What I Have Learned From Coaching by Dennis Pursley (2006)


Introduction by Peter Daland: Good morning. Are you all awake? The person that I am going to introduce was our first USA Swimming National Team Director. We had never had such a person before. We just appointed coaches for different meets. In the latter days we had a head coach for the men and for the women, with various assistant coaches. Then one day we got the great idea. Why don’t we have a National Team Director? As a result, four people (I was one of the 4) had a meeting at the Los Angeles Airport where we reviewed the records of two candidates and we interviewed them. We then talked it over and voted. The vote was tied two to two. When you have four people, there is that possibility and we stayed tied for two hours. We realized we did not want to spend the night there and one man, whose name shall forever remain secret, changed his vote and we appointed the man you are going to hear next.

This fellow has had vast experience. He has coached in Canada. He has coached in Australia and he has coached in the US. When we appointed him our first National Team Director, we felt that he would be a fresh air on a tired scene. We were not swimming well at that time so we appointed Dennis Pursley to be our first National Team Director. He ended up leading us through three successful Olympic Games and then decided he wanted to coach again because he loves coaching and when you are a National Team Director, you don’t coach. That is a shock for many people who are used to coaching and who love it. He did a great job for us. I am going to ask him to come forward and give his oration to you. Denny is always interesting. By the way, he was a very successful coach in the US before he went down under.

Dennis Pursley:
Good morning. A little later in my presentation I planned to tell you a little bit about the influence that Coach Daland had on my coaching career, but since he introduced me, I will start with that up front. When I got my first head coaching job, which I will talk about in a few minutes, the first thing I did, and I am sure none of them would remember this, was to call the four icons of the day in our profession. I asked them what I needed to do to be a successful coach. Those four icons of our profession were Coach Daland, Coach Gambril, Coach Councilman and Coach Haines. I was blown away when I got the same basic answer from all four of them. They each told me that I needed to surround myself with competent and loyal assistant coaches. It was one of the first lessons I learned, and one that I kept with me for the rest of my life. That lesson contributed as much as anything else to any success that I have had as a head coach. It is those coaches, along with others I will talk about later, that I have a great debt of gratitude to. I have been blessed throughout my career to have had the opportunity to work with great coaches.

In my first job I started solo. I will back up and talk a little bit more about this in a couple of minutes but I had no assistants which made me understand very early how important assistant coaches were. Later on in my first fulltime head coaching position I got to have Bill Peak work with me. Bill was a great friend and a great coach. I moved from there to Cincinnati and was able to work with a staff that consisted of Frank Busch, Tim Blood, Dave Redmond, Bill Stease and Tom Keefe. We had a lot of fun as a staff; sometimes maybe too much fun as I recall. That was a great experience. I went on to Australia and had the great fortune to work with Bill Sweetenham, one of the greatest coaches in our sport. Bill is in the audience this morning. I also had a little bit of time working with John Rogers, a great character in Australian coaching. That brings us to the coaches I work with today: Takahisa Ide – affectionately called Taco, Michael Brooks, Jeff Armstrong, Chuck Kaylor who just moved on to a new head coaching position, my wife Mary Jo who I will talk more about later and even my son Brian for awhile. These are the people that made my coaching career a great experience. These people helped make my coaching career special.

Looking at the published name of my talk this morning, I believe it says “What I Have Learned About Coaching.” There is a little typo in that what I intend to talk about is “What I Have Learned From Coaching” so this is not going to be a typical talk on season training plans and workout design. As important as that is, I am going to take a walk down memory lane through my coaching career and tell some stories and talk about some experiences that have impacted and influenced my coaching career and to a large degree, who I am as a person. I am not counting the first few summers as a summer league coach, which are not insignificant because I learned a lot from that. For the sake of time I am going to start at the University of Alabama where I swam and competed under Coach John Foster. After graduating I decided that I wanted to be a coach, and I wanted to stay there an extra year as a graduate assistant. I worked on a Masters Degree and had that opportunity to work under Coach Foster and at the same time to be the head coach of the University Aquatic Club, a small club team affiliated with the school. Right off the bat I had an opportunity to work with swimmers at both ends of the spectrum, which was a great experience for me. After that I was ready to move on to my own coaching job but I learned that Coach Foster was retiring and Coach Gambril was going to be our new head coach. I decided that I could not miss the opportunity to spend a year under Coach Gambril if he would let me stay. Remember, as I said, he was one of the four pillars of the coaching community at the time. He allowed me to stay as a volunteer coach, and there were a couple of things during that year that really set the course for me and my coaching career. Obviously what I learned from Coach Gambril was one and another was the fact that as a volunteer coach, I had quite a bit of free time. It was probably the only time in my career that I had free time, but I took advantage of that opportunity. We didn’t have the ASCA accreditation program or anything similar at the time. It was a self-education process. I got my hands on every book that I could find that had ever been written by a successful swimming coach and I devoured every page. I took notes and that kind of seeped into my pores and really influenced my philosophy of coaching and how I wanted to start my career. I highly recommend that any young coaches in the group should try to take advantage of the educational opportunities available.

Coach Gambril was a no-nonsense coach. With Coach Gambril, what you see is what you get. I think the clarity in his coaching is one of his greatest strengths. His goals are clear. He clearly communicates those goals. He has high standards or had high standards and expectations. As you all know he is retired, but he is still very active, as is Coach Daland. We knew what the mission was. We also knew what the expectations were, and what the consequences would be for not complying with those expectations. That was an important lesson that stuck with me for the rest of my coaching career. Another thing that I learned was that there really are no hidden secrets of successful coaches. I think this is very important because I think a lot of us, at least as a young coaches start out thinking that there are some hidden secrets that the rest of us don’t know that make the great coaches great. As a young coach I was interested in learning what those hidden secrets were and what I found was there really aren’t any hidden secrets. Most of us in this room know what we need to know to be great coaches. The coaches that are great are the ones that are able to do better at what we all know needs to be done to be successful. That was a confidence boost for me as I was stepping into my first coaching position.

That process of finding my first coaching opportunity was a learning experience as well. What I learned was that the biggest disappointments in life can sometimes be blessings in disguise. I started out applying for a half a dozen positions after that first year at the University of Alabama. I felt that I was one of the top candidates for most of those positions I applied for. They were mostly dead-end opportunities in small town programs. That did not concern me. I just wanted to get on deck with a stop watch and get started. I didn’t care where or under what circumstances. When I did not land any of those positions, I was bitterly disappointed. I thought I was doing well in the interviews. I thought I was as well qualified as any of the other candidates, but I wasn’t offered any of those positions. I was getting very discouraged, almost despondent to the point where I thought maybe I should be looking for something else to do with my life. Then an opportunity in my home town came my way, with Lakeside Swimming. That turned out to be a great opportunity. I knew that would be the case on the front end. The point is that if it weren’t for those disappointing rejections I had earlier, I would have never had that opportunity and my whole life and career may have gone in a very different direction. I may not be talking to you today so I am very thankful that those people decided not to offer me those positions which allowed the great opportunity at Lakeside to fall into my lap.

Opportunity is a key word. Probably the main reason that I got that job, one that I was under-qualified for when there were many better qualified applicants, was because I was willing to work for less than anybody else and that was the case for most of the positions I had earlier in my career. I never considered compensation or salary. I never considered where the job was or whether I wanted to live there or not. I never considered any of those things. I looked at one thing only and that was an opportunity, a professional opportunity. Did this program offer an opportunity to grow and get better for me professionally and for the team? That is the only criteria I considered. Ironically, this was not a plan that I had as a young coach. I wasn’t thinking ahead to the future, but by putting the emphasis on opportunity and not compensation and salary and benefits and lifestyle and all those other things, I ended up commanding higher levels of compensation and better salaries later on than the coaches that years before had held out for the dollars. That is something that really wasn’t planned, but had a real impact on my coaching career.

I learned early on about the importance of enforcing expectations. When I started out on deck at Lakeside, it was a program that had great potential. It was a program that had a strong tradition, but it was also a program that was at rock-bottom when I took over because the coach that preceded me left the team, established a new program in the area and took all the top swimmers with him and left the swimmers that were considered to be ones that were untalented. So that is where we were when I started, but it didn’t concern me. I was excited to have my first job. I was on deck with a vision of what I expected to see happen in the pool every day, and I communicated that or attempted to communicate that to the kids. They were good kids. They were nice. They were respectful kids, but my message was just going in one ear and out the other. I was watching kids push off the bottom, doing illegal turns and swimming sloppy up and down the pool and all my talking to them was not having any impact. I was only a couple of weeks into my career with this program and I decided early on that if this is what coaching is all about, I am not interested. I have to either fix this or I have to find something else to do with my life so I took a big risk. I was willing to take that risk because the alternative was not acceptable. We had a meeting early on, one Monday. I still remember this. I said, “OK guys, starting today, any illegal turn and you are out of here, you are suspended. Anybody that touches the bottom, you are out of here – you are suspended.” I went on and on down the list and I knew what was going to happen, but I had to take a chance and I said, “You are suspended indefinitely. If at some point you think you might want to come back onto the team, under my terms and expectations then make an appointment to see me and I will talk to you about it”. By the end of the week I had two or three swimmers left in the group. I was expecting to get the irate phone calls from the parents. I was expecting to get a call from the President of the Parent Board telling me to look for a new job, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I started getting calls from the kids wanting to make an appointment to see me. Well, by the end of the month I had them all back in the water and they were doing things the way that I wanted them to be done and the program took off like a rocket. At the end of the season I had a meeting and I knew what the answer was going to be, but just to make a point I asked them a question. I said, “All of you remember what the training environment was like when we started this season and you all know what it is like now. How many of you would like to go back to the way it was?” As expected, not a hand went up. The kids prefer that. They prefer a disciplined, focused environment. How to get them to do that is another challenge, but I learned about the importance of enforcing expectations early.

We had one cardinal rule early in my coaching career that there was a “no tolerance” policy for non-compliance, and that rule was that you never, never, under any circumstances, in any situation, you never quit. Well, we were at a local meet and one of my young boys was swimming a 400 IM. Half way through the race it was clear that he just quit. There was no question about it. I couldn’t handle it. I could not handle it and unless you hate your job and like prison food I would not advise you to respond the way I did at that time. That is another example of how times have changed. Half way through the race as he is coming into the wall, I go up to the pool deck and I grab him by the hair, pull him out of the pool and throw him up against the wall. I have my finger in his chest and said that will never ever happen again. Now, as shocked as some of you may be at the way I handled that situation, I think you will be more shocked at what the parent response was. The parents came up and thanked me for what I did. How often do you expect that might happen today?

I learned about the value of enthusiasm. I was a breaststroker in college. I knew what a good time was for a college male breaststroker back then. I had no idea what a good time was for an 11 year old girl in the 100 backstroke or any of the other kids I was working with for that matter. I had one goal and that was for them to swim best times and to get faster in each meet and when they did that I got very excited. I realized later we probably had the slowest team in the country at the time, but I didn’t know it. They didn’t care. When they did a best time I would jump up and down and turn flips and get excited. They were so rewarded by that kind of response that they would go back to practice and swim through walls to get best times and to get that kind of response and it just kind of fed. Common sense tells you that if you do your best time every time you swim, that somewhere down the road you are going to start swimming fast and that is what happened with this first group. I learned the value of enthusiasm, and I think I did a pretty good job of retaining the value of these lessons through my career.

I learned about the value of incentives. In coaching, things are based on reality and not necessarily the way things should be. You would think that hours and hours of blood, sweat and tears, lap after lap, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month would be enough incentive for anybody. Considering the time and effort that these kids invest in preparing themselves for competition, especially championship competition, you would think that would be all the incentive that they would need to be focused and ready to do everything possible to be on the blocks and get the payoff for all that hard work. You would think. Well, it took us a couple of years in that program to get to the point where we had kids that I felt realistically had shots at qualifying for the senior nationals. I felt we got to that point and this was the season that we could do it. We picked a qualifying meet to make those times. It was hosted by Doc Councilman in Bloomington, Indiana. We went up there and it turned out we were about the only team there along with a few of Doc’s swimmers. It was a really low key atmosphere. Doc was going prelims and finals in every event, including consolation finals and there were fewer than 16 swimmers in most events. He did that purposely to give everybody as many opportunities as possible to qualify so they had two chances each day. I was excited because we had done the work and based on what I saw in practice, I thought we were ready. I thought this was going to be our first group to make it to the Senior Nationals. We went to that meet expecting to swim well and the first day was absolutely horrendous. We swam horribly. I was really disappointed so I tried the old pep talk, and the next morning we go back to the pool and once again we swam nowhere near what I thought we were capable of doing. This was really discouraging so I was trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Then an idea just popped into my head. After that prelim session on the second day I noticed there was a pinball arcade between the hotel and the pool. Every time we went by it on the way back to the hotel from the pool the kids would say, coach, can we stop and play some pinball? I’d say no, we are not here to play pinball. We are here to swim fast and make some national qualifying times. I don’t know why it just popped into my head, but after that second morning I said okay, anybody that does their goal time tonight, which was way out of sight from what they had been swimming and well under their best in every case —- I said that anybody that does a best time or a goal time tonight gets 8 quarters for the pinball arcade. This probably violated amateur swimming rules at the time, but like most college coaches today, we didn’t know those. I have never seen a response like that before or since. They were swimming lights out. I remember one girl swam 16 seconds faster in the 200 fly from what she did in the morning, which was 12 seconds slower than her best time in the morning, 4 seconds faster that night and that was typical of the way they swam. I learned a big lesson. Things aren’t always the way they should be. We need to consider the reality of a situation when we are coaching.

I learned about the importance of focusing on end-results. We had a couple of seasons where we had swimmers that made the qualifying times for the Nationals. We show up. I am all excited. The plan called for peak performance at the Nationals. We had a short rest, a partial shave to get there and we are ready for some break-through swims. Well, it didn’t happen. We had a disappointing performance. It happened the first season. It happened the second season, maybe the third. I can’t remember whether it was second or third but I am wondering what I am doing wrong? I sat down and I thought about it. I realized that I had the plan in my mind from day one at the beginning of the season as to where the peak performance was going to be and how we were going to make it happen, but I wasn’t communicating that to the kids. The only thing I talked to them about throughout the season was making the qualifying times one step at a time. We have got to make those times. This is where we are going to make it and how we are going to make it. We make the times and we are jumping up and down all excited. We are happy and then we get to the meet and just kind of fizzle out in the big meet. I realized that what I was unintentionally doing was making the qualifying time the goal. For those kids therefore they had achieved their goal before they got to the Nationals. The Nationals were a reward for achieving the goal. Therefore the next season I said we are not going to get excited about qualifying for a meet. That is not what is important. It is important to swim fast when we get there. That is the only change that I made and it made all the difference in the world. That was a lesson that carried over to my thinking years later as the National Team Director.

My first experience on a National team staff was when I was still at Lakeside. It was in 1979 with the Pan-American Games Team and I learned a lifetime of lessons in that first experience. I learned a lot about teamwork, both from a negative perspective and in a positive sense. I had two young girls on the team, two 14 year old butterflyers that were, at the time, unheard of. One was named Mary T. Meagher who was swimming the 200 fly and the other was Lisa Beasy swimming the 100 fly. We were about ten days out and we were doing about 12,000 meters of hard work. I am getting them ready for the Pan-American Games and the older swimmers, predictably, were watching what my young girls were doing. Out of concern for their teammates, the older swimmers were counseling them and telling the girls that they shouldn’t be doing that much hard work. They told them that they need to be resting now, so Mary T and Lisa come to me and said coach, we shouldn’t be doing this. We are working too hard. We should be resting now. I told the girls that they are doing what they did to get here and we are going to do what we did to get here. What works for the other swimmers will not work for you. It was a real strange situation, to the point where I was packing my bags and told our head coach, Frank Keefe, that I am getting in the way here. I need to get out of this mix because it is not going to work and I told him to assign my girls to one of the other coaches and hope they can make it work. I am glad Frank talked me out of doing that because Mary T went on to break her first world record in that competition and Lisa Beasy dropped two seconds in the hundred fly and touched dead even with a teammate who was much better known at the time, Jill Sterkel. Both Lisa and Jill, as I recall, were under American record time. I learned a lot there and that lesson helped later on as National Team Director about supporting and respecting the fact that we all have different ways of climbing the mountain and we have to support one another and respect that what works for one is not going to work for another.

Another experience I had was in one of our first coach’s meetings. I was a very young, inexperienced coach. On my first experience at the international level we went in a room and the doors close behind us. I don’t even remember what the issue was that was being discussed, but it turned out to be a heated debate with people nose to nose, toes to toes. The veins were popping out and I am sitting there thinking whoa, this is not what I expected. I was looking for all of the camaraderie and being a part of that and I was thinking to myself that it is going to be real interesting to see the way that this plays out. After a considerable debate, our head coach made a decision which half the coaches on the staff were adamantly opposed to. As the meeting wrapped up, I was thinking that this is not a good way to start. We walked out the door and I was absolutely amazed that from that second forward you would never have known that every single coach on that staff was not 100% enthusiastically in support of the decision that was made. It just blew me away and for the several weeks we were together, you never heard one coach second guess, criticize or complain about the decision that was made. I truly believe that that was maybe our greatest strength as a nation in international competition at that time. I think it was a strength that deteriorated over the years. We have worked hard to rebuild that again. That is so important, and it applies to club and college coaching. Loyal support is vital to whatever coaching situation you are in. That was a great lesson.

I moved from Lakeside to the Cincinnati Marlins and that was an intimidating move for me. We had climbed the ladder. At the time I left, Lakeside was top ten at the Nationals and Mary T had broken a world record. I felt very good about that, but it was the first time you know? I didn’t know how much of that was luck and circumstance and how much of that was due to any contributions that I made. I wondered if I could be successful in a program that had a very strong tradition and was prominent nationally and more important, could I follow the footsteps of “” and Skip Kenney who preceded me in that position. It was intimidating. I don’t know what it was, but I felt like I wanted someone with me that was a security blanket in a sense. I wanted someone with me who I felt really comfortable with. That someone I had in mind was a guy that coached a small team in Northern Kentucky. I didn’t even know how good of a coach he was. I just knew that he was a good person of good sound moral character who would be a good stabilizing force on our staff. That someone was Frank Busch. I asked Frank to join us at the time and he agreed to do that. I already mentioned the other guys on the staff. We called Frank Padre because he was our conscience during the whole time that we were together in Cincinnati. It made a big difference and it was a lot of fun. I felt early on that solid character was an important ingredient in a successful program’s coaching staff.

One of the lessons I learned early at Cincinnati was the importance of honesty. Honesty is the best policy. This is a little humorous right now, but at the time it was very, very humiliating. We had a powerhouse team, at least in the region which was that area’s version of the sectionals today. In the regional championships it seemed like we had four, five or six swimmers in most heats in the finals. I had a policy that they had to talk to me before and after they swam so I always had a line of swimmers talking and lined up to talk to me. I was also trying to watch four or five swimmers in the race at the same time. It was more than I could handle and I missed a few swims. One of the swimmers came up to me after the 50 and he said coach, what did my stroke look like? Some of you might remember him. His name was Dave Wilson. I missed his race, but I wasn’t honest with him. I couldn’t bring myself to admit it and I knew what Dave’s stroke looked like since I had watched him swim for hours every day, so I proceeded to tell him he needed to work more on his six beat kick and needed to do this and that and so on. He listens to me politely for a minute or so and then he says, coach, I swam butterfly. I was so totally humiliated I just froze. I wish I was an Eddie Reese or somebody that could come back with a quick humorous comment, but I just froze and didn’t say anything. From that moment forward, I was always honest with my athletes.

I learned about perceived limitations at Cincinnati. A few of the swimmers from Louisville followed me to Cincinnati. Mary T was one of them. We were having a Saturday morning workout and even during the school year I went 11 sessions a week, including doubles on Saturday. This was a morning workout. The main set was a straight three-thousand free-style. At that time, as is the case I think with most coaches today, but to more of an extreme back then, we felt you can’t swim high volumes of butterfly. It is physically too demanding to do that productively and we did more than most at the time. We did some short sets of 300’s and 400’s. I think the longest straight swim we ever did was probably a 1200 fly. We had this 3000 free for time for the main set and it just popped into my head when we were getting ready to get started. I said, “T, if you do this butterfly you won’t have to come back this afternoon”. Well, she jumped on it in a second and said great! And then immediately the rest of the swimmers said that is not fair, that I was playing favorites. I said, wait a minute, I am not playing favorites. Anybody that wants to swim this 3000 straight fly doesn’t have to come back this afternoon. Now, how many of you want to do it? I expected none of the hands would go up. Well, all of the girls and a few of the boys raised their hands, so now I am really upset with myself because I am visualizing this horrible set. I thought that I ruined the whole workout, and expected to have a bunch of kids floundering around doing one arm fly and one hand turns and sloppy strokes. Most of these swimmers did very little fly training and so I came back at them and I said alright, I am going to be watching every single stroke and if there is one broken stroke or one illegal turn, I don’t care if you only have a 50 to go, you are going to do the whole thing over again freestyle, plus you are going to come back this afternoon. I then asked again, how many of you want to do it. All the same hands went up so I thought well, I am stuck. I had to go through with it so we did it and I will be darned if every single one of those swimmers didn’t swim a 3000 fly without breaking stroke. That really taught me a lesson and changed my whole thinking about coaching and about perceived limitations. I think many of the limitations that we restrict ourselves to are just perceived. They are not reality. We can go above and beyond what we think we can in most of what we do.

I learned a lot about team synergy. What a great opportunity it was. We were blessed with so much talent on that team. The following year, in some events we had three or four swimmers in the finals in the Olympic trials. We had those three or four and others close to them and we were deep in most events and we were all training together. It was so much fun to give them the set and stand back and watch them race and push one another and compete. That group had synergy which created a great training environment with group competition. I don’t think there is anything that beats it. I think sometimes we get so focused on individual coaching and there are times that we need to do that, but we do not want to lose sight of the value of group synergy and competition in training. I tried to simulate that as much as I could when I went to Australia. We had an option of having a team where you had a bunch of coaches and just a few swimmers or bringing a big team on board and let them race one another. I chose the second option. There are other coaches that prefer it the other way and they are very successful, but that is one thing that contributed significantly to any success that I had with my teams.

I need to tell you a story about Jill Rogers. She was not one of our better swimmers on that Cincinnati team. She was very popular because she was a good, caring person. She cared about all her teammates. She worked hard. She did everything that she was asked to do. She was the kind of person that every parent wants their daughter to be, and we all loved her. We kind of loved one another on that team. Let me back up for a minute. The year 1980 as you all know, was the boycott. When that was announced it was devastating. It was devastating to our team as well as to all the others who aspired to go to Moscow that year. We cried about it for a few days and then we got together and we decided to try our best to turn a negative into a positive. I don’t remember if it was the plan all along back then, or if we did it because of the boycott, but a decision was made to go forward with the Olympic trials and name an honorary Olympic team. We tried to make the swimmers understand that it would be just as great an honor to be named to the 1980 team as any other team. Additionally, they were scoring the trials and so there was going to be a team champion and we tried to refocus our goals from the Olympics in Moscow to putting as many swimmers as we could on the team and winning the team trials. That was a big order because the dominant team at that time was Mark Schubert’s Mission Viejo team. Mission was a steamrolling powerhouse team that seemed to just demolish us all in every nationals in that era, but we thought that if we worked harder than anybody else and we really put it all together that we would have a chance, maybe a chance to win the team title. That goal motivated us and we got off the mat and started working hard for that. We get there and we thought we had done the job in preparation. I was excited. The team was excited. It was a very close knit team. It was a very bonded team and back then I had all the swimmers at the pool for every session from start to finish, whether they were swimming or not, cheering for their team mates and supporting their teammates. One of the first events was Jill’s event, the 100 free. All Marlin eyes were on Jill. We were very excited for her. She was very excited. She gets up on the blocks and finishes the race and it was a terribly disappointing performance. When she touched the wall my heart just stopped and it stopped for two reasons; one because I felt so badly for Jill and secondly, as a coach I knew how devastating that could be on the whole team’s psyche. That is the danger if you have a real tightly bonded team. You share in the joys and the successes, but you also share in the pain of the disappointment. I knew what the potential devastation could do to a team. Everybody’s heart just stopped and I was watching her like a hawk to see how she was going to react. I expected her to pull herself out of the pool, go over to her corner and sit down with her head between her knees and cry her eyes out. I thought that before we even got started, this could end our meet. The whole thing can go down the tubes right there. Instead, she gets out of the pool, bites her lower lip and grabs her towel and starts cheering for the teammate in the race behind her. The whole team just lifted. When an individual is willing to put the good of the team ahead of their own disappointment, magic happens. A miracle can happen and it turned from being potentially devastating to the spark plug that really lit the team and they took off and they had a great meet from there. They went on to win that national title. We put six swimmers on the Olympic team, two of them breaking a world record. To this day I believe and I think most of the swimmers on the team would agree that Jill Rogers had as much to do with our success as any of the Olympians and world record holders.

I have to tell another story about a girl named Krista Zimmer. The summer of 1980 ended, and we had accomplished our goal. The euphoria has worn off. We had a lot of college swimmers and lot of high school seniors who have all gone and now we are back to the school year and we are left with just a shell of the team that was in Irvine that summer. We had a few senior national swimmers, a few junior national swimmers, but even those two groups combined were not enough to fill the group to the level that I wanted to have it filled. That was far fewer than the summer before where we had over forty senior national swimmers. So I decided to use a somewhat subjective criterion to bring up the swimmers from the next group below and I got with the coaches and we identified the swimmers that we thought had realistic potential to make junior national qualifying times in season and go with us to the Junior Nationals. Everybody in that group would be either senior or junior nationals. As it turned out, when we looked at the next group we identified a group of several swimmers that were a clique of swimmers. They were not a clique in a negative sense, but had started as young kids in the program. They had been swimming together for years. They came up through the ranks and we thought all but one of them met that criteria and unfortunately that one happened to be the most dedicated, hardest working kid on the team. It is one of the few times in my coaching career that I made an exception. I just could not leave her by herself back in that group so I made an exception, even though we all agreed that there is no way she has the talent or ability to make a junior national qualifying time this season or ever. We moved her into the group because she earned it. We went to the qualifying meet that we selected and predictably all the kids except for this one girl made the team or made the qualifying time. Even though it was predictable, we were very disappointed for her. We had to give her every opportunity so at a last chance meet another couple of weeks later, even though the other kids were not swimming, they showed up to support her and she did swim significantly faster. I thought, wow, that is better than I thought she would do. It was still a long way from the qualifying time and I thought it is just not going to happen. We were very disappointed, but not surprised. There was one final last chance meet a week later and we felt obligated to give her every opportunity. She was trying for the 400 IM, as you might expect the work ethic event. It was really her only opportunity. One of the most gratifying, thrilling moments of my coaching career was at that last chance meet. Again, her teammates show up and she hits the wall and makes it by 100th of a second. I mean, we just went nuts. We were so excited. She was on board and I thought I had died and gone to heaven, my coaching career was over, but that is not the end of the story. She goes there and has an amazing breakthrough and wins the event. If I remember correctly it was in record time. I learned an important lesson. NEVER give up on your swimmers if they have that kind of dedication and work ethic like this girl had. Miracles can and do happen.

I am going to move ahead here because I am running out of time. I want to share a couple of experiences I had with our National team. Tom Jager was a great swimmer, one of our best ever. As successful as he was, his attitude, even at the Olympic level, was that first was first and second was last and he was the king of the 50 free at the time. His teammate Matt Biondi had knocked him off the throne on a couple of occasions, but Tom beat him, as I remember, about five times out of six. Tom was the world record holder. There was also a young challenger on the scene named Alexander Popov. Everybody knew that these three guys were going to be the contenders for the gold medal in the 50. To make a long story short, Tom came up on the short end of the stick and finished third. I knew how devastating that was going to be for him, and I was concerned. I was looking to the award stand for the award ceremony and could not see Tom anywhere. I was afraid that he would be so devastated and so disappointed that he wouldn’t want to receive his award and would not show up for the ceremony. That would disgrace the USA team so I was relieved when I saw him make his appearance as they were about ready to give the awards. I thought to myself that I hope he receives the award in the manner that is fitting for an Olympic Bronze medalist. To Tom’s credit, as disappointed as I know he was, he received it with class and dignity. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought that is the best I can hope for. I sure didn’t expect to see him again for the rest of the session. I thought he would disappear somewhere and go lick his wounds, but he came right from the award ceremony, right back up to the team area and déjà vu to 1980 again. He picks up his towel and starts cheering for the guys. This had the same positive effect as before. Everybody knew how disappointed Tom was. In competition at that level it is just like a heavyweight fight. You get knocked down and get back up. You land a punch and it is back and forth, back and forth and that is the way the games had gone for us up to that time. But we seemed to take off after that point. It was just another example of the magic that can happen when athletes are willing to have a team first attitude and put the good of the team above and beyond their individual goals. The beauty of it is that it is a win-win situation because it come back to benefit the individual athletes. When Tom was interviewed after the games he was asked, what was it like? And he said, are you kidding? It was a great experience. I was the captain of the world’s greatest swim team. How awesome is that? And you can tell from his heart that he really meant it. If his individual goals had been the only thing that was important to him, his Olympic experience would have been a bitter experience. Because his individual goals were not the only things that mattered to him, and because he made team goals the most important thing, his Olympic experience was a great experience and he will remember it in that light for the rest of his life. It is a win-win situation.

That experience at the 2000 Olympics was great. The willingness to sacrifice personal preferences for the good of the team was great. I have never had an experience like that before or since. Maybe I did as a club coach, but there you work day in and day out toward this. With the national team you are coming together for a short time period and you have to make it click. Let’s back up to the 1999 Pan-Pacific championships in Sydney, Australia. That was kind of a prelude to the Olympics. The Aussies had been closing the gap. They were gaining ground throughout the quadrennial. This was an eight day competition that simulated the Olympic format. The eight days of competition came down to the last race on the last day to determine who was going to win the medal count and the point score. We won that race by a fingernail so we came out with a sigh of relief. The Aussie men had beaten us in that competition. All the momentum was on the Aussie side. The entire swimming world thought that the following year we were going to get our butts kicked in the 2000 games. It wasn’t a question of if it was going to happen. It was a question of to what extent. We had our backs against the wall. Everybody on the team realized this so we assembled the team after the trials. We are about a month out of the games. One of my responsibilities is to determine what rules we are going to live by for that month. That includes what our curfew is going to be. I knew from experience that there were a lot of swimmers on that team that were not going to be happy with a curfew any earlier than 11 o’clock. I wanted a 10:30 curfew so I decided to be clever and decided I was going to announce a 10 o’clock curfew. When they all protested I would negotiate with them and we would compromise on the 10:30. That way I would get what I wanted. So I stood up and I announced a 10 o’clock curfew. Just like this room is now, that room was silent. There was not a word of protest. I knew then that this team was going to be special. That is the way it was for the whole trip. There were no complaints, no concerns. They knew they had a huge undertaking ahead of them. They knew they had to come together and they were all willing to sacrifice any personal privileges or preferences that were necessary to make it work. It was a joy. It was a pleasure. There was something special that made it quite pleasurable to be a part of that experience. The whole month went that way. We go into battle on the first night. Things went our way through most of the session and then we were hammered with a big blow in the last race. In the men’s 400 free relay, most of you may remember, the Aussies knocked us off in an event that we had owned. We advised the swimmers that were swimming the next day to stay back at the village to relax and prepare for their events. Tom Dolan and Erik Vendt were watching that 400 free relay on TV. When they saw that race they vowed that they were going to go one, two in the 400 IM the next day and turn things around for the USA Team. Many of you remember that Tom just dominated that race from start to finish. Erik came home like gangbusters for a second place finish and we just took off from that point on and everybody joined in. Everybody equaled or exceeded expectations. As I mentioned earlier, international competitions are like a heavyweight fight where you take your licks and get knocked down but you come right back up and you land a few good punches. You win this round and lose this round and you just hope at the end of the day when the smoke clears that you come out on top. Well, this was an exception. Everyday was the USA day. The first couple of days you go in and you wonder if we going to win this round or lose this round. You come in nervous and a little tense, but by the time we got to the 4th day of the 2000 games there was no question that this was going to be another day for the USA. The only question was what unexpected surprise was the team going to pull out today and who was going to do it. Sure enough it happened like that every single day. It was a great experience. The willingness to sacrifice personal preferences and privileges for the good of the team was fantastic.

Let’s move ahead to some career lessons. The one thing that I have learned, more from observing than anything else, is the importance of being yourself. I see so many young coaches trying to emulate the personality and style of a great coach that just doesn’t work for them. It is not the right fit. There are certain attributes that we need to emulate, but within our own style and within our own personality. You can imagine Eddie Reese and Randy Reese trying to coach like the other. I don’t think either of them would be as successful. There is no coaching utopia. The grass is usually not greener on the other side of the fence. I think we feel that way often and in the process a lot of times I believe we tend to focus on the things that we don’t have but want, rather than on the things that we have going for us. I told you early that I don’t believe there are any hidden secrets so you will not be surprised when I tell you this. I think there are three keys to success for club coaches. I should say there are three fundamental things that have to be in place for a successful club program. One is that you have to have an adequate population base to draw from. If you are coaching in an isolated town of 5,000 people you are probably not going to win a National Championship as a team. That doesn’t mean that what you are doing is not equally important, but you are not going to be a national champion. Secondly, another no-brainer, you have to have adequate pool time and space. It doesn’t have to be a deep water pool. It can be a shallow water pool with the old fashioned gutters that are ineffective. That doesn’t matter, but you have to have adequate pool time and space. The third no-brainer for everybody in this room that parent boards and athletic directors do not seem to really appreciate, is that you have to have an effective coach. That is it. Those are the three fundamental things that you have to have.

So, what constitutes an effective coach? I tried to look at the things that are common in every great coach. Once again, I came up with three things. It starts with commitment. One of our team goals was always to work harder than the competition. I remember a T-shirt that came out a few years ago that I thought hurt our sport. It said, “We work smarter, not harder”. Well, we like to have a T-shirt that says “We work harder and smarter” to outwork the competition. I expected that from my swimmers and thought I had to lead by example and do the same thing as a coach. The second thing I have observed in all great coaches is that they establish high standards and expectations without compromise and they enforce compliance. I think it is almost better not to have high standards and expectations than it is to have them and not enforce compliance. I did a much better job of that as a younger coach than I have in recent years and I think my program has suffered because of it. The third thing is the ability to motivate and inspire athletes. I talked earlier about the importance of education and how that helped me and shaped my coaching career. Having said that, I admit that I see great coaches who get results at the highest level that haven’t had formal education and don’t know the formal science of swimming. It might be politically incorrect and a little heresy to say, but it is a fact. They have an intuitive knowledge and they are great motivators with the ability to inspire their athletes and make them believe in themselves and the program. Every great coach has that ability. Without it you cannot be a great coach.

So what enables a coach to inspire their athletes? Once again I came up with three things. One, you have to command respect. You cannot inspire your athletes if they don’t respect you. Second, you have to have contagious passion and enthusiasm for your common mission. You need a positive energy but there are different styles. Not everybody has to run up and down the pool yelling and screaming as some of us do. You can do it with different personalities, but somewhere that passion, enthusiasm and positive energy has to be there for the athletes to feed off of. Third, there has to be a caring relationship. That doesn’t necessarily mean a warm and fuzzy type of relationship. That is not what I am talking about. But beneath the tough exterior the athletes have to know that you really care about them. I believe those are the three pre-requisites to be a good motivator.

I have learned in my recent coaching experience about cultural changes and the challenges that they present us today. The same things that attracted parents to my program in the 70’s and early 80’s have driven them away today. Things like discipline, sacrifice, long-term commitment and the pursuit of excellence were more main-stream in the past. Today that seems to be more counter-cultural. In years past I felt like, for the most part, I was working with the parents of my swimmers. Too often today I feel like I am working against them. Contrary to what some people think, I believe that parents are as caring and committed today as they ever have been to their kids and it is a real complex issue. It seems to me to boil down to two fundamental changes in the way parents raise their kids today. These are general comments and they are based on the experience that I have had in the last three or four years. Based on conversations that I have had with coaches throughout the country over the last twenty years, I think it is a common experience. One difference is that I believe parents have lost the sight of the fact that sacrifice, struggle and even disappointment and failure are inevitable and essential aspects of personal growth and achievement. We have a license plate on our cars in Arizona if you choose to purchase it that says “never hurt a child”. I think that is referring to inappropriate physical abuse which we all agree with, but I think parents today have taken that to an extreme of meaning “never allow my child to face disappointment or be unhappy and struggle”. I had an experience as a parent with my oldest son when he was 14. He played club soccer and his coach was a volunteer parent. He was a nice guy, but didn’t know a lot about soccer. That didn’t concern me because I was very grateful to anyone who would volunteer their time to work with my son. I rarely got to see one of his practices because I never had the time. One day I happened to have a couple of hours of free time and went to watch. Coincidentally on that day, the club coach had invited a local semi-pro soccer coach to work with the team. I don’t know much about soccer, but I know a great coach when I see one. This guy was awesome. He was on every little detail. If you did not do it right, you did it over and over and over and you were doing pushups and running laps. At the end of that session my son and the others are dragging themselves off the field and I put my arm around him and I said, well Brian, what did you think? He said, dad that was tough. I said well Brian you learned an important lesson today. If you want to be good at anything there is a lot of hard work involved. It is not all fun and games. The coach comes up to me afterwards and he said if every family is willing to kick in one hundred dollars, this guy will take over and coach them for the whole season. I thought wow, what a great opportunity for these kids. Count me in. The next day I was on a plane overseas and my wife Mary Jo went to the parent meeting. I was devastated to learn that the parents didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Mary Jo said one of the moms got up and said that her son is only 14 years old, and he is going to have to be disciplined the rest of his life. She wanted him having fun and not doing pushups and running laps. My reaction was where is that discipline going to come from when he is 21 years old? Are you just going to flick a switch? They don’t understand. A second fundamental difference is that parents automatically assume that the adult authority figure, whether it is the coach, the teacher or whatever, is responsible for both the problems encountered by their kids and for the resolution of those problems. This is a 180 from when I grew up and from the way the kids I first started coaching were raised. If I had a problem at school or with a coach, my dad had no interest at all in my side of the story. His message was loud and clear. He said you better get it fixed right now or your problem is going to be a whole lot worse than it is right now. That is the reverse from today with ramifications that challenge coaches. One is that when the kids are not accountable, they are not going to be expected to adapt and adjust. It becomes the coach or teacher that needs to adjust and solve this problem. Second, parents tend to intervene excessively for their victims. Third, you are going to see the respect for authority evaporate because authority becomes the culprit. Fourth, the competitive nature of the kids has weakened because they have a tendency to step aside or step out, rather than step up when they are challenged. The most insidious thing of all is that the focus shifts from striving for excellence to making it fun because all of the things that are inherent with excellence are so distasteful to the parents. The struggle, sacrifice and sometimes the disappointments that are part of striving for excellence become challenges that we have to deal with today. That didn’t happen when I first started coaching which makes things more difficult. We cannot change our culture. I sometimes feel like we are the 300 Spartans facing the 60,000 Persians but we can make a difference. It may be more difficult today, but like the Spartans, our cause which is the pursuit of excellence and its impact on character is a noble cause and one worth fighting for.

I didn’t realize when I accepted the invitation to give this presentation a few months ago that in a sense, this week is probably going to bring closure to my coaching career. Some of you may know that I have accepted an exciting invitation to join Coach Rose at Mission Viejo and take some of the administration burden off his back so that he can have more time and energy to work with the athletes. This may likely be the last month of my coaching career, and I cannot let that go by without thanking people that I owe thanks to, because I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people that ever existed. First and foremost I need to thank God because the influences, opportunities, relationships and any skills and attributes that I have like passion and drive that contributed to any success is a gift from him. All of these are gifts that I will be eternally grateful for. Second, I need to thank my family and my greatest inspiration and my most avid fan throughout my career, sitting right here in front of me, my wife Mary Jo. I wouldn’t be here today without her support. I can assure you of that. Thank you. Thank you to my five kids. The first one was born almost 25 years ago and I have been waiting for the pay-backs. They haven’t come. Each one of my kids is a far better person than I have ever been or ever hope to be. They have been the joy and consolation in my life and gotten me through a lot of rough times and been a great inspiration to me. They are special in terms of a father-son, father-daughter relationship, and in a coach-athlete and even coach-assistant coach relationship. The most rewarding coaching experience I have had is coaching my kids. For a very brief time I had three of them in the pool at once. I was able to coach my son David for two years before he went to college and recently my oldest son was my head age group coach for an interim period. What a great experience it was. I didn’t know whether it would be positive or negative, but it was great and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Of course I need to thank my parents who went above and beyond what I deserved in their commitment to support me. The swimming family is special too. I got out of swimming for one year back in the 1980’s and I couldn’t stay away because of many of the people in this room. You are the greatest group of people on Planet Earth. I truly believe that. I have talked about my role models: Coaches Gambril, Councilman, Haines, Daland and my personal club coach Ralph Wright. Coach Wright was tragically killed prematurely when I was 16 years old. He had a great influence on my life. I am thankful to the assistant coaches and of course to the swimmers. The list is too long for me to mention names. Some of them like Jimmy Tierney who has gone on to become a colleague and a peer and a great lifelong friend. I started to try to list everyone but I was afraid that I would leave somebody off the list. I hope you know who you are. I have so much respect and appreciation for you guys. As I was going through my files to try to stimulate some of the old memories I came across special thank you notes from people here I have probably never thanked. Thank you for taking time to have written a note or email of encouragement. It meant so much to me and I never let you know that. Two who stood out because they took time to send notes on many occasions throughout my career were Skip Kenney and Jay Fitzgerald. But all of your notes and words of support over the years meant a lot. I want to give a special thanks to the people that serve in the military that have risked their lives or in some cases sacrificed their lives so that I could have the opportunity to do what I have loved to do so much throughout my life. There is so much to be thankful for.

In wrapping this up I need to make another confession to you. As National Team Director I’d forget to pack civilian clothes. I just had team stuff which is all I ever wore until the meet was over. On the plane ride back when you are drained and exhausted and you want to kind of disappear into woodwork, I always wish I had something generic to wear, but I never did. I was always sitting on the plane with my USA stuff and inevitably the person next to me would ask if I was on the USA team. The most flattering moments I had were when I was asked what events I swam, but that didn’t happen often. It was about what I did, what was my role? I didn’t say I was the National Team Director, partly because I didn’t want to spend 30 minutes explaining what that meant. Usually my response was simple. I just said I was a coach. That was mainly because I have so much respect for what you people do. You don’t get recognized often enough for being a coach, but people do respect what you do. You may not know this but the older coaches do because with time you get those thankful emails, but younger coaches probably don’t know that. Unfortunately the parents, swimmers and people you work for and with forget to express how much they appreciate what you are doing for them. In some cases they do not realize how important your coaching is to them until 20 years later. I want to share with you a recent email I received when I announced my resignation at Phoenix Swim Club (Brophy East Swim Team). I am not sharing this to blow my own horn, but to assure you that you have people in your programs that feel the same, even though it may not seem like it. This blew me away. I didn’t think I had anybody that felt this way. I hoped that twenty years from now they would look back on these last four years that I have been at Phoenix and feel this way. You have people in your programs that feel the same way.

It says, “Coach Denny: your letter announcing your departure came as a tremendous shock. Our family has made a substantial commitment to you in the BEST program in the heartfelt belief that you, by your actions and words, are instilling in our children the most important values of all, integrity, commitment and consistent hard work. As a parent I believe that your program represents one of the few places where these values are promoted every day and those who adopt those values receive direct tangible results. I have witnessed the success of those who have bought into the program and experienced it in our family. As you have mentioned, the path to success requires courage and commitment daily, going against the tide of immediate gratification and societal pressures to conform. Swimming as defined in the best program is a lifestyle choice, choosing the values that bring success. One of my biggest fears is that your departure will signal to our son that the choice is not worth the fight, and that those that chose the program will be swept aside by those taking the easy path. I know that building a program and changing a culture is very difficult, perhaps nearly impossible. I appreciate the efforts and sacrifices you and your family have made for BEST families. You have endured a great deal in the attempt to take BEST from above average to great. Thank you for the effort. It has positively impacted my family greatly. In closing, let me say that we, as a family, are grateful for the experience of being part of your program and cherish the growth and development that we have witnessed in our children as they understand and value the meaning of integrity, consistent hard work and commitment. This is in large measure attributable to your words and examples.”

So if you ever wonder, as I often did if it is worth it, the answer is an emphatic yes. Although you may have to resign or wait twenty years for it to sink in to get this kind of feedback, know that you do make a difference. I want to thank all of you for what you do in the face of all the obstacles and challenges and frustrations and disappointments that I have referred to in this presentation and in a world that does not generally appreciate your efforts. Regardless of whether or not your young athletes ever become great swimmers, in direct proportion to the extent that you are committed to the pursuit of excellence, you are planting seeds that are essential to personal growth and success in all aspects of their lives and that will help mold them into better people. That is what brings meaning and value to what you do. That is what makes the coaching profession so noble and honorable. That is what should be given the first consideration in all decisions that you make. The question of how will this impact the character development of my team and of this individual athlete. You are builders of character and in today’s world, nothing is more important. In the midst of all your struggles, I hope this brings you great peace of mind and that my friends, is priceless. Thank you. Thank you very much.

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