Monday, October 27, 2008

Barometer Kids

Earlier this fall, Mr. Coach had to get the assistant coaches for the USS club that we manage certified. Part of the certification process is to pass a multiple-choice test with questions about a variety of "what if" situations that a coach might face. One of the questions he was telling me about involved what a coach would do if the air quality was really bad inside a natatorium. The point of his sharing was to say that the correct test answer was "stop the practice," while the real life answer was "open the doors and turn on the industrial fans."

But that begged a couple of questions from me.

"How would you know the air quality was bad enough?" I asked Mr. Coach. "Do you have some sort of instrument to measure air quality?"

"Oh no," he replied. "You just look at certain kids. Some of them start turning funny colors and other ones start reaching for their inhalers."

I was horrified.

"You mean they’re barometers then?" I asked.

"Well, yeah," he said. "We’ve also got a few whose shoulders can tell you when the weather’s about to change. Remember Erin from the college team? Her shoulders could tell us exactly 24 hours in advance when rain was coming."

"What about water quality, like when there’s too much chlorine?" I asked. "Do you have barometer kids for that or do you just wait for the swim suits to disintegrate?"

"Oh no," Mr. Coach said. "Anybody can tell that when their teeth start to buzz."

I suppose that being able to read barometers is one of the perks of experience in the swimming world. And if you want to get serious about this, there are plenty of other barometers to be found around a pool.

Eyeliner, for example. When a young teen starts showing up for practice looking like she took a black Sharpie marker to her inner rims, you know you’re in for a long bout of stormy weather. But there’s no telling whether she’ll emerge a cheerleader, a Goth or a sprinter.

Clean chins and scuffed-up bellies are another sign to look for. A few years ago, a bunch of the 8 & Under boys discovered that a wet tile pool deck is just like a Slip ‘n Slide. They would launch themselves head-first, belly-down and go whizzing by, like a parade of penguins, until they hit a dry patch and came to a belly-scraping halt. Some of them could do it without scraping their chins. What does this tell a coach? Easy – who’s swimming fly on the medley relay.

Monday, October 20, 2008

When Dad's a Coach

People sometimes ask me how my children are affected by having a swim coach for a parent.

Well, for starters, I say, they don’t know any better so let’s not get them thinking they’ve been affected, OK?

Don’t all children have a revolving cast of 27 babysitters, each of whom is a Red Cross-certified lifeguard?

Don’t all children go to their first fraternity party at the age of six months and get used as "chick magnets"?

Don’t all children become the subject of semester-long Abnormal Psychology studies or have big toys called Vasa Trainers?

And don’t all children have more pictures of themselves with college swimmers than with their grandparents in the family photo album?

Of course not, but my children don’t need to know that.

The one effect most people assume is that my children started swimming early and often. Not a chance. First of all, neither Mr. Coach nor I had the cojones to drop our infants into the pool the way you see all those hard-core swimming parents doing. For one thing, that’s just...scary. For another thing, have you ever tried to coach an infant? You think freshmen are bad, try getting an 8-month-old to breathe on both sides.

No, the Coach Offspring started swimming when they were good and ready. Little Miss Coach started swimming when she was 5 and accompanied her father to a weekend-long outdoor meet with a kiddie pool on the side. By the end of the weekend, she had decided she wanted to swim, so she did. Little Mr. Coach started when he was 4 and wanted to keep up with his big sister. He spent a lot more time on the bottom of the pool than he did above water (still does), but he was having fun and getting air when he needed it, so it was all good.

Both children, however, started spending time on the pool deck long before they swam. For one thing, it was a good way to see their father. That January-to-March time period is a critical juncture in any swim-coach family’s life (I like to call it the "Single Parenthood Season"), so if the children were going to remain on a first-name basis with their father, they had to go to him at the pool.

One benefit of this arrangement is that each child started speaking in sentences rather early. One of Little Miss Coach’s first sentences was "Stwee lie aah kikov duh wah" (translation: "Streamline and kick off the wall"). One of Little Mr. Coach’s was "Stay in there!" (no translation necessary).

And these early attempts at communication provided us with valuable clues about our children’s personalities. Little Miss Coach is the more constructively instructive type, whereas Little Mr. Coach is...not. He’s a little more tell-it-like-it-is and don’t-even-think-about-sugar-coating-it.

When he was five years old, we met a young woman who had been a bronze medal Olympic swimmer. On the ride home later, my daughter said to her brother, "A bronze medal in the Olympics! Do you know what that means?" Little Mr. Coach looked at his sister and said, "Yeah. It means she didn’t win."

Hopefully that’s one effect that can be undone.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Swim Weddings

I have figured out that normal people (i.e., people who aren’t swim coaches or married to them) go through three wedding-attendance cycles in their lives.

The first one comes right after college when a small but significant group of your friends decides they need to lock in early because they’re afraid their good luck will run out if they lose a hold of this one.

The next cycle starts about five years later and runs for another five, as the rest of your friends decide it’s time to trade in the happy-hour shot glasses for a lovely set of wine glasses from Crate & Barrel.

Then you’re in the clear for another 20 or so years until your friends’ kids (or your kids’ friends) start getting married at which point you’ll get seated at the tables in the back but expected to buy the most expensive items from the gift registry because you now have the income to do so.

Swim coaches (and their spouses) are different because they experience only one wedding-attendance cycle in their lives. It starts when they get their first coaching job and it doesn’t end until they die.

Every year, guaranteed, Mr. Coach and I (and sometimes even the little Coaches) get invited to anywhere from two to six weddings. And, we have discovered, this seems to be a phenomenon limited to coaches and not professors at our university, which only makes sense. A student rarely spends the kind of sustained "quality time" with a professor that generates a wedding invitation. (Although the university’s chaplain does get conscripted into service quite a lot and, so help me, if he doesn’t come up with a new sermon soon, I’m going to pull out my electronic Yahtzee game and start playing – with the sound on – the next time I am present for one of his weddings.)

But, mind you, I am NOT complaining about all the wedding invites. Weddings have proven to be a very efficient and enjoyable way to keep up with Mr. Coach’s former athletes, kind of like Facebook but with food and an open bar. Sometimes you run into people and your last memory of them may have involved court-ordered community service but now you find out they’re in med school, have an adoring spouse and they spent their last vacation building an irrigation system for a village in Albania – and no judge told them to do any of that! That’s a really beautiful encounter when it happens.

But it sucks that we can’t get to all of the weddings we’re invited to. This past weekend, one of my husband’s former athletes (and also former assistant coach) got married in New Mexico which would have been awesome to attend, but with Homecoming and the Alumni Meet on the same weekend, it just wasn’t happening – not that I’m saying Hope scheduled her nuptials to get out of relay duties at the Alumni Meet, but the timing does bear noting.

So, I hope that Hope and Dave had a fabulous wedding (I expect pictures by month’s end), as did Rebecca and Amanda earlier this year.

And then it’s on to the other cycle that never ends – the birth announcements.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Two Types of Coaches

I believe there are two types of coaches. One type is the "screamer" who provides motivation for those who are unable or perhaps unwilling to provide it for themselves. The other type seems to be most effective in working with those athletes who don’t respond well to the motivation offered by the screamers. You could perhaps call this type of coach the "swimmer whisperer," if you want to be trendy, but in reality I just call this type the "non-screamer."

Mr. Coach is this latter type of coach. He is, after all, the type of person who, on the rare occasion that he uses a curse word, will use it by spelling it out (fortunately he has me as a resource if he ever needs to know how to pronounce one).

He also has only lost his temper once with his athletes and it’s a story that those who lived it tell to this day.

Once upon a time, some of the student-athletes he had swimming for him were on a 200-yard freestyle relay that was close to qualifying for nationals. Early on in the conference meet, they just missed the cut, so Mr. Coach decided to have them try again with a time-trial swim between the prelim and final sessions on the meet’s last day. The game plan was they’d go back to the hotel after prelims, get their rest and then return for time trials before finals began. Mr. Coach meanwhile was stuck at the pool all day because the never-ending heats of the mile also took place that day between prelims and finals. So he was relying on the student-athletes to get themselves back in time.

Well, as the expression goes in kindergarten, the relay members "made a bad choice" and decided not to return in time for the time trials. And, as they sauntered into the natatorium, they compounded the badness of their bad choice by laughing it off.

This is how Mr. Coach responded: He set down his clipboard, walked past the bad choice-makers, past the starting blocks, past the diving well, and over to the other side of the natatorium where, in full view of the team, he sat down on a bench. He said nothing. He did nothing. He simply sat.

The whole team watched him. At first they chattered excitedly about what he was going to do to the bad choice-makers when he returned. But the longer he sat, the less they had to say. By the time he stood up, about 15 minutes later, the team was grim and silent, and some of the freshmen were hyperventilating. By then also, the bad choice-makers had apologized to everyone, penned their wills on the backs of meet programs, called their parents to tell them they loved them, and then sat down to await their fates.

So Mr. Coach stood up from the bench where he had been sitting. He walked slowly past the diving well, past the starting blocks, and returned to his on-deck post where he picked up the clipboard he had set down. He consulted it to see who was swimming next, then took out his stopwatch to get the splits.

Later that day, the same quartet of bad choice-makers had to swim in the finals of the 400-yard freestyle relay, an event in which they were not close to making a national cut. But on that day, they did make the cut.

As Mr. Coach later recalled proudly, "They really pulled it out of their you-know-whats."

(I would have said the same thing – just a little differently.)