A week ago I wrote a post that went (relative to other “swim blogs”) viral. The post was titled, “Lighten up, Swim Parents!” and many coaches, parents, and swim teams shared it on social media.
What I want to stress — though I’m sure this post won’t go nearly as viral — is that “Swim Parents” aren’t the only adults in the swimming community who need to “lighten up.”
Someone on Twitter wrote to me and said (I’ll paraphrase) that it seemed odd that this particular post went so viral when I have written many similar posts relating to swim coaches and giving swim coaches advice how to “lighten up,” and yet those aren’t shared as much.
She’s right. It is odd.
I have a luxury of being far enough removed from the swimming arena to be objective (I’m not a coach or official or parent) and yet close being a former NCAA swimmer and writer to see things other people sometimes miss. Since beginning my “Mike’s Mailbag” column last year, I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails from young athletes across the USA. The question subjects are similar: Injuries, or overbearing adults. The swimmers who write to me are oftentimes between 11-15 years-old.
In last week’s article, I opened with an anecdote about a swimmer named “Sara” who had a less-than-stellar interaction with a Swim Parent. Later in that article, I described speaking with a friend and how that friend related to me woes regarding too much pressure from parents.
What I didn’t write was, in that same conversation, this swimmer also described overbearing coaches. Coaches who demanded too much. Coaches who screamed. Coaches who yelled. Coaches who produced fear as a means to motivate. We actually had a long conversation about swim coaches, and how there are those infamous “screaming” types of coaches on the pool decks who coach for years and decades, and yet everyone seems fine with it.
It’s football season, and much of the nation’s attention, at least on Saturdays, turns towards college football. There is one very powerful, perhaps the most powerful, football program over the past ten years that is having yet another successful season. A good friend of mine played football for this coach. And he really, really disliked him. A lot. My friend is a great person, a wonderful man and a hard-worker and someone who is devoted towards serving the public. And yet this man, this friend of mine, described this coach pretty much as “evil” and as someone who “uses fear” to become personally successful.
Another extremely successful football coach, also ranked in the Top-10, uses fear, too. Again, I won’t name the program, but a different friend of mine played for this coach a long time ago, back before he was a household name holding the reins of America’s most iconic football program. This friend told me something similar: That fear was the primary motivator.
Why is it that, in many sports, adults create this type of fear to “motivate”?
In the swimming world, we have our own fear-producing coaches. You’ve seen them. I’ve seen them. And yet no one stands up to them. No one says, “Look buddy, lighten up. This is a sport. This is a game. You’re literally making my kid cry about a sport. You’re making my kid write emails to some strange freelance writer about how she can’t fall asleep at night, how she needs to see a therapist because she’s not succeeding at what you demand she succeeds at.”
No one says this because some of us subscribe to this “tough love” approach, or some of us have blind trust and faith in coaches across America because they wear a badge that says “coach.”
The fact is, there are great coaches out there. Just like there are great “Swim Parents” out there.
There are also nasty coaches, bad coaches, and incompetent coaches in every sport, just like there are unsupportive Swim Parents. My point with last week’s article wasn’t necessarily to tell all swim parents to back off, or to stop caring about their kids’ success and involvement with sports. Because, and I want to stress, there are many great Swim Parents just like there are great Swim Coaches. My point, last week, was just to get parents to step back and say, “Are my comments appropriate in this venue?”
I want to stress that this problem, this inappropriateness when it comes to sports and games, isn’t only due to the red-faced screaming and upset “Swim Parent.” It is also due to coaches. Coaches who use fear to motivate. Coaches who scream at swimmers over mistakes. Coaches who lose their tempers. Coaches who preach “their way or the highway.” If you’re reading this and immediately thinking of that One Coach, then you know the problem. You know what I’m talking about.
I live in a community that witnessed a program send a football player out into the field after suffering a concussion, an act that could have had severe, long-term health consequences. I am friends with both swimmers, football players, and a barrage of other athletes who all have horror stories about adults in the sports world, sitting from the sidelines, using fear as a motivator. Using fear to generate success.
This article won’t go viral like last week. But I just want to use this public forum while I have it:
Swim parents aren’t the only adults in sports who need to lighten up.