Champion’s Mojo: Greg Meehan Talks Learning From Failure and Building Confidence

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Named the 2020, now 2021 Olympic team coach for the United States women, Greg Meehan is one of the top swim coaches in the world. During his time at Stanford he has led the women’s team to three straight national championships, along the way coaching some of swimming biggest stars, including Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel. He joins the Champion’s Mojo podcast to discuss what he’s learned through his career and how to teach confidence in young swimmers.

Below is an abridged Q&A of the interview, conducted by Kelly Palace and Maria Parker, with Greg Meehan. You can listen to the full podcast episode #86 at https://championsmojo.com or by clicking here.

Champion’s Mojo: What advice do you give swimmers as we go through this time of COVID?

Greg Meehan: I think about the seniors this year, having their careers cut short just before the NCAA championships. They had an unbelievable career. They had won the NCAA championships their first three years. They just kind of fell short of the opportunity to finish their career truly undefeated. I think that initial phase in March with those cancelations and then not too long after that the postponement of Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games was a really hard stretch. Things have somewhat stabilized, if not in a national way, at least in a swimming perspective. We have a little bit of a better idea of what the day to day looks like for the next few months. It’s a little difficult to sort of project beyond that, but we’re really just trying to encourage everyone to take it one day at a time and to control the things that you actually have control over, which nowadays doesn’t seem like a lot. I think it’s even more important that you take control of and put your best foot forward, because everything else is way outside of our control. We just have to really simplify things and let’s put our best foot forward and see where that takes us.

Champion’s Mojo: How did you learn to deal with adversity?

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Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

Greg Meehan: I think it’s actually something that’s come through the sport. Swimming is not for the faint of heart. Nobody gets into swimming thinking that it’s gonna be an easy path. It’s pretty easy up until you get to about 13 in terms of, hey, every time you race, you go this time and this is easy. This is great. Then reality sets in and you become a teenager and things are harder. Your opportunities to show actual tangible improvement on a scoreboard become few and far between. I mean, you’re peaking twice a year. Maybe it’s just once a year for some of our professional athletes. You have to learn how to handle adversity. I think one of the things that our program does well is we sort of embrace that idea and create opportunities for adversity within a training setting, whether it’s through stuff we’re doing in the water, on land, or through our culture. We try and sort of embrace those challenges, embrace adversity and learn from that, as you might imagine. The women that come into the program here at Stanford are fairly successful in everything that they’ve done to this point in their life. They’re coming in the door here at 17 or 18 years old. They’ve done well their entire academic career. They’re swimming at a very high level. They’ve never truly failed. We create opportunities to fail right away. We take the Band-Aid right off because life is not perfect. You’re never gonna go through the rest of your swimming career, let alone your life, without challenge, adversity, and embracing the idea that failure is ok. I think failure is a great thing if you learn from it. I think if you have your blinders on and you don’t take advantage of the opportunity to learn from your failures, then that’s a whole nother story. We try and create opportunities for them to learn from failure and how to communicate better, how to prepare better, how to just sort of be flexible and adaptable and handle adversity. We try to set that up in our routine every year. Oftentimes it’s heavy in the fall.

Champion’s Mojo: You’ve shown as a coach that you can be flexible, is that something you’re trying to teach your swimmers as well?

Greg Meehan: I think so. Oftentimes that comes back to trust, right? I don’t get to that place with someone like Katie or Simone without having built up trust in each other. Tracy Slusser, who is our associate head coach, is phenomenal in building relationships and communication, which is the cornerstone of building that relationship. If we need to say things or we need to adjust, those athletes understand and trust us. And just the same, we understand and trust them. It makes it a lot easier to make those changes in those moments or to have those hard conversations.

Champion’s Mojo: What is it like coaching one of the top distance and sprint swimmers in Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Greg Meehan: They’re very fun to work with. Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves because we’re in this amazing place, having two gold medals and two incredibly strong women. They’re both tremendous people. They’re fun to work with on a daily basis. It’s been really fun just to kind of see their relationship grow over the last few years. They swam together on the team collegiately, but then they both turned professional at the same time. They have spent a lot of time together. We’ve collectively had conversations with the three of us about what we’re doing and the plan and all of this. They swim in totally different events and have fairly different personalities, but they really trust and rely on each other. And, even though they’re on different ends of the events spectrum, they can meet in the middle and do some 200 work. Watching them kind of go at it in a competitive nature, in a positive competitive environment, is really fun. As a coach it’s just been tremendous to watch their growth as young people learning how to be a professional athlete. Just seeing them take ownership of what they do. I think for all great athletes, one of the commonalities is they’re willing to work hard. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen swimmers that will embrace the work that’s required more than these two. It is amazing how hard they work and how consistent they are. It allows them to take ownership in their results. It’s not, if things don’t go well, her fault or his fault or so and so’s fault. They’re going to say, OK, what can I do better? As coaches that’s liberating because it also allows us to internalize, like, OK, they weren’t great in this event or we weren’t great in this little cycle. I know it’s not from them not working hard enough or not committing enough to details. That allows us to internalize that. Where do we need to be better? Whether it’s a weekly plan or a race strategy or strength and conditioning. So that part’s really fun. Just to know that, you know, we’re all in.

Champion’s Mojo: Tell us about death by relay.

Greg Meehan: We’ll probably do that this coming Saturday. Normally it’s more than just two people, but we did it with just Katie and Simone. We did it in short course during the pandemic, in a short course, two lane pool in a backyard. They did a continuous three thousand. We kind of had a time goal to hit. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was somewhere around twenty eight minutes and fifteen seconds to do that three thousand. Katie would go and then Simone would go and it was just like a constant relay. Katie’s swims were a little bit longer and would come shorter and Simone’s started out at kind of two hundred and would go down to 50. There’s a point where I think Katie went a 400, Simone went a 200, then Katie had to go a 300, with just a 50 of rest time. She got like twenty five seconds rest. It was really fun and it was one of those things where we were like, this is going to be really hard, but we’re doing it together. They did it and it was really fun. We’re actually doing it this coming Saturday with some more people.

Champion’s Mojo: What has your training group been looking like with the pandemic?

Greg Meehan: It’s been mostly a normal schedule for the last probably coming up on eight weeks. It’s not a full schedule. Using Katie for example, she’s normally in the water ten times a week and she’s at nine. So the weekly volume is down a little bit. It has been really good work for what it’s been. We didn’t want to press too hard, too early, with anybody, whether their focus is the NCAA Championships, Olympics, or Olympic Trials. That’s still a long ways away. Pressing too hard, too early is going to make the fall really drag on. So I feel as though we’ve managed that pretty well and are trying to do some work but not feel completely overwhelmed. We go mostly long course. We’re swimming one per lane. We’ve got a group of nine and our long course pools are both ten lanes so it’s perfect. We can all be in one pool right now with everyone in their own lane. So it’s been pretty good and we’re going to get to a place here where we’re going to kind of ramp things up a little bit more. One of the interesting things about how the pandemic has really shut down our normal fall, is that our college kids aren’t going to compete until January at the earliest. That’s a practical rule. Our pros may not really be in a normal, neat setting until that time as well. So we just wanted to make sure that we’re not just grinding for four months without any sort of break. We’re trying to create these little opportunities every four weeks or so to do some things differently here at home in Stamford and put on some tech suits and whether it’s a racing effort or a set or just death by relay this coming Saturday, just different things that we can do to to switch it up and not feel that they’re just in a rut. That’s our concern.

Champion’s Mojo: What are your thoughts on what this Olympic team may look like come 2021?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Greg Meehan: I think the biggest difference is going to be the Olympic Trials themselves. If there’s no spectators, I think the event takes on a very different feel. I think that’ll actually be the biggest impact, not the part about whether people are prepared or not. The one thing that I am confident in this country is the ability of our coaches and our best athletes to be prepared, regardless of the challenges that they may face. Our coaches are creative. Our athletes are creative. Some have transformed their garage into a weight room or are swimming with surgical tubing in a small pool. It’s not going to look normal or feel normal, but I don’t think it’s going to get in the way of Team USA performing really well at the Trials to send our best possible team out to Tokyo next summer. I feel really good about that. I trust this group to be able to do that.

Champion’s Mojo: What characteristics help make a champion?

Greg Meehan: I think confidence. You build confidence through what you do every day. You’re just continuing to make your foundation stronger and stronger. That’s through work ethic. It’s through commitment to details. It’s through being open to change. Some of our very best athletes are the ones that are the most willing to make change, which can be scary. You do things well. You like how you do it. You know, we try to empower them to like, hey, change is good. You can make a change and, if they’re confident, there isn’t anything that they can’t do.

Champion’s Mojo: How have you changed?

Greg Meehan: I think I’ve changed a little bit just with the way the sport has evolved. I think, in the 23 years maybe that I’ve been coaching in college, that it’s definitely evolved. I used to be very driven by volume and just kind of work. I’ve softened that up. I think we’re working as hard, if not harder than ever, but it looks and feels a little bit different. I’m a little less rigid in how I evaluate our training cycles. I think I’ve become a much better communicator and I’ve become that because of the people that I’m surrounded by. I try to think before speaking. There’s little ways that I think I’ve evolved in but really stay true to who I am at my core, to do really good work and to give confidence to these young women or young men that I’ve coached over the years to to believe in themselves.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you think confidence is something that can be taught?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Greg Meehan: I do think that you can develop confidence over time. I do believe that’s a slow process, but it is just like things can chip away at your confidence. You can also continue to put things in your back pocket that are just going to build confidence, things that you can reference. We talk about that with our team. We do a really hard set or we go through a really hard cycle of things that we’re doing and we say, remember this when you’re behind the blocks. Think back to these moments and remember the effort that you put in. We are constantly evaluated by the clock. That can be harmful at times. Finding ways to build confidence without having to have your best practice of your life every day. Tracy and I joke all the time about Maya Dirado. She was the queen of remembering things almost better than they really were.

Champion’s Mojo: Did you ever think you would make it to where you are now in coaching?

Greg Meehan: I was not an elite athlete. I was a decent swimmer, but I was certainly not a great swimmer, nowhere near the level of these kids. I just loved the sport and I loved the coaches that I worked with. My club coach, Charlie Kennedy in Philadelphia and then Rich Coppola was my coach at Rider University. Steve Fletcher and Shannon Daly, who now coach at Rider. They all made my experience very rewarding. I wanted to kind of give back. I knew I always wanted to coach and teach, but I thought it would be more in the high school arena. But, when I got into my second or third year in college, I knew this is what I wanted to coach. This is the sort of world that I want to live in. Life is all about people and the people you interact with and how they impact your life in those particular moments. I was really fortunate to get a job at Princeton my second year of coaching. I had no business thinking that I could get to this spot, but I always felt like I wanted to win a national championship. Susan Teeter, who was my boss at Princeton where I was the assistant women’s coach for two years, was just a rockstar. She taught me a lot about being a professional and how to be a young man coaching women. A lot of the professional side of the sport. She was the manager of the Olympic team while I was there. She had her Olympic ring. I just set my goal that I wanted to get two rings in my life. One was an Olympic ring and one was a National Championship ring. I would say the hardest years were when I first became a head coach at Pacific University. Pacific is in Stockton, California. It was just myself and one other coach for the men’s and women’s team and and just trying to kind of rebuild. Those years were really hard, but I learned a ton from that experience. Then I went back to being an assistant because I felt like, all right, this is gonna be my pathway. I got to Berkeley and worked with Dave (Durden). It was an incredible experience. I probably would have stayed a lot longer had the opportunity here at Stanford not opened up. Even when I got to Stanford, it still probably seemed pretty far away. They hadn’t won a national championship since 1998. We were kind of coming off a little bit of a downturn in terms of Olympic performance. We just kind of put our head down and went to work and four years later had an incredible experience in Rio. I’ve just really continued that success both at the collegiate level but also at the international level. It’s been really fun. It’s about the people that you surround yourself with that commit to your life that make you better and you hope that you reciprocate that. It’s been a really fun journey. I’m super happy here. I really don’t anticipate coaching anywhere else other than this place. We love it here as a family. This is kind of the pinnacle of women’s college swimming and we’re going to work hard to hold onto this.

Champion’s Mojo: Did you choose to coach women or was that just how your career went?

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Photo Courtesy: SwimmingWorld.TV

Greg Meehan: The very first job I had was at William & Mary, and that was men’s and women’s. I was assistant coach. At the end of that year, I went to Princeton. But ultimately the relationship I build with these women is really meaningful. It’s a different deal when you’re dealing with men swimmers. I feel like I’ve found my niche.

Champion’s Mojo: Can you be specific about how it’s different?

Greg Meehan: I think the communication is different. I’m really mindful of what I say and how I say it and making sure that the message that’s received is the message that’s intended, because I think that’s going to be filtered and evaluated. Even more so with women than men. With girls, if I don’t say something the right way, it’s going to be negatively impactful, where with guys you can be a little more direct in the moment. I don’t beat around the bush, but I am thoughtful about what I’m saying. With guys it’s the message that is heard, where with girls it’s the anger. I’ve got to make sure how I say it is just on point.

Champion’s Mojo: How does coaching affect your family?

Greg Meehan: Both of my children are now teenagers. 15 and 13. It’s hard on them. I think it’s hard on my wife. The hardest part is the travel. I’m not perfect in this sense, but as best I can, I try not to bring too much home with me emotionally. I don’t spend a lot of time actually doing work when I get home. There are times when it’s difficult to kind of step away from the emotion of how much we put into our jobs. I’m so impressed with how they have allowed me to pursue this without the guilt of being away. I’m super appreciative. They’re amazing. They do travel a bit, which is helpful. They always go to the NCAA championships. They went to the Olympic Trials in 2016. They were gonna go this summer. They were gonna go to Tokyo. It remains to be seen what that will look like for them next summer, but it’s helpful to have some of that.

Champion’s Mojo: What was your biggest obstacle in life?

Greg Meehan: One of them was early on when I moved to UCLA, being away from family. That was hard, especially on a coach’s schedule. It’s difficult to find time to go back and visit. So we really embrace those opportunities when we have them, because family is big for us. I’m one of five. My wife is one of 11. So we’re from pretty big families and her family is from L.A. and then generally spread all over the place. Mine is still all out in Philadelphia. My dad is now in Florida. My mom got sick about seven years ago and passed away five years ago. Not being there all the time was hard. Those are the things that you have to just roll with. I would, you know, leave and fly east and be gone for three days from the team. That’s why I have such great coaches working with me who I can trust with the team.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you have a failure that has defined you?

Greg Meehan: Fortunately there aren’t any huge life moments, but definitely some in coaching. Just realizing that, hey, there’s some things that I could have done better here and here and here. We really do a good job of saying, OK, I’m going to self reflect at the end of each little cycle of our season and be self-critical and ask what I need to do better? I’m always feeling like I’m failing in that regard just in little ways. But that way we can help them make some changes an

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Photo Courtesy: Jeff Commingsyear’s Olympic Games,

d then really kind of do the full deal at the end of a year. We tend to meet with them pretty frequently so we’re constantly talking about things.

Champion’s Mojo: What routines or rituals do you personally practice that you think have made you successful?

Greg Meehan: I actually live on campus, so we’re very blessed. We’re at the corner end of campus and literally across the street is a Starbucks. So to start my day I walk over to Starbucks, I get my Starbucks and I walk back to the house. Well, I actually get Starbucks for my wife and I walk back to the house, drop her Starbucks off, and then I get in a golf cart. One of my favorite things to do is drive my golf cart to the pool for work. Maya DiRado bought me a golf cart as a thank you after the 2016 Olympic Games. It’s still probably the coolest gift ever.

Champion’s Mojo: Thank you for spending this time with us today! And best of luck in everything!

Greg Meehan: It was a pleasure to be with you. Thank you!

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Woke Stasi

    Champion’s Mojo asked some good questions. Nice interview!

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