The Ubiquitous Team Mom: Putting Food on a Water Polo Team’s Table

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UCLA moms take in a meal after a job well-done; getting their boys ready for the big game. Photo Courtesy: D. Hilinski

By Steven Munatones, Swimming World Special Contributor

Editor’s Note: Steven Munatones is the founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association and the Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

After each college water polo game and after morning workouts at some high schools, Team Moms go in overdrive.

A table is set up on the pool deck or just outside the pool with sandwiches, burritos, fruits, bagels, chocolate milk and a variety of other homemade treats for the players to eat and replenish themselves.

The healthy meals just don’t magically appear; it takes a lot of coordination, logistics, planning, ordering, shopping and cooking to get these post-game and post-workout meals done.

Barb Asplund of UC San Diego and Deb Hilinski of UCLA are just two of the ubiquitous Team Moms who are organizational masters at providing poolside smörgasbords for the players.

Both women get their jobs done despite living far from the universities where their children go to school: Kevin at UCSD and Austin and Chris at UCLA. They both came into the collegiate water polo world with plenty of experience.

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Kevin and Barb Asplund. Photo Courtesy: B. Asplund

Asplund, a physical therapist and former competitive swimmer, lives in San Jose, California. She was Team Mom for her son’s age group water polo, swimming, and baseball teams at Leland High School, San Jose Almaden Water Polo Club and Stanford Water Polo Club.

Living in Coronado, California, Hilinski is a registered nurse and was the Team Mom for her sons’ teams at Cathedral Catholic High School and Del Mar Water Polo Club.

Highly praised by their fellow parents and the coaching staff, during the NCAA tournament earlier this month Asplund and Hilinski told Swimming World how exactly they get things done.

– How would you define: “Team Mom”?

Barb Asplund: To me, the Team Mom is the coach’s right hand. Every team dynamic is different, but over the years, I have learned that the more you can do for the coach—other than the actual coaching—the more successful you are setting up the team to be.

A team mom should be the one that takes care of all of the little things to keep things running smoothly. A team mom works constantly behind the scenes to keep things organized and to provide non-coaching things that make being a part of the team a great experience for the athletes and parents alike.

Deb Hilinkski: I think Team Mom means whatever the head coach defines it to be. At UCLA, our coach [Adam Wright] appreciated help arranging and supplementing the nutritional needs of the players. I arranged for the team to have a meal after every game. I also made reservations for the team to eat at restaurants during away games. It was also important to our coach that the parents have fun. Therefore, I was happy to arrange pregame (tailgating) festivities.

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Adam Wright and his Bruins take the plunge after winning the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

A Team Mom can relieve a coaching staff of certain tasks so they can dedicate their efforts and time keeping our boys as competitive in the pool as possible.

– After every game—home and away—you somehow have either a breakfast, lunch or dinner for the entire team, rain or shine. What goes behind that preparation?

Asplund: As soon as the season schedule comes out each year, I map out the locations in several ways. I always began pre-season by asking for family volunteers to be responsible for a meal that worked for them. Then I assess the remaining ones and brainstorm how to provide a meal in those locations. I research food sources near each competition venue we have for the season so I could guide a reluctant parent. I also have information on tables, coolers, delivery options, timing for food pickup, etc.

I want their experience to be positive, but my ultimate goal is always to assist the team and provide food that made their experience as positive as possible. The team works hard and often has long hours while traveling, competing, training, and studying. Making sure they don’t have to work even harder to get a good meal after a game seemed to me like an essential part of a successful program and a positive experience.

The research took time at different points but that work in advance always made things run smoothly on game day.

Hilinkski: I ask every parent to volunteer to pick a game to prepare a meal for. At UCLA, we call these “Grab and Go’s.” They are individually packaged so each player can easily walk by, grab a meal and get to the team bus.

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Preparation is key. Photo Courtesy: B. Asplund

These meals include a healthy entree, fruit, protein bar, chocolate milk, water and Gatorade. I give the parents recommendations from the UCLA team nutritionist. A couple times a year, we prepare a banquet style meal after a home game and invite the parents to join the team. These are my favorite meals. It gives us a rare chance to enjoy our sons and each other in a more relaxed environment.

– What have been some difficult or unanticipated experiences when preparing for a post-game meal during your years as the Team Mom?

Asplund: The frustrations really centered on lack of information. I have always been a believer that information is power. If you know what is happening, you can be prepared and ultimately be more successful.

Kevin’s first year at UCSD, I did not start out as Team Mom at all. However, I frequently volunteered to support the team with planning of food, making suggestions, or communicating information to parents. I also began planning gatherings for parents to help us bond and communicate with each other. That evolved quickly, and by Kevin’s sophomore year, I began to expand my communication with the coaches and parents. My relationship with Denny [Harper] has evolved [laughter], but we had to start with improving communication.

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UC San Diego Head Coach Denny Harper. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

I’ve learned to anticipate what he wants or needs for the team. I often don’t even need to ask as I already know what will make things flow best for them. He has learned to trust me and trust that I will take his information and run with it, using the information to enhance the experience for the athletes, coaches, and parents.

I am sure sometimes he rolls his eyes at me when I want to make things even bigger or better, but he knows that I do everything I do ultimately for the team and their families.

Hilinkski: We live in California, so rain makes things difficult. It’s also unfortunate and difficult when parents choose not to participate. For most of the 7 years that I have been Team Mom, we usually had close to 100% participation. That’s the way it should be.

– You served in the same function for your sons’ high school and club teams.

Asplund: I did. It was actually a long time ago when my older son, Chris, joined his very first team, U-6 soccer, that in a conversation with the coach I said if I can help in any way to please let him know. My husband Greg had been a coach when I first met him. I observed and assisted him in many ways even when I did not have a child on the team. I saw how my organizational skills made things easier for my husband to be an effective coach. The more I did, the more he could just focus on his athletes.

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UCSD bodies at rest. Photo Courtesy: B. Asplund

I carried that with me into all of my boys’ teams. If you add Little League, soccer, basketball, high school baseball, swimming, and water polo, club baseball, and club polo, not to mention various all-star teams, I have been Team Mom for over 75 teams. That is crazy to think of. I even stayed on with the high school polo team for a year after Kevin graduated in order to help the coach and support the team and families.

Hilinkski: Yes. I have had two of my sons go through UCLA Water Polo. I have been with UCLA for 9 years including 7 years as the Team Mom. This is my last year as my middle son Austin is a senior.

– You prepared a comprehensive written summary that documents all the details and protocols and recommendations that you have for future Team Moms.  Did someone mentor you in becoming such an incredible Team Mom—or did you just come up with all your activities by yourself?

Asplund: I was never mentored but over the years; I added things to a season that I thought would make it more fun for the boys and easier on the coaches and parents. I learned what truly helped make a team function better. My ultimate goal was to make things fun for the athletes. However, a close second was to make life easier on parents and coaches. We are all busy. To have communication and organization streamlined for a team made it easier for everyone involved.

Hilinkski: I did not have anyone show me the ropes. When the Team Mom before me left, no one had been asked to replace her. 7 years ago I stepped up with another family a week before season started. I played it by ear and did whatever the coach asked of me. Since I knew I was retiring at the end of this season I asked another mom to replace me. She shadowed me all year so she is well prepared to take over next year. The team is so lucky to have her.

– What have been some of your personally favorite post-game meals?

Asplund: I love meals that are homemade, but obviously that is very difficult in many venues. The athletes at UCSD are all away from home and don’t always have home-cooked meals on a regular basis. After that, I like the build-your-own meals as they allow each athlete to make a personal favorite. We have had build-your-own tacos, burritos, and sandwiches. We have also had pasta bars with options and varying combinations that are the same type of feel.

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UCLA family bonding over a meal. Photo Courtesy: D. Hilinski

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the home-cooked treats. These athletes work hard and can afford an extra calorie or two. During Kevin’s freshman year, I started bringing a batch of cookies or brownies for the team when I traveled to a game. The smiles and excitement from the team was awesome.

Since then it became a ritual with Kevin’s teammates sending requests through Kevin when they knew I was coming to the game. It is such a small thing but they appreciated it so much that it has been part of pretty much every game for both Kevin’s junior and senior year.

Hilinkski: A couple times a year, we prepare a banquet style meal after a home game and invite the parents to join the team. These are my favorite meals. It gives us a rare chance to enjoy our sons and each other in a more relaxed environment. The boys are always very grateful.

– Will you miss serving as a Team Mom once your sons’ careers are over?

Asplund: YES. I love organizational-type jobs which is what this is. But most importantly, I will miss being part of these young men’s lives. The smiles of greeting that I receive from each of them warm my heart every time. The hugs I get from them make me just want to work harder to support them.

Last night after our last game, I received hugs from pretty much every one of them…to know that I am making things better for them makes it all worth every minute. They are wonderful young men. Watching them grow and become more confident is very rewarding.

Deb Hilinkski: I will miss my weekly interactions with the team. I will miss Coach Wright and his family. He started as head coach the year my oldest son started. We’ve been together for nine years. He’s an amazing coach and has prepared my boys for life outside of the pool.

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The payoff for all their sacrifice! Hilinski with son Austin Rone. Photo Courtesy: D. Hilinski

I will miss Jason Falitz and his family.  I am looking forward to coming back to support the team by cheering them on poolside for years to come. My two oldest sons will always come back to support the team. As they say, “Once a Bruin, always a Bruin”.

– Do you have any advice for a young person who might want to do the same for their child’s age group, high school or college team?

Asplund: Do it! Do not hesitate. Every coach, whether he knows it or not, needs support. It is a way to be part of your son or daughter’s life and we all know how important that is. It is work, but it is well worth it.

Hilinkski: I think it’s important to volunteer in some capacity whether as a Team Mom or by supporting the Team Mom. I believe parent support is crucial to the success of a team.

– Why did you choose to put in so much effort helping your son’s team?

Asplund: Your child has chosen whatever the sport is. Very few of us can coach them all the way through their careers, but by being a team parent you are showing that you support their passion, you support their friends who are also their teammates, and that you genuinely want to be a part of their life. They might not say anything now, but they are watching.

My sons have always loved sports. That sport has changed over the years but whatever the sport, it was very important to them. How do you be a part of that, yet let them grow and shine on their own? For me, it was by being a Team Mom I could be a part of their activities by being the behind-the-scenes organizer and planner to make things a little easier and a little better for players and coaches alike.

Hilinkski: I love and support my sons. I love the Bruins. They are an extension of my family. I am so proud and grateful that my two sons were able to be part of such an amazing program, rich in tradition. It seems only right that I gave back and helped in any way I could. I met some of my dearest friends through UCLA Water Polo. We refer to ourselves as the BBOW’s. We are the “Bruin B’s (note: rhymes with stitches) of Westwood. I got back way more than I gave in this respect.

– You seemed to be at every game, both home and away.  How many games did you miss during your son’s high school, club or college career?

Asplund: [laughter] When my boys were younger, I never missed a game unless they were competing on different teams at the same time of day. Then I would divide and conquer with my husband. When my older son went off to college, I never missed a single high school or club game of Kevin’s. To me, I never thought twice. It was my way of supporting my sons’ passions.

When Kevin began to play for UCSD, I did not immediately travel as much. However, I was watching online if at all possible or texting someone who was at the game. I missed seeing the game and observing all the little things that make a game what it is.

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Team Asplund: Greg, Chris, Kevin & Barb. Photo Courtesy: B. Asplund

At the end of Kevin’s freshman year, a parent who had an older son and who I had gotten to know in the stands, sent me a text after his son’s last game. It said, “Barb, It just hit me that my son is done. Keep going to every one of Kevin’s games. Don’t miss them. They will very soon be all over. Forever. You have a wonderful son who is tough as nails mentally and physically and yet has obviously been much loved. Treasure every moment you can with him. Be present.”

I saved that text to this day. And I took the advice. I rarely missed another game and now it is over. I have no regrets of reading about a game and saying, “I should have gone.” I saw the successful moments as well as the struggles. The articles don’t talk about how hard an athlete works to make a team successful. They don’t talk about how hard they work at defense or to assist someone else in scoring. They only talk about the goals or points.

To me, being there to support your child and his teammates and see how hard they work is a very important way of showing your child you truly believe in him.

Hilinkski: My sons have been playing water polo for 16 years. Some years, I was able to make it to every game. I have three sons. As my youngest got older and started playing sports, my husband and I had to divide and conquer. One of us was at EVERY game.

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3 years ago

This is a heartwarming story. Thank you, Steve! Salud! Diddo

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Brandi West
3 years ago

Thank you for this article on Team Moms! They are so often behind the scenes but they put so much of themselves into taking care of their athletes and coaches. They take pride in knowing they help things run and help athletes be their best.