A couple of years ago, I got the crazy idea of wanting to compete in an Olympic distance triathlon. I had competed (I use that term loosely) in slightly shorter triathlons over the past ten years, but wanted to up the ante. The leg of the event that I most feared was the swim. I wasn’t worried about drowning – after all, I’ve passed a lifesaving course years ago – but I also didn’t want to come out of the water after 1.5K dead last.
I have a friend named Dave who is a very accomplished masters swimmer. (This means he’s one of the best old guys in the pool.) I decided to ask Dave to coach me on my stroke and training schedule so that come summer, I’d be ready to participate confidently and credibly.
I showed up to our local YMCA for my training session with Dave with all sorts of concerns and fears about the experience. Having played other sports, I know there are certain things people do and say that are dead giveaways that they are clueless about the sport. I didn’t know what those giveaways were in swimming, but I was pretty sure I’d inadvertently find at least one. Did I have the right gear? What sort of goggles, swimsuit, and equipment do real swimmers wear? Would I understand the terms that Dave used? Am I supposed to share one of those lanes with someone else and if so, how does that work? Though normally a confident person, I had all sorts of things running through my head besides the fact that I wanted to get better at swimming. And that was before I got out onto the deck with all of these ripped guys in Speedos.
It didn’t help that as I walked into the pool, I saw a guy literally chewing up the pool like a motor boat. When he stopped his set and pulled off his goggles, I realized it was Dave. Looking at his 6 foot plus frame, I realized that we weren’t in the same galaxy of swimming talent. But there I was, goggles in hand. There was nothing to do but jump in.
Dave asked me to hop in and swim a few lengths. I noticed with more than a little panic that he was grabbing a video camera as I hopped in. He’s going to film me? I thought. Not only do I have to embarrass myself in front of this human torpedo, but he’s going to make me watch it on film.
I needn’t have worried too much. Dave may be the most gracious person I know. He did film me. He did find some things for me to work on. But mostly, he told me that he could see real potential in my stroke and that with work, I’d be able to do respectably in the triathlon.
Then he suggested a workout plan. He said I needed to be in the pool three times a week swimming what looked to me like endless laps. My internal reaction was lightning quick: I wanted to get better, but this is going to mess with my life. I’m not sure I want to get better so much that I’m willing to change my schedule and workout plan that much.
Of course, Dave didn’t know what was going on in my head. And that’s the point. When we coach someone, we have to realize that we’re asking them to expose themselves – strengths and weaknesses – and to change long-held (and sometimes very cherished) habits. The process is uncomfortable and often disconcerting for the person being coached.
My swim lessons gave me a unique view on what it’s like to be coached and gave me a few basic principles for what I must do to help people get through those reactions. What learning experiences have you gleaned coaching lessons from?