So, what do you do when you go to the big meet and it doesn’t start off the way you had hoped? Sometimes you can do everything right: the training, the taper, no colds, no flu… and it still ain’t there. My girls had a mediocre prelim yesterday at our conference meet. There were some good swims, but the excitement never built up the way it usually does for that meet.
We all try to pretend that it doesn’t matter, but the first few swims of a meet have a way of setting the tone for an entire weekend of racing. There is some sort of psychological tie that teammates have that can cause a meet to either snowball down the hill and turn into something spectacular or melt before it gets rolling down the hill at all.
On my team we talk about the fact that what goes on in our minds is one of the few things that we can control. We visualize. We maintain positive self-talk. We take responsibility for our part in motivating the people around us to do their best for the sake of the team… but sometimes, it is just not there. You know… that underlying buzz. That layer of excitement that transcends a typical, in-season meet and helps athletes to believe that they will be amazing just because being at the big meet with your team behind you is amazing. While this is an individual sport, it is undeniable that one of our greatest motivators is the team concept, and the synergy that comes with it can be rocket fuel. Unfortunately, it can also become an anchor, even when we know better than to let it.
What do you do when it just doesn’t click?
Let me tell you what Fat Jack did for us once. (Yes, we affectionately called Coach Steck at Missouri State “Fat Jack.” I still do, twelve years out.) At the 1996 Missouri Valley Championship, we thought it was the year we were going to take the title away from the Saluki’s. We were swimming well enough to be on track until, BAM-- relay DQ. Jack adds up the scores and we are still in the game, but he is visibly angry. He protests and is denied. That evening he looks over the scores and realizes we are still in it, until the next day when--- KABLAM! ANOTHER RELAY DQ!
This was at the SIU home pool. The Saluki’s knew we had their number. Accusations flew. There was a lot of anger. Ugly anger. The meet was delayed in heated protests. If you have never seen Jack Steck on a tirade, you have not seen it all in swimming. His scalp glows red, veins pop out of his forehead, foam drips from his mouth… he is kind of like Rodney Dangerfield’s evil Doppelganger when he gets mad. He has been called the Bobby Knight of swimming. We even got dressed and almost loaded up to go home at this same meet over an underwater dolphin kick DQ the year before.
Did we screw up? Yes. Is Jack Steck the most patient and wise coach in the world? Nah… but he is a damn good coach. There are some things that Jack can do that I might work at for my entire career and never come close. Jack can make a sale. He can convince some darn good swimmers to come to Missouri State even with one of the most pathetic facilities in the nation…. and he sold us on the idea that we could still swim fast, even when things aren’t going our way; even when that conference championship was no longer on the line.
Rather than chew us out on the break between prelims and finals on the last day, Jack took a different route and did what he does best. He made us laugh. We thought we were having a meeting to finally tell us that the loss of 64 points had put the nail in the coffin of the dream of our first MVC championship. Instead, we got to hear the story about when he was in college and courting his future wife. He went skydiving on a dare just because he wanted to impress her. It was a long story, but I will never forget it. The story ended with him soiling himself on a date, and our team meeting ended with a group of 18 to 23 year old men rolling in the bleachers laughing our asses off. Just like the tirades, if you haven’t heard Jack Steck tell a story, you haven’t seen it all in swimming.
We swam great that day in finals. We swept the breaststrokes. We walked away feeling like bad-asses. Feeling like a damn good team-- and I walked away with a lesson that I have carried with me into my coaching career: Help them relax. Remind them that the big meet is a celebration where they get to see the pay-off from all of their hard work.
I am planning to make my girls laugh today before we warm-up for finals. Let’s see if we can turn this one around.