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Life with Liz: Swim team spirit

Published January 19. 2019 06:23AM

Our swim team recently kicked off our winter season. Since we don’t live in Florida, and since most of the fall and spring sports are the ones you can do outside, swimming in northeastern Pennsylvania is a winter sport. The people who decided that swimmers should spend several hours a night in a tropically warm and humid swimming pool and then have to run out to their car before their hair freezes into icicles were mean, mean people.

Swimming is a little different from a lot of other youth sports in that we have swimmers as young as 5 and 6 on the same team as 13- and 14-year-olds, and our summer season includes kids all the way up to 18. This is both a blessing and a curse. Hopping back and forth between 8-year-olds and 16-year-olds keeps my coaching skills for both ages sharp. However, it’s sometimes hard to change gears, and the 8 year-olds get a little nervous when I forget to put on my pleasant voice, and they hear me growl at them in the tone that I just used to chew the teenagers out for hanging on the lane lines.

The other night, I did one of my favorite team-building activities with our kids. It’s the week before our first meet, and somehow, I suspect I might not be the only one who is nervous about the meet. So, before we got in and practiced, we played a round of 20 (or more) questions for the coach.

I’ve learned the hard way over the years that I have to be pretty specific about what kinds of questions they can ask. When I was a young, naive coach and had no rules, the kids were pretty quick to take it into territory that started innocently enough with questions like “what’s your favorite color” and quickly veered into things like “do you have a boyfriend?” So, I tried rules like the questions have to be about swimming. Creative little buggers that they are, they could run away with a whole practice asking questions like “what’s my favorite shark?” and “would I rather go swimming in a lake or the ocean?”

After learning the hard way, I’ve limited it to “what questions do you have about the meet that we are going to this weekend?” We were off to a good start when one of the little cherubs asked what would happen if his suit fell down when he dove in the water. Some of my older swimmers started to laugh, and not in a mean way, but because they already knew what my answer was going to be.

First, we talked about the need to make sure suit drawstrings were tied before hitting the water. But, the reality is, they need to “just keep swimming.” Same goes for goggles, caps and anything that might come loose or fall off. We practice so hard and only get one chance to swim, so little things like that have to be worked through.

After a few questions about what the concession stand would be stocked with, always a critical question for swimmers, another little one asked why her belly felt funny every single time she thought about swimming in the meet. I loved that question because, truth be told, my belly feels a little funny every time I think about the meet. I have more than 80 swimmers on the team, and whether it’s my older, expert swimmers who are hoping to shatter their best times, or it’s a brand-new swimmer who I hope just jumps in and starts to swim at the right time, I am probably the most nervous person on that pool deck.

I also loved that question because it lets me know who I should probably position near the garbage can on race day, just in case those belly flutters turn into something a little bit more solid.

After the little ones warmed up the crowd, a few of the older, “too cool to ask questions” hands started to pop up. “What if you really hate the events that your coach signed you up to swim?” My first response to that question came from the mom part of my brain. I had a suspicion that as a teenager, pretty much every decision made by any authority figure at all was not going to be well-received. In fact, our team used to allow the swimmers to pick their events. And, strangely enough, no one picked the hard events to swim! Everyone stuck with their favorites or their best events.

So, we implemented a rule that every swimmer has to try an event they can swim legally at least once in the season, and no one gets to specialize. So, even though it wasn’t an answer my swimmer wanted to hear, she took some comfort in knowing everyone was going to have to be miserable at some point during the season. As a coach, it’s my job to push them out of their comfort zones and teach them how to do things they don’t necessarily like to do. They don’t like it when I remind them it’s great practice for being a grown-up.

After about 10 or 15 minutes of our Q&A session, one of my own darling children raised their hand and asked me what I planned on feeding them for dinner that night. At that point, everyone had a good laugh, and although I know the nerves haven’t been banished completely, as the team brought it in together to practice our cheer before the end of practice, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of camaraderie and sportsmanship I was feeling. It’s what I loved about being on the swim team when I was 10 and it’s why, 35 years later, I hardly ever miss a practice.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.

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