A Letter To My Daughter’s Swim Coach

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…)



Sometimes, less is more

I never wanted a standard 9 to 5 job. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them – Nick has one, many of my friends have them – but I just knew that they wouldn’t be the right fit for me. Thankfully, I fell in love with teaching (which involves hours that waaaay exceed the traditional 40-hour workweek, but whatevever).

Back when I taught in the classroom, one of the things I most liked about my schedule was that it allowed me to spend the time between school and dinner with Ella and Annie; those were special, golden hours. After we moved to Rochester and I became a stay-at-home mom, I – obviously – had a lot more time with them during the day. Some of this was, in fact, Special, Golden time, but a lot of it was Please Let Us All Get Through The Day Alive, Fed, And Mostly Sane time. Life as a SAHM was good – I wouldn’t have traded it for anything – but I definitely appreciated the afternoons that I spent teaching piano and always knew that I wanted to return to work once the girls were in elementary school.

As I’ve already discussed, subbing turned out to be the perfect solution, allowing me just the right balance between work and home. If the girls had their way, however, I would be home every minute that they are. Sure, sometimes they want nothing to do with me, but they’d prefer that I be right there while they have nothing to do with me, so that when they do want something to do with me, it can happen immediately.

Between subbing and piano lessons and, you know, being a human, it’s not exactly possible – nor, um, desirable – for me to be home every waking moment that the girls are in the house. Still, I do prefer the days when I’m able to see them before they go to school; leaving the house before they awaken just doesn’t feel right. I also prefer the days when I’m able to see them after school, before my piano lessons; even just five minutes for a whirlwind How Was Your Day? recap, a brief scan of their take-home folder, and a quick hug as I head out the door can make all the difference.

There have been occasional days when I’ve left for piano before Annie and Ella come in the door, which means I don’t see them from 8:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., much like how life would be if I worked a 9-5 job. I don’t really like those days, but they’re manageable, especially because we get to have dinner together; somehow, that makes it doable.

Last Thursday, however, was different. Subbing meant I couldn’t be home when they finished school; piano and swim practice meant we couldn’t spend time together before dinner; and the meeting of a really cool new church community I’m joining meant that I couldn’t be home for dinner. If I was lucky, I’d arrive home in time to kiss and hug them before they went to bed… but that was not a guarantee, so there was a decent chance I’d go the entire day without seeing them. (Note: it’s not like I haven’t left the girls before, for days at a time. I’ve also done weekends away with friends and have spent plenty of days and nights apart from the kiddos and I have freakin’ loved it. But somehow, being home, being separated simply by the busyness of life, isn’t the same.)

In theory, this was not even worth my consideration. People do it all the time, right? Steal super-short moments with their kids before school and then not see them again until the following morning? This happens a lot and people are completely fine with it, yes?

I know this; I told myself this repeatedly. But it still felt… wrong. Not wrong as in morally unacceptable but wrong as in Emily unacceptable. One of the biggest reasons I never wanted a 9-5 job was because I never wanted to be away from my girls all day. Okay, sure, there have been plenty of times when I would do practically anything to have some peace and quiet, to get away for a moment, so a day without them while I was running around should have been nothing – but still… it just didn’t sit right.

A closer look at my packed schedule revealed something promising: the girls’ swim practice was to take place during the exact window of time between my piano lessons and my church community gathering. Meaning I didn’t need to be anywhere during that time… meaning, if I attended the practice, I could see the girls. Yes, it meant a fifteen minute drive in the wrong direction, which meant that I’d only be poolside for about 20 minutes. Yes, they’d be, you know, swimming, so it’s not like we could sit and chat. But I figured that, at the very least, I could wave to them. I could be near them. I could hug them when they got out of the pool as I headed out the door. Surely that was better than nothing.

Ella noticed me the moment that I entered the pool deck and could not stop waving at me. Well, that’s not true – she alternated waving at me with flashing me the I Love You hand sign.
That tan-ish blur over Ella’s swim-capped head? Her hand. Waving.

Normally at practice, this girl is all about barely glancing my way and not really paying me any attention. That night, however, she was just ecstatic to find me on that bench.

Annie, on the other hand, didn’t see me come in and sit down. In fact, she swam for a good ten minutes without so much as looking in my direction. At last, while waiting to get on the block, she turned so she was facing me and when it finally dawned on her that it was her Mama on that bench, she almost levitated off the swim deck.
She was far away and it was steamy in there, so this photo is pretty low-quality, but trust me… a jubilant grin and fully outstretched, “THAT’S MY MAMA!” hands are there.

Those twenty minutes that I spent watching them in the pool were, by an enormous margin, the shortest amount of time I’d ever spent “with” them on a regular old day. They were also some of the best I’ve ever experienced. The entire time, I was engaged. I was focused. I was watching. I didn’t look at my phone; I didn’t read a magazine (as I usually do if I attend swim practice, which in and of itself is very rare). All I did was be there with my girls, marveling at the thing they love to do so much, really noticing how their strokes have changed, how much leaner and stronger they are. The time wasn’t long on quantity, but on quality? Unbeatable.

When practice ended, I still had a few minutes before I needed to leave, so we used that time to catch up on their days. I heard about recess, snack, specials – all the most important school stuff, natch – plus what they did with the babysitters, how their homework was coming along, and what they hoped to have for dinner that night. Right before I left, they each gave me an enormous hug which, considering that they’d just hopped out of a pool, soaked my jacket to its core – but I figure that’s a small price to pay.

IMG_0467 IMG_0466
Regaling me with details from their day…

I’ve always known how tremendously fortunate I am to not have to take a job that keeps me away from the girls until dinnertime each day, but I don’t think I quite appreciated it until last Thursday. I also learned something really important: that it truly isn’t the amount of time you spend with your kids that matters; it’s the kind of time. Those blink-and-you’d-miss-it twenty minutes were among the most intense, heart-filling, relaxing minutes I’ve spent with the girls, maybe… ever?

Yesterday was Thursday again, and this time my day was even longer – out the door before the girls went to school, home ten minutes before bed. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, but I wasn’t dreading it, either. I watched them sled before I hopped in the car to go to work. I sat poolside again, was there to see the butterfly (stroke) “click” with Annie for the first time ever, heard about the science day in Ella’s class next week, and took in two more soaking wet hugs. I listened to Annie read at bedtime, cuddled with Ella in my bed, and kissed them both goodnight.

And you know what? It was a damn fine day.

I still prefer spending more time together than less, but there really is something to be said for quality – in relationships, in time, in attention, in love.
And in chocolate. Always go for the good stuff, people.

Trial by fire (and water and cleats)

Growing up, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call an athlete. In fact, I’d bet that “athlete” and I were never even in the same room together, much less the same sentence (although my dad always said I had the best practice swing of anyone on my 5th grade softball team). While Nick has many amazing qualities, being a stellar athlete doesn’t really rank among them. And so it has come as quite a shock to us that both Ella and Annie are not only interested in sports, but actually have some skillz (yeah, I added the z. All the cool kids are doing it).

Prior to this year, the girls had been involved in after-school activities that took up relatively little space: a thirty-minute swim lesson here, an hour-long gymnastics or art class there. We knew it was only a matter of time before we joined the ranks of parents carting their offspring to and from numerous extra-curricular activities, banging around town like minivan pinballs, but we didn’t anticipate that we’d be thrown head-first into the mayhem as swiftly as we have this year.

Ella has long loved to swim – she’s just always been a mermaid girl – and decided that she wanted to try out for the swim team. When she made it, she informed us that she’d only attend one or two of the five (weeknight) practices that are held each week, and we thought that seemed reasonable. Once she began chatting with one of her best friends (who is also on the team), however, she allowed that perhaps she’d like to swim three nights a week — maybe Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, with meets on Saturday afternoons? That’s a lot, but we can handle it. Suit up, kiddo. Let’s do this.

swimming first time
Her first practice, they swam at least 25 laps (I lost count after that). Not lengths, but laps.
I would have drowned.

Annie is a bit too young for the swim team, and when asked what activity she’d like to try this year, she mentioned art and swimming. As it happened, both occurred on the same days at the exact same time (what were the odds?), so we presented her with a choice… And she chose soccer.

9.17 first soccer practice
At her first practice, turning around and being goofy (who, Annie?) to Ella and me (reading, natch, Harry Potter).

Yes. A child of mine, who grew in my womb and is 50% me, chose a sport over an artistic endeavor. No one is more astonished than I.

As luck would have it, soccer takes place on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings, which fit in nicely with Ella’s swim schedule. In case you haven’t been playing along, I’ll help you out: swimming and soccer take place Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. But no! After only one swim practice, Ella declared that she would really like to swim on Thursdays, too… So… Mmm hmm. We have something on the schedule every single weekday evening, plus all day on Saturdays.

Again, I know this is hardly unusual. I always understood, on a theoretical level, that the older your kids get, the busier you become. (Which would explain why friends with older kids would have more difficulty attending a Moms Night Out gathering than friends with toddlers, something that always baffled me when the girls were younger… But you’ve got grade-schoolers! There are no diapers to change! They sleep through the night! They can clear their own plates! Surely you have more time on your hands now! I know. Kick me. I deserve it.)

It’s just that we’d thought we’d get to dip a toe in – gradually ease further down, you know, as we got used to things – not that we’d be pushed off the dock with our clothes still on. Because that’s kind of how I feel right now: disoriented, shocked, and wondering if I actually remembered underwear this morning.

It so happens that both soccer and swimming are from 6:00 – 7:00, which is perfect, because no one ever dines at that time. At the parent information meeting, Ella’s swim coach sagely warned us not to feed our kiddos too much before practice, or else they’d see their meals again in the pool – so she eats her dinner when she gets home around 7:30 (except on Thursdays, because practice is a half-hour later, and 8 p.m. is just too late for dinner, so on Thursdays she eats at 5:00. Got that so far?).

Annie, on the other hand, would be ravenous if she didn’t eat before soccer… Which means that dinner for the girls is at 5:15 on Tuesdays, while Nick and I scarf lukewarm leftovers down while standing up before the girls head to bed. Some nights, we eat together when Ella gets home. Some nights, Annie eats at home with one of us while Ella swims. Some nights, Annie eats at the pool and Ella – and we – eat later.


On top of that, I teach piano three afternoons a week – once from home and twice not at home – which means that our babysitter is here to shepherd the girls through homework and snack and make-sure-Ella-eats-at-5:00-on-Thursday-or-else-she’ll-vomit-in-the-pool before Ella’s friend’s parents pick her up for swimming (we carpool, because two nights a week is enough, thank you very much).

9.30 homework prep
I’ve taken to leaving at least five piles of notes when I head off to piano. Everything is more fun when it’s on a dry erase board.

Never before have I had to be so organized, and while it’s a bit torturous and more than a bit exhausting, I think it’s actually been a good thing. At this rate, I’m pretty sure I could end the government shutdown by tomorrow afternoon. Just give me a dry erase board and I will have us up and running again.

This could all be just complete insanity if the girls weren’t thriving and loving it so. Ella is learning about stuff I didn’t even know existed – flip turns and two-hand-touches (so you don’t get disqualified) and no breathing in the yellow zone (have you ever noticed how Olympic swimmers just power through at the end of each lane? No? Neither had I). She’s even decided she wants to be Missy Franklin for Halloween.

9.18 swimmer girl
No more cute tankinis and wild hair; it’s all performance suits and swim caps and goggles that “pop” when you put them on. I’ll posit again: When did she get so old??

Annie comes home from school every day asking if it’s Tuesday, because she cannot wait to get back out on the field. Turns out, she’s a got a fierce competitive streak (Annie? Never…) and rocks at defense, and she even scored a few goals last weekend, too – but more than that, she just thinks it’s a blast.

9.21 annie soccer
Pouring, but not one complaint. You’re sure this is my child???

As a result of all of this extra activity and later-than-usual bedtimes (which happens when you’d normally hit the hay at 8:15 but you don’t eat dinner until 7:45), both girls have been just bushed. Prior to this school year, I could have counted on one hand the number of times Ella had slept past 7:30 (yes, I mean that literally; girl cannot sleep in to save her soul). Since this mania began, I have had to awaken her a few minutes before 8:00 so that she makes it to school on time. Of course.

This past Friday, Ella didn’t swim, and we all enjoyed a leisurely night of pizza and television (Cake Boss, duh). After putting the girls to bed at a reasonable hour, Nick and I rejoiced that finally, on Saturday, everyone would be able to sleep in as late as necessary (well, as much as one can when soccer begins at 10:00).

Which meant, naturally, that both girls were not only wide awake but singing through their walls to one another at 7:15.
Of course.

Throwback Thursday: Da Or’nge Bucket

Annie, 25 months old, after returning from swimming at the Y.

There’s no real reason to share this now; it’s simply one of my favorite videos of all time, and I think everyone should have access to its awesomeness.
The hat… Her lounge singer voice… The way she works so hard to get her sentences out… Her unabashed glee… That grin… “Stuff.”

All of it just slays me.

She still makes many of the same facial expressions. And they still slay me.