What to do When Everything is New: Building a College Program from the Ground Up

Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

By Melissa Wolf, Swimming World College Intern.

A blank record board is the epitome of a new program, and in college swimming, we do not see new programs added as often as we should. A small NCAA Division III school in Wisconsin – St. Norbert College in De Pere – has more than just a new record board. The school built a new pool, started a new swim and dive team, hired new coaches and brought on 31 new swimmers, of which 26 are first-year students for the 2018-19 season. Learning to embrace all things new has now been written into the history of this program. They have done it right and have a lot to share about their experience that is both been challenging and rewarding at the same time!

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

The SNC swimmers and coaches share their words of advice and experiences in starting something new. The following are pieces of wisdom in lessons they have learned extends across many areas of life.

Understand that new is normal: Everyone is in it together

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

Not only is the SNC swim and dive team new, but also they are adjusting to a new pool, new equipment, new teammates, new coaches, and a new culture. This year, every single person on the team is experiencing something for the first time. Like the blank record board, new doesn’t mean empty of promise; instead, it means creating room for making history.

The head coach Franco Pacheco is in his first leadership role, the assistant coaches have not previously coached in the NCAA, the student assistant touched a stopwatch for the first time this year and the diving coach is a rookie too. Though their roles are new, their commitment to each other and to the team has strengthened the program in only a few short weeks. Marty Blake, one of only a handful of a second-year students (but first-year college swimmers) spoke truth when he said: “The college experience is four years of learning, four years of new experiences and each year has something new – roommates, professors, challenges. New for me this year, I am learning to balance swimming and studying.”

Lean on your teammates, friends and family when experiencing this overwhelming stress. Blake particularly empathizes with the freshman: “I know how hard it was to balance school, but they are balancing both swimming and school. I am able to share tips and tricks with them that helped me, and hope it helps them too.” Everyone you know has been the new guy or tried something new, so reach out to them for advice or encouragement.

If you are puzzled with where you belong: Find your role 

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

Swimming on a team provides many opportunities for athletes to use their strengths. Every person on the team has a role, and not just with the events you swim at a meet. Teams need leaders, but they also need those who will follow and be supportive. They also need someone who is lighthearted and brings fun and laughter to keep the stressful moments of training and competing enjoyable.

Everyone has a place on a swim team, and finding yours might be tough but not impossible. Peadar McGrath, a freshman at SNC, gives this advice: “Know your strengths and weaknesses, and put yourself in situations that play off your strengths. If you are a leader, find a way to lead a lane or become a team representative.” Every role is equally important, and finding yours in your new situation will give both you and your team the best experience!

New can be scary, but: Embrace change

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Photo Courtesy: Franco Pacheco

Change is inevitable. As we age, our bodies change. At some point in our lives, our location will change. As swimmers, we experience tremendous change when entering college swimming or any other new program. When you have had the same coach for the majority of your club swimming years, you have a language of your own; there is a practice structure that becomes routine and habits that have formed.

Clare Santas, a freshman at St. Norbert College, shares how embracing the change of college swimming has brought back the love of the sport to her life. “Everything is new: my teammates, coaches, drills, lifting and how we practice. I was ready for this change and excited to meet new people, improve my swimming and take bigger risks.” Being ready for change is the first step; the second is being willing to embrace it, knowing it might be uncomfortable in the beginning but rewarding throughout.

When you feel stretched beyond your comfort with new challenges: Be flexible

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

To score the most points in a college meet, you need to have people entered in all the events. SNC was able to recruit a large group of swimmers for their first year, but none of them had diving experience. To outscore their opponents, they would greatly benefit from including divers on their roster. Four of the swimmers found that they could best aid their team in points by learning a new skill – diving.

Others on the team saw a need in the more undesirable events like the 200 fly and 400 IM and have been willing to train, let go of the expectations they had for themselves, and be flexible enough to become team-minded. “I’ve always wanted to try diving. I knew that with SNC being a new program, I would have the flexibility to finally try it. I am so glad I did!” says Jaxsen Schermacher. You might find that being willing to try new things provides you an opportunity to be successful in an event you didn’t know you could succeed in.

If you feel alone in a new situation: Make connections

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

California native Miranda Wilson found that moving across the country to attend school and swim felt a whole lot less lonely, because she has known Coach Pacheco for a while. She was confident in her choice of school and team even though everything was so different from home, because she believed that “he has and will continue to make sure the rest of the team and I have the best experience possible.” Swimming can take on an individual feeling, but that does not mean you are alone. Wilson’s advice is to “go out there and meet some people, and make sure you get to know one coach well so that you have someone to talk to.” In the age of social media and screens, swimming on a team gives students and coaches a scheduled time to be together and make connections that will last a lifetime!

When you have a new opportunity: Follow the leader

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Wolf

Following the leader is not just a childhood game but also a good lesson for life and sports. The leader of a team is the coach, and their role is to create a culture that they are willing to stand behind and support with their whole being. As a first-year head coach, Pacheco shared that he spent years around great coaches and not-so-great coaches. During that time, he developed into the kind of coach he wanted to be and decided what goals he wanted to set for his new program.

The basis of the culture he is creating at SNC comes from this quote: “Coaching is ultimately not just about winning but developing great people.” He wholeheartedly believes in each one of his swimmers and is ready with his bags packed to support them in all positive endeavors. He wants to build a program that focuses on making each athlete a better person through taking the focus off themselves and putting it on the community around them, which is why he has led the challenge for his team to give 1,000 hours of volunteerism this season. The staff he hired around him believe in his mission, and the swimmers he recruited are passionate about the goals he set.

If you are starting a new opportunity, make sure you are following a leader you believe in and believes in you. Whether you are preparing to swim a new event, join a new team, follow a new coach or set a new goal, heeding these words of advice will bring excitement instead of fear.

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

4 Comments

4 comments

  1. avatar

    Asking questions are genuinely pleasant thing if you are not understanding anything completely, except this paragraph gives
    pleasant understanding even.

Author: Melissa Wolf

avatar
Melissa Wolf is a mother, wife, business owner and swim coach. She started her own team and led them to 21 Wisconsin State records, and was awarded Wisconsin Swimming Age-Group Coach of the Year 3 seasons in a row. She is also the Assistant Coach for the Men's and Women's Swim Team at St. Norbert College. Her passion is people and helping them reach their potential; whether it be her children with Autism or her nationally ranked swimmers, all people matter and although the goals are different she believes the process is the same.

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