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Everybody Counts or Nobody Counts

‘Everybody counts or nobody counts.’

-Harry Bosch

Often, coaches focus their attention on the ‘best’ swimmers, or those swimmers they perceive as being most able to help them accomplish their own goals, whether that’s winning medals, winning championships, or receiving recognition from their peers.

I understand why this occurs. In one sense, we’re motivated by extrinsic rewards. We all want to receive tangible accomplishments for our efforts. Thus, our attention is drawn to those swimmers we perceive as most able to help us accomplish those goals.

It also makes sense from an efficiency standpoint. As coaches, we have a responsibility to accomplish the goals of the team. Focusing our attention on the ‘best’ swimmers is a sound investment in time and energy. More often than not, you’re going to get more results with the same input of time and energy. As both time and energy are limited, it makes sense to use it wisely.

However, I’d like to argue that this is ultimately not a strategy that will serve coaches in the long-term. While it can be successful in the short-term, ultimately it will counterproductive.

Coaching all swimmers fairly and equitably is a better approach for two reasons. The first is that there is more to coaching and life than simply accomplishing goals. We are impacting individuals and the impact we have on individuals will reverberate throughout the world. Based upon our actions with any one individual, those reverberations will be positive or negative.

Secondly, fair and equitable coaching makes sense from a PERFORMANCE standpoint. By helping every swimmer swim as fast as possible, you’ll raise the level of the entire team, enhance your own skillsets, and realize unseen potential from those you least expect it.

Everybody counts because they do.

To be clear, fair and appropriate treatment and attention are not the same as equal treatment and attention. Different swimmers will require different coaching, and this is the skill of coaching at many different levels. Equitable coaching is doing what’s required for each swimmer to facilitate their improvement, and that will often look different for different swimmers.

Let’s take a look at why it makes sense to approach coaching from this perspective.

The Moralist Perspective

Certain behaviors are sometimes just the ‘right thing to do’. In these situations, the reward is behaving appropriately and enhancing someone else’s life as a result. While you may not benefit in any concrete way in terms of ‘success’, there are significant benefits in terms of the relationships you build and the type of person you become.

Life-long impact

People know when you are investing in them, and they are especially aware when you are doing so in situations where there is not an immediate benefit to you. In and of itself, this investment is an affirmation of someone’s self-worth. Your time and effort demonstrate that they are worth the effort. This commitment to an individual is something that they take this with them through the rest of their lives.

This goes beyond the specific skills that you may impart to them. These skills will have a tremendous impact as well. Whether it is learning to set goals, focus attention, maintain discipline, etc, these skills are all critical for helping individuals achieve their goals in life, whether professionally or personally. Again, the impact is huge.

I know that I remember offhand comments that coaches made to me that were incredibly motivating. They have stuck with me for years and changed the course of my life. These were simple comments. Likewise, swimmers have let me know that simple comments have been impactful to them, often when the comments delivered where not necessarily intended to do so.

Consider the impact of a coach who helps other individuals accomplish something they never thought possible. How might that change someone’s life?

They chose YOU and YOU chose them

Swimmers choose to swim on a given team. While there may be a wide variety of circumstances that facilitate that decision, they still choose to swim for YOU. That commitment should be reciprocally honored with your commitment to helping them improve. If a swimmer is joining your team, it is with the expectation that they will be coached.

Further, if you’ve chosen to let them on your team, you’ve committed to them. They’re placing their swimming in your hands and their rightful expectation is an honest and thorough effort to help them accomplish their goals. To me, that is the basis of the swimmer-coach contract. Even if a swimmer turns out to be less skilled than they were expected to be, it was still a contract you entered. Hold up your end of the contract.

The Self-Interest Perspective

Even if you’re not convinced that a fair commitment to each and every swimmer is worth your time and effort from a moralistic perspective, doing so will positively impact your team, make your life easier, enhance your coaching abilities, and improve the performance of your team.

Enhanced team environment

When all swimmers are swimmer are happy, feel like they are valued members of the team, and improving their performances, the team culture is going to be very strong. In converse, if there is a perception of favoritism, if some swimmers don’t feel valued, and some swimmers consistently fail to improve, there are going to be a fair number of unhappy swimmers.

Unfortunately, the impact of negative team members is a lot more significant than the impact of positive team members. 3 unhappy swimmers amongst a sea of happy swimmers can have a huge negative effect, whereas 3 happy swimmers amongst a sea of unhappy swimmers isn’t going to do much of anything.

While all of our choices as coaches aren’t going to please every swimmer in every circumstance, our honest investment in swimmers will ALWAYS have a significant impact. If individuals feel like they are valued members of the team, the chances that they will consistently bring a positive presence to the team culture will be greatly enhanced. Fortunately, the value they perceive will be directly related to how well our coaching behaviors reflect their value.

The converse is true. If swimmers do not perceive that they are valued members of the team, engagement, investment, and attitude are all going to take a hit. Unhappiness is contagious. If that unhappiness is a result of your coaching choices, it’s your fault. Likewise, a positive training environment is going to be the product of your choices over time.

Total commitment is easier than partial commitment

99% is hard and 100% is easy. When you’re committed to helping every swimmer, regardless of their ability to contribute or benefit you in some way, it’s a lot easier than if you’re constantly deciding how much attention and effort to give particular swimmers, consciously or unconsciously. When your attitude becomes one of total commitment, those decisions never need to be made again. You simply help.

Enhanced problem-solving skills

In many cases, swimmers that perform at a lower level will struggle to improve. Rather than getting frustrated by this dynamic, get fascinated by it. The swimmers that resist improvement the most are the very swimmers that have the most to teach us. They challenge us to conceive the performance process in a new light, and force us to find novel solutions to performance problems.

These novel solutions can then be applied in some form in the future. The swimmers that struggle the most are the swimmers that can teach us the most. One day, you’ll likely find that your best swimmer has the same problem, and the skillset you’ve developed will allow you to solve that problem. That solution might bring a championship or a medal that would have otherwise been lost.

You never know who is going to succeed

By helping someone, you can’t guarantee they’ll be successful. By not helping someone, you can guarantee they won’t. For all of our talent identification efforts, we’re not so great at predicting the future champions, even on short times scales. By providing everyone with the required time and attention, you’ll ensure that they have the opportunity to achieve whatever potential they have.

You never know who will be great until they go through the process of trying to achieve greatness. There have been several swimmers I’ve worked with that ended up performing much faster than I would have ever expected based upon initial impressions. The opposite is true as well. It’s very hard to predict someone’s potential. The only way to find out is to commit to the process with them.

By doing so with all of your swimmers, you give everyone a chance to succeed. There will be individuals that perform better than expected. However, if they never receive the required attention, you’ll never see those performances. Likewise, if you commit all of your resources to the ‘talented’ swimmers, what happens when it doesn’t work out? There WILL be times when this occurs. There needs to be other options, and that comes by coaching everyone appropriately.

Everybody Counts or Nobody Counts

So, what is a coach to do? Coach everyone like they matter, because they do.

What does Johnny or Suzie need to improve? Do it.

If you find yourself making comments like ‘Well, she’s never going to help us’ or ‘It doesn’t really matter because it’s only Betty’, you’re headed down a path where your coaching is being compromised by the perceived impact a given swimmer is going to have on the performance of the team here.

Beyond it being the ‘right thing’ to do based upon your role as a coach, the point is that EVERY swimmer is going to have an impact on your team, regardless of how fast they swim. From their attitude, to their untapped potential, to their ability to make you a better coach, every swimmer is going to have major impact, often in unforeseen ways.

Because we can’t predict these impacts, it makes sense to act without an understanding of what they are and what they might be. Everybody counts because they will ALL impact the performance of the team. If not, nobody counts because there has already been a significant compromise in performance, and everyone is following short of their potential.


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