A Tale Of Two Coaches Across The Pond In A Time Of Pandemic 

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A time of stumbling blocks - Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Craig Lord invited George Block, the head of the World Swimming Coaches Association, to comment on that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has meant to coaches as well as swimmers.

Over a week, here is how that narrative developed with our partners in a time of pandemic, Nuoto.com and its co-founder, Walter Bolognani, head coach to the Italian junior swimming team.

The swimming season has ended, college, trials and now the 2020 Olympic Games gone too, in all but final decision to postpone. Swimming programs and clubs and pools have been and are being shut down and the economy, industry and business of the sport is descending into a state of hibernation. Coaches are being laid off, sent home unpaid and wondering if one of the many state support packages being discussed and rolled out around the world to help ‘business’ will actually filter down to them.

Like many journalists, many coaches are “freelance”, on contract or on a shift-for-pay basis. Some have staff positions and others have been kept on to oversee the “home” program of remote training with video aids and dryland sessions, among guidance, sent by email, the example seen at Monterey County Aquatic Team (MCAT) a model for many in the world of developing talent.

Swimmers, including those at the very pointy end of Olympic business, must work on and observe the best habits of their routines as best they can if they’re to emerge from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in good shape and ready.

Swimming World talked to George Block, president of the World Swimming Coaches Association, about the impact of a 2020 season torn apart by the coronavirus pandemic. George then spoke to Nuoto.com co-founder and head coach to the Italian junior team Walter Bolognani, WSCA Board member.

The Struggle Of Coaches – “Just The Beginning”

Asked how coaches were coping and would cope as the sport closed down, Block started a conversation a week ago by telling Craig Lord:

“This is just beginning. At the club level (in the US), many clubs are just beginning their long course seasons and spring/summer registration is just underway. Without pools, those sign-ups and seasons can’t begin. The state of New Jersey just closed all private gyms for the foreseeable future and limited private businesses to no more than 50 customers at a time, providing that they remain 6’ (1.8m) apart. That would be difficult in a practice situation.”

How right he was. The lockdown and closure of pools in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany and many other European nations has affected many places in Asia and has now reached the North and South America and Australia.

Adjustments are being made, with large numbers of swimmers, including many prospective Olympic finalists and teamsters simply unable to stick to anything like a normal training regime.

tokyo2020-logoThere is talk of Tokyo 2021 and that option appears to have majority support among the key parties weighing in, including USA Swimming, Australian sports bodies in general, Swimming Canada, Germany and others.

Such is the impact of the pandemic, however, that by the time it’s done, recovery of economies, nations, families, athletes and many others, including a healthcare sector that faces months of the test that started in China (and lasted five months from first infection to a corner being turned) and is now headed skyward in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

One week ago, Block noted: “I was recently online with a swimmer in Denmark who told me that his pool and strength facility have both been “closed for the duration. He is now cycling and doing tubes for fitness.”

That kind of scenario has become the norm for many swimmers, who may have to wait many weeks if not some months before they are able to get back into a normal pool routine.

At the last World Health Organization (WHO) count, coronavirus infection had spread to 187 nations, the vast bulk of countries that have a federation affiliated to the International Olympic Committee and member international sports federations such as FINA.

Resources Designed For Bad Times Often Overlooked In Good Times

Block noted that availability of resources does not always translate to anyone paying attention. Like those who need insurance but think the pandemic cost a tick box too far, many coaches, assuming they notice courses designed to help them and their programs through tougher times, walks on by. He noted with a nod to the situation in the United States:

“The ASCA [American Swimming Coaches Association] has been offering Financial Planning for Coaches courses for nearly 20 years. The total number of coaches who have taken those courses could easily fit in to my condo, while still respecting the “social distancing” rules. We have talked about the importance of building up your personal Emergency Fund of 3-12 months of expenses, based on your (family’s) personal risk. If you owned your own club and that was your sole employment, but you didn’t own or control the facility, you had a VERY high personal risk. It is a bit late to start building your Emergency Fund today, but once we get past this emergency, every coach should start planing for the next emergency.”

The current pandemic is something, like extreme weather events, the world may have to get used to – and prepare for, says Block: “It is likely that this will NOT be the last virus emergency. As the world becomes more interconnected, areas that were formerly both undeveloped and unvisited become centers of commerce. In China, central and western China are still hidden’.

“It is really the coastal and river cities that we frequent. As more of their vast space opens, more of their indigenous viruses will spread around the world. The same is true for India, Africa (economically exploding right now), and the Middle East.”

How The Pandemic Could Heighten Awareness Of Best Practices On Health & Safety

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George Block – Photo Courtesy: San Antonio Sports

Block, who has built and managed and ran his own swim programs for decades, said:

“In the US, only 40% of the population gets the ‘flu vaccine, but so far this year, 10,000 people have died from the flu. Every coach should have every every swimmer and every coaching staff member get vaccinated, every year. Maybe this experience will help us take vaccination more seriously.”

“Perhaps this will also make us take ‘out of the water’ preparation of both ourselves and our athletes more seriously.

“Coaching is more than 10X100 on the X:00. As coaches, we have to be physically, fiscally and psychologically healthy or we can’t do our jobs. The same goes for our athletes. We need to tend to them out of the water, as well, but historically, we have done a much better job of taking care of our athletes than of ourselves.

He added: “As far as being out of the water for 2-4 months, that is incredibly difficult. Like my swimmer in Denmark, he will use his StretchCordz, and ride his bike.”

A Great Time To Use Technology To Over-bridge The Crisis

“Coach [Mark] Schubert emphasized to me years ago the importance of having my swimmers see really good strokes underwater and really great races over the water, before I ever show them videos of themselves. This would be a great time to use technology to share stroke films, race videos, stroke drills, etc., to get those pictures burned in to your swimmers brains before you get back in to the water.

“Small, elite groups can easily function and still comply with closing rules and social distancing rules, but it is very difficult to run any program that is economically sustainable.”

Block’s experience is close to home across generations:

“My son recently became a club owner. He is now his own boss, but has lost the security of a government (school district) paycheck. He rents facilities, but when those facilities are closed, he has no business. This is hitting close to home. It will soon affect all of the team supply businesses, then the places where they advertise (ASCA, the ASCTA, Swimming World, etc.).

A week on and George Block spoke to Walter Bolognani, head coach of the Italian Junior Swimming Team and co-founder with Federico Gross of the leading Italian website Nuoto.com, our colleagues and partners in coronavirus coverage.

Here’s what came of their discussion, in Italian and replicated in English below:

A Tale Of Two Coaches In A Time Of Pandemic

Walter: What’s the situation like?

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Lane Lines and stumbling blocks – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

George: “Every day, if not every hour, I get an email from another coach who has been locked out of his or her pool. In a few places, there was a legal exemption granted for ‘exercise”, under which a few coaches could still operate, but even those are disappearing.

“Coaches who have a government paycheck (National Federation, city, county, region, university or school) can at least survive economically, but most coaches operate small businesses. Our colleagues are just like airplanes or restaurants, without bodies (and fees) in the pool, they quickly go out of business.

“Most of them are maintaining email, text or phone contact with their athletes, helping them get through this mentally, by keeping them fit physically. Nearly every coach has a menu of exercise circuits to send to their swimmers. For one, it was as simple as, “Get up at your regular time for morning practice, then go out for a long run. After that, do 10 push-ups every hour.”

Block paid plaudits to USA Swimming for providing leadership on the wellbeing of athletes and the fate of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games:

“I was proud of my National Federation (and that hasn’t always been the case) for taking a leadership position by publishing an open letter to the USOPC requesting that the Olympics be postponed. As you know, several NOC’s have also taken that position, although it was embarrassing to see the IOC intimidate the regional sports organizations into “supporting” the IOC’s position on ‘waiting for more data’.

“Then, less than 24 hours later, even the ton-deaf IOC had to admit that the Tokyo Games “might” have to be postponed. “Might?”

“If the IOC operated on a set of moral principles, instead of merely fiscal principles, the decision would have been simple. Unfortunately, the same lack of moral compass the IOC perpetually displays with doping is at work here. Doping has been the biggest “un-leveler” of a level playing field in all of sports. The IOC has yet to really care. The same lack of a moral compass is on display here.

“As the COVID-19 virus works its way around the world, it demolishes the training and preparation plans for coaches and athletes caught in its wake.

“The playing field is not only “not level,” it is actively wobbling all over the world. If the IOC took its mandate to create and protect a level playing field, the decision to postpone would be obvious. Without a moral compass, there is only a financial compass to guide them.”

Swimmer start for the Backstroke leg in the women's 4x100m Medley Relay Heat 2

Swimmer – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Walter: What Do Swimmers Do?

George: “This crisis is, of course, much bigger than swimming, but I think our swimmers can play a critical role. When any of us looks objectively at any sport, much less one as demanding as ours, with so few tangible results, any sport looks silly. The question becomes, why do public funds get spent on developing any athletes, much less swimmers?

“I think the answer is that sport, especially swimming, is the crucible for developing leaders. A study from just over 20 years ago delineated 4 steps to becoming a leader.

“The first was Competence/Operations. That means that the future leader must know how things work.

“They must know what is going on and what is expected of everyone.

The second step is Cooperation/Caring. Before someone can become a leader, they must prove to their peers that they can be good followers and good teammates, as well.

“There is a saying in English (I don’t know how well it translates into Italian) that says, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” The future leader must really care (it can’t be faked) about those who he or she may eventually lead.”

The third step is Leading by Example. That is simple and obvious. It is one of the most common traits in any leadership study. Only after Leading by Example is the future leader allowed to Lead by Voice.

“I think this is the time and place for our swimmers to take those skills out of the pool and bring them to their peers in their communities. They must know what is going on, how things work and what is expected of them. They must be good followers of both the formal and informal leaders around them. They must remember that it is only leading if it is for a higher cause.

“They need to lead by example – and there is no example if it is not visible. Being visible, in today’s social media sewer, puts a person at risk for criticism, ridicule and attack, but that is the price of leadership. And then they can Lead by Voice. Speak up! Speak to your teammates, your peers, your community.

Walter: What Does the Coach Do?

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Bill Rose and Bob Bowman – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

George: “We must help our swimmers take those 4 steps to becoming leaders in the pool and in the community. (Retired) Admiral William McRaven (who led the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden) became Chancellor of the University of Texas system after he retired from the Navy. In 2014, he gave a graduation speech to the students at the University of Texas. He told a story about his own training as a young man to become a Navy SEAL.

“Admiral McRaven talked about “Hell Week,” the culminating event in SEAL training, where every member of the class is pushed to – and past – their limits of endurance. The goal is both to build incredible confidence by learning how much more you can give than you ever imagined and to weed out those who can find those depths.

“After nearly a week of 24-hour days and constant endurance and strength-sapping drills, they ended up in the Mud Flats, between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico. The mud flats are just that: mud bogs in which men sink up to their jaw lines. It is bone-chilling cold with dirty salt-water splashing into the candidates’ eyes, nose and mouths as they struggle to breathe against the pressure of the mud.

“Their instructors told them that they could all leave and take a hot shower if only 5 men would quit. McRaven told the class that the purpose of the exercise was to get classmates to turn on each other.

“Isn’t this happening now? I know we are starting to see hoarding in nearly every community in the US.

“What happened was just the opposite. The SEAL class had 8 more hours to spend, up to their necks in freezing mud. A few of the trainees were just about to give up when one candidate started singing. One, then another, then another. Soon, everyone was singing, and no one gave up. 8 hours of singing in the freezing mud.”

A story that will resonate loudly in Italy, a nation in lockdown and singing from their balconies in solidarity and determined to endure:

Block concludes:

“Our swimmers have learned to endure months and years of gruelling training because their coaches gave them hope. A dream. A picture. Hope is the best antidote for fear. Hope is the best antidote for surrender. Coaches are the best hope-givers on the planet.

“The coach’s job is to lead our leaders; give them hope, so they can give it to others; and, most of all, to keep them singing!”

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