Our Own Best Selves Turned Inside Out


What Coaches and Athletes Model for the World

Timothy F. Welsh – The University of Notre Dame, August 2000

Coaches and athletes have a secret. Coaches and athletes share a special knowledge and understanding of the world that is not common outside of the athletic world. This knowledge comes directly from their athletic experience, but even though this knowledge seems simple and obvious, it is seldom articulated. The knowledge and the understanding that coaches and athletes share, however, is often profound and can extend beyond athletics and into life. This shared understanding also helps to explain why coaches and athletes can be admired by our culture, and can be identified as both heroes and (Charles Barkley not withstanding) role models.

What follows is a reflection on six qualities that coaches and athletes know, understand, and perhaps can, at least by modeling them, teach the world. I was reflecting on these qualities early in August, when, for eight days in Indianapolis (August 9-16), I watched over 1300 swimmers compete for a maximum of 52 spots (26 each for men and women) on the United States Olympic Swimming Team for the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia The event was titled the ‘US Olympic Team Trials” in Swimming. As it has always been, the process of selecting the US Olympic Swimming Team is formal, unforgiving, rewarding, and somewhat brutal. It is a trial-by-competition in every sense of the word.

The Trials worked in this way. For each of the 26 events (13 each for men and for women), a field of 80 to over 110 swimmers had qualified to compete. On the morning of the Trials for each event, the field was separated into heats of eight people in a heat After all the heats raced once, the full field was immediately cut to a semi-final field of 16 competitors. These 16 raced again in the semi-finals that night, after which, the field was immediately cut again to a final field of 8. In races of 400 meters and longer, there was no semi-final heat. The preliminary field was immediately cut to the top 8 who swam in the Finals, either on the same night, or on the following night. Once the final field of 8 was selected, they raced again in the Finals, with the top 2 finishers “making” the Olympic Team. (In the 100 and200 meter freestyle events, because of the 400 and 800 meter relays, up to 6 swimmers in each event “make” the team).

That is all there is to it. Making the US Olympic Swimming Team is as simple, as clean, as formal, as exciting, and as harsh as that. Only what happens at the Trials matters. No one, not even a World Record holder, comes into the Trials with a guaranteed place on the team. Even the Olympic Coaches, except for the Head Coach who is chosen in advance, are selected from the Trials, based to a very large extent on how many swimmers they “put” [an interesting choice of words] on the Olympic Team.

As I watched race after race take place at the Trials, I began to wonder “Why?” “Why do they all do it?” Surely, it does not require a field of 80 to 100 people to select 2 or even 6 for the Olympic Team. Surely, athletes coming to the Trials must be aware of what their “chances” are for making the Olympic Team. Yet …still they come, and still they train, hundreds of them, and hundreds of coaches, all training for hundreds of days, and hundreds upon hundreds of hours, and thousands upon thousands of training miles… all to be prepared to put forth a lifetime best performance at the US Olympic Swimming Team Trials.

Swimming is not unique- in this regard. All over the country, in all kinds of sports, athletes and coaches are constantly framing and preparing for practice and for competition at every imaginable level and at every imaginable age. And – as it was at the Olympic Swimming Trials – the numbers of athletes and coaches involved are always much much larger than the number who can or do advance to the next level, or who go onto stardom, or to the Olympics, or beyond.

The question again is: “why?” Why do athletes and coaches keep doing this? Why do we-choose to admire some of them because they do it? What things do athletes and coaches know that the rest of the world might want to learn? What do athletes and coaches model for us? What might they have to teach the world?

I watched the Trials thinking about these questions. The following six answers came to mind – all simple, all clear, all obvious, all central to athletics, all (to my -mind) profound, but none spoken of very often when the outside world speaks of the athletic one. Here they are.

  1. Coaches and Athletes live, work, and compete in a world where people put forth their best effort every day.

    Whether it is in training or in competition, athletes and coaches give their best efforts to their sports every day. Nothing else is thinkable. A half-hearted game is just that: a half-hearted game. It is not athletic competition. Even the Word “competition” means “striving together…” striving together to be at our best. This is where the idea of a worthy opponent comes from. Who is my most worthy opponent? With whom am I most evenly matched all of the time? Why, with myself, of course. Even in practice, even when practicing alone, athletes are constantly striving with themselves to be at their best. Coach or athlete, it is the same. One’s very best effort is what is called for, is what is necessary, and is what is assumed to be present in every athletic endeavor. Nothing insults a coach or an athlete more than accusing them of not putting forth their best effort.

  2. Coaches and athletes are constantly striving to improve their previous best.

    Simply put, practice and training are simply about getting better… That’s it, and that is constantly it. Again, nothing else is thinkable. Ask any athlete or any coach in any sport the question; “what are you doing in practice today?” The answer will always be: “trying to improve” in this or that specific area. When athletes practice or coaches run a practice without trying to improve, they are just fooling around. That doesn’t mean that all practices have to be hard. A “recovery” practice can have as its objective improving energy stores for tomorrow, for example.

    When carried out to a possible conclusion, this idea of constantly seeking improvement can make it possible- to see in athletes “our own best selves turned inside out…” because as this thought goes, athletes are constantly striving, with their bodies (as our own best selves do with-our souls) to be just ..a… little…bit…better. Their coaches, who do the teaching, the guiding, and the training are like Spiritual Directors turned inside out, guiding their bodies (instead of their souls) to their highest possible level.

  3. Coaches and athletes live in a world which teaches, respects, honors, demands and rewards hard work.

    Hard work is the way athletic achievement is accomplished. As it is in the martial arts, where the saying is that the Master is the one who spends ten more minutes on the mat, so it is in all of athletics. Hard work is essential for continued and lasting success. All of trifling, and all of fitness are built on the principles of work-rest, and progressive overload. The way to improve from one level of fitness to the next is by working harder. There is no substitute. There is no shortcut. Hard work is the way it happens. Even in skill dominated (as opposed to fitness dominated) sports, hard work is still the key to achievement and- to improvement. The skills to be perfected only get perfected by “working on them.” No matter how much talent a person has been born or blessed with, talent alone is not sufficient for continued and sustained success. Hard work is always necessary. Sports science exists to determine exactly what kind and how much hard work is required, and when.

    Within the athletic world, coaches and athletes reserve their strongest words, their harshest criticism, and their least sympathy for those who have been given talent, but who do not work hard to develop it.

  4. Coaches and athletes live, work, and compete in a world that is defined by fair play.

    In short, the rules of the game are what the game is about Not playing by them isn’t just “unfair” or even “unthinkable.” In the athletic world, not playing by the rules makes no sense whatsoever. It is nonsense because it is not comprehensible. When swimmers race 100 meters, they race 100 meters. That is the race. And, that is the race all over the country and all over the world. In the swimming world, it “makes sense” to race 100 meters. But, to race, say, 98 meters or 103 meters, and to “call it” 100 meters makes no sense at all to people in the sport. Fair play says that everyone who races 100 meters races the same distance. Not more.- Not less. To use other examples, who cares what a person’s 49 yard dash time is? The race is 50 yards. Or who cares how many points are scored on a 9 foot basket, or an 80 yard football field? Whatever these things are (and they all might be fun), they are not “the game” as the athletic world defines it. They are something else.

    The “real game” is the same, always, everywhere. That is both the beauty and the challenge of the game. Every coach and every athlete knows it. The integrity of an athletic performance demands that it be done fairly and according to the rules of the game. That is the only performance that is meaningful within the athletic world

    As an aside, it might also be worth noting that one of the reasons coaches and athletes are so morally outraged by drugs and artificial performance enhancement in sports is that these things violate the sacred sense of fair play. Drugs and performance enhancers do not change the rules of the game. They change the performers into something other than normally human – and that is outrageous and offensive to an athletic world built on fair play.

  5. Coaches and athletes are masters of living in the present moment.

    It is as simple as this. Yesterday’s game is not today’s game. Neither is yesterday’s practice today’s practice. It is not even true that yesterday’s practice is today’s game. Only today’s event, whatever it is, practice or game, is today’s event. Everything from yesterday can be brought into today’s event, as background, as experience, as preparation. And everything from today’s event can be brought to tomorrow’s event as well. But.. in no way can today’s event be shaped to fit yesterday’s, or can tomorrow’s be shaped to fit today’s. That kind of control does not exist in athletics. Today’s event must be lived, coached, played.. .as it happens today. Today’s event is all and everything that there is today. Coaches and athletes are masters at learning to give themselves fully to the event that is happening right now, without trying to replay yesterday or preplay tomorrow. Just play today’s game today. Some people call this “on site commitment;” others call it “focusing on the task at hand.” Whatever it is called, coaches and athletes are masters at focusing energy, attention, emotion, and action on the actual event they are involved in at the moment.

    As masters of living in the present, coaches and athletes are also masters at recognizing the difference between performance in practice and performance in competition. In swimming, for example, there is a beauty to fast practices and there is a beauty to fast Meets, and they are not the same beauty. Similar distinctions exist for other sports. Coaches are athletes are skilled at recognizing and (hopefully) creating both kinds of beauty. However, because the two kinds of beauty are not the same, a beautiful practice never guarantees a beautiful competition. No matter how fast the practices have been, the pool never “owes” a swimmer a fast race.

    No game ever owes any athlete or any team a great performance, no matter how -good the practices have been.- Why? Because today’s game (race, event…) is not yesterday’s or the day before’s, or even tomorrow’s. Coaches and athletes know that the athletic world is just that simple and just that tough.

  6. Coaches and athletes know that peak performances are not permanent.

    The zone, as it is often called, does exist. Coaches and athletes who follow answers one though five listed here can and frequently do reach the ‘zone.” Reaching the zone can happen in both practice and in competition. Performances when in the “zone” are at an absolute peak level, and the performances are accompanied by internal calmness and high energy levels.’ But – no one lives in the “zone” permanently. All athletes and all coaches return to “normal” again after the peak experience. After they return, they start over – with the best effort, the improvement, the hard work, the fair play, the living in the present – until, perhaps, at some future time, they may enter the zone again.

    Want to know where to find a swimmer this morning who set an American Record at the US Olympic Team Trials last night? Go look in the training pool. The swimmer will be there, probably doing some skill drills, and working to refine and improve some fundamental skills. Last night’s race is over. The memory remains, and so, for a time, will the emotion. The performance, however, is gone.

    Want to repeat it?

    Want to improve on it??

    Then, go back to the beginning. Refresh the skills, rebuild the fitness, refocus the energy. Reestablish the commitment to the next race, and return to the starting block, prepared, but with no guarantee of the outcome, to race again. At the end of the US Olympic Swimming Team Trials in Indianapolis on August 16,2000, a total of 24 women and 23 men had qualified for the US Olympic Team. They will race again in Sydney, Australia, beginning on September 16.

    Want to know what they are doing in the month between the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games? They are back in the pool, doing exactly the things they did in training to prepare for the Trials. To those who meditate, the mystics put it this way:

    “What does one do before enlightenment? Chop wood. Carry water.
    What does one do after enlightenment? Chop wood. Carry water.”

    That is what the Olympic Team is doing between the Trials and the Games. And, what of the 1259 athletes who qualified for the Olympic Trials but who did not qualify for the Olympic Team? After a short break, most of them will return to the pool too, and will begin again at the beginning… Chop Wood. Carry Water. Athletics is like that – and all coaches and all athletes know it.

    Such are the secrets that coaches and athletes share. As obvious, as simple, and as clear as they are, they are not always common to other ways of life. Even the same coaches and the same athletes who live by these principles in their sport and when they are together do not always find it easy or natural or possible to live by them in other areas of their lives -as students, for example, or teachers, or workers, or businessmen. For this reason, athletes and coaches do not always make ideal role models outside of their sport. Imperfections plague us all. But so do hope, and so do dreams, and so one can imagine that the secrets shared by coaches and athletes in athletics can’ and one day will, be shared by everyone everywhere.

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