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Week #12: Tuesday with Mitch Albom

One Tuesday night I had the pleasure of hearing Mitch Albom speak. He came as part of a lecture series to the university where I am employed. Mitch Albom, for those who might not know, is a nationally renowned sports writer who has worked for ESPN, The New York Times, and the Detroit Free Press, to name a few. Albom is nationally syndicated on radio and television. He�s also the author of the long-time national bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie, as well as a new book, Five People You Will Meet in Heaven.

I read Tuesdays with Morrie at a very confusing time in my life. Somehow a book written by a sports writer about his relationship with a dying man seemed to make perfect sense of what I was going through at the time. I very much wanted to hear Albom speak, and weeks ago had marked my calendar: lecture begins at 8:30.

I almost didn�t make it. It had been a long day and a long week, with practices, recruiting, and preparation for last weekend�s big meet. After 12+ hours at the pool/office, I was tired and wanted to veg out. Then I remembered Albom and Morrie�s message, and got myself to the lecture. Tuesdays with Morrie is about a teacher who is dying from (make that living with) ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gherig�s Disease. The lesson of the book is that there is always time, and that we have to make the most out of the opportunities that we are given. The things that matter most are not your possessions, but the people who surround you. Seems like a common-sense approach to living, but it is easier said than done. Not more than a half hour earlier I was ready to go home and watch the boob tube because I was tired. I am tired at the end of every day. The thing is�I know I can get more out of myself.

Albom�s reminder of what is important couldn�t have come at a more opportune time. I wrote last week that our team would be facing our toughest challenge of the season. The results of the meet were good and bad. The women won by a narrow margin. They performed well under adverse conditions in a hostile environment. The men suffered their worst defeat in the last decade. They ran into a team that is in midseason taper, and is swimming very well right now. I don�t want them to look for excuses in their defeat. The loss was not the most upsetting part of the meet� it was the attitude. Rather than seize the opportunity to race each race to the fullest, we chose to try to beat our own teammates. This is a pretty natural phenomenon in the first meet of the season for a team that has been training together without any outside competition. As a team, we lost sight of what was important.

The swimmers wanted to be fast. They were shooting for times that they may or may not be able to reach at this time of year. But time is not the important part of a race. If you focus only on the outcome, you will neglect the process. Hard work and attention to detail are the important things in racing. As an athlete you must constantly ask, �How am I going to get faster?� You must come up with answers to that question and, more important, you must put in the work that will allow you to achieve your goal.

The athletes are the most important part of this and any program, but they are not the ones responsible for the loss. As a coach I wanted to win, and that was my focus. But winning is not what has made our program successful in the past and it will not make us successful in the future. As a coach, I have to remind myself that the most important thing is not winning but, rather, preparing to win. The atmosphere that I brought to the deck last week was not conducive to training athletes to be their best. Rather than coach, I was trying to impose my will on my athletes. My will was to win and I wanted them to feel that. I was not having fun with or enjoying what I was doing. My concern was strictly for an event over which I had no control. My dad used to tell me that winning is something you can�t control. All you can do is your best. With that in mind I have changed my focus for this week and, I hope, for the rest of the season.

Losing by a considerable amount served as a wake up for everyone involved. The athletes have responded with new-found vigor in practice. They have come to the conclusion that they are not the most talented team in their league, but they have the ability to be champions. What made this team champions last season was their will to work harder than everyone else. That is the team I saw at the end of last season, and that is the team I saw in the pool on Monday and Tuesday. We had two very difficult main sets on each day. On Monday we did a set that was a double descend. The object was to push harder than you wanted to push yourself. The set was designed with constant rest intervals to allow the athletes to choose their own involvement. If someone chose to do so he could have cruised through the set and gotten the same rest.

Fast Faster Fastest

Swim 3 rounds of the following, with Rest Intervals of :05, :10, and :15 by round:

1 x 300

2 x 200

3 x 100

Each round is faster than the previous round. And each unit within each round is at a faster pace than the previous unit, i.e., 200s are at a faster pace than the 300, and the 100s are at a faster pace than the 200s.

Tuesday we carried the momentum into our scheduled test sets. This week we were back to 6 x 100 all out. I was happy with the intensity and focus of all of the athletes, and was pleased with the atmosphere of the group. They were enjoying what they were doing even though it was as hard as anything they had done. They were making jokes with me about how much it hurt. There was no complaining about having to work hard. They have come to accept the fact that work needs to be done, and that they don�t have to hate it. Rather, they have to welcome it. If you enjoy what you are doing, you are more likely to do it well regardless of what it is you are doing.

I am going to take an approach with the lessons of Tuesdays with Morrie in mind. Each practice is an opportunity to do better. I have to remind myself that I have the best job in the world. In the greater scheme of our social order I have an essentially useless position. I do not produce any tangible products, nor do I even sell what someone else has produced. What I do have is a daily opportunity to work with bright young student athletes who have a desire to compete without any rewards. They swim because they enjoy it, and they don�t need a coach who is more concerned about his Win/Loss record than about the people who surround him. I owe it to them to enjoy what I am doing so that I can also do it to the best of my ability.