This isn’t going to be real fancy – I’m not going to be able to give you a lot of details and you probably wouldn’t know a lot of the kids that I have coached anyway. What I am going to talk about is how I got into coaching, positions I have had while I have coached and my new position coaching seniors with the Rochester Orcas, which is in Rochester, Minnesota. And finally the lessons I learned as an age group coach over the course of about 15 years – in Wisconsin, and how I translated those into what I am doing here now in Minnesota.
I started coaching in 1992. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, working on my Masters of Fine Arts in Metals. I was an art major in college. I went to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin and I had lived in Wisconsin for 4 years, but I didn’t have my residency and graduate school is really, really expensive at Wisconsin if you are out of state – so I had to work for a year. I had always had jobs involving teaching swimming, and had a real good reputation at that. I did a lot of stuff with little ones, which I really liked. At least once a year a mom would come up to me and say you are going to make a great dad, you are so good with these kids. I always kind of took that for granted, I was like, “ah okay, thanks.”
So when I needed a job I started life-guarding in Madison, Wisconsin. Those were some brutal hours, however, waking up early I started seeing some kids swim. I didn’t realize this at the time because I didn’t know a whole lot about competitive swimming, but there were great swimmers in Madison. I had swum all my life. I was a fair to middling sprinter. I was about as bad as it gets, but I swam all through college. Once, while working at the country club, I watched this girl swimming along, and I was like, “wow, that girl is really, really good.” It turns out that that girl, her name was Stephanie Morey – she was a 1:55 200 freestyler when she was 12 years old. Well I walked up and say, “you know you are really good,” and she was like, “who the hell are you?”
Madison had won I think – 22 of the 24 high school State Championships for girls that had been conducted up to that point. The Badger Dolphins organization was in Madison at the time. The Madison Aquatic Club, the Madison YMCA’s were strong, and the Verona Aquatic Club which is where Neil Walker came out of – just a lot of really solid good club programs. So I started coaching to help pay the bills a little bit and, I figured, it would be something fun to do.
Then I started coaching high school to help pay the bills while I was working on my Masters of Fine Arts. My first season was a disaster. It was an unmitigated mess. I thought I knew a lot more than I did, and I made a lot of mistakes. I had a young lady who was really close to Junior Nationals who had a horrible season and it really didn’t go well. Shortly after that I kind of had a “Come to Jesus” meeting with myself – where you just sit down and say, “what are you doing here?” I decided I didn’t want to go out like that, so I started talking to coaches.
I talked with a guy named Drew Waldon, who some of you might know. He is the head coach of the Badger Aquatics Club now and another gentleman named Dave Dollar who was the head coach of the Madison Aquatic Club. David coached Dan Drolsom who was a swimmer at the University of Texas, a very good sprinter. Drew had also coached a number of great swimmers over the years, so I said, “How do you guys do this? How do you make this stuff happen? How do you make this work?” Dave Dollar took me aside and said, “Well, you just gotta do this and this and this.” I didn’t even realize what he was doing, but he was mentoring me. He suggested that maybe I start coaching a little bit more, so I took a job coaching at the Madison West Y. I went back and coached that high school team again that year and we had a great season. We were 2nd at our Sectional meet. It was the first time ever that the team had placed. That year at the State meet we finished 5th or 6th. I believe that Madison West and Madison Memorial were 1st and 2nd and for us to finish in the top 10 – it was a really big deal.
I was coaching at the Y and I was having a lot of fun. Then I got a phone call that my Mom had been hit by a car and that she was dying. At the time we were getting ready to swim at the Schrader A+ Meet, so I pick up the phone and I called Dave Dollar. I said “Listen, I am going to be gone for a while and I am wondering if you can watch Jane Evans and Nina Lerner.” We only had two kids with cuts for this meet, but it was a big deal for us to go. Dave said, “are you kidding me, go where you gotta go – I will make sure this gets taken care of.” I came back about 5 weeks later, and that was when I realized that I really liked what I was doing. I stopped taking classes at Madison, and I just started coaching.
I ended up leaving the Y after a parent got upset because I didn’t teach her 8 year old how to swim butterfly the right way. I said “well, we have the whole season, this is an evolutionary process and it will take a little time.” She said, “well you need to understand that good coaches are a dime a dozen” and I said, “Well you need to understand another thing – that I quit” and I walked out of there. I called up my friend Dave and asked him if he had any positions for me. David, he was a classic, he goes, “John man – come on over.” So I started working with the Madison Aquatic Club (MAC) which was the beginning of a very, very special part of my life. I got to watch a person who was energetic, excited, and enthusiastic. He was also a person who communicated incredibly well with children – and those lessons were never lost on me. Dave would walk into the pool. The kids would all be standing around and he would say, “Alright” – and everybody would kind of snap around. He was never cross, he was never angry, that is not quite true, he would get angry every once in a while, but he would always open things with a smile. He would always communicate effectively and well with the children – very clear – very concise.
We had a 5 lane pool that had 6 lanes in it, so it was really narrow, which we would swim in during high school at Madison. David coached Jay Mortensen, an Olympic Gold Medalist in the ’88 Olympics as part of the 4 X 100 Medley Relay. He swam at Stanford and was the first person to win back to back events at NCAA’s. David coached him from early childhood all the way through 17 years-old. So to work with somebody like that and to watch that process was huge in my life – to be able to see how it all worked – what his priorities were. The best part of it was I didn’t even realize what we were doing. I had no idea what was going on, just kind of taking it for granted that everybody in the United States has a guy who can go 1:04 in the 100 meter breaststroke. We also had a guy who was #1 National age group at that time, Adam Chriswood, who was really talented and I just started to process all this information. I was coaching the age group side of the team.
Dave had a philosophy that I always agreed with – which is inclusion. I don’t mean to be offensive to anybody in USA Swimming here when I say this because I don’t think that this is the situation now. John said, “USA Swimming tells you that you have got to have this pyramid where you start off and you got this big base and then you whittle it down until at the end you have just got this core group of kids.” He said, “I have never believed in that. He said, I believe we have an inverted pyramid here and we try to bring as many people as we can in and it makes us stronger. We do not want to be like that, we are not going to be like that, we want to be more inclusive.” And we were. We had a great Senior team.
From the age group side – Madison is kind of an interesting place because it has something called the All City League, a 9 week season in the summer – we call it the All World League. I think there are 11 country club teams that get around 2,000 kids to swim in this big meet that they have at the end of the season – The All City Swim Meet. They televise it – they webcast it, they radio broadcast it. It is just this massive meet and all the events are sprint events. So basically, from age 5 on, any kid in Madison who is swimming is swimming in this All City League, which doesn’t do much for their distance swimming, but by the time those kids are 9 and 10 years old, they understand how to step up on relays, they understand how to do fast starts, they all have great turns, and for the most part they all have good strokes. So they are all buying into swimming and then the club teams feed off of all of these kids. I ended up working with a lot of All City League kids during their off-season.
I also had some kids from the outlying communities who didn’t have a summer league. Those kids got pretty good, but a lot of what I was doing was kind of regurgitating what Dave was doing, but at a smaller level. However, during that time I actually broke some of those kids. So the second big lesson I learned was that I didn’t want to be the guy that broke a bunch of good little kids. I will never do it again. I actually coached Austin Detra’s older sister. She was one of the ones I broke and I will never forgive myself for that. Those kids were phenomenal and I just broke them.
I got married and moved to Brookfield, Wisconsin meaning I had to leave MAC, but I still had the coaching bug a little bit. I had a regular job but I started working with Fred Russell at the Elmbrook Swim Club. For those of you who do not know Fred, he has coached a number of really, really good kids. This is the common theme – I was always fortunate to go to teams where there was a well established process, where they knew what they were doing and where the coaches really had an understanding of what they were trying to do. Fred had Sara Wanasek at the time, who was the National high school champion in the hundred back with a 54 when she was a junior – very skilled. They had a number of other good swimmers there and I was working a group with Fred with a transitional group: a 13, 14, 15 year old group. The interesting thing at Elmbrook was that everybody had to go through that group. It didn’t matter how good you were – it didn’t matter what a hot shot you were – how terrible you were – you always got to be in that group when you transitioned out of their senior group. So they would have kids that were coming into Junior Nationals, they had kids who were just getting their first State time, and they would have kids who were just starting swimming.
Working with Fred – I was working with a person who was very organized. Dave didn’t use a planner. Fred did use a planner, he had calendared everything out. He had very specific ideas about what he wanted from his athletes at any given time. He was pointing towards meets, and he knew what he wanted to do at those meet. He was setting up scheduling for those athletes, talking to them about outside commitments they might have. I don’t think Sara ever went to a prom or a homecoming because it would have put her off schedule and she made those sacrifices for Fred because Fred told her and she believed him and trusted him, that this is how you had to do things.
So I worked at Elmbrook for a couple of years and was enjoying it and having fun and we had some good swimmers. Elmbrook was kind of transitioning then at the time when they had a good group of kids coming out and a new group of kids who were not as talented coming in, but Fred was going to make them good. At that time I got a phone call from another friend of mine – Blaine Carlson in Waukesha and they were looking for an age group coach. Blaine said he really needed help. They were looking for someone to coach their Gold Group, which was their best 12 and under group. I said, “That sounds really interesting,” and ended up working it out with Elmbrook to leave in December of that season which was really kind of them to understand that.
I started with Express following the same pattern as before; start working with the age group kids. At the time we had a young man named Kyle Bubolz swimming on the team. Kyle was the national age group champion in a number of events – all the way through his career. I think he has got a couple of National Age group records, and watching Blaine maneuver that process was something very interesting. Blaine is a little younger than I am. Both Dave and Fred were quite a bit older than I am. I am 38 years old. Blaine is I think 35 or 36 now and watching Blaine manage Kyle was really interesting because I think that most people would put all their eggs in one basket with a swimmer like that. But Blaine was also cognizant that he had to manage the team. He understood that our team was growing. He understood that our team was getting better and he understood that we had some big things that were going to happen on the horizon, so he always kept it in check and he understood that he didn’t want to get way too excited. He always was very calm and very controlled. After about a year the Waukesha School District allowed us to build a new pool in cooperative fashion with them. Blaine and his wife Lori really spearheaded this as well as they had a very good board of directors. They, in a cooperative effort with the school district, raised over a million dollars and put that into the pool. The School District kicked in another 2.4 million and built a 2,000 seat 10 lane pool – 25 yards by 30 meters. In Wisconsin, nobody else had anything like that. There is Schrader and there is not a whole lot else. Most high school pools are either 6 lanes or 8 lanes.
So, while that pool is being constructed we are all over the place but we start making some progress with our age group team. At the time I started working with them we were getting ready for the State Meet. We had 72 cuts (I would always keep track of how many total state cuts we had) for our state meet. However at our last chance meet we were some 30 or 40 cuts short, so I pulled the kids aside and they say ”we are going to a meet in Schrader and we’re going to get killed.” I told them they couldn’t think like that, you can’t think in terms of what is going to happen. You have to start looking at the moment. So I made them a bet that if they get these 30 some cuts, I would get a tattoo. Low and behold we get to the meet and the kids start swimming fast – we are going to the last day of the meet we are 11 cuts short. Then the kids ask if time trials count. I said, “sure,” thinking this isn’t going to happen this is going to be a disaster. Well 12 cuts later, I’ve got an Express tattoo on my leg. That really started probably the best four years of coaching that I ever did.
We had a 12 year-old girl at the time make Junior National cuts. She did that before the new pool was in. She broke 5 or 6 State Records. Our relays got very, very competitive and then the kids started buying into this idea of team and we would go to these meets and you would see it. You could see that they just loved to race. They were not afraid of anything. And when you build that kind of dynamic and when you get people excited in what you are doing and you can point to results like that and say – hey look – we are tangibly getting better. Look at how good you are doing here. This is great. Look at these things you are doing. Look at how much you are improving. We post things on the walls and we would publish things to the parents. This was actually kind of funny, I had seen the movie “When We Were Kings” which is a story about Mohammed Ali – the Rumble in the Jungle and to get ready for one of our meets and I gave this handout with the kids. We were going to the State Meet and nobody knew how good we were so I said we were going to do the “Rope a Dope” and they were like, “What is the ‘Rope a Dope’?” I said we were going to go to State and just kind of lay low, and when it is our time to go – we are going to go. Then I showed the fight to the kids and I remember we had a 9 year old girl – her name was Megan Anderson – and at one point Ali gets hit and he gets hard by George Foreman and they caught it in slow motion and just all this blood and snot and stuff goes flying out of his face and Megan just went like this – ughhhhhhh – which was not the effect I was looking for. I had forgotten how violent it was. Anyway, we went to the meet and swam out of our minds. Then all of a sudden people start calling asking if they can be a part of our program? Can we be a part of what you are doing? And more and more people started coming on and then we started winning State Championships.
During that time I really began to realize how important communication is. I agree with the speaker from the Y of the North Shore this morning who said that your parents are your best allies – they absolutely are. I have always had a great relationship with parents. I have always been very honest with parents and what I have learned is that whenever you are dealing with those people you need to be honest and open about what you are talking about and you need to listen to what they are saying. You need to remember that you have two ears and one mouth and you need to listen twice as much as you are talking because they are going to tell you what is going on and you will begin to know who you can trust – who you can’t trust and just get a good handle on what is going on in the team.
With the kids – the same rule applies. I never wanted to be one of those coaches who competed with kids, besides, I was terrible and had nothing to compete with them with. I always made it a priority to listen to them. If a kid showed up 20 minutes early I would always just let them talk. I would ask them about their day and try to find out what was going on. It was my concern that in a blue collar town like Waukesha, where both parents are likely working that kids wouldn’t have anyone to talk to when they got home. So again, I would listen and I think that that is one of the reasons why my kids really responded to me because I was always willing to listen and say, “Hey that is awesome, tell me more.” If it was too close to practice I would ask them to tell me about it after practice, and then I would make sure that I remembered it. When you can communicate with kids like that, they really tend to respond. I think that is really important, and you need to make sure you are doing it.
I started taking on more responsibilities at Express. I was coaching our Masters group, once the new pool was built. We built that to about 20-25 people, with about 10-15 coming on a regular basis. To be honest, I never really enjoyed coaching Masters. Perhaps it was just the timing, but they were all nice and a fun group to coach. I also started coaching a transition group which were my kids who were transitioning into the senior group.
If you have never seen Blaine Carlson coach, I think you could learn a lot by watching what he does and talking to him. I learned from Blaine that anything is possible. You want to build a new pool? Figure out how to do it – it is possible. You want to put in Randy Reese style bucket system, okay? How are you going to do it? You have got to talk to Randy Reese and other people who have done it, then you have got to buy the equipment, and finally figure out how to make it work. Sure, at 10:45 at night you might find yourself on a lift 25 feet up in the air putting a pulley together and looking at Blaine going, wait a minute, what am I doing up here? But the next thing you know you have got 16 stations of buckets that nobody else in the Midwest has. Blaine was always like that. I remember a friend of mine was looking at a job at Express. He ended up not taking the job, but he told me that he couldn’t get over Blaine – that something he said really struck him. I asked him what specifically and he told me that he had never met somebody who, when he told me something that I believed it as much as I did him. Blaine had told my friend that Express was going to be hosting the Speedo Sectional Meet at the new pool in a couple of years. And I said, “Well, if Blaine said we are, we probably are.” Sure enough, last spring we held our first Speedo Sectional Meet. Again, if you want to do it you can do it.
Another thing about Blaine was that he was very, very organized and always willing to listen and watch what people were doing. He was the first coach that I worked with who used Hy-Tek a lot. I had used it, but just as a hobby to kind of keep a log of what I was doing. But Blaine really was organized in what he was trying to do and he was always refining the things he wanted to do. He was a very good swimmer. I believe he was in the top 60 in the World at one point in the backstroke events. He knew what he wanted out of his athletes and we started getting a lot of different athletes coming onto the team, as well as our homegrown kids. We had a real nice mix going and our kids started swimming really well – which added to the excitement.
Spring of 2007 – I am in New York – we are at Senior Nationals in Long Island and this is when I realized that I wanted to try something a little bit different – perhaps coaching seniors. I remember we were sitting at the Rockefeller Center, looking out over the ice. We had I think – 8 or 9 kids at the meet. Kyle Bubolz swam with us as well, Blaine was coaching him. And we were at the Rockefeller Center and we are looking out over the ice and I am watching these kids from Wisconsin who had never been to New York and they are looking around and they are just wide-eyed. They had never seen anything like this and I’m thinking, this is a pretty cool thing. This is something I can’t do with my little kids. This is something that maybe I would like to do and I started thinking about coaching seniors. But I knew that there were some things that I wanted that were very important for me if I would be successful. So I started looking at the successful and less successful attributes of the programs I had been at.
One thing that was very important to me was there had to be a good age group coach in place. I always felt that having that good age group coach, somebody with proven results, somebody who was good with the kids, that was very important to me and that had to happen. I wanted steady pool time. Important as well was a good pool situation. I didn’t want to have a situation where you would walk into practice and the water would be 65 degrees because a part had gone bad, or I didn’t want a situation where there is a high school meet that nobody knew about so practice is cancelled. I wanted a strong club structure and a club with some history. I wanted something that had been good or maybe was trying to get better. I wanted something that was interesting, that had a nice solid base. I wanted something that just felt right, but I kind of put that on the back burner.
In February, 2008 I get a call from an acquaintance of mine in Rochester who asked if I was interested in coaching in Minnesota. He told me that the Rochester Orcas, the team he coached for, was looking for a head coach or a senior coach. He said they had a really good age group situation, a learn-to-swim program, and some pretty good pool time. Well, I sat down with the head coach and the program director with some very specific things I wanted to hear. I knew that there was a lot of potential but when the program director said, “I don’t care what you do as long as you are willing to be responsible for it,” I became even more interested. That was always a huge issue for me because I cannot stand it when people pass the blame for their decisions or try to say that everything is someone else’s fault. That absolutely kills a team. So we ended up talking for 3 ½ hours. During that time I asked them if they felt a coach was strong or weak if he asked for advice about how things have been done. The program director looked at me and he said, “I would say that a very, very wise person would do that.” After that I thought maybe we can make this happen. I ended up leaving the Express early in 2008, which was a very emotional thing for me. It’s difficult when you have worked with a group of kids, this group of kids at Express in particular, for a long time.
It was funny, we had a young lady at Express, named Stephanie Armstrong who is a pretty good swimmer now – 1:50. 200 freestyler, but when she started she had colitis. She still has it and deals with it, but she came to swimming because it was the only thing she could do that she didn’t just feel like sitting in a ball and crying – she was that bad. However, she swam and got a lot better and she was able to handle it. Stephanie’s sister is about 6’3” and at the time Stephanie was just starting to grow. I always worked medicine balls with my gold group kids and I always believed that it wasn’t so much the fact that you were doing specific motion with those kids – it was motion. So we would be doing all kinds of crazy throws and reflexive things and like run around and toss it. I just figured that we should try to develop them as much as possible in a lot of different planes. Well Stephanie had just started playing volleyball and her dad came in and said this dry-land thing you are doing – it is really causing problems with volleyball. He said, well when she jumps up she hits the ball so hard now that the kids try to get out of the way because they don’t want to get hit by it. That is when I knew that we were doing the right thing with the medicine balls.
So, I am getting ready to leave the Express and if you don’t think that you have had an impact on little kids – you need to take a hard look at the last meet that you coach at. We are at the State meet. The kids know I am leaving and know that the last thing they will ever be swimming for me is relays, and we were good in our relays. It is the last relay and Megan Anderson, the girl who didn’t appreciate the Mohammad Ali fight scene as much as I anticipated, is on it. She was a 1:01 hundred freestyler, but ends up splitting a 57.9 and we go 3:50 and win the 11-12 girls relay. We shouldn’t have won, and the mom told me afterwards that they did that for me. I told them they didn’t do it for me, they did it for themselves; I just showed them the way. Those performances were tell-tale signs of what happens when you put emotion, skill, and effort behind your athletes. You let them know that they can be part of this process and they will figure out how to do the rest. If you do your part – they will do their part.
Rochester, Minnesota is a very interesting community. It is about 100,000 people. For those of you who have never been up there it is the home of the Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic employs about 40,000 people in Rochester. Almost half of the people who live in Rochester work for the Clinic. The other big employer is IBM – I think it is the 3rd largest site that they work out of in the United States; I want to say that is 6 or 7,000 people working there at a mile long facility. It is huge. It’s an interesting community with nothing around it for an hour in every direction.
#1: Consistent situation and consistent facility.
We have two pools we train at. There is another team in town using a 3rd pool. We have a 6 lane 50 meter outdoor pool that we use. We have an 8 lane 50 meter indoor pool with a removable bulkhead.
#2: Consistent age group coaching.
An age group coach who has been there for 14 years and has produced state champions at every level including the most recent being two years before.
#3: Good parent organization.
There is a parent’s group that had been through some strife. The team had been through some hard times; they had made some mistakes and were paying for those mistakes. However, the parents’ group stuck with this group all the way through. They are extremely loyal and strive to get better.
They had had some good kids in the past, but some of them had left over the past few years because of some of the strife. They had gone through 7 coaches in 7 years with their senior group and I remember after my second day a girl looked at me and said, “Well, you are going to leave too, right?” I said, “Let’s hope not.” It hadn’t worked out with the previous coach. Sometimes there are good fits and sometimes there aren’t good fits and I don’t think it was a good fit and I think it was good for everybody that they figured out it wasn’t a good fit. The kids were hurt and needed somebody to help. Looking at those kids I thought a lot about the things that I had seen at the programs that I had worked at before and what worked. One of the things that I immediately decided not to do, despite the desires of the program director and the head coach’s feelings, was I refused to rip high school swimming.
In Minnesota you can actually start swimming high school in 7th grade and it is a little different situation. I don’t know if anybody else has to deal with that, but in Rochester they hadn’t had a lot of success with their high school swimming. The high school swimming had a real social component to it and while the kids were very attracted to that, it took away from their performance. I told the kids my job wasn’t to tell them they should or shouldn’t swim high school, it was to help. I wanted them to feel that they could come to me to help them figure things out. We sat around a lot and talked about successful relationships and I thought a lot about what I had seen with the coaches that I had worked with who had a lot of very good swimmers. I thought about my friend Dave and my friend Fred and Blaine and how they did things and what I realized is that the best relationships between coaches and athletes are built on trust. We talked a lot about that. I remember sitting down the first day before we got in the water and I told them I didn’t expect their respect the first day. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who comes in and starts changing things without letting swimmers ask questions, and it’s all, “Because I said so.” I am not entitled to do that. I told them my hope was that we work together and we begin to move forward. Success leads to trust and we wanted to set the wheels in motion to develop success. I told them they might not like me, but you can always trust me.
During the first day of practice, after warming up, I decided to give them a set of twenty 100’s on 1:30 – just to see where we were. Well, ¾ of the kids couldn’t finish the set. That was a real eye opener because I was used to doing more aggressive, more sophisticated, and more demanding sets with my 11 & 12 year-olds than that. That wasn’t a typical set for me, I generally like to mix things up a lot more, I just wanted to see where they were, and I was not overly impressed. We are still not very good, but we are getting better. We have modified things a little and do a lot of different things to try to get things together.
One of the things that I didn’t even realize I was doing was doing all the kids splits in my head and of the clock. Well after about 5 weeks I brought my stop watch in and one of the coaches asks what I’m doing because I hadn’t brought one to that point. I guess I didn’t want to be the coach running around getting splits – I never liked doing that. I just like knowing what is going on around, and it works better for me if I can look at the clock and conceptualize what is going on. I did find it interesting that they noticed and I hadn’t even realized I was doing it. I usually have a stopwatch with me – just in case we are doing something timed, but I hadn’t even thought about it.
I was really lucky in working with the assistant coach I had. Don’t take your assistant coaches lightly. When I was in Madison I had to do it all by myself. When I was at Elmbrook in Brookfield, I didn’t have an assistant either. At Express I had a great assistant who taught me a ton about coaching and working with kids, a guy named Bill Bolden. His day job was working at the place called the Lauer Center in Waukesha and the Lauer Center is where you go when you have gotten in so many fights or caused so much disruption at your high school that you are kicked out. Bill is about 6’4” – 6”5” – just a big, big dude and he would always come in with the greatest attitude. He was in his 50’s, and had kids that had come through the Express program. He just liked coaching and I remember saying to him once – how are you so happy all of the time, you are just so calm and patient. He told me that coaching was the best part of his day. He said he gets to work with kids who want to be around me, kids who listen, who are excited, and that he gets to see an immediate response from what he is doing. Rather than working with kids who have threatened to kill their mothers or a kid who has got a drug problem. He said these are the best kids he gets to work with and that he’s going to make the most of it. I took a lot of perspective from that.
I get to Rochester and I am working with a guy named Paul Bachman. Paul’s dad had done a lot of coaching in California and coached at McAllister for a number of years. Paul had been a coach for about 20 years and for some reason Paul and the previous coach had not gotten along. I think Paul was a little gun-shy on what was going on, so the first day he comes up to me and he goes however you want to do it is fine. I told him I would be going to him for a lot of advice because I didn’t know the situation, and that any ideas he had the better. I knew Paul was a good coach when we got going on the first set and I walked over to the side of the pool and I started kind of just watching and seeing what was going on. Paul immediately walked over to the other side. Then, after about 20 minutes, I moved to the opposite side. I watched Paul move exactly to the opposite side of where I was. What he was doing was helping me keep an eye on everybody. I knew at that moment I had a great assistant coach, not just someone who wanted to talk all practice. Paul is a really good high school coach in Rochester as well and he does a really nice job with what he has got.
With regards to what I talked about earlier with communication, I start emailing weekly newsletters to the parents. The parents have never seen this. They have never had a senior coach who is going to talk to them and I start getting the emails back. I got an email back from a project manager at IBM who says. I just sent out your quote of the week to a bunch of my people. We have a big deadline here and we are trying to make it and it is nice to hear somebody who is optimistic about things. We talked a lot about what we were trying to do. I let the parents know what my plan was. I let my parents know what the empathies were in the season – the things that I thought were important. Why I thought it was important to do this – why it was important to do that. I had a parent who emailed me after I had sent something out about making sure not to shave because we are pointing to a future meet. She said “I assume you are just talking about the boys, right?” They just didn’t grasp those concepts because they didn’t have anybody showing them the way and you can’t take that stuff for granted. You need to make sure that you are educating people. If you walk into a situation where you are a team with a lot of history like Mission Viejo – everybody gets it. But even there I don’t think I would take it for granted. I would try to take whatever I wanted, whatever I thought was important and effectively communicate that to the parents. The biggest thing was we tried to stay positive.
Kids had not done a lot of dry-land, so we incorporated it. We started running. One of the cool things about our 50 meter indoor pool is that it is attached to an ice rink. We started running stairs in the ice rink. I knew we were onto something when the kids asked not to run stairs again. They would complain every time, so we did more stairs and they would complain even more. We started adding that in two or three days a week. There are a lot of hallways you can run now. I have got kids all over the rec. center. We are doing all kinds of crazy stuff. We have I-beams in the back. It is kind of an odd situation. There are some I-beams there that are about 8 feet in the air and they do not have a real good hold, but we started doing pull-ups. So, we’ve got kids running stairs, kids doing pull-ups, I’ve got another coach over in the ice rink and they are doing all kinds of crazy things; and all of a sudden the kids start realizing that we are struggling together and we are working together and we are getting better together.
After about 3 weeks of this I called my friend, Dave Westfall, who works at the Shorewood Swim Club in Shorewood, Wisconsin. Dave has had a lot of great kids and I tell him it seems like everybody on my team is getting leaner. They are walking different. With girls I started to see their hamstrings pop when they were walking. I started to see them carrying their shoulders differently. I started seeing them working better and walking better and walking prouder. With our guys I started seeing a lot more camaraderie, guys hanging out and having fun. One of the things I had been told by the head coach of the team (who works with the age group team), Steve Varney, and our program director, John Sfire, is that the kids were always at odds with each other the year before. They were just so frustrated that they were just all over each other. I started seeing the kids hang out and that was a big thing. I have a great situation across the street from the pool; we have got a Chinese Buffet, a Mexican restaurant, a coffee shop, and a comic book store. Well the kids all start going over to the Mexican restaurant after practice and they are hanging out. I walk in and there are 30 of them in there and it cuts across all the social lines. You know, sometimes in practice you have that group of the cool kids and the group of the kids who just kind of hang out together and another group of the kids who maybe aren’t as fast as those kids and they don’t really jell; well these kids were all talking to each other and they are all having fun – that was when I knew we were headed in the right direction.
We had some really good kids leave the program and it was hard. They had left before I got there and they had gone to the other team in town. One of the things that we had done is we had pointed toward certain meets in the year that we were going to do things at. We pointed to the State Meet for a lot of our kids, so we didn’t want to rest before that to see how well we could do. I looked at their long course times from the season before and I knew that we were going to swim pretty well because we were swimming better than we had swum in all the previous meets and I was seeing a lot of good times in practice so I knew we were on the right track, but we pointed towards the Speedo meet for some of our kids. We had about 8 kids that had Speedo cuts, but I made a decision that we were only going to have one kid go because I wanted to give the other kids time to get more fit. In my opinion, they weren’t quite ready, so I wanted to give them a full 14 weeks before we could get in and start swimming and go for it at the State Meet. So, we took the one kid down and we had in mind that we wanted him to make his summer Junior cuts. We didn’t have anybody with Summer Junior cuts. We go to the meet and he goes 1:06 in the hundred breaststroke. I think he was second or third at the meet with a 2:23 200. He has never swum this fast in his life. He just misses his Senior cuts, but makes his winter senior cuts and this really good swimmer who had left decides that he wants to come and be a part of our team again, two weeks before the State Meet. We talked a lot about it because it’s an uncomfortable situation. I had never dealt with anything like that before, but we took him back. We let him know that if he was going to join us he had to understand that it was going to be our way, and that we were doing him a favor, but also he was putting us in a very difficult position politically with the other team in town. There was some communication between myself and the other coach – not a lot, but some. I felt that was important and we just took it as it went and he ended up swimming very well at the end of the season, probably the result of some really good preparation from his coach that he was with before, but I think also because he felt comfortable.
When I say that I am coaching seniors, I don’t really consider what I am doing “senior coaching” per se. I think we are all age group coaches. You know, somebody like Gregg Troy, he is a Senior Coach, Bob Bowman, those guys are senior coaches – we are age group coaches. We still coach age group level swimmers; 15 – 16 year old, 17 – 18 year olds. Do they have different needs that need to be addressed differently? Absolutely, but fundamentally we are still age group coaches. Looking at what we were doing, I didn’t realize it, but I was also coaching the 11-12 year old group. I have always had a good time coaching that group and the 11-12 year old group at the Orcas had some good kids, but we consciously kept those kids out of the senior group. I started working with those kids as well. None of those kids had ever won a State Championship, none of those kids had every done anything really. They were all trying to get their zone cuts. I don’t know if zones are a big deal for you guys, but it is a big deal for our kids. If you make the zone cut you get the zone gear and the T-shirt and all that stuff. Well, those kids started getting a lot better too and I was worried that our 11-12 year olds would start eclipsing our older girls because they were getting better at an exponential rate and the older girls were a little flat with what they were doing because they are older. I was concerned about that dynamic because I had seen that before. At Express we would take 12 year-old girls to Speedo’s and to Junior Nationals because sometimes they were the fastest kids we had and that created some friction. You have to be prepared as an age group coach to deal with that and to handle that issue if you ever run into it, but I think you also have to be prepared as a senior coach, a coach working with older kids, that you do not lose site of the pressure and the anxiety that causes on your older girls because they will react if they can’t beat those younger girls in the pool. They might beat them down socially, so you need to make sure that you get everybody on the same page. We are very fortunate that we did not have that problem and our 11 & 12 girls swam lights out – which gives me a lot of hope for the future in terms of what we are doing. Our senior guys are very good, so all in all, as I look forward, I see good things.
The things that I take from it are the following: First, you never underestimate the importance of team. Most people refer to “team” in terms of what everyone achieves together. I think that team goes a little bit further than that. It is very difficult to have a good swimming organization if you don’t first have a good swim team. A team that reflects the values that you want that team to have and if you can get kids to buy into what your definition of team is, whether it is that together everyone achieves more, or you are socially connected – or whatever it is that you are trying to do. If you cannot get a group of people working together, it is going to be very, very difficult for you to just coach one or two kids successfully. I think you have got to look at everybody.
The second thing is you can’t leverage everything on just your best kids. You have to take a look at your kids who are struggling and you have got to figure out a way to make those kids better – whether it is your coaching those kids all the time or if there is a better coach on staff than you. We had a funny thing at Express where we always had these relays where, early on, somebody commented that there were three studs and a bum. Well then we started working a lot harder to make sure that we were all together. As with our 11-12 girls, we had three studs and somebody who wasn’t quite as skilled, but with whom we worked very hard to develop a 6 beat kick with that athlete. We worked hard to make sure she was comfortable, and that she knew what she was doing on our relays. When we won the Minnesota State Championship this summer with our 11-12 girls in a 400 free relay, there was a girl who had never been under 1:10 in a hundred meter freestyle, who ended up splitting a 1:06.l. I knew that we had done the right thing because we had prepared her for that success. You need to be prepared to get kids to step up like that and make your whole team better – not just a couple of kids that get better.
And the last thing is you need to be compassionate and you need to have empathy for your athletes. I am not saying that they need to be babied, because I don’t think that they do. A recurring theme in these talks has been the hammer – when do you bring the hammer out of the tool box and there are going to be times when you are going to do that, but if you live by the hammer – you die by the hammer and I don’t think you want to be the kind of person that is always just hammering people. You need to listen to them and you need to make sure that you are listening to what is going on. You need to have some “go-to kids” you can say – hey – how are you feeling about things? What is going on here? What is going on with so and so? And pay attention to what is going on. You’ve got a kid who is struggling so take them down to one practice a day. Put them on one practice a day – one practice is not going to kill their season. If they are dying – give them a break, but if it becomes a problem, be willing to step in. Just show a little empathy and be fair and I think that that will get you a long way.
Again, we are really excited with what we are doing. We are going to the short course National Meet in Atlanta which is going to be a very interesting experience for some of our kids. One of our goals was to qualify relays for the NCSA meet in Orlando. We achieved that goal this summer so hopefully we will be seeing a lot more of you, but for those of you who are thinking about making that change from working with younger children to working with older children – I would strongly encourage it because it is a lot of fun. Thank you.