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Parents’ Commitment

I recently had a chance to talk with an old coaching friend. He expressed frustration with the level of commitment on his team – missed practices, lack of motivation during training, unwillingness to give up leisure activities to spend more time training. There once was a time when I believed a swimmer’s success depended solely on the swimmer’s level of commitment. During our conversation, however, my friend and I both realized that it’s not so much the swimmer as the parent who determines the level of commitment – and thus has a tremendous impact on the success of the athlete. It’s taken some soul searching (and maybe the fact that I’m the father of ten-year-old twins) for me to change my thinking.

When I was a young age-group swimmer, my Dad would wake me up each morning, rain or shine, with singing. I’d struggle out of bed at 5:00 am, drag my feet down the hallway to the kitchen, and there would be my Dad, waiting for me with a big smile and a hot bowl of oatmeal. He would already have his things gathered up for work, and he would already have my books and papers gathered up for school, so all we had to do was eat, get in the car, and drive to morning practice. After school, my Mom would pick me up and take me to high-school swim practice, then drive me to the Nautilus Club to lift weights until it was time for her to drive me to my USS (it was called AAU back then) practice at night. Three swim practices and a weight-room session, and this was BEFORE my serious training in Cincinnati started. This schedule was BEFORE my Mom and I got a townhouse in Cincinnati, and my Dad drove down from Cleveland, 275 miles each way, every weekend for the final two years of my high-school career, so that I could train with a better team. THAT was commitment. I can see that now, as a parent. At the time, however, I thought the commitment came from me. I was, after all, the one who was doing all the laps. I was, after all, the one who had declared, after watching David Wilke take the podium after winning the 200 Breast at the 1976 Olympics, "I’m going to do that some day."

My Mom just happens to be visiting right now, and through conversations about her and Dad, I’m starting to realize something. The real commitment came from them. It’s just that, as a kid, I got used to having the world revolve around ME. I think it’s called an Id thing. And I think I didn’t start to get over it until I became a parent. Even now, there are huge lapses in my ability to see beyond my own needs and my own person. Although my kids are only 10, I find myself not nearly so excited as I should be when it’s time to take them to lacrosse, softball, soccer, basketball, music class, Spanish class, and the occasional swim lesson (by me, of course). I get a flow of work going, then here they come again. Can I help with their homework? You’ve got a project due WHEN??? (Usually tomorrow.) There’s a field trip, Dad, can you go? Dad, can so-and-so come over? The schedules, the travel, the juggling seem like they’ll never end.

People ask me why I don’t compete in Masters swimming. I can come up with many excuses, but the truth is that there just isn’t time for me to compete. My weekends are usually filled with basketball, lacrosse, softball, soccer, running races, or – finally – just a weekend off. For me to consider missing even one of my son’s running races, or even one of my daughter’s basketball games – for a Masters swim meet – is just plain silly. I swam for almost 20 years as a competitor. I had my time. My parents sacrificed for me, and I’ll do the same for my kids. After all, don’t I owe them that?

What I’m trying to say is that so many of us talk a good game. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not perfect, but there are others who are guilty as well, so I’m not in this alone. We talk about how hard we worked as kids. How tough it was for us. Then, when we really think about it, and open our eyes, we realize we weren’t in it alone. Our parents (or some other mentoring adult) were there with us. I remember how hard it was training my last two years of high school. We swam 20,000 meters a day, six days a week. I was always sore, always tired, always grumpy. If my dinner wasn’t ready when I walked in, well, then – my Mom heard about it. How dare she make me wait? Didn’t she know what I was going through? Parents just don’t understand, I would think.

Only now, as a parent of 10-year-old twins, do I begin to realize that for kids to succeed in sports, the true commitment has to come from the parents. I realize that all kids are a bit selfish – that’s just the way it is. Their world is still so small, and still revolves ONLY around them. I know there was some psychologist who came up with a theory about this a long time ago, but it always takes me a while to catch on. As parents, we have to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around us, and we have to show our commitment to our children. Teach them to follow through on commitments they’ve made. If they’ve joined a team, and have agreed to be part of a certain training group, then they must live up to the commitment level of that group. This is something that should be agreed on by the coach, swimmer, and parent. Especially if the parent will be the one responsible for getting that athlete to the venue. If the parent cannot live up to the level of commitment needed for their child to stay within a particular group, then the child shouldn’t be placed IN that group. You can see how this looks to the coach. A 13-year-old swimmer misses 2 out of 6 practices for the week, and the coach assumes the level of commitment from the kid just isn’t there. But perhaps the truth is that the commitment of the parent just isn’t there. How is a 13-year-old supposed to GET to the pool? The parent. Whether it’s making arrangements for rides, or taking them even when they have something else they’d rather do, the parent has to step up. Or – move the swimmer to a group with a lower level of commitment.

I used to have goal meetings with my swimmers at the beginning of each season. I asked them to commit to a number of practices. Then I held them to their commitment. As a coach, it’s wrong for me to project my level of commitment onto them. I’ll be there every day. That’s my job. And it’s my job to inspire them to want to be there, practice after practice. But I can’t determine or dictate their level of commitment. What I realize now is that I probably should have had each swimmer’s parents at the same goal-setting meeting – or advised parents and swimmer to talk things over together before they met with me. Kids can have one level of commitment, but if their parents aren’t on the same wavelength, then everyone – swimmer, parents, and coach – will be frustrated when expectations and goals aren’t met.

Because most age-group swimmers need their parents to get them to and from the pool, parent’s need to become an integral part of each season’s goal planning. The parents can help in determining the initial level of commitment, and then hold the swimmer to that level for the set period of time. In other words, if the coach, swimmer, and parent all agree on the level of commitment, the parent becomes the cog. The parent will ultimately be the one who determines whether or not that child makes it to practice. The parent will determine what is more important on that day – the test coming up in school for which the swimmer is unprepared, the party that the parent wants to attend that night, or swim practice.

Simply put to the parents who read this: The FIRST person to consult when setting the "level of commitment" is the swimmer. If he or she desires MORE, then try to give them more. Once the question of the swimmer’s intentions are answered, then talk to the coach about how to best serve this level of commitment. Then look inside yourself and be honest about your level of commitment. Can you follow through? If not, then be honest about it, and either find a way to solve the issue, or start over with the swimmer and the coach, and figure out the next best scenario. We all start out with a "wish list" and work back from there. Swimming is no different.

I’ll give one illustration from a coach’s viewpoint. Many years ago I had a swimmer who just missed qualifying for a championship meet while other team members made it. This swimmer spoke of his determination to qualify for that meet the next year. I discussed with the swimmer the exact training regimen that the other team members had used and showed this swimmer what it would take to guarantee success. (Sure, I was going out on a limb, but it also puts pressure on me as a coach.) The swimmer agreed, and we started planning the training routine. Within 30 minutes, I was met with, "Well, I can’t make that. I’m going on vacation." I quickly said, and I remember this distinctly, "Then you really don’t want to qualify for that meet." The look of shock on the swimmer’s face was something I’ll never forget. How could I question his level of commitment? I had just explained that commitment is about choices. The athlete had the choice to commit fully, or partially. Really long story short… the swimmer didn’t live up to the reality of the commitment, and didn’t qualify for the meet. But from what I heard, the vacation was wonderful. End result: The swimmer was sad, the coach was sad, the parents were sad. All could have been avoided had the swimmer’s wish or goal not exceeded the level of commitment needed to achieve that wish.

So, we all have a lot of work to do for our children. As parents, get involved and understand it is YOU who allows for the follow through on the level of commitment our children want to give. It is YOU who must hold them to that level of commitment. Even if their level of commitment varies throughout the season (you’ll see it drop during really hard training sessions, and rise way up during taper), you must hold them to their commitment. If you can do this, everyone will be happier at the end of the season, knowing that they gave their best effort. Good luck to everyone – swimmers, parents, and coaches.