View From The Summit Is Wonderful, But It Is The Valley Where Things Grow

Guest commentary by Jim Lutz

My aquatic odyssey began in 1966 as a five-year-old summer league swimmer. During the next 47 years, I saw every level of our beloved sport which also included every angle.

During the first 13 years as a competitor, I was blessed with participating in one of the most-organized and competitive summer leagues in the United States. The Northern Kentucky Swim League (N.K.S.L.) gave birth to summer league only, year-round, state champions, NCAA All-Americans, National Champions, American Record Holders and Olympic Medalists. USA Swimming National Team Director Frank Busch cut his coaching teeth in this league along with Swimming World CEO Brent Rutemiller. I too began my career following the lead of these two swimming assets.

As my “swimming days” came to a close on the competitive side, I was being introduced to the deck side with a clipboard, stopwatch, visor, built-in whistle and Zinc Oxide stuffed into a coaching bag. For seven weeks beginning in Mid-June and continuing through the beginning of August, a weekly Thursday night dual meet took place with a champion being crowned the first Thursday in August. Rivalries were intense, pep rallies were common and team cheers would have been the ring tone on many phones if we had cell phones.

After four summer seasons, I found that I had been bitten by the coaching bug and needed to follow the advice of a team parent. Simply put, “Jim, you have coached Beechwood Swim Club four years, won four championships and swam in this league 13 years. You will continue to have success if you stay. However, if you want to find out if you truly know how to coach, go somewhere that no one knows you and build a reputation on skills and ability, not your name.”

Good advice, however, he wanted me to leave a comfort zone that was an absolute blast, non-stop fun and get into the business of coaching.

For 21 years, I would make multiple moves from age group coach to college assistant and ultimately college head coach. Each of these of locations, some big and some small, were in areas I had little contacts, connections or friends. But I had a dream of moving up the coaching ranks with a desire to ultimately get selected by USA Swimming to coach on the National Team. A price would be paid by athletes, me and, ultimately, my family.

Walking a pool deck with the icons of swimming was a rush that I could have only dreamed yet it was becoming a reality. Swimmers who began qualifying to swim beyond the morning heats were also increasing the adrenaline. The higher levels the athletes achieved, the more the rush was needed. Yes, this had become an addiction. My immaturity and lack of experience didn’t allow me to see the big picture. No matter how high the achievement went, there was always a void that was not being filled. I would learn later the journey is the prize not the end result.

For a period of time, I was under the self-imposed illusion if my swimmers were fast, I was a good coach, a good friend, a good husband and a good father. If they swam poorly I told myself, I sucked as a coach, no one liked me or wanted to be around me, I was a terrible husband and father. What an idiot. What actually happened were my friends were still my friends and usually the first one who offered to lend an ear and discuss what was going on with the team or my situation. My swimmers were frustrated and I needed to focus on their needs and not my bruised ego. My wife supported me even more in difficult situations and my kids couldn’t care less what title I had other than “Dad”. It was during these times that I realized people were placed in our life when they were needed most regardless of the duration.

The club level was serious yet still fun. The college level was exciting yet a business. When I recruited any swimmer I told them right up front, “At the college level, if you don’t love it, you WILL hate it because it is a business.” We may not fill stadiums for college meets but the expectations and stress for success is no less in the mind of a swim coach than those who strap on the helmet or lace up the high tops. I never prayed that a swimmer would come to the school where I was coaching. I prayed they would have the insight and wisdom to make the choice that was the right decision for them. It always worked out the way it was supposed to be.

We all want success and the playing field is seldom level. We all deal with adversity, it just wears a different uniform, has a different face and a different name. The business side, administration and 24/7 recruiting took a toll and the fun side that I sought in my earlier days was all-too-often a fleeting memory.

At the conclusion of my 25th year and 15th at the collegiate level, I became very sick. I was not functioning very well and I was a shell of the person and coach I once was. I needed a change but I was fighting the mindset that I was training to never quit. That decision was made for me that a life change was happening. I had limited if any control in this decision. I was no longer a coach.

After a nine-month recovery, I was able to function in three to four-hour blocks of time without getting exhausted. My humor and excessive use of puns was returning to my personality. A new chapter in my life was beginning.

A career move to a field where I had no background or experience proved to be enlightening and challenging. It afforded me a chance to prove my skills and ability in a new venture. I was again helping people with their life but on a different playing field. As one year became two and ultimately five I subconsciously began to smell the chlorine again with a desire to get back on deck. This was not something I mentioned to Diane and it was probably a passing phase.

One month shy of five years away from the pool I was approached by a local coach if I would be interested in coaching again with a relatively new program that had gone through some changes recently and was looking for a new direction. I told her I would need a few days to think about it but more importantly, pray on it to really see if the timing was right to jump back in feet first.

After four days I decided it was time to return to a love in my life with a caveat, no senior coaching. I have nothing against senior level swimmers and the fact is I love that level too much for it not to become all-consuming again. I, or better yet, my family could not go down that road again. We decided on 11-14 year olds three days a week. I was back coaching the age group I started my career and teaching, training and developing quality people who happened to swim, not just a swimmer with limited substance. It was now a hobby and not an all-encompassing lifestyle.

This age group is often over looked as most coaches get the bug for the higher levels and jump past the “junior” group to grab onto the senior swimmers. I am fortunate to mold this group and educate them how to truly become a student of the sport to maximize each training opportunity. I coach my swimmers with the same expectation for discipline and commitment as I had done at the highest level. They don’t shy away but rather welcome this consistency. Win or lose, fast or slow, my first question to them after a race, “How did that feel?” or “What did you think?” “Good”, “fast”, “bad” or “slow” are not acceptable answer. They need to become their own coach and diagnose their swim.

What I quickly realized is the makeup of most clubs is a microcosm of my own coaching path. The newest coaches worked with the novice swimmers in what often has become glorified swim lessons. Then working up through the age groups the coaches become more experienced and have a desire to reach the highest level in the sport. There is nothing wrong with those dreams and desires and every coach needs to figure out what their desires, goals and objectives may be at the center of their focus.

Getting a swimmer to a national level meet is a big deal in a coach’s career and the first time is like nothing you will ever feel. Imagine a rookie playing in his first PGA event and walking down to the first tee with Tiger Woods. They have worked their whole professional career for a goal and they have climbed to the summit.

There is a saying that you need to be nice to people on the way up because they are the same people you will see on the way down. I took a sudden, unintended leap in my coaching career but I realize I am not heading downward and picking up speed. I am coaching a top group of swimmers again, just at a different level. What a blessing.

The coaches at this level are so vital to the present and future of USA Swimming. They continue to be needed, but they should also be challenged for once something is stretched beyond its original shape, it never returns to that shape again. A diamond is formed from pressure on a piece of coal and over the course of time becomes a beautiful gem that is envied and desired.

My demeanor has changed, by choice. I never yell other than to speak above the noise from the swimmers in the pool. When I am upset, I simple stare at them until they are quiet. If I were to yell at a swimmer, it is no longer about them. It is about me and my ego. I don’t need to belittle them to get their attention. I respect them and vice versa. They know and understand what is expected and sometimes it may be as simple as laughing at a silly joke. Discipline should not be viewed as a negative nor should structure or a system. Our structure within our programs may be the only structure and discipline that some of them receive during the day and they will gravitate towards this as a security rather than avoidance.

I have an incredible group of young swimmers at Viper Aquatics who epitomize character, desire, gratitude who say, “Thanks Coach Jim” before they even leave the pool after a two-hour practice. I have been blessed with an opportunity to grow wonderful people and this is not a responsibility that I take lightly.

Those swimmers who will ultimately join the USA National Team are developed from a young age. It seldom happens overnight. The amazing age group coaches who walk the pool deck, spending a week’s worth of hours over a 2 ? day weekend are not just a pretty face. (Yes, that was humor)

These are people who may never pursue coaching as a full-time life long career but don’t sell them short. Their focus and commitment is to be valued and appreciated as they are planting the seeds for the future of swimming. These seeds will grow and be nurtured over the years and will ultimately reach their respective peaks in their chosen field or profession. Thankfully, swimming is never short on water to enable them to grow.

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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