Musings From a Coach: The Numbers Tell The Score, Seldom A Swimmer’s Story

Guest commentary by Jim Lutz

“Here are some scores tonight; 35-30, 24-20, 3-2 and a partial score 6.” –George Carlin

As another season gets up and running, seldom if ever only one sport is “In Season.” We scan the sports page or watch the ticker on the bottom of the TV to see the success or failure of our favorite team(s). In an instant, our emotions can run from extreme highs to verging on lows that rival the Great Depression.

Athletics are not the only arena where numbers, scores, or percentages control our emotions. However, in most situations, the numbers tell us what we are.

I work very hard to stress to my swimmers that a stopwatch does not dictate or gauge their worth as a person. Yet more often-than-not, those increments of time place the athlete in a mindset where they say, “I am this good or that good because I was fast or I was slow”…Again, based solely on their view and opinion.

In the sport of swimming, we see .01 of a second separate an Olympian from someone who made it to finals. How do you tell the athlete, “You did everything we asked you and yet it did not work out for you?”

Tough sell without them feeling like life is not fair and they should be on the Olympic team. Right or wrong, it is reality.

Look beyond the clock…look beyond the cap…look beyond the warm up, the goggles and the suit. Look into the eyes, the window to the soul. That is where the story begins, takes action, and ends with no certainty, just emotions.

For those not involved in Swimming, a common question after a competition usually sounds like, “Did you win?” “What do you mean you swam well and got fourth?” “Why don’t you rest for all your meets so you can always go fast and not swim ugly?”

…Sounds easy, plays hard.

I remember in 2004 when the World Short Course Championships took place at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. I was sitting in the upper level thinking, “We are in a stadium, huge scoreboard with video effects, music blaring, adult beverages being consumed around me, if there was betting and handicapping, this would be a real sport.”

USA Swimming has done that even better. They now fill 15,000 capacity arenas for Olympic Trials. What a tribute to those in charge, providing vision and direction. Even with this increase in visibility, some still do not get it.

We literally have to overcome the educationally challenged in swimming. We often correct the novice journalist that “IM” is not intermediate. This was the cause for many laughs. I no longer take these things personally as an insult.

With the exception of an elite few in recent years, T.V. producers highlight swimmers as the shining moment every four years at the Olympics. With the extinguished flame, forgotten swimmers go back to their private aquatic world, until the next quadrennial comes to fruition. What motivates these aquatic machines during those days when there are no spotlights? The cold and rain just gets you in the pool faster and national holidays mean two workouts instead of one.

Swimmers are an elite breed and this title has nothing to do with times standards. What is considered a normal day in the life of a swimmer, would be viewed by others as cruel and unusual. The observer never understands or feels the level of satisfaction of overcoming oneself from nothing more than determination, desire, and will.

“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses…” not exactly.

The swimmer mantra is closer to, “Give me your best shot as I can withstand any and all obstacles because I am a swimmer. The badge of honor, I wear in my mind and in my heart. No one can see this except for me and that is the source of my pride, my satisfaction, my glory.”

Accolades are nice and well deserved. These awards recognized by the public eye as a measurable level of success at a particular moment in time.

We are unique in that the majority of our training time is spent in solitude, in a pool full of swimmers. Your face buried in water with occasional breaks for oxygen to refuel the circulatory system to enable the swimmer to keep moving forward.

Kick sets can be a social moments but the need for a strong kick does not allow much air to pass the vocal chords for conversation. With limited interaction, what goes through the mind?

I look at the arms and legs moving, some gently, others thrashing. Bodies rotating and searching for the optimal angle and position to reduce drag, increase buoyancy and speed. I have read it takes 10,000 repetitions for the movement to reach perfection. If the stroke is not perfect, do those strokes increase the distance from perfection and reality?

The mind of a swimmer is comprised of grey matter, cholesterol, synapsis, nerve-endings and fibers like every other brain. There is one difference…we are swimmers. Swimmers are uniquely qualified and skilled to “See it, face it deal with it.”

I tell my swimmers the first day of practice each season, “Your taper starts today.”

A taper in not a bus you miss or catch. A taper is a mindset, a desire, a belief that continually builds with each stroke taken, each training session. Taper is not an exact science and every taper is different from the one before. You have changed physically and you must make adjustments.

How do you handle the “ugly” days that occur, visibly every taper? Do you take them in stride as part of the process or do you focus on how bad you feel and not the sheer volume of good training you have done. There are no guarantees that every taper will work to perfection. Maybe you need to deal with tough times to appreciate the good times…That which does not kill you makes you stronger.

One of the best parts of my coaching job is also one of the easiest. When a swimmer is “Lookin’ ’bout six shades of ugly,” all I have to do is be honest with them and remind them of the awesome qualities they already possess. As I tell my swimmers, “I don’t say things to be nice. I say them because they are true.” Every person has unlimited qualities and we as coaches or teammates just have to remind them of this fact.

Dorothy did not have to venture to OZ because everything she truly needed for happiness was right in her own backyard. When you look for something or someone to provide happiness in your life, you may find you are setting yourself for disappointment. I am not saying you should not enjoy the company of other…no, not at all. I simply say, trust yourself and believe that you have talents the NO ONE ELSE possesses. You are unique, designed to be like no one else and you play that part extremely well. Be the best you can be, as that is great. You are not a number or the score. YOU are the story.

See you on the podium

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.

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