If you had to list the top 500 athletes that came out of my high school in 1973, (male and female) I wouldnt have made the cut. Yet, even years after I had graduated, Coach Papouras still knew who I was. At my 20th high school reunion I had to ask him why.
Well Gregg, he said, you refused to quit. Even though your talent was limited, you never gave up on yourself or me.
As the conversation went on, we compared our thoughts on coaching. Despite the fact we coach two different sports, him wrestling, me swimming, we shared the same reasons for doing it and possibly the same reasons for giving up coaching altogether.
You see, I got into coaching for the same reason I decided to become a schoolteacher: To help kids become better than they were before they met me. Not only by becoming faster swimmers or smarter students, but by becoming better people and learning lessons that will be best applied in the world outside the swimming pool or the classroom.
To have the opportunity and aptitude to be a positive influence in a childs life should be the primary influence behind what motivates a coach. But when a coach has to spend most of his time battling parents who expect immediate results at the expense of long-term benefits, it can make you question why youre wasting your time as a coach at all.
Nowadays, you have to handle kids with kid gloves. Push swimmers to work harder and youll be accused of not being supportive. Minor swim meets that crop-up result in parents keeping their kids out of practice so they can beat Johnny come Saturday.
Sure, this might work in the short-term, but who cares if you have the worlds fastest 11-year-old? If that child isnt swimming at age 16, then its meaningless. Kids need to be taught work ethic, and what results from commitment and training. It is one of the primary reasons for enrolling children in athletics. They dont need to swim 8,000 yards per practice, but they do need to realize the benefits of consistent, purposeful training.
Unfortunately, too many coaches let kids train when they want and allow them to compete even if they havent put the work in. What kind of message does that send? Whats worse, parents buy into that philosophy. Why take the kid to the pool five times a week when he swims great and still has time to play Nintendo for nine hours?
Anyone that knows anything about age group swimming knows that as kids grow, they get faster, especially when they have been taught proper stroke technique. And there are some times when the kids who train the least go the fastest at meets. But any coach worth his beans also knows that this ends at puberty. If parents really desire success for their children in the long-term, they should empower coaches to teach work ethic and tell detractors to butt-out or move on.
An Australian coach said it best, The biggest problem with American swimming is that you have too many people writing books, and too many coaches believing what they read. In swimming, like in any other sport, greatness is hard to achieve. And greatness as a coach is even harder. Forget about the books. Most coaches who reach that level dont have the time to write. There are some great coaches out there: Richard Quick, Dick Kenney, Eddie Reese, Greg Troy, Peter Banks, just to name a few. Go to their practices or talk to their swimmers and find out what they do first-hand, and see how it works.
As I left the conversation with my old wrestling coach, I also remembered the reasons why Ill stay in coaching: the kids that listen, the kids that work, and the kids that achieve success as a result. Its also when you realize you taught them more than just about a sport, you taught them about life. Maybe one of those kids will come back to tell me how I influenced them. Thats why Ill stay in. See you at practice.
Gregg Cross, 44 lives in Ft. Myers, Florida where he coaches the Estero High School Swim Team and USS age-group team, Swim Florida. He will be testing his own work ethic next year in the 24-mile Tampa Bay Open Water Swim.