling messages that may be under the surface, we cannot really identify. We have to really stop and pay attention. One of the first of these messages, we tell these young people, is to be smart. You are special.

Now as we mentioned, millennial have been catered to since before they were born. Yes, I will confess that I am one of those parents who put classical music on my wife’s pregnant belly so that the kid inside could hear Mozart and all of that. We would buy the latest educational mobiles and all that stuff, but it is not just me. It is society. I mean, look at the rise in the 1990’s of Nickelodeon, of Baby Gap, of Sports Illustrated for kids. What ever happened to Highlights? What ever happened to Goofus and Gallant? They were two of my heroes growing up. Some of you don’t even know who I am talking about, see? One of the other messages was “leave no one behind”. They have been taught that from an early age. They are taught to be inclusive and tolerant toward race, religion and sexual orientation. They are reminded that they can connect 24-7 and that is a crucial insight upon helping these young adults become independent, but also interdependent. My son, who is 23 and a 5th year senior, who I hope just goes five years, is surprised that I don’t text message him back or IM him back at 2 AM in the morning. He is surprised why I don’t do that, but here is the real surprise – more millennials say they can live without a television than a computer. Many prefer chatting online to talking to each other on a phone. Why? They can do more than one thing at a time. They can get into that area of what has become known as multi-tasking. One of the messages that we tell these young adults is to achieve now. My guess is that many of your swimmers had their pre-schools picked out for them while they were still in the womb, let alone their prep schools and their colleges already selected for them. Imagine what pressure that places upon them to meet the goals set by other people for them. Achieve now.

Also, one of the trends in this group is to serve our community. Way over 50% of the graduating high school students reported volunteering in their communities above and beyond the quote “required volunteer time.” A Roper survey asks the millennial what was the major cause of problems in the United States? Their #1 answer was selfishness. The people were too selfish and didn’t care about looking out for each other. So what does all this yield? Well, it yields young adults, millennial, who are confident, who feel ready to overcome any challenge before them. They feel they can leap tall buildings with single a bound, etc. For them, age and experience do not automatically call for respect as it did in previous generations. You have to earn their respect. You do not get it automatically just by being older than them. You’ve got a group of people that are hopeful. They are optimistic, but yet in their optimism, they are practical. They believe in the future. They believe that they have an important role in the future. They may not be able to tell you what that role is exactly, but they genuinely believe that they are here to help shape the world in the generations to come. They are goal minded and achievement oriented.

I never will forget when Sarah Hughes, the unexpected Olympic Gold Medalist skater talked about her next goal. Someone asked what is your next goal? She said to get 1600 on the SAT. That is goal oriented and goal driven. She is now a 4.0 student at Yale, in case you were wondering, so there is something to that. Her favorite phrase she says is “when you work hard you have fun” I am not sure that I would have said that at 17 or 18, but that is me. They are civic minded. They are taught to think in terms of a greater good. They expect themselves, others and institutions, that they associate with, to contribute to the communities in which they are found and are inclusive. This group is used to being in teams. They want to make sure that everybody is on a team and that everybody on the team is treated fairly, while diversity is respected and not just tolerated. So you know all what I have been telling you. You know that and that is the what, but what you might want to know is the so what? So what about all of this? How do I deal with them more effectively on a daily basis is what you might ask? Well, at least, that is what I hope you are asking because that is what I am going to answer.

Claire Raines in her book “Connecting Generations” offers six insights into working with young adults. Her first is she says that you need to be the leader. This group of young people had grown up with structure and with supervision. Millennial are looking for leaders with honesty and integrity. They would like to be leaders themselves, but they also like to look for role models. They are in desperate need of role models on teaching them how to be the leaders they want to be. The second thing she says this generation says is “challenge me!” They want learning opportunities, but not just in the class and not just in the pool. They like to try new things all around and trying new things is very important to this group of people. Third, she says that, they like to say let me work with my friends. They like working and being with their friends. Now that might be a hindrance for some of you, but that is just the way it is. They like to be with their friends. The fourth, she says is, “let’s have fun!” Indeed a little humor, a little silliness, and even a little irreverence goes a long way in dealing with the millennial, but they also want to be respected. They say, respect me. Treat our ideas and requests respectfully. They say, I may not have been around as long as you, but don’t hold that against me. I have ideas. I have thoughts. Listen to me and respect me. Lastly, they ask us to be flexible. The busiest generation ever is not going to surrender their interest in a variety of activities just because you hand them a schedule. Rigid scheduling and rigid responses guarantee conflict and problems. You have to encourage them. You have to mentor them; learn how to learn from them.

What are the problems millennial face? They say it is pressure. Be on time all the time. They have to achieve all the time, living up to the high expectations of adults and friends. A poll shows that today’s kid’s biggest worry is about grades and college admissions. Most kids say that they fear homework and grades more than they do school violence. They are more worried and more afraid about getting good grades and getting their homework done than they are about their own safety in the school. Now, there are many, many, many resources that can tell you all about the generations and how they interact, how to manage them, how to get together with them, and how to treat them. I mean, I did a Google search just last night. I think I came up with like a half a million hits on the millennial generation alone. I want to read them all to you right now. NO, no, I am not going to do that. I was just seeing if you were paying attention, but we are not here to talk about that only.

We are here to help us get a framework to understand a perspective on how we can help these people that we work with and care about. These people that we coach to be better and how we can become better coaches ourselves. I am going to turn your attention now to how we can be masters on the journey of coaching. Last winter I was going through some difficult times in my life. I was assessing my career choices, my life choices and all those other obligatory you know, mid-life crisis issues that you have to face, when a close friend of mine, a management consultant by profession asked me if I would help him. I said, “Sure Dave, what do you want me to do?” He told me that he had been taking courses to become a certified human relations coach. He needed someone to record and coach over 5 sessions for his final project. Would I be willing to help him out? I said sure Dave, I will be glad to help you out. Well, throughout the five sessions that we spent together I eventually realized that I wasn’t helping him out, but he was really helping me out. You know, it doesn’t take me long to catch onto these things sometimes.

One of the first books that he handed me to read was the book entitled “Mastery,” The key to success and long-term fulfillment, by George Leonard. Now, no doubt many of you have read this little engaging book. It has been out for a while. Reading this book and attempting to translate its principles into my life and my teaching made quite an impact on my life. Leonard’s five keys to mastery are instruction, practice, surrender, intentionality, and the edge. All of them have been updated recently and even turned into a really good video series. Today I would like to just focus on one, the concept of practice to try and help us understand how practice relates to our journey on the road to becoming master coaches. Mastery is not an illusive dream reserved only for super talented people born with exceptional ability, but mastery is quite simply a journey. It is a journey with few maps and many pitfalls and many side roads. One of the main problems in undertaking the journey of mastery is that it takes dedication. It takes time and it takes effort, but we do live in a society of instant messaging, instant feedback and 30 second sound bites.

TV, in essence, has brainwashed us into thinking that there is no pause or any waiting in life. There is just instant resolution and gratification. Just think about TV shows with everything how bizarre, how tragic, how sad, how noble, how happy. Everything can be resolved on TV between a series of commercials. Most of the commercials advertise something where you get fast and temporary relief, I might add, all within 24 minutes. The show comes to an end. Everyone is happy. It moves on to the next great adventure in their lives. Unfortunately, our lives attempt to mirror such a fast paced life. We are taught to get the good grades so you can get into a good school, so you can get a good job, so you can make a lot of money, so you can buy the good house and so on and so on. It is an endless life of upscale mobility that is set before us, but we all hear, no, that is not the way it really is. That is not the case. Most of our lives are lived on plateaus. That is an in-between time where everything not only seems to stand still, but sometimes even seems to move backwards. How do we learn to value those routine, seemingly mundane times in our lives? How do we help those we coach do the same?

Leonard says that we do this by understanding what it means to practice. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? It takes practice, practice, practice, right? An old timeless joke, but it has real meaning. Practice is often used as a verb and as a verb it is pretty clear to us. You practice in order to learn a skill, in order to improve yourself. You practice backstroke. You practice breaststroke. You practice a glide. You practice all these things. Probably for most of you here, I imagine practice might be one of the most frequently used words in your vocabulary, so this group is no stranger to the word practice. Sometimes, when we are so close to things, so familiar to things, we lose perspective. How can we convey our understanding of practice to those upon whom we try to teach, if we have lost our perspective on practice? How do we show them how to practice, if we forget what it is like ourselves? Leonard says that is for those on a Masters journey. We need to consider practice more as a noun, rather than a verb. It is not so much a thing you do, but something that you have or more importantly, something that you are.

One of my best friends happens to be our family doctor. I kid him all the time about practicing medicine. I tell him I hope he hurries up and gets it right so I can go to him and feel confident that he has got it right and stops practicing it. Well of course, a doctor practices medicine, but a doctor also has a practice of where he cares for people. That is who he is. If you knew my doctor friend, he exemplifies this for his life and is devoted to the practice of medicine, to taking care of people. It is not just something that he goes in but it is who he is. What is it about practice that scares many of us and scares young people today? I think it is failing to grasp practice as an end to itself and not just a means to achieving a goal, whether that is in swimming or in life. Practice forces us to face many of the plateaus of life, after all, after all the championships, after all the gold medals; there is still tomorrow. Here is a quote from Leonard. He says “if our life is a good one, a life of mastery, most of it will be spent on the plateau, if not, a large part of our life may well be spent in a restless, distracted, ultimately self-destructive attempts to escape the plateau. The question remains. Where in our upbringing? Where in our schooling, in our career are we explicitly taught to value, to enjoy, even to love the plateau, that long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?” The answer to this question of where is such understanding of life that the plateau takes place can be answered here today. One place it takes place is poolside.

Coaches today are poised in a position to help lead a generation of young people, good kids, ambitious kids, and loyal kids to embrace the joy of regular practice and to understand that life is not a series of climaxes, but instead a bumpy journey with many starts and stops along the way. How do we teach the joy of practice? How do we help young people embrace those often long and seemingly endless stretches where no progress seems to be made? We have to shift our focus to prize the process as well as the product. How do we convey this attitude to young adults who are products of a consumer driven world where they are encouraged, pushed, manipulated by society to move on to the next bigger, greater, better thing and leave the rest behind? It is not that these millennial are not ambitious, for indeed millennial are ambitious. We need to help them value the process of life and not be blinded by flashy end-results. Practice deals with the here and now. Practice is in the present. Now, I am not saying that goals are not important for they are important, but we cannot live in the future and as coaches, we can’t really hold the future like a carrot in front of young adults. We must refrain from reinforcing obsessive goal orientation, for if we do not, then we become guilty of valuing the product over the process. We will never be able to convey the love of practice needed to get people along the path of mastery.

When I was doing my doctoral studies I remember that I came across a study done on rewarding school children by giving them gold stars. You know, we all got those little gold stars. Well, there was a study done and the study showed that giving the stars initially did speed up the progress, but soon the progress would taper off. Even if you increase the number of stars that you gave off to the kids and when you stopped giving the stars out altogether, the level of progress of those kids fell below those students who never received stars in the first place. We have to help the next generation learn the concept that the ultimate reward is not the gold star or the gold medal, but it is the path upon which we are. Where I live in Baltimore, there is a rec league, a youth soccer program there, which is pretty big in our area. At the end of the season everyone gets a trophy, everyone. Now I know self worth and all this stuff and making kids you know happy. I agree with that. I don’t have any problem with helping to build up kid’s self-worth, but the problem is that throughout the year they are receiving the mixed message by pressuring them to win, win, and win.

I happened to coach my son’s 5th grade basketball team one year. Well, actually, I was the assistant coach. I was coaching with a guy who had been coaching for many years and was used to winning every year. Well, our practices were nothing but scrimmages, letting the same starting 5 go against the rotation of subs each week. My son was one of the subs, so he got to play a little bit every week. There were a couple of times when I actually got to run the practice in his absence. The guys arrived and we immediately starting playing. They were all quite surprised when I stopped them and began doing some passing drills and dribbling exercises for the entire time of practice with not one basket made. Now some of the kids went home complaining that they did not even score two points the whole night long. Now this went on for two practices in a row. I was not a very popular coach at that time, not even in my own house. After those practices, I had a couple of parents stop by. Now when I say that I know that cold water runs through your veins when you hear that parents are stopping by to talk to coaches. I know how that is. They asked me, what was going on the last couple of practices. Oh, I was a bit nervous, but I thought at least I will tell them the truth so I told them and each and every parent said that their son had come home and all they could do was talk about practice. They talked about how much fun it was and how they were really learning how to become real basketball players for a change.

So, how do we reach out to a generation of young people who in many ways have the world at their fingertips? They have been cherished by parents and told they can shape the world and make the world into whatever they desire it to be. They have been celebrated in the decade of the child. I have heard promises that no child will be left behind. In many ways they seem to have it all together and confident they will make a difference in the world. At the same time they are also haunted by tales of the trench coat mafia, images of planes crashing into buildings and a sense of being overwhelmed and constantly being pushed to succeed. They are a generation poised to make a profound impact, not only upon this nation, but upon the world. They are in search of role models. They are in search of leaders and then they show up asking you to be their coach. What an awesome, and I use awesome in the real biblical sense, an awesome opportunity. What an awesome responsibility we have. Hopefully, you can use swimming as a means to shape and guide young adults. Hopefully you can help them with their pre-occupation of goals and results and quick fixes, all the things which serve only to separate us from the real experiences of life. Hopefully you can help them understand that life is made up of “in-between times” and these times are as important as any moment in their lives.

Now we are about to begin the NFL season, well actually, we have begun on Thursday night. For most of the players, the NFL season is 16 weeks long, 16 weeks. What about those other 8,744 hours of in-between time? Do they matter? Are they important? Allow me to be theological here in closing. There are two words in the New Testament for the word that we translate often as time. One of them is hennas. No doubt you are familiar with this type of time, as your sport is governed by such time. It is linear, chronological time which could be measured and recorded, but the second word translated as time is the word tyros. Tyros used to delineate a special particular moment, which is full of meaning and importance. It is time that cannot be measured by a clock. Now my hope for you, as you work diligently with these young adults, these young people, is that your practices will be filled with tyros time. Moments filled with opportunities, not just to improve technique or speed, but moments to help forge a life dedicated to living the fullest it can be and seeing the joy in everything, even a 5 am workout in a pool. Thank you very much and good luck. If you are interested, I will stand up here. If you want to come up and talk, I will be here to talk, but if not, have a good afternoon.

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