Eleven-Year YMCA Volunteer Kevin Covington on Coaching Adolescents: The Story of One Small Town Team

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Photo Courtesy: Kara Sekenski

By Taylor Covington, Swimming World College Intern.

Every team is, in itself, its own world. In many ways, they are all very much the same.

Across the nation, little kids push eagerly against the heavy tin doors leading to their pool decks, the Nemo fins on their caps quivering with excitement for another shark-and-minnow practice. Some shyly bury their noses in cotton towels with hems that brush the wet concrete, their eyes following the length of the lane that seems to extend for miles. By some strange element of chance – a mother’s anxious desire for her children’s water safety or a single dad’s way of attaining a two-hour window to buy groceries – these kids find themselves in the sport of swimming.

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Photo Courtesy: Kara Sekenski

From there, many of them grow up poolside, evolving from their desperate attempts to get seventh place (no lower, no higher) for the pink ribbon to declining invitations to football games for fear of ruining the taper magic. Be it under a cloudless sky or noisy tin roof, every pool is abuzz with its own cycle of life, in which a coach is most intimately privy. Kevin Covington, an eleven-year volunteer YMCA coach from South Carolina, knows the vicious, brilliant cycle all too well.

“I started coaching about a year after my daughter started swimming. It was rumored that her first coach was planning to leave and the program would be in jeopardy, so I figured I should step up at least until someone else could come in. I had absolutely no idea what I was about to undertake.”

Covington, who graduated from East Carolina University in ’83, was a Division I tennis player and four-year letter winner with no prior experience in swimming. He says:

I knew a lot about sports, and I knew what it took to compete at a high level, but I had no idea about the tangible and intangible complexities of this particular sport. My daughter and I took to research throughout her career. We looked up workouts and adjusted them to fit our 75-minute time allotment, and we watched videos to try and learn the proper technique. I did everything I could to give the kids the most quality training I was capable of giving them while still juggling a full-time job. There were moments I felt very insecure in whether or not I was the right person for this job, if I was the right person to coach my daughter and every kid who crossed that threshold. It wasn’t until later that I understood that there’s so much more to coaching than knowing all of the right drills.

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Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

Covington’s team is one of thousands across the United States similarly humming with the patter of small wet feet on the cement and giggles across the lanes, yet Covington perceives a rawer common thread that connects the pool decks across the globe:

Swimmers largely grow up in the sport, and in many ways, that’s incredible. It’s amazing to watch kids mature, navigate through life, and do things for the first time, but I’m also a believer in the sentiment that sports mimic life. Life, as we all know, is a wonderful gift that can also be very, very painful. When you’re coaching young kids and adolescents, that’s also a ‘first’ you have to watch them learn.

That pain was not exempt from the community pool deck of Covington’s YMCA team.

In the spring of 2011, we had a swimmer take his own life. It was the hardest thing we have ever dealt with together as a team. It’s so difficult, because there are times you watch kids succeed academically, athletically, and socially and then painfully watch others struggle quite seriously with real-life serious issues, and sometimes the two occur together and are indistinguishable or unapparent to you as a coach.

Covington debated calling off the summer swim season that had just commenced a few weeks before.

After the shock of it all, I remember looking at my daughter and seeing someone I didn’t quite recognize. That’s when I realized that I was going to face a room full of kids who were going to look at me the in same way, the happy-go-lucky kids who were now dealing with something very real and very difficult. In that moment, they needed me. They needed their families and each other – the whole community and foundation that we had built together – and it had nothing to do with how fast we were or how skilled.

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Photo Courtesy: Cathleen Pruden

After talking with his team and concluding with a prayer, Covington decided to continue with the season, where the new emphasis would be on togetherness, resilience and understanding.

When you coach a swimming team, you think you signed up just to coach, but it becomes much more than that. You go through some of the greatest highs and lowest of lows with the swimmers and their families. This is an extreme, hard example, but it’s also something that has formed my experience in athletics and as a coach, and it’s an important story that reminds me every day of the humanity of my athletes.

Despite his daughter’s graduation, Covington continues to coach the YMCA and local high school teams in his community. In his eleventh year volunteering for the YMCA, Covington says he is never bored with the diversity that each new wave of swimmers brings, and in fact, it’s their commonalities that are most important to him.

Every year, every age of childhood is a formative one. It’s important when you’re coaching adolescents in any sport to be patient and to take the time to understand them. There are so many things that we, as adults, may find superfluous and silly, but sometimes those minor things are kids’ entire worlds at that moment. You have to change your world lens and remember what it was like to be that age. Contrary to popular belief, being a kid really isn’t all that easy, and sometimes that’s lost on us.

When asked about what advice he may have for up-and-coming coaches who find themselves juggling difficult and awkward age groups, Covington’s response was succinct:

I’m no expert in swimming. I’ve learned a lot over the years, but I’m nowhere near a swim guru. What I do know, though, is that sports have an incredible way of making kids realize their potential. I’m not talking about realizing their natural talents or athleticism, but the ways in which they can master and do things that are hard. Have your kids do the things that scare them, and let them know that they’re never backed into a corner, that they can tackle any situation in sports or in life. Most importantly, pay attention to your swimmers. Be a coach, but create a comfortable enough environment that allows you to get to know your athletes. There are kids who will leave your pool deck and will never tell you what an impact this sport made on them, but those lessons will carry them through life in ways you will never know. And sometimes, every so often, those emails, phone calls, and texts pop up from the most unexpected people. After all the stop-watches, whistles, and time-cuts fade into the background, that will be why I coached. Make that the reason your kids swim for you.

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

6 comments

  1. avatar
    Kevin Lancaster

    These are very real issues, and situations facing coaches. Coaching involves so many different aspects and twists , not seen by those on the outside. Well written.

  2. avatar
    Skbeam

    Touching article. So thankful for people like, Mr. Covington.

  3. avatar
    Victoria Brady

    Wonderfully written and such a meaningful message. Thank you for sharing!

  4. avatar
    Daniel Fostet

    My name is Coach Foster, I coach with Mr. Covington. That means I have the best gig in the world, to be a 42 year old man and be reminded of what greatness looks like up close and personal. Greatness having nothing to do with stats and championships, but the character and the measure of a man heart …Kevin Covington is the REAL MVP…Brilliant article!

  5. avatar
    BRENDA CASHION

    A WONDERFUL ARTICLE ABOUT COACH COVINGTON.HE HAS HAD A GOOD INFLUENCE ON A LOT OF SWIMMERS.THANK GOD FOR MEN AND WOMEN LIKE YOU. BRENDA CASHION

  6. avatar
    Lisa Amedeo

    Very enjoyable article. Kevin Covington definitely takes the right approach as a Coach of Young People. Bravo!