Dealing With Disappointment (Part II): Ways Coaches Can Provide Their Athletes With Support

mitch-dalton-texas

Dealing With Disappointment (Part II): Ways Coaches Can Provide Their Athletes With Support

Previously, Swimming World took a macro look at coach-and-swimmer reaction to disappointing performances. In this installment from the July issue of Swimming World Magazine, we explore how some of the country’s most respected coaches handle that experience.

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Logan Redondo, Mission Viejo Nadadores co-head coach has a been-there-done-that résumé. A University of Minnesota kinesiology graduate with an emphasis in psychology, Redondo was a Big Ten and two-time Olympic Trials swimmer who worked with Mark Schubert and Bill Rose.

“A prelude to any talk about fears, failures and disappointments requires consistent face time with each athlete. Having an environment of trust and a place where conversations can be held in a safe and honest place is paramount,” says Redondo.

“My primary role as a coach is to provide athletes with the tools to better navigate life. In many cases, swimming setbacks help create the opportunity to do that. To help put a positive spin on a disappointment, we as coaches have to create a safe environment and culture where failure can be welcomed. Offering tough workouts to the point of failure without consequence is something we do on a regular basis to help understand that failure is part of the process,” Redondo says.

ON WISCONSIN

On the surface, Brent Boock’s Elmbrook Swim Club hasn’t encountered many setbacks recently. Witness the establishment of 10 senior girls SCY team records since March 2021. This year, his females won NCSA Juniors by 322.5 points (second in 2021), and three (Campbell Stoll, Lucy Thomas, Maggie Wanezek) finished in first, third and seventh in the NCSA Spring Invite high-point standings. Stoll and Wanezek are currently USA Swimming National Junior Team members and are a part of four 15-18 NAG medley relay records.

Not all Boock’s swimmers win every event, so he arms them with coping strategies. “We talk constantly from a young age on how to work a meet. We teach them that coaches, teammates, parents and even competitors support them for the people they are—not just for a place, time or performance in a meet. That said, having a healthy separation between sense of self and performance helps swimmers—and the coach—maintain perspective. A positive performance does not make you a good person, nor does a bad one make you a bad person,” he says. “Great or bad practice? Take what you can and move on to the next session. And…leave it in the pool when you leave.

“Athletes need to know that you are invested in them and that they are not alone. Each athlete/coach relationship is its own individual ‘team.’ I’m with them in the highs, the lows, the necessary soul searching and figuring the path forward.

“Racing is fun! That means entering a race with the hope that your competitors are the best they can be. It’s not always about winning or even a best time. It’s about the opportunity—to be your best and help your competitors be their best. That’s the fun! Not every race will be one for the ages, but if you enjoy each one, the great ones will come, “says Boock.

AT THE MEET

Michael Brooks is one of the country’s most respected age group coaches. He’s coached beginners, NJT swimmers, national team members and an Olympian. His seminal book, Developing Swimmers, belongs in every coaches’ library. He has served as a coach on numerous USA international teams and presently coaches “in poor French,” he says, at Neptune Natation in Montreal.

“After a subpar swim, the goal becomes to ensure the next one is better. Is it a short-term tweak (i.e., tactic, breathing pattern, etc.) that can be fixed by tonight’s final? Or is it a longer-term problem that probably results from not having done something in practice? And if so, that’s my fault. Or…has the swimmer ignored something I wanted them to do?

“Most of the time my suggestions are tactical, technical or even psychological. The longer-term stuff that can’t be resolved in the moment is probably best not brought up at all. I don’t want the swimmer thinking, ‘I haven’t been training well…therefore, the next races are going to be bad for the same reason.’ If my swimmer is really emotional, I postpone any discussion and send them to the warm-down pool. When they are calm, we can talk.

“Another issue,” he says, “is distinguishing between an everyday disappointment—i.e., second vs. first, slower than wanted, etc.—and an existential disappointment—i.e., third at Olympic Trials, which will haunt you for the next 80 years. In the latter one, as a coach, you need to understand the level of disappointment and help the swimmer judge by the body of work rather than just one single race. For me, it’s about getting better.

“Most performances are less than perfect. If the only thing that will pass muster is an Olympic gold medal or world record, there will always be a level of imperfection and disappointment. The secret is to live with and be motivated by that,” says Brooks.

“And knowing your swimmer is key. I can be a lot harder on some swimmers. Others I handle with kid gloves. With gender, it’s more individual. Some guys are not as strong; some girls are tough as nails. Older swimmers are more predictable because you are familiar with their patterns. Younger ones may have different issues with different races. With youngsters, you can suggest something and then send them to the warm-down pool. Then before the next race, you can address the problem they didn’t know they had.

“You can almost always find something good about a race. If you’ve talked about meet management—i.e., what/when to eat, etc.—tactics, visualization and clearly worked on that in practice, you’ve solved a lot of problems before you’ve even gotten to the meet. That comfort helps swimmers be more self-reliant. It also enables the more sophisticated ones to give me a pretty good answer to my competition-related questions. In those cases I’ll say, ‘That sounds like what I saw, too; let’s go out a little quicker this evening.’

“Asking ‘How was it?’ is important because sometimes my expectations are much higher than the swimmer’s. Occasionally, without athlete input, I have jumped on someone who’s been really happy with their swim, and then I’ve ruined any goodwill I had with them for the rest of the meet. I’ve gotten much better at not being so foolish!”

THE TEXAS TAKE

This past season, Lady Longhorn coaches noticed tension at early season meets. They found a solution to swimmer apprehension through a common language, a three-field diagram and a mantra they called, “Let Her Rip.”

Let her rip:

• Having fun
• Swimming free
•Swimming for something

“As coaches, we talked about holding on to the excitement, letting go of expectations and finding places to which the athletes could return whether they swam well or not. The approach resonated,” says assistant coach Mitch Dalton.

“Taking advantage of the physiological and psychological space afforded by warm-down swims, we asked questions of swimmers and then listened.

• What went on out there?
• That didn’t look like you, did it?
• What was going on in your mind?

“We found that asking questions after warm-down, when emotions were less raw, gave us better information. A disappointing swim is one thing. Defining success as the best you’ve ever been, is a pretty narrow lane to be in,” he says.

The coaches also developed acronyms to help reframe swimmer response to in-season swims.

“‘FUSE’ was Fastest Unsuited Swim Ever. ‘BOSS’ was Best of Season Swim. It helped us move forward so results weren’t viewed as best time or bust,” says Dalton. “You always need to be building toward something. That’s the journey.”

For the Texas women, that “something” was a season-ending NCAA second-place finish—the team’s best since their last title in 1991.

For more on coach response (Eddie Reese, Gregg Troy, Jack Bauerle, Bill Schalz et al.) to disappointing swims, see Michael J. Stott’s previous Swimming World articles, “Poor Performance…The Next Step” (February 2020) and “So Near, Yet So Far”(March 2009).

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” is in its second printing, and is available from store.Bookbaby.com, Amazon, B&N and book distributors worldwide.

 

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