New Coaches – What Do They Really Need?


By John Leonard

I just came back from a clinic ASCA /FINIS sponsored yesterday (Sunday, Jan.15) with Coach Don Heidary of Orinda Aquatics. It was about Developing High Character People who also happen to be High Character Athletes. Don, his brother Ron and I had conversed about these ideas for years. But for the first time, I was able to sit through his whole presentation, uninterrupted by administrative stuff to do.

Shook me to my core.

Now, I am someone who has always said, “half a coaches’ job is to get young people to swim faster and better. The other half, just as important if not more so, is to help their parents raise better people.” Anyone who has read any of what I have written over the past 40 years knows that I care about this stuff.


Despite Don’s exhortations to never complain, I felt like the golfer standing on the tee, looking down the fairway and seeing NOTHING but sand traps and water hazards. And I don’t even play golf. Don’s presentation was matter of fact..which made it even more stunning – the proverbial “2×4 to the side of the head.” The scarcity of questions from the other people in the room made me think that I was not the only one in shock.

I teach some life skills. Everyday, I think. But I don’t get the results these guys get. And I don’t do 10% of the job of teaching what they teach. And my first realization was “I NEED TO.” Because the coaching issues I face are these cultural issues.

Because I have “given in” to some degree, over the years, to the “cultural headwind” as the brothers describe it. What’s that?

It’s the every teen movie, teen magazine, teen website, teen “tweet” that glorifies self-me, my possessions, beautifulness, sexiness (in pre-teen mags) and behavior that is so ultra-provocative-it is incredible. Not even mentioning the language issue (partially because I realize that away from my swimmers, I can drop some bad language with the best of them, pretty embarrassing…). It’s watching our professional athlete “role models whether they want to be or not” who have to point to themselves and draw the camera to themselves at every opportunity, even when they are 30 points behind and make the most routine of plays. Absurd. Whatever happened to “act like you’ve been there before” when you hit the end zone once every few games?

The cultural headwind continues in the lying, cheating, stealing, disrespectful behavior that is cultivated on television every night. Only the most outrageous Ricky Gervais stuff gets him his next gig. Hard work, which used to be the ticket to success in our great country, is snickered at behind raised hands…only suckers work hard. Only suckers serve other people. Only suckers are humble. Only suckers worry about anyone but themselves.

Frankly, until I listened carefully to Don present it, I didn’t realize that I had carefully and subconsciously withdrawn from hearing it, seeing it, and dealing with it. I was shrugging my shoulders internally: “What can you do.” And I’m not spending enough time battling it with my swimmers. And I need to. Now. Today.

At the same time, I have a son who is learning to coach, because he loves it, from some of the greatest coaches I know. I found myself wondering how he and thousands of young coaches like him, can be prepared to stand in this “cultural headwind” of negative influences and overcome them. The issues he will face FIRST in his career are not, knowing how to teach strokes, knowing how to train 10 and unders, knowing how to teach race skills. His challenges will be to deal with young people immersed in a culture that glorifies everything that is OPPOSITE to the things that we know from 120 years of our sport, make swimming worthwhile, life affirming, important and valuable in creating good young people. And he will have to work with parents, who in many cases come closer to sharing the values of the cultural headwind than the values of our sport…at least until they have some time to consider it more carefully.

Again, our main coaching issues are not coaching issues..they are dealing with sociology and our culture. How do we educate our young coaches to navigate that hurricane successfully?


PS. Coaches Don and Ron Heidary will next present their “TEACHING CHARACTER AND LIFE SKILLS IN A TEAM ENVIRONMENT” day at the ASCA World Clinic in Las Vegas on Sept. 5, 1-5 PM.

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