Thursday, February 27, 2014

From a Distance: A Coach's Lament

Most coaches aren't lucky enough to stay in one place for their entire career. Check out your favorite coach's bio, and you are likely to find at least a few stops along the way. You grow, you reach new heights, you need to find a better situation. Suffice it to say, I know there are a lot of coaches sitting in the position I find myself in over these past two weeks. Last week's ACC Women's Championship and this week's men's meet are the first one I haven't taken part in since 2009. It's a strange, disorienting experience.

A few weeks ago, I slipped and fell down the stairs after a meet. I took a concrete stair to my back, and fearing some sort of spinal injury, they kept me on the pool deck until EMTs arrived. It turns out I was fine- some bruised ribs (and pride) but nothing else. Talking to one of my swimmers afterwards, she asked me if I was in pain. "Of course!" I said. Then she asked me a question I wasn't expecting: "Why didn't you cry?".

I paused. I realized that in recent memory, I could count the number of times I had cried on one hand, and a majority were happy occasions. I cried on my wedding day. I cried the day my daughter was born. I cried the day we came home from the hospital, too. The only sad tears I can remember crying over the last five years came at two moments: the day I told the team at Georgia Tech I was leaving for Denmark and my last day coaching there (spread out over a few occasions if we're really getting technical). It's hard to walk away from a team when it has become such a part of you.

So when the championships got flowing, I found myself strangely on edge. I wanted to watch the meet, but with a six hour time different I was asleep for finals and at work during prelims. Every time I checked results afterwards, it was a bit of a roller coaster. My heart sunk when I saw swimmers get a result that I knew they would be disappointed with. Strangely, when they swam well I felt only relief. As I've written before, coaching the greatest drug on the planet. When swimmers achieve a good result you feel like you can conquer the world.

The same doesn't exactly ring true for a swimmer that you used to coach. I feel relief because I know they will not be disappointed, but I can't feel the same happiness the other way. I don't feel a part of the result anymore. This season was one they did with another coach, and I feel like the good result belongs to that swimmer and that coach. In my own mind I am relegated to the role of a slightly more knowledgable-than-average observer.

Yet I think there is more than that. In coaching I have trained myself to "be where I am". My swimmers know that I can basically tune out everything else to just watch (or as they might call it "stare at") one swimmer in a pool of hundreds. And so, the results on the page somehow feel much less "real" than when I watched them live.

So I take comfort- I go to practice and I don't think about the ACC Championships. I think about the meet taking place 20 minutes away this weekend, where I will be coaching the swimmers I coach now. I will feel the rush of success with them, the satisfaction of achieving another goal that we set out a long time ago to achieve. The life of a coach!

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