Champion’s Mojo Podcast: Teri McKeever Offers Insights, Including Emphasizing Strengths

Champion’s Mojo Podcast: Teri McKeever Offers Insights, Including Emphasizing Strengths

Trailblazing swim coach Teri McKeever has earned an astonishing number of achievements as a head coach of the U.S. Olympic Team and collegiately at the University of California, Berkeley, including 11 years in a row of top three finishes at the NCAAs. She says that recognizing strengths and working hard to maximize them is a path to success. She also advises her swimmers to be creative in how they train and perform in order to reach their goals. Listen in as she shares these and other champion insights with Kelly Palace and Maria Parker on the highly successful Champion’s Mojo Podcast.

Below is an abridged Q&A, conducted by Palace and Parker, with McKeever. You can listen to the full podcast episode #79 at https://championsmojo.com or by clicking here.

Champion’s Mojo: Twenty years ago, do you think you could have ever imagined the career that you’ve had?

Teri McKeever: I don’t think 20 years ago it would even have been on my radar. I’ve never even thought about that before. It’s surreal sometimes for me to think about that question, the journey that my career has been. I’m incredibly blessed and fortunate to have had the experiences that I have had.

Champion’s Mojo: How did you get to where you are now, being the head head Olympic coach and so many other accomplishments?

Teri McKeever: I think you focus on the journey. I think being the head coach or winning the medal is a tangible thing you can look at that acknowledges and celebrates your journey. That journey has got bumps in the road and it’s got great highs and lows. The neat part is who you get to walk that journey with. Bob Bowman and I have been able to walk that journey together and I’m honored and humbled to hear I have inspired him as he’s inspired me, along with other coaches and athletes. I look at the amazing women I’ve had the opportunity to work with at Cal. I feel like I’ve learned something from them. I had the unbelievable opportunity to work with Jenny Thompson at several international meets and I learned so much from her. It’s about staying open to possibilities. I always tell the girls that they need to have a plan for their life. I think that’s normal and natural because it puts you in the direction you’d like to go. But you also can’t limit yourself to that plan because I had a plan and the reality has turned out better than the plan. I think that’s possible if you keep those doors open and you keep challenging yourself and take advantage of the opportunities that you find yourself in.

Champion’s Mojo: What was your plan?

Teri McKeever: Well, when I was in college, I was going to have an elementary teaching credential. I thought I would teach fifth grade. I have a secondary credential in math and science and I thought I probably could do some high school coach coaching. I’m the oldest of ten so I always envisioned having my own family. I would just coach high school and live happily ever after.

Champion’s Mojo: Swimming at USC, did that give you a taste for doing bigger things because of that experience?

Teri McKeever: Absolutely. I think the biggest athletic experience that influenced my coaching is that for most of my developmental years, my mom was my coach. I belonged to a team and maybe 20-40% of my practicing was with the team. Most of my other practicing was in the backyard with my mom, racing my brothers. It was very nontraditional and I had to have a lot of accountability to do things. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes you don’t want your mom to be your coach, you just want her to be your mom. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I think as an athlete, I grew up in an era when people were moving away from their families to train at certain clubs to get better as an athlete. I’m just really grateful that my mom said, “You’re not going to do that.” She didn’t want someone else to raise me, she wanted me to stay there. Thinking back, I’m so appreciative of that decision for the long term ramifications it’s had on my life and family.

Champion’s Mojo: What were some of the ramifications of that decision?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Teri McKeever: I think my relationship with my siblings and that family dynamic. Three of my siblings were born after I’d already gone to college. My youngest sister is about the same age as Natalie Coughlin. I probably have spent more hours with that team than I’ve spent with my sister Christy who’s 36 years old. I just think I would have missed out on a lot of things that I’m really proud of and that shaped how I see the world and how I see coaching. I see athletics as a place to set a goal and achieve it, but I also see it as character building and learning about our strengths and our weaknesses and how to work with the team and how to get knocked down and get back up. All these things I think are important because you’re going to get knocked down in your life. If we can learn to deal with things like that at a young age, when the stakes aren’t as high, when we get older, and the stakes get higher, we know that we can walk through that journey and come out on the other side.

Champion’s Mojo: You grew up swimming for your mom at a time when women in coaching was very rare. Did you realize that it was unusual and did that have an impact on your confidence and desire to coach?

Teri McKeever: I don’t think at that time I really realized it was unusual. It wasn’t different because of male/female, it was different because it was my mom. That’s what I can remember being unusual. I think when I had the opportunity to go to USC I didn’t get much better. It made me look at my nontraditional background and wonder why that was. I had had that success, but going to that more traditional program didn’t really result in faster swimming. I think that was my driving force for wanting to go into coaching. At a young age I was very shy and didn’t want to seek attention, but I wanted to be noticed in the pool. It gave me a sense of confidence. That’s part of why I’m so passionate about athletics, because I can see individuals blossom into the people they were meant to become.

Champion’s Mojo: How would you describe the culture you create at Cal?

Teri McKeever: I shy away from comparisons because I always feel like nobody really knows the culture of a program unless they’re always there. You can get a glimpse by watching a meet or whatever, but I think the real culture happens when no one is watching. I find it interesting, and I’ve done it on purpose a couple of times, to see what happens when I’m late to practice. Are they going to sit there and wait? Is someone going to take charge? To me it’s very fascinating group behavior to see what happens. I think that the way I would describe the culture is there’s a huge amount of accountability. Accountability to yourself. Accountability to your teammates. Accountability to the women before you and the women coming after you and the institution. There’s definitely a level of excellence. I don’t mean excellence in winning, I mean personal excellence in that you’re going to bring your best self and you’re going to figure out what that is. How does my best self elevate the woman next to me? Of all the amazing Olympians I’ve had the opportunity to work with, I can only think of two or three that could have been there without those other women bringing out the best in them. Nobody but that Olympian will ever know their name and I think that’s very important. I think there’s a high level of accountability. I know as a young coach I really worried about things like having the perfect team meeting. Having the perfect message. When the perfect time to say it was. What I’ve really evolved into is that there is no perfect time to say it. There’s no perfect message. I’m going to mess something up. I’m going to say something stupid. People are going to misinterpret something, but the people on my team and the people I’m working with know that the intent behind my comment is to help them be their best. I am clear on what our team goals are, but I also think you have to be clear on individual athletes goals. My job is to hold them to that. If there’s consistent behavior that is contrary to that goal I’m going to ask them about it and check in with them. Then, if X, Y, Z needs to change or isn’t in line with the goals, we have to adjust those goals. You don’t get to say I want to be an Olympian and then miss practice three times a week. Your behavior needs to match what you say you’re going to do and we’re going to hold you to that standard. You can’t have it both ways. I don’t always say it in a way that’s warm and fuzzy. I’ll be the first one to admit that. But hopefully people know it’s coming from a place of wanting to do everything for you. If you’re going to tell me that’s what your goal is, then I’m all in on that goal. I have to be honest and upfront.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Champion’s Mojo: What qualities make you such an effective coach?

Teri McKeever: I’m not always effective. I think it’s because I don’t believe there’s one way to skin a cat, so to speak. I think it’s very individual. I got to coach Natalie Coughlin who was an amazing underwater swimmer. About two years later, I coached Helen Silver who won the 200 back at NCAAs but wasn’t very good underwater. Now, if I had said, “Well, Helen, this is how Natalie did it so you need to do this,” she probably never would have been her best. Does that make sense? I feel like that’s what happened to me in my swimming career, that, when I got in a team environment, we were all being told to swim the same way. Yes, you need to work on your weaknesses to make them better, but what you really need to do is figure out what you do well and exploit the heck out of it. If this is what I am better at than anybody else I’m going to put just as much time into elevating my strengths as I am working on my shortcomings. I think that athletically that’s your job. We all have strengths that we’re confident in and we feel we do a really nice job in and then things that that we want to keep improving on. I think sometimes coaches focus on what’s not working instead of exploiting what is. I think that is an important part of making sure a variety of athletes and individuals can be successful.

Champion’s Mojo: What other characteristics do you use that have made you successful?

Teri McKeever: I hope people think I’m creative and innovative and think outside of the box. I’m willing to take a chance and I’m willing to say that was great and I’m willing to say, oh, that was stupid. I think I am pretty hard working and focused on results. I want to say success, which sounds like I mean medals, but I don’t. I think success can be defined in so many different ways. I’m committed to learning and growing and challenging myself and the people around me. I’m one of the best compliments my athletes gave me was that she learned how to fail quickly and move on. I think that is something I’ve personally had to work on. I feel like if I can help people recognize that a failure or a setback is an opportunity, not something to shy away from, and help that make an adjustment, then I’ve done well.

Champion’s Mojo: So you’re saying that you have to fail?

Teri McKeever: I will say I was afraid to fail. I was terrified of failing and thought that if I failed, I was letting myself down and letting down the people I cared about. It took a lot of work to realize, even though I failed, I’m proud of the results of that failure. Whether it be a change of mindset, change in how I look at myself, or change in how I look at a situation, I feel like that is really important for me. I don’t think Teri McKeever 20 years ago would be able to successfully walk thorough what we’re going through right now because I would have been so distracted with not being able to predict and control things. It doesn’t distract me anymore because I feel like I can go with the flow and that whatever is going to happen, I have enough confidence to know that I’m going to make the most of it. Are we walking into a year that we have no idea what it’s going to look like? Yeah. It’s going to require new skills from every leader and from every champion. The leaders and the champions that can be adaptable, who can make decisions and pivot, are going to be the ones that are going to come out on the other end of this in a healthier, more positive light.

Champion’s Mojo: What were your initial emotions and feelings when NCAAs and Olympic Trials were canceled?

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Teri McKeever: We first started hearing about it while we were in Seattle for PAC-12’s. A lot of things started happening and I think we were kind of lighthearted about it. I remember getting a text saying they had just canceled the NBA season and that’s when I realized we were screwed. I think Thursday, the 12th of March, I was in the weight room with some of the swimmers and I was telling them that I didn’t know what was going to happen. Everybody was guessing what’s going to go on. I said I don’t know. I told them I think it’s fair to say there won’t be people in the stands. We were ok with that. We could use that to our advantage. I don’t normally carry my phone at practice, but I had it with me and just then I got a text from our sports supervisor. She said that NCAAs were canceled. I went to talk to her and when I came back I didn’t say anything, they could just tell by the way I was looking. I remember saying I was sorry, and that I didn’t really know what to say at that moment. I said I want so badly to be able to say something to make you feel better but I don’t know what to say. I asked them what they wanted to do, if they wanted to stay there or go down to the pool. I think it’d be great if we spent a few minutes together because I’m a big proponent of, when receiving news like that, just sitting with it. We were able to keep our Olympic qualifiers training at first, but pretty soon they shut everything down. The city of Berkeley is still not opening up pools. The girls are better off at home than they would be here. I’ve been trying to do a lot of things to connect the group. We have twice a week meetings and do a lot of things where the girls are running the meetings. We had a virtual banquet. We had people that it was like 3:00 in the morning in Sydney. So they’re in their bed. And then it was like 7:30 at night in England. And so her and her family were out by the fire pit. We did some things similar, but a little bit different. This time I had them, if they won an award, give an acceptance speech. I really had never had that before. It was just the emotion and the heartfelt words that were shared that helped make it a very intimate event. I just felt it was really important for this team to have this on the same day and time that it was supposed to be. I wanted to provide some sort of closure. We’ve been trying to kind of move forward, not knowing what moving looks like. We asked the captains and they came back to us and said that it was kind of depressing that I don’t have any news for them. It’s depressing. I realized that the charge for me is being able to be at the pool and be around my team. I told the captains that, even though I can’t meet them, I needed to be seeing their faces on my screen. The next meeting they ran without the coaches. I wanted them to understand why I want to keep meeting virtually. We have what we call family pods, where each newcomer has a couple of returning members in their group. Every Thursday we have a meeting where a different family pod runs the meeting and does things to help us connect and learn about each other. Things we don’t have as much time to do if we’re swimming as normal. As weird as it is, we’re getting some good foundation work done that we normally wouldn’t do.

Champion’s Mojo: What commonalities do champions share?

Teri McKeever: I think a lot of them are driven. I think a lot of them hold each other and hold themselves to a standard of excellence. I think they’re also willing to take risks and challenge themselves. I think they’re constantly learning and looking for efficiency. I think they’re continual learners and I think they have a good sense of self. Most of them are pretty comfortable in their own skin.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you think those things are taught or are they intrinsic?

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Photo Courtesy: Griffin Scott

Teri McKeever: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think that really, really exceptional skills are from God or from your upbringing. I think I can help move someone along a confidence spectrum or help them be more willing to learn or take chances. I think we all have the ability to help facilitate people moving along that spectrum. So, whether it;s intrinsic or a byproduct of their nature and nurture, I think a lot of it comes from your formative years. Particularly as a young person we’re all formed by our families and where we grew up, those types of things. I told you I was the oldest of 10, you know. And during this time we’ve been doing Sunday Zoom calls. Just a couple weeks ago we were talking about how one of my sisters grew up in the same environment, but her interpretation of it is really different than most of us. That’s fascinating to me and one of the best parts of being a college coach. I love the sport of swimming for its individual nature. I love that fact as an athlete and, if I worked hard, I had control over my destiny. I don’t need someone to pass me the ball to score, I can control that. On the college level, I need my teammates to be on that same level of commitment. You don’t win a national championship with one good swimmer. I’m convinced that where you win a national championship isn’t in your elite level. It’s the level right below that level. If you can get those swimmers to step up to your champion’s level, that’s when you win as a team. That’s when you reach your potential as a team. I think that’s the neat part. I like the idea that there’s a start and a stop every year. I like that we start in August and we kind of stop in March and then you have a summer and then like now we’re starting again and there’s new people. I really enjoy, for the most part, being someone’s last coach. I enjoy connecting the lessons of sport to the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years. That’s what is really important to me.

Champion’s Mojo: What is the proudest moment of your career?

Teri McKeever: I did an interview about three weeks ago and they asked me that and I said probably like winning a national team title, being on the Olympic staff and then definitely being the head coach. We were working on picking captains and we had a meeting where I had 10 women speak on why they wanted to be a captain on the team. That’s my proudest moment, that there’s 10 women that feel confident enough in their own skills to tell their peers that they’re willing to lead and this is what they’ll do. To me, that’s pretty awesome. I also love seeing someone achieve something they didn’t think they could do. And, as far as actual statistics, I think I’m proud of the national titles. I’m really proud of having been top-3 nationally the past 11 years. Hopefully this year would have been 12. To me, 11 years, means that it’s not about just one person or recruiting class, it’s a program and a culture. It’s a system that has allowed a number of women to come in and be their collective best. If I had to pick one, that’s what it would be.

Champion’s Mojo: We often hear from male head coaches that the biggest problem with their women’s team is lacking confidence. It doesn’t seem like you have that issue.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Teri McKeever: Confidence has a lot of different looks. Confidence to me is looking in the mirror and loving that person for all her strengths and weaknesses and accepting her and having empathy and compassion. That’s what confidence is. It doesn’t always have to be perfect. I think that so many women are paralyzed by getting it right and worrying that it might be wrong. I don’t think life is just black and white. I think life is gray. Learning to just embrace grey, that’s what confidence is. Knowing that you can manage that. I think you have to manage it in lots of different areas in your life to know that you can get out. It’s why I think some of them are struggling so much. People don’t want parenting advice from someone who doesn’t have their own children, but in coaching I see the environment that young people are raised in. It doesn’t allow for them to make a mistake. If you don’t make a mistake or someone comes and swoops in when you make a mistake, how do you get confidence that you can manage when things don’t go well? If we don’t let them learn how to fix it themselves they’ll never be okay with being uncomfortable. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. You don’t die from being uncomfortable. It’s like part of living is being uncomfortable and it makes when things are going well that much better. I think that might be something that hopefully people are experiencing now and are gaining some confidence and strength from this unusual time.

Champion’s Mojo: Teri, we really appreciate you spending this time with us today. Thank you!

Teri McKeever: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me on the show.

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