Dear Coach C.,
Last night was the team banquet – as you know, because you’ve been planning it for months. You booked the location, made sure it had a cash bar (because we parents asked to celebrate with something stronger than Sprite and you were kind enough to oblige), and set up a menu that would appease carnivores, vegetarians, and children who subsist on chicken fingers and ketchup.
It’s been a month with no practices, but you were hardly idle. You were collecting team photo orders, having the photos printed and collated, creating a slideshow to recap the season, selecting the swimmers who would receive special honors, preparing your presentations to bestow those honors, and readying the individual recognitions and awards that you gave to every single kiddo – well over 100 of them – who participated on the team this year. It didn’t matter if the kid was a graduating senior, a middle-school phenom who made States in every event, or an 8 year-old novice whose strokes are largely indistinguishable from one another; they all received their moment in the spotlight, uniquely recognized and commended, because you believe that every kid counts.
Ella, giddily joining her teammates after being given her medal.
This is no small thing.
Despite the fact that this is a competitive sport and despite the way that swimming is structured so that it is painfully obvious who has touched the wall first and who is still has a lap to go, all of your swimmers know, to their cores, that you believe they matter, that they’re important, that they’re worth it. Because you believe this so strongly, because you and the other coaches show it throughout every minute of practice and every length at every meet, the kids start believing it, too.
And this? This is everything.
I’ve seen the schedule. There are practices for 3-5 hours a day, six days a week, for the duration of the seven month competitive season. That’s 18-30 hours in the pool each week (before 5-hour meets). I understand that this is not your career, so these are 18-30 extra hours that you’re putting in on top of whatever else is on your plate… because you believe in these kids.
When you’re not physically there, you’re mentally there. I know that you review each practice with all the other coaches, telling them what you want accomplished, what each age group should work on, what goal individual swimmers are trying to reach. Even when you can’t monitor it in person, you want to make sure that the team receives consistent, tailored instruction – because you believe in these kids.
And somehow, no matter what is going on, no matter how many dozens of kids are in the pool or how few are following directions or whatever nonsense is going on, you treat every one of them with respect. You don’t scream. You don’t demean them, ever. You don’t shame. When they don’t put in their full effort, when they don’t meet expectations, when they’re just plain wrong… you tell them, for sure. You let them know you’re disappointed, frustrated, or angry. But you do so in a way that is constructive and caring, that allows them to own their mistakes and strive to improve. They hate letting you down and genuinely want to do better for you – because you believe in them.
Some would say that this approach is too “soft,” that kids need harshness and rigor. Your attendance policy (or, more specifically, lack thereof), your refusal to insist that kids reach certain times or swim X number of hours, your “you get out of it what you put into it” attitude… do not exactly follow the “rules” of competitive sports coaching. There are oh so many teams who require their participants to attend every practice, meet, or game – no matter the circumstances – lest they be benched or even kicked off (I’ve had more than one piano student miss the once-a-year culminating recital to attend a sports event because their coach demanded their presence), to forego other activities outside of The One Sport, whatever it may be.
If this is how society views kids’ sports, I can see how your approach might be deemed too lax. For every single kid on this team, though, your approach is perfect – and, quite frankly, hard to be argued with. There’s the simple fact the team does exceedingly well, competitively speaking (District champs many years running and 2nd in the State are hardly anything to be sneezed at), despite your more “relaxed” style.
(Upon reflection, perhaps they do so well competitively because of your more “relaxed” style… Worth consideration, anyway…)
Ella (in the blue suit) on the blocks at States.
It’s much more than that, though. Yes, they win (all) their meets, but you make it clear that being the victor is not your top priority. To quote your team banquet letter: “Winning is not always about coming in first . A winner is someone who recognizes a teammate, celebrates victories and offers support if a specific goal was not achieved. A winner is someone who improves on his/her time… There is a winner in every one of us…”
Because you believe that, the kids believe it, too. If they come in dead last but drop 0.3 seconds from their time, they’ve won. If they high-five an opposing teammate at the end of a heat – no matter what place they came in – that’s a win. They know they are not just individuals, but part of a team, part of a family, and everyone within the family deserves respect and encouragement. They feel comfortable, welcomed, supported, and that they belong. In turn, they believe that they are worthy of that belonging.
Perhaps one of the truest measures of the kids’ self-confidence and sense of self-worth is how they respond when another teammate does well. Last night, the swimmers received their medals for Districts and States; the more races they swam, the more hardware they took home. This opportunity for comparison could have resulted in everything from jealousy to resentment. Instead? I saw kids being truly happy for their teammates and their accomplishments.
As the individual awards were being given, as just a handful of the hundred-plus kids walked up to the front and received their plaques, disappointment (at not being chosen) was not the preeminent mood. No – when each name was called, raucous cheers and celebrations erupted. There were fist-bumps and hugs and a million selfies.
It’s not that the team doesn’t recognize achievement and effort; this is not an “everybody gets a trophy just for showing up!” kind of place. It’s that they feel absolutely worthy just as they are, so there’s no reason for jealousy.
How you have managed to do this season after season is mind-boggling.
Our girl has always loved to swim. When she joined the team three seasons ago, she told us she “feels like herself” in the water. It has been such an incredible experience watching her bloom like a sunlit flower as part of the team. But nothing could have prepared us for this year, when she positively blossomed in technicolor.
And she’s off!
Remember how I told you, when she learned she made the State team, that she colored her hair blue for the first time — because, for the first time in her life, she felt so comfortable and happy with herself, she felt comfortable and happy with people noticing her? How, when she awoke the following morning, she asked if it was all a dream? How she positively floated on air for the month leading up to States, despite the additional practices?
It wasn’t because of States; that was just a figurehead. It was because you believed in her enough to take her to States. In turn, she believed in herself in ways she never had before. You changed our girl, and the transformation was nothing short of magical.
“Thank you” is ridiculously insufficient.
It may seem odd that I’m posting this as a blog rather than just emailing you (I mean, I did email you, but still…). There are two reasons for this. The first is I think you’re pretty fantastic and I want everyone to know. The second is I think there are a lot of other coaches out there who are doing similarly fantastic things with their teams and players, who don’t get thanked nearly often enough, and who deserve recognition.
Banquet – literally?!
So, to you and all the other coaches who follow your phenomenal approach: I see you. I see how you show up, no matter what. I see that you’re sacrificing time with your own children to be with mine. I see how you know each and every kid inside and out. I see how you encourage and support them, how you use constructive criticism instead of shaming. I see how you make practice fun. I see how you encourage kids to have a life outside of your sport… because you know that when they do show up to practice, they’ll really want to be there – and the effort they put in will be top-notch. I see how you put in hour upon hour with little or no acknowledgment. I see how little you get paid (do you get paid at all?!). I see how these kids are your family. I see how proud you are to be their coach. I see how proud you are of them. I see how you value and believe in every single one of them. And I see how they value and believe in themselves as a result.
Thank you, all of you, for believing in our kids.
And thanks specifically, Coach C., for helping our girl believe in herself. Every practice, every pair of goggles, every minute in the sauna-like stands has been worth it just to see her walk a little taller with her blue-streaked hair.
(Thanks, also, for the cash bar last night…)