After attending swim practice for over 12 hours a week 11 months a year for 4 years and competing an average of 2 weekends a month throughout most of the year, my daughter at the age of 12 finally reached her goal of qualifying for age-level State Championship Meet in an individual event. Since I was unable to attend the final meet of the regular season (aka last chance to make the State Championship cut), I anxiously waited for my daughter to return home after the meet. I do not tell her this but I have Meet Mobile on my phone and I check it often when I cannot be at her meets. I reloaded the meet page and noticed that she had finished the 200M backstroke 5 seconds faster than ever to qualify for USA Swimming Michigan State Championship Meet. Usually, if you are not relatively close to the qualifying time, you don’t make it so to knock that much time off showed that she really had focused over the two weeks leading up to the state qualifier meet. I was proud of her and especially her commitment to achieving her goal.
I approached her soon after she returned and tried to contain my enthusiasm and pride in her commitment and success at reaching her goal. I asked her about the race. Her response, “Well, it wasn’t great! Not perfect.” I was in shock: years of practice and reaching a pretty difficult goal and in her mind the race “wasn’t great.” She had just reached a major goal and her response was to tear her race and essentially herself down. That was a sign. A huge sign. I didn’t know exactly what in the world was going on, I didn’t know what to say. Sure, often swimmers find something to critique about the race, but where the heck was some kind of sense of success or at least a smile? And this was particularly concerning for me, as it was pattern that I was noticing more and more in her life.
But I had to say something. “Good job” was not going to do the trick when she had just qualified for States. I could say, “Awesome” but that’s no different. She is a very mature young adult and can see right through “Awesome” as a meaningless response. I hesitated and then said, “What is a perfect race…does anyone ever have a perfect race?” She stopped. She angled her head. There was a pause. I did okay. I didn’t band-aid her concern or instantly say she was good or bad. She didn’t have a direct response and she didn’t instantly have a “You’re wrong mom” reaction either— and with a pre-teen I have discovered that is a huge milestone!
I decided in the summer after that State Championship meet to sign my daughter up for a swim clinic at University of Michigan. When she was 9, she had attended a full week swim camp at the University of Michigan. I thought that some professional feedback wouldn’t hurt and may build her confidence. She had been swimming in the same USA swim program for 3 years now and seemed like the feedback she was getting was always the same and that her technique was stuck in a rut. I noticed that Jim Richardson guaranteed to be running the clinic. He was the head coach of women’s swimming at University Michigan for 27 years with a record 12-straight Big 12 titles.1
My daughter and I arrived at the University of Michigan Swim Clinic in hopes of mainly direct stroke feedback. Jim Richardson called the kids to the deck. The clinics are very limited (I believe this one had a cap of 19 kids) so that the kids almost get individual training. The clinic was scheduled to be 4 hours long so I brought a good book and a laptop and was going to take advantage of a little kid-free time. I sat in the bleachers to hear the introduction and then was thinking of finding a coffee shop. Coach Richardson introduced the kids to his assistant coaches for the day and then he turned to the parents in the stands. He was wearing a polo-type shirt, lightweight pants, and flip-flops. He looked extremely ordinary for a well-renowned coach. He had a microphone hooked on his shirt so that we could clearly hear him. Early in his introductory speech he said the following:
“…our goal is not to be a guru. I hate gurus. I absolutely hate them because they make you dependent on them and that’s not our goal. Our goal is to create more independence in the athletes and that happens with them being empowered with knowledge about their body and the water and how the water treats their body…”
Coach Richardson had my attention with the word “guru.” I immediately put my book down, grabbed my notebook and wrote notes almost continually as he spoke for the next four hours. I wanted to capture as much of what he was saying as I could. I leaned forward in the bleacher and thought, “He said he hates gurus. Yes, me too.” Coach Richardson discussed how guru coaches try to make everyone dependent on them. You know that coach that keeps telling you that whatever you need to fix with your technique will come with time, but won’t explain how to even begin to correct it. Or the coach that takes credit and lets you know they want credit for your child’s successes. I thought about the times my daughter went to find her coach on deck after a race and he provided random feedback even when he had not watched the races. Guru coaches are generally very knowledgeable about the sport and technique, but too narcissistic to build confidence among swimmers. In my daughter’s case, her guru couch was letting everyone know that no other coach could do what he does. And Jim Richardson went on to explain how when kids are in a program with a guru coach the children begin to doubt themselves even outside of the pool. Wow. This could explain the lack of self-confidence I was noticing with my own daughter and why she didn’t smile after her biggest race of the season.
Jim Richardson was giving me words to describe things I had been talking about for years but had no specific terms until now: mindset and grit. Terms that he did not develop, but was a full believer in utilizing and encouraging all athletes, coaches, coworkers, parents, people to understand. In a radio podcast with Chris Ritter, Jim briefly summarizes grit in language brought to the mainstream by Angela Duckworth: “Grit is long-term determination and perseverance.” He goes on to talk about how athletes (and anyone for that matter) that don’t develop resilience and grit expect everything in life to happen easily. Therefore, when they fail at some point or can’t participate in a sport at some point, they are lost, looking for shortcuts, and often they quit. Let’s face it— mindset and grit go well beyond sports. Life if full of ups and downs and we are definitely not born with the tools to face all of the challenges.
And when Coach Richardson is talking about mindset, he usually begins with Carol Dweck’s Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. She describes two types of mindset: Growth and Fixed (Talent-Oriented) Mindset. Fixed mindset lends to judging yourself against yourself constantly, judging yourself against others, and living a life full of excuses for failures and expectations of grandeur for every achievement one has. Typically, fixed mindset people think that whatever they are good at (sports, school, music, etc.) is because they were just born with the sh*t that makes them awesome.
Growth mindset lends itself to facing challenges as a learning experience and seeing success in the effort, not in praise. People with a well-developed growth mindset see experiences as an opportunity to learn and grow even if they are not number one. They see intelligence as something to be developed, not something that you are born with and just owed. Dweck’s research is extensive and I am giving a very simplified explanation of this at this time.
Jim Richardson took his discussion beyond giving a definition of mindset to the actual makeup of our brains. He showed videos on the executive function of the brain. He gave a full lesson on neurons, axons, and myelin and explained that to “change your stroke, [you need to] change your brain.” To help the athletes at the clinic understand how and why these new techniques would help them, he basically gave them mini-lessons (through numerous videos and discussion) on biomechanics, neurophysiology and hydrodynamics. His presentation was so well thought out, precise, and interesting that my daughter is still strongly considering going into neuroscience. She even wrote a paper on love for English class last year that discussed love in terms of mindset and growth. The t-shirt for the clinic had the words “Train Your Brain” right on it.
And when he was done with the beginning education portion of the clinic, the kids still did not enter the water immediately. He had them go into positions on a mat (dryland activation) where they could feel the changes in their own center of gravity by changes the muscles that were engaged. He explained everything to the kids. He explained how the out-of-water center of gravity exercises inadvertently affect a swimmer’s buoyancy in the water. They spent over a half hour in various poses on a mat specifically engaged the critical muscle groups to building an efficient swim stroke.
Then, he had the athletes get in the water and float for a long time. He talked to the athletes (when the athletes heads were in the water he continually talked us parents through what was happening) about why they were doing what they were doing. And he had them do each aspect of the clinic for at least a half hour so that the athletes could begin to train their brain to engage the appropriate muscles to achieve better buoyancy. He was taking the discussions/video lessons from the education portion of the clinic and physically having the swimmers apply what they had watched to their own bodies and body positioning in the water.
After floating, they moved into stroke breakdown and development. He had them swim slowly. He often used the phrase
“[You need to] get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
He explained how important technique is and how you should not be worried about swimmers getting in shape until they learn how to swim. Not just how to move across the pool, but how to engage your center of buoyancy in order to be more efficient in the water. And obviously, the more efficient you are at your swim stroke, the faster you go.
My daughter’s swim story fit a pattern Jim described early in the clinic. She had technique, but without slowing down and correcting her stroke early on, she had relied on pulling mostly to correct her sinking body position especially in the backstroke. Sure, she was getting faster, but she was reaching some limitations because she was not properly engaging her core. My husband and I had talked about her bounce in her backstroke for a long time. Her coach said sometime he would buy her a special swim tool to help her (2 years later it never showed up). But it turns out, she didn’t need a device, all she really needed to do was engage different muscles. And engaging these muscles was going to take practice and practice. It was not going to just happen after the clinic. Jim made a point to say that if they work at the technique changes, realistically they won’t be able to race with that form until maybe 6 months later.
Every portion of the clinic Jim drove home the idea that “the more you do something the better you become” and “failure is okay…its part of getting better.” It’s not the first time that I heard “the more you do something the better you become” but he was so strong at explaining truly how connected our physical (through the brains and neurons) success and our mental success are.
We finished the workshop, my daughter put on her headphones, and we started our lengthy drive home. As I was driving I began to try to process all that I had heard that day. But instead of focusing on worrying about if I had notes about my daughter’s strokes so that she could improve, I found myself thinking, “Oh my god, I have been a guru parent.” I kept replaying the last 4 years of swimming in my mind. I remember getting frustrated when my daughter didn’t want my feedback and telling her that I was only trying to help her by reading about swimming, strokes, and studying swimming. I gave out knowledge, wanted her to come to me for more, and wanted so bad to hear what an awesome, smart mom I was. Me, a guru parent! How could I have missed this?
I imagined myself in high school running the 2-mile at a track meet. How would I have responded if after my race my mother told me all the ways I could have gone faster? I would have hated it! I would have tried to avoid her. And I would not have been inclined to go over to her to only hear what I am doing wrong. My mother didn’t do that. Instead, she always leaned against the fence at the third turn and I loved having mom there. My mom would yell, “Go Molly…Go.” I would run just a bit faster even though I was usually on my last bit of energy. My daughter rarely looked up at me before her race and who could blame her. She was surrounded by a guru mom.
I had a sense that over the years I always had been saying too much to my daughter. I had seen her work hard since the time she was 8. I watched her practice consistently. I absolutely love to watch young swimmers go from clumsily using mostly their hands to pull across the pool to gracefully using their entire body with precise fluidity. Swimmers constantly have to amalgamate so many technical skills while trying to build a platform with their own body to move across the water and that amazes me. You don’t have to wait for a coach to put you in from the sideline or bench, you dive in and you make it happen. You, the swimmer, make that happen.
As I said before, I didn’t know a great deal about the sport of swimming when my daughter started out, but I was eager to learn and share what I learned with her. Learning about swimming was interesting, complicated, and a nice break from constantly thinking about little kid parenting things. I always had so much advice to offer. Part of my former work and studies involved hydrodynamics. I could see many things that I thought needed to be ironed out to go faster. I could see the resistance that she was creating. There may be some kids that want to hear about the hydrodynamics of swimming, but I could tell that my daughter didn’t want hear that. She began to counter whatever I said whether it was about swimming, school, or life in general. Of course she did. I was doing the identical thing as a guru coach. I wanted her to come to me for knowledge and advice. I wanted to know and to have verification that I was important to her.
Jim Richardson sent an extensive email after the clinic with a list of books, videos, and more related to the Swim Clinic and about the topics he had discussed. But what he really was emailing were tools and strategies to becoming the opposite of a guru parent—the starting point for building resilient, growth mindset children. His book list included Carol Dweck’s Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, Angela Duckworth’s Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. I eagerly began to read all of the books on his list. I then read books suggested online to read along with those books.
I wish I had been handed these books the moment my daughter was born. These books will get a person to think about how we are approaching our parenting and our own lives. Paul Tough extensively discusses how we have a common problem in society of making things easy for our kids. They don’t get very many opportunities to experience failure and more importantly, process that failure, and to develop malleable, not band-aid approaches to failure. I was guilty of that. I thought that I was being helpful to my daughter and had no idea that what I was doing was achieving the opposite: she was becoming more apt to blame something or someone else for anything that was going wrong in her life. If she wasn’t getting a good grade, it was the teacher’s fault. If she didn’t swim her fastest, she would talk about how her knee hurt or some other reason. She was insecure that I or anyone else would see her as some kind of failure.
I did not reach guru mom status intentionally. Like so many parents, I wanted her to succeed and feel good about herself. I wanted to help her reach her goals. And all this time I kept waiting for all the changes with swimming to come from the head coach, the program, or the clinics when I realized one of the biggest changes needed to come from within me. I needed to do what Jim Richardson had done within the clinic: slow down, work on my core, and see my failures as part of becoming a better parent.
Parenting does not have those specific techniques that allow you to float better through life. Even after reading the books suggested by Jim Richardson, I still struggle with the best way to extend, encourage, and parent in a way the builds resilience in my children. I struggle to not just latch on to the terms “effort” and “growth mindset” because I like the way they sound. Instead, I hope to find effective tools and strategies that guide my children to build confidence and not worry about if they are winning. I am grateful to Jim Richardson for sharing his research and details on how he encourages athletes to face life inside and outside of the swimming pool. Coach Richardson wasn’t afraid to have us hear every word uttered to every athlete at the clinic. He was practicing the exact opposite of a guru parent or coach: I am going to tell you because you ALL are worthy to know this.
My patience and focus to really try to apply these strategies are starting to pay off. During the recent summer recreation swim meet, my daughter would look up at me and give me the thumbs up often. During the Olympics she has been really talkative and our conversations aren’t about how awesome the athletes are; rather, we have talked about the athletes mental and physical preparation. Missy Franklin has not had nearly as successful Olympics as 2012 and it’s going to be interesting to see how she responds to what many would consider a failure of an Olympics. I do hope that she has the support and tools to, as Jim Richardson would say, “to be resilient in the face of failure and frustration.” And who hasn’t faced failure and frustration at least once in their life. And if you are like me, it seems to creep up on you more often than you would like.
It has now been a year since we went to the clinic and like I said at the beginning, my daughter is starting high school. Now she is the top qualified freshman on her varsity swim team so she has moved from “Do we have to have her on our team?” to “We can’t wait to have her on our team!” It’s not because she has some special build or talent. It is because she practiced and practiced and didn’t quit. She worked really hard and it is showing. After the clinic, she began to apply the technique and buoyancy changes she had learned. That was difficult because she appeared to be going slower and in her guru coach’s mind she was “not putting in great effort.” But over the year you could see her effort paying off and long-term I believe she will be more efficient in the water and more importantly, in LIFE.
On a side note, the guru coach is not coaching or running a swim program in this community anymore. I am proud that the community could see that the kids, parents, and community were not thriving in the right kind of ways under this coach. The swim facility took the plunge to start a separate program in junction with another facility. We are excited to have the opportunity to support a more community-minded swim experience. I breathed a sigh of relief when this is one of the first things the new program director/head coach said, “ My goal is to develop lifelong swimmers, not 9-year-old state champions.”