"What's the second best way?"
Memories from my coaching career focus more on personal interaction than high achievement. I suspect this is true of many former coaches.
A few weeks ago in a Facebook group former coaches were asked what prompted them to leave the profession. The reasons given can be grouped into three main categories: Finding better paying jobs, needing more time for family responsibilities, and poor working conditions. As a general rule, sport coaching, especially at the youth level, requires long hours for low pay, and is often not a full time job. Not surprisingly, attrition from sport coaching is high. But regardless of why posters said they left, many responses were tinged with nostalgia, joy, regret, and the occasional touch of bitterness.
In 2008 I went to work at the United States Sports Academy, thus ending a 30-year coaching career. The new job featured regular hours, better pay, and free weekends. It was a good move for me.
The post brought to mind memories from my own coaching days. Coaches know that the job is not always fun and occasionally includes unpleasant challenges. But it's often said that we only remember the good things about past experiences. This is probably where the notion of Type II fun comes from, remembering difficult times through the lens of an idealized past.
Two stories from my own career stand out. The first started innocently enough in a swimming lesson and evolved into a weirdly named teaching maxim, the other comes from a pre-race discussion I had with an older athlete that has since become my favorite coaching story.
The grandmother rule
Anyone who has worked with young children knows that there is always at least one 5-year-old in a group who thinks he's 30, and who adopts adult mannerisms much to the amusement of his parents or, in this case, his swimming instructor. One particular 5-year-old appointed himself as my assistant in a learn-to-swim class and 'helped' others in the class by explaining my instructions to his classmates.
One of these classmates was another 5-year-old who had a swimming style that was so violent I was surprised that her limbs were still attached to her body after each attempt to swim across the pool. To the uninitiated her swimming might have looked like she was drowning or being attacked by a shark. I would tell youngsters like this to make whatever they did "look easy" and to let them figure out how to do it.
This time I pointed to her grandmother who was sitting on the bleachers at the side of the pool and asked the girl, "What would your grandmother do if she thought you were in trouble?"
"She would help me."
"How?" I asked.
"Maybe she would jump in?" she offered, looking for the right answer.
"Do you want to ride home with a soaking wet grandmother? You need to slow down and make it look easy," I said.
At this point my young assistant, who was right there in the huddle listening to every word with the oldest, most serious look on his face that a 5-year-old could muster, chimed in, "There's nothing worse than a wet grandmother!"
Thus was born the "grandmother rule." Make it look easy! It's a story that I also got a lot of mileage from with older athletes because it conveyed a concept important to good technique: The fastest swimmers are able to make their races look effortless.
The second best way
My favorite story occurred at the end of an exhausting, 3-day swimming competition. As the meet ran through its final events on Sunday evening everyone was tired; some had long drives home ahead of them; energy levels were low. Anyone involved in swimming knows the feeling. I imagine other sports have their analogs.
As one of my athletes was preparing for her last race of the long weekend she asked what the best way was to swim the 200 backstroke. Jokingly I said, "Fast." She looked down, thought for a second, then looked me in the eye and asked, "What's the second best way?"
I laughed then and I laugh now every time I think about that. Some coaches may have scolded her for a poor attitude, but sometimes we get so trapped in the orthodoxy — the sport-think — that we miss the best parts of what coaching is about, things that will really leave a mark in the years ahead. As Andrew Bernard said in the last episode of The Office, "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them."
The second best way underlines that we work with athletes who bring different motivations to our clubs and teams. Not everybody has a go-for-the-gold mindset. Within youth sport's culture of achievement though athletes learn skills and attitudes that just might come in handy later on.
Glad to have done it, but not sad it's over
That was the sentiment of many of the commenters in the FB group; they may have moved on from coaching but the time they spent doing it was remembered warmly.
It's unfortunate that the job of youth sport coach is not yet seen as a legitimate career choice with the salary and benefits that go along with that status. Commercialization of the youth sport industry is slowly changing this but that creates different problems.
Do I miss it? The profession has changed a lot since I left in 2008 and while I'm glad I did it once I've never been tempted to do it again.