Coaching Character

Guest commentary by Jim Lutz

I recently heard an interview with NASCAR driver Jeff Burton. During the interview, Jeff was discussing various aspects of his sport from features of the engine to gain more power and speed to gaining sponsorship. Even though some contracts can be multi-year, often they have clauses that are year-to-year. “What have you done for me lately?” will dictate a feast or famine existence.

As the interview came back from the commercial break, Jeff began to express the joy he has received from his 12-year-old son Harrison becoming a racer. Jeff made it very clear that Harrison has been afforded an opportunity to see the aspects of running a business known as racing. Gaining sponsorship, trying to reconfigure an engine but stay within the parameters set by NASCAR, and having the opportunity to actually have access to vehicles to race and learn from great drivers.

When the indoctrination to NASCAR 101 was verging on the limits of my comprehension Jeff mentioned something that gave me reason to pause.

“Whether or not Harrison continues to race, we have the responsibility to raise him to be a responsible young man,” Jeff said. Good idea.

How often in swimming have we seen swimmers put their self worth into the stopwatch, or parents live vicariously through their children? Swimmers do not have the same issues as those racing in NASCAR, but we do have the intangibles and responsibilities of being quality people.

As a parent and as a coach, I have always tried to remember that I am dealing with people first who happen to possess additional qualities. Some of these swimmers will gain accolades in the eyes of the general public, while others will take personal satisfaction in knowing they did a good job for the sake of doing a good job.

I am in a unique situation to serve in a dual capacity of parent and coach. My son, Kory, began swimming at the age of 12. For two years, he was not able to participate in the pre-senior group. During his eighth-grade year, he had progressed to the point where he was ready for the training challenge and the increased workload.

One aspect of our relationship that gave a chuckle to Viper swimmers and parents was how Kory addressed me. Whenever we were at the pool for practice or competition, I was called, “Coach Jim.” As soon as we left the pool, I was “Dad.” It was never perceived as disrespectful, nor did Kory ever display and attitude because deep down he knew I was Dad.

Being cursed with parents who would not be able to genetically pass physical attributes to give him an advantage, Kory would overcome through persistence and hard work.

As a 14-year-old, Kory was the only swimmer in Coach Jim’s group who had not achieved at least divisional cuts (cuts slower than age group state). He had begun to swim distance events and had already dropped 20 seconds from his first 1650 swim to his second race. The problem, Kory was aging up to senior without having made a divisional cut in the 13-14 age group.

The night before Kory was to swim the 1650 he asked me at the dinner table, “Dad what do I have to do to make the divisional cut in the mile?” I said, “You have to drop one minute and seven seconds so basically you have to be one second faster per length and, hopefully, you can pick up a little more somewhere along the way.” “OK” was Kory’s response

As the race started, Kory was under his best 200 free time. He continued this effort to blow past his 500 free best time. At the 1000 mark, he was one minute ahead of his best time and showing no signs of slowing. At the 1550 mark, making the cut was now a reality and Coach Jim was shedding some serious water weight displayed through a sweat-soaked T-shirt.

As Kory placed his hand on the wall his best time of 22:31 had been obliterated with 21:14 passing the cut of 21:24 by 10 seconds. A satisfied fist pump elevated from his fatigued arms and a grin from ear-to-ear soon followed. Coach Jim quickly became Dad and gave Kory a big hug.

With the swim taking place on a Sunday, we needed to attend mass before our day was done. After mass, Kory tugged on my sleeve and asked if I had a dollar. I told him I did but I had already put money in the collection basket. Kory said, “Dad, I want to go light a candle and thank God for what he allowed me to do today.”

No record-breaking swim could ever reach the level of pride that I felt at that moment by the character shown by Kory. Achievement was fun, character is vital.

I write this story on Kory’s 17th birthday while watching a high school dual meet at the same pool he made his first cut. I share this story not to put a feather in my hat. I felt this personal story went, understandably, unnoticed from an athletic standpoint but spoke volumes about keeping a healthy perspective and humility. Whether or not Kory ever chooses to compete beyond his high school years is secondary to a foundation laid. To contribute to society to a cause and a purpose beyond his personal interest(s) is a much greater good.

We all have the responsibility to raise quality people. The best part, we all have the opportunity to ensure this can happen.

See you on the podium.
Coach Jim (aka Dad to Kory)

Jim Lutz is the Head Age Group Coach for Viper Aquatics in Westfield, Ind. Lutz has coached at the club and college levels for more than 30 years, with stints as head coach at Illinois and Michigan State as well as serving as an assistant at Arizona. He’s also served as a head coach for several club teams.

Lutz also is a published author with several books available on Amazon.

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Author: Jason Marsteller

Jason Marsteller is the general manager of digital properties at Swimming World. He joined Swimming World in June 2006 as the managing editor after previous stints as a media relations professional at Indiana University, the University of Tennessee, Southern Utah University and the Utah Summer Games.

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