The Cultural Headwind


Presented by Don Heidary, Orinda Aquatics


My name is Kathleen Prindle; I am a club coach from Florida and I am on the ASCA board. I am here this morning to introduce Don Heidary. For those who don’t know, Don is the co-head coach and co-founder of Orinda Aquatics in California, along with his twin brother Ron. Orinda is a smaller club with about 125 swimmers. For those of you familiar with USA Swimming’s Club Excellence program, they are a Silver Medal Team. They have consistently placed high in major competitions despite their smaller size. They have won Junior Nationals, Sectionals, Far Westerns. They were 3rd in 2012 at the long course Junior Nationals in the men.

The overriding philosophy of Orinda Aquatics is character first; putting character first in swimming and in life. For those who do not know, he co-authored this wonderful guideline which I spend some time reading last night (it is available from the ASCA website). But he did a talk once that was so well received that he was asked to write a manual for it, and it is called Developing High-Character Athletes and High-Character Teams. So Don really focuses on the part of our sport that is so fundamental to the success of every athlete. I will leave you with a quote, which is in the front of this guide. I thought it was funny, because it is by a musician—there is a lot of rocker quotes in there, I don’t know if you know that. Vince Gill says, “Success is always temporary. When all is said and done, the only thing you have left is your character.” I think that is a fitting introduction to Don Heidary.

Heidary: I will start with: this is not one of the sexiest talks in the conference. John asked me to do it, and I would say that of all the things that you have available to you, from stroke technique and training, in my opinion this may very well be the most important. So I do want to thank ASCA for the opportunity to be here, and specifically John Leonard for supporting this truly invaluable message, a message that transcends swimming and coaching.

What I am going to talk today about is cultures, and this slide is culture of cultures. I think they are the elephant in the room. What we are going to talk about is understanding why cultures exist; rather than accepting them, trying to understand why they are what they are. Understanding their effect on kids and on society, and then redefining them in terms of what is right for humanity and right for athletics. To sell the benefits of a new culture, to implement them, to change the paradigm, change the world and I truly believe to give kids back to themselves as individuals and athletes.

So a change in culture and a change in life. This is a true story of a 17-year-old girl who changed her culture and changed her life. She wrote a note that said:

I think about where I would be had I not changed teams and honestly it’s scary. I was becoming a person I did not want to be. I have learned what is truly important in life and I’m not sure when or if I would have figured it out. I realize what it was like to be around negative people, because that was the type of person that was always me. Additionally I dreaded swimming, and now I love it again and it has been a rebirth.

So this is a typical kid that was a high level swimmer; you change the culture, you change life.

Analysis, Awareness and Evolution

I would ask you to indulge me for a minute and close your eyes. You do like the kids, where some of you won’t; but close your eyes and visualize your team or your group. So your eyes are closed and you see your team. What I would like you to do is imagine an impeccable culture. A culture of training where everybody embraces the work, they are positive and supportive. They are focused on technique; it means a lot to them, every stroke matters. Your team at meets: what do they look like? Arrive early? Team attire? Positive, supportive, cheer for one another? A perfect culture. Your team traveling. Team attire? Impeccable integrity? Always doing the right thing? Team respect? An apparent culture.

I would refer to the quote on the slide (you can open your eyes now—if they were closed). The rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single person contemplates it bearing within him the image of a cathedral. What if your cultural image was a cathedral and you could sell it to your team?

So our image and our reality. I only say this to show that over 20 or 30 year period, we had an image and we went through the exercise. Our team right now is about 170 swimmers, but it is about a 100 teenagers—so we are top heavy. We have a lot of kids who join our team at 13, 14, or 15 years-old. There is a massive culture change that has to happen.

Well, this is the reality. No bad language, ever. No inappropriate attire. No disrespect, ever. No ego. No complaining—that we are aware of. Kids are always in team attire at meets. There is a strong leadership awareness. Incredible relationships with kids and coaches; they do view it as a second family. The kids set-up a 50m pool with no coach on deck, every day. There is 95% retention for 14 and under swimmers, and virtually every swimmer wants to swim in college—which is what we all want.

We have virtually no parent problems; a few with the younger ages, which you could imagine, but with the high school kids, none. We travel with no chaperons—we never will. We most recently went on a trip with 91 high school swimmers, all coach-run and coach-supervised: three coaches, zero chaperons. We do not do bed checks, no one was ever late for a meeting, and there were no problems. But it relates back to culture.

So this talk is about developing athletes against a societal backdrop that challenges the very core of our sport and the essence of human development.

Someone said to me once: most kids are good, I don’t necessarily agree with your premise. I responded with, “Well, most kids are good and most cultural influences are light headwinds; in too many cases, they can be destructive forces wreaking havoc on a program, dismantling its very foundation.” Analogies are: when a cancer exists in the body, most cells are healthy, and in most cases, we do not even know; a few reckless drivers on a highway can create risk for everybody and entice others. So it is with a culture.

This is significant: how do you get from this, to what we know as these cultural creators? I had a meeting with parents for our character camp, and there were parents with 10-14 year-old kids and they were adorable kids just like this [on slide]—they do everything right and they want to please. I talked about issues in our community: drug and alcohol issues, bullying, disrespect. They said, Well, that’s really bad. I said, “Well who do you think is doing this? They are your kids, four years from now. You need to understand that. There’s a cultural change.” So are these cute kids the culture creators?

A giant youth party fueled by alcohol, and the internet turns violent and abusive. Mob scene at a high school: 500 students participated in what was a mob scene with rampant alcohol use, hazing and bullying. Two busloads of students on a ski trip detained for massive drug and alcohol use and possession, which the parents defended. This was in our area.

This [slide] was a random, text chat from a group of girls, 14-18 years-old, on another team. It is not an indictment of the kids, but it is emblematic of the culture. I do not think I need to read through this, you can read it; but this verbatim. I would add at the bottom: could this possibly sound like a reality TV show?

On a swim team homepage: a photo of a group of guys making a vulture gesture towards women—the most degrading that you could imagine. Now these are great students, well to-do families, great athletes, and these kids will all go to great schools. So, on the surface everything works—the resume works. It is not an isolated example; it is cultural. This high school environment… fantasy sex-league, physical assault led by team captains, drafting girls to have sex with, part of a bonding experience involved alcohol, and teammates intimidated not to tell. Or the incident in Texas: brutal freshman hazing.

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