“90% of the game is half mental” - Yogi Berra, famous Yankees catcher and manager

This is the second installment on a series of articles about mental training. It addresses specific team activities that will connect your team members to larger sources of power as well as provide several avenues for increasing confidence. 

Team Meetings.

Productive team meetings are essential, but when abused are among the worst things you can do. The right balance is a different for every team; you don’t want to waste training time. The most important things to consider are frequency, duration, and essence. The “same old, same old” is boring and redundant (faculty meetings being a prime example). Obviously you have to get out information, but you only need to highlight what is important. Information can be published; don’t waste time in details that they can read on their own. We usually had a meeting every Monday. If a crisis arose during the week that needed addressing, we might have another. Most meetings were set up by the coaches, but some were set up by the swimmers themselves.

I didn’t let them devolve into “bitch” sessions unless that was the outcome we were looking for. Sometimes it is necessary to let people blow off some steam, but usually meetings should be tightly structured and focused. The meetings always focused on handouts such as the team newsletter (see sample above), developing team rules, meet lineups, training emphasis, etc. The tone of the coach sets the tone of the team. Therefore the bulk of any meeting should address/reinforce the team concepts you are trying to create. I gave out handouts on mental topics gathered from Goldberg, Bell, Loehr, etc. I handed out poetry, articles from magazines, cartoons, anything I could think of to motivate them and get them to think about where we were headed. At meetings, extol what they are doing right and try to emphasize the future, not past mistakes. Quickly point out what they could be doing better, but don’t dwell on it. This is not to say that sometimes teams need a kick in the keister, but for most people depression is not a very good motivator. If anyone left a meeting with a bored or discouraged look on his face, I knew that it hadn’t been a successful meeting. At some point discussion was encouraged. Generally, great questions or comments with depth were the signal that the concepts were getting through. The goal was to engender a “tipping point” of understanding and then let them run with it. 

Team Book.

Not only can sharing the emotional experience of hard training bring a team together, the shared emotion of a good book can do the trick as well. In her book A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong states, “We seek out moments of ecstasy, when we feel deeply touched within and lifted momentarily beyond ourselves.” Stories have the power to unify nations, not just 50 or so swimmers. If our goal as coaches is to educate the “total athlete” and not just make them swim faster, then I cannot see any better way than through literature. And here I do not mean to just assign a book: “Here, kid, read this! It’ll help you swim faster!” I mean that the book should be read out loud, with feeling, so that it has the opportunity to absorb into their deepest layers. You do not have to read every word; you can skip sentences, paragraphs and even whole chapters as long as you fill in the gaps so that the narrative hangs together. Why is it that so many young people relate to Harry Potter? Again Armstrong suggests, “If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.” Myths and stories often go straight to the limbic system and skip the neo-cortex sometimes altogether, just as with music. I have used non-fiction books (Millman, Everyday Enlightenment; Goldberg, Smoke on the Water and Sports Slump Busting; Peter Jensen, Inside Edge; Sun Tzu, The Art of War; M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled; Keith Bell The Nuts and Bolts of Psychology for Swimmers; Terry Orlick, In Pursuit of Excellence; James Loehr, The New Toughness Training for Sports among several others) and found them most helpful but somehow lacking in what we might call “curb appeal.” By far the works of fiction elicited much stronger reactions from both boys and girls. Several books by Chris Crutcher including Stotan; Steven Pressfield, The Legend of Bagger Vance; Dan Millman, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior; Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know. . .; Richard Bach’s classic Illusions and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, all seem to connect at a more emotional level. Even books by Mitch Albom and Lance Armstrong contain enough narrative thread to draw them into the story. It does not matter that some occasionally fall asleep (It’s been a long day, coach!), they actually want to catch up on what they missed (kinda like a soap opera) and many literally can’t wait to find out what happens next. So choose wisely, a great story can unify a team and validate its dreams. The power of myth and metaphor to stir the mind and lift the spirit is truly remarkable.

Team goals, team ownership. 

When I began coaching at a new school, I began the previous Spring with a questionnaire on what do we want to keep and what do we want to get rid of. Yes, I had a track record of success, but I felt I couldn’t go in and “clean house.” For those who were returning, it was their team, they knew much more about it than I did. Again my job was to encourage leadership from the inside out. Discipline does not come from a top down coach imposed/enforced plane, but rather from inside the athlete. Studies show that rats grew 5-10% more gray matter (neurons) when exercise was self imposed, as opposed to 0 % gain without exercise and actual brain loss when imposed by an outside authority. I had to let the team set the goals. At first their goals were modest, but as the year progressed and they saw how successful they could be, those goals changed and we walked away with a league title that on paper we had no business winning. Had I told them it was my goal to take first, I don’t believe we would have accomplished what we did. Ultimately they made the decision, and that created the environment necessary to capture the title. 

Team bonding can clearly impact the emotions of a swimmer both in training and at meets. While an integral part of mental training, I do not have the space in this article to enumerate the plethora of avenues open to the coach. One story: Two weeks out from our league meet our girls decided to have “lane wars.” Each lane had a competition each day. Those included: most unusual suit, jello snarfing, best lane decorations, best skit, best t-shirt decoration. You get the picture—it was fun and helped dispel any anxiety building up to the championships. Cookouts and/or slumber parties strategically placed throughout the year help swimmers to relax with one another. I just heard from a young lady who swims at one the nation’s top 3 swimming universities that every girl on the team was so high maintenance, and with such high egos that no one got along, and that the team was full of cliques. I, for one, do not like the resulting emotional implications when it comes crunch time either in training or at meets. For most athletes, high anxiety produces tighter muscles that cost more energy. We had a big sister/little sister program and a swim pixie program throughout the year for our girls’ team. Pixie’s aren’t a very big deal for boys’ teams, however. Let me repeat an earlier concept, common experience whether through ritual or shared physical hardship is what brings teams together. All warriors know this; it is what Shakespeare spoke of in his famous “band of brothers” speech from Henry V. 

I have found Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team useful. Again the story in the book is much more instructive, but in the last part of the book, he points to five issues that cause a team to fall apart: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. I will not elaborate on teambuilding at length here but a fundamentally sound team is the foundation of mental progress just as a secure family aids in developing each member’s ability to take risks. The last dysfunction, inattention to results, can easily be addressed by introducing special awards. In today’s techno-savvy environment a team booklet with all stats and pictures and team DVD with film clips from the season and orchestrated interviews can really spice up the team banquet and give them memories that will remain the inspiration of a lifetime. Everyone wants to know if their efforts are appreciated and worth it. These forms of recognition pay huge dividends.

Boredom and Staleness.

Nothing breaks down a team effort quicker than boredom and staleness. Keep practices fun. Avoid what Timothy Gallwey calls the “Ho, Hum” experience by making each workout unique, which doesn’t necessarily mean inventing 500 different ways to swim 10 x 50. Even though Dick Jochums’ swimmers knew what each Thursday was going to be, they had new performance goals or technique goals and used their own creativity and competitiveness to keep workouts exciting. Let’s face it, boredom is in the mind of the beholder, so our job (like Pontiac’s) is to build excitement, whether by set design, daily contact with each swimmer, telling jokes or whatever it takes. The more excitement you present, the more you will find it mirrored in your athletes. I adopted the concept of a friend of mine by having a “Word of the day” vocabulary building component during team stretching, which we do after 600 to 800 yards of early warmup. He also used Jack Handy’s “Thought of the Day,” although some of those are REALLY weird. We post cartoons on the wall that are relevant to swimming and athletics in general. When the swimmers bring in their own for you to post, you know you’re headed in the right direction. We also put up inspirational quotations each day as “food for thought.” Some of those old guys like Socrates really knew what they were talking about.

Another way to attack the blahs is to keep sets meaningful. Knowing the why helps in achieving the what. Nothing short circuits motivation quicker than an answer like “because I said so.” Show how each set relates to goals. Use challenging sets to extend their comfort zone and demand improvement in benchmark sets. Use success to build success. Generally if they’re having fun they train much harder and swim faster. If they are having a success, it’s much easier to do 30 x 100 @ 1:05 descend in series of 5 (1-5, 6-10, etc.) Don’t give them impossible intervals or goals. The above set, for example, is not reasonable for the majority of high school swimmers. (That’s where Urbancek’s charts come in handy.) Warmup 50s @ :30 is not reasonable and lead to failure, which leads to doubt, which leads to despair. Using pre-set preparation both in intensity and in technique helps set up success. Generally, if I know what the athletes should be able to do, and they don’t do it, it is because I have not prepared them properly, not because they don’t try. Last year I added the Staples’ “That Was Easy” button to workouts. No one could leave the pool without pressing the button even if they were “dog tired.” It was fun and got to a point where, if I forgot, was requested by the swimmers. In high school meets, swim around— don’t lock them into event staleness. Unless every one of your dual meets is going to come down to the last relay, you should have enough meets where you can experiment. No one on our team swims the same event more Placed on a standard 24 x 36 poster board, these allow for ownership and become extremely creative once the expectations evolved over a few years. than 4 times in one season. In the middle of heavy training, they can still hit lifetime bests in events they aren’t necessarily training for. After every meet the chart of everyone’s season’s best times is updated. Every new best square is highlighted in blue. Once, we were in the middle of a very heavy yardage week and still had 57 lifetime best or best unshaved times out of a possible 63 swims. Everyone wants to see blue dots next to their name after every meet. When we got to taper, I had a better idea of what everyone’s best events really were, and they had faith that they were going to keep getting better as most had all season rather than be beset with the doubt, “what if I stay on this same plateau.”

We’ve Got the Power.

We have individual power posters. At the one school they were twosided because wall at the end of the pool was glass and we used them to stir up interest in what we were doing as well as to motivate ourselves. At the other pool with brick walls, we didn’t see the need for more than one side. The swimmers put up images that motivate themselves, usually some form of collage that might include quotations or images outside of swimming. Placed on a standard 24 x 36 poster board, these allow for ownership and become extremely creative once the expectations evolved over a few years. They are placed right in front of your lane, laminated to keep them from getting destroyed during the season, and are a constant reminder of your goals and values. Several people I know have kept each of their posters well into their twenties. We also get team logo stickers that are stuck on for outstanding achievements during the season. They get one for every “blue dot” time (see above), but they can also get them for outstanding sets, especially for best times on benchmark sets, for academic achievement, and for any outstanding effort that may or may not involve swimming. These posters are taken to the conference championships and posted on the walls where we sit. Anytime, a swimmer has doubts, you have them touch the poster for a few seconds, and they know how far they have come and what power lies both behind them and within them. At the end of the season, we take them to the team banquet, again posting them for all to see, and finally distribute them after the program is over.

Tradition of Excellence.

The power of tradition can have tremendous psychological value. We don’t have a home pool for our competitions. So we try to make our training pool a “home away from home.” Not only are our lanelines and backstroke flags in our school colors, but all of our dryland equipment is blue and gold, swim benches, surgical tubing, even our scooters. We keep a record board prominently displayed at both our competition pool and at our training pool. On one wall, we have six equally divided sections, the two middle enclosed in wood framed plexiglass. All of our All-Americans get a picture with their certificates, which are matted and framed and behind plexiglass. Flanking these we have every team composite back to 1963, (girls only to 1973 since that was their first year). On the outside panels we have all the All-State certificates, girls next to their composites at one end, boys at the other. On the support pillars between each section we have the plaques of all team award winners going back into the 1950s. When our swimmers walk in, they can immediately see decade after decade of success.

Each year, each team gets a coach-made poster, usually anywhere from 12 to 20 feet, which emphasizes our school colors and team theme, (and which usually takes anywhere from 15 to 40 hours to paint) and is presented just before we leave for the conference meet. If the swimmers believe in themselves and their teammates, they sign the poster. The poster is placed prominently over the team bench at the meet. The next year that poster is put on one of the three remaining walls of our training pool. Everyone can see the signatures of swimmers they recognize from earlier teams: family members, All-Americans, and ordinary people whose stories still get told at team meetings throughout the year. When ex-swimmers return for a visit, they find their posters, their award plaques, their old teammates’ pictures. It’s a warm cozy place. It’s home.

We also have other traditions: We have had a team handbook every year since 1974 (eg. Mel Roberts at Toole, or Denny Hill at Pioneer) that includes a current top 15 list, thoughts on responsibility, humorous excuses, coach/swimmer principles, rules as developed by the team, articles on nutrition, parental involvement, maps, (although mapquest might make that obsolete) health, (especially swimmer’s ear) stroke drills, mental training, motivation, schedules, rosters, and anything else that will help educate the swimmers and/or their parents. Our parents provide a legendary afterglow after our Friday home meets, usually involving anywhere from 4 to 7 main entrée type dishes, plus salads and deserts. Many teams love to come to a meet and pig out on hot dogs, roast beef, chicken, venison, macaroni, sloppy joes, fajitas, etc. It’s a great time to socialize with other teams as well as parents, and talk face to face, rather than behind the back.

My boys’ team doesn’t hand out team t-shirts until Thursday’s pre-conference meet dinner. The girls like to get theirs at the start of the season. In our conference almost everyone on all of the boys’ teams bleaches their hair somewhere near the end of the season. With a week to go they dye their hair any one of a rainbow of bright colors, some with multi-colors, then show up at school on the day of the championships with haircuts more bizarre than a punk rocker, and finally shave most or all of it off for prelims, depending on whether they think they can final without a complete shave. On Friday of the conference meet we have a wake-up swim, team breakfast, 3 hours of class, then the final team shave down at our training pool. I treat the boys to a limo ride over to the competition pool. It’s one more tradition that makes them feel special.

On the day before conference, we would have a brief ceremony where the swimmers see you take water from the pool. The day of the meet after the shave down at the pre-meet meeting, the water would have “miraculously” turned blue (with the help of some strategic food coloring). No swimmer gets on the blocks without having been squirted with the juice, (the rite of baptism and water has deep seeded psychological roots). When I started coaching at another school in a different conference, we had maroon juice (four drops red to one drop blue). We were swimming so fast that the other coaches complained to the conference administrator that there was something special in that water. There was—it’s called belief.

At our pre-meet meeting, we have a team food that goes along with the theme. Our “Tough as nails” theme was black licorice. “Nuts” was the theme one year for our boys’ team. We wanted them to go nuts, have nuts, and face the fact that the odds weren’t in our favor. So I used what General McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne said to the German High Command at the Battle of the Bulge. We ate peanuts, and then went nuts. At the new school, we started with a song about magic called “The Fairy Ring” by Gary Stadler. At the meeting, as we played the song (which lasts over seven minutes) we were in a circle where each swimmer had a candle (with drip protector) in a darkened room. I lit the first candle. The captains lit their candles from mine and proceeded around the circle like acolytes to light the rest of the team. Some teams look at videos from previous championships, but that only works if you have already established a winning tradition.

The power of ritual and tradition to connect to sources of power beyond yourself is not open to debate. Like a bumble bee’s flight, it defies scientific description and simply works— whether in religion or on athletic teams. String theory has some potential there to explain these mystical connections, but the verdict is far from conclusive. The bottom line is that on our high school team, we have averaged as much as 5.8 seconds per 100 in time drops during our taper, even from swimmers already at lifetime best levels going into the championships. It didn’t happen by chance; it happened because we prepared to believe in ourselves. We set up a team structure, and that structure was the foundation of our success. In the next section I will address individual preparation, specifically the relaxation response and visualization.



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