Getting with the Program: Motivation Revisited

By Michael J. Stott

RICHMOND, Virginia, August 13. EARLY in Chariots of Fire, future Olympian Eric Liddell tells his audience that he has no formula for winning a race. “Everyone runs in . . . his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within,” he says.

“Unless mom and/or dad are forcing them every swimmer can be motivated to swim better or faster,” says Mark Kutz, senior coach at NOVA of Virginia Aquatics. “Our job is to help each swimmer be as good as he wants to be. That means figuring out swimmer motivation and helping them reach their goal. Not everyone wants to make the Olympic Team,” he says.

“If we can find out why they are swimming, we can make them believe they can do it. A lot of swimmers appear to not care because they lack confidence or a belief in themselves. Swimmers must know that you are on the same page. If you try to make them into something they do not want to be, you will lose them. As long as you push them at the level they want to be pushed, they will improve. Challenge swimmers with tough, realistic goals and help them reach them. And try and have fun whenever possible,” urges Kutz.

For starters “Communication between coach and athlete is extremely important, both for the athlete to let the coach know what is going on and for the coach to actually listen,” says two-time Olympian Margaret Hoelzer.

For Heather Maher, head age group coach at Lakeside Aquatic Club in Flower Mound, Texas, that communication starts with early goal setting meetings with child and then parents. “That lets me gauge where they are,” she says. “I separate those in it for just fitness and fun from the more serious athletes and later revisit goals if it appears the athlete is not getting what he/she wants.”

For youngsters who wonder why they are in swimming at all Maher asks for a parent/child/coach meeting. “You don't want a kid to hate the sport, especially if they are 9 or 10 because they might want come back later and/or swim high school. If they are 8 or 9 I tell them they've 'got a long way to go, so let's give it a season. Let's work on your stroke; let's start having fun.' I tell them what they have to do and then coach them to their desired level. For older kids goal meetings are especially important. And if they've really lost their desire and initiate the conversation I may agree that the best solution is to enjoy another activity, '” she says.

Motivations change as swimmers grow physically and emotionally notes Jeff Conwell, head coach at Canyons Aquatics Club in Santa Clarita, Calif. “When you're dealing with so many different personalities and maturity levels you really have to look at each individual situation before deciding how to handle an unmotivated swimmer. There is no text book way.

“Coaches of beginner level groups have the toughest job. They aren't that familiar yet with the athletes and the motivation range can be very wide. That's where daily selling the sport and the team to new swimmers and parents is important,” he says. “Use that to motivate them to keep swimming and move up to the next level.”

As passion for the sport, personalities and coach-athlete relationships develop results begin to matter more. “With all of the technology available, every swimmer knows every other swimmer's best time and splits,” says Conwell. “I'm all for healthy competition, but when you're judging success based on how you do in relation to someone else, it's a potential disaster because you have no control over others. Coaches need to drive home that point from the beginning.

“It's important for coaches and parents to project an even keel attitude at meets. I find the swimmers that often go through the emotional ups and downs at meets are the ones that have trouble with motivation later on,” says Conwell. “Coaches can do a lot to educate swimmers, but parents have the most influence in teaching swimmers how to act after any race.”

Like many Maher has had exceptionally fast youngsters (“early maturers”) who returned to the competitive pack. In those cases she stresses goal setting, parent awareness and constant communication. “I explain that even when their offspring were really fast we purposely kept them on a logical progression. The process is all about communication, being positive with the swimmer and maybe finding something else to work on,” she says.

With older athletes Conwell addresses the jump from Sectional to Junior Nationals. As Junior National time standards have become much faster Sectional time standards have not. “I use college swimming to fill the gap encouraging swimmers to look at NCAA and conference results to see how fast they need to be to score or to be top 8. But it's a hard sell because getting to Junior Nationals or Nationals is still the ultimate goal for the level I coach,” he says.

“Another big challenge with older swimmers is dealing with plateaus and resulting motivation. Are they not going fast because they are not motivated to train hard or have they been working hard but not seeing the results? That feeling can lead to 'why try if I'm not going to get better.' I find the more experienced and educated swimmers are, the more they understand the process. Doesn't mean they like it, but they want to fight through it,” says Conwell.

Two Olympians, Margaret Hoelzer and Anthony Ervin, twice encountered extended plateaus in their careers. Hoelzer had four and three and one-half year plateaus yet she never lost her passion for swimming all together.

“Ultimately getting off both plateaus required me to put the 'fun' back into swimming,” says Hoelzer. “I had to figure out what I liked about swimming and why I was doing it in the first place. Coaches and teammates played a huge role in remotivating me,” she says. “Teammates, because they are your friends, can give you a reason to look forward to practice as well as someone with whom to commiserate. Sometimes just knowing you aren't alone makes it more bearable. I'm also a big advocate for cheering in practice and encouraging those around you. Taking the time to boost someone else will always come back to you when you need it,” she says.

The long hiatus after shining on the collegiate, world and Olympic stages is over for Ervin having successfully navigated his comeback en route to a championship heat swim in the men's 50-meter free at the 2012 London Olympics. Even in his Age Group days he remembers times of demotivation or just wanting to do something non-swimming. “At each of these stages it took time and some form of growth of self and my understanding/purpose of the sport before performance took on an edge again,” he says.

For him high school swimming in combination with puberty was a growth stage. Its dual meet format, team orientation and accompanying sociological effects were a motivating dynamic that he re-experienced in college. “We sweat together, we eat together, win together, we lose together we party together. I couldn't do what I'm doing without my team, and I'm eternally grateful to California and all the coaches for allowing me to be a part of the team as a post grad,” he says.

Another stage (the long layoff) came once Ervin finished college swimming. He did what he could with his team, then intentionally rejected turning professional while he had eligibility. “I needed to grow as a person a whole lot before I was able to make my return to the sport at 30. I couldn't be tempted or goaded back into swimming at this point. It had to be a choice made of free will and growth out of my experience into adulthood which includes an ability to support myself,” says Ervin.

“Coaches and teammates are key when the motivation is there,” he says. “Even when I hear a few words about my swimming in workout, whether it's to say something looks good or not so good, or any number of non-moralizing critiques, it's motivating and I try to take those words and grow with them.” When apathy reigns the only thing coaches and teammates can do is be supportive, wherever that support takes them observes Ervin.

Bottom line? “Motivation isn't something you have every single day,” says Hoelzer. The whole process is about just loving what you are doing and getting a kick out of racing and having fun.”