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Perspective and Managing Expectations: The Measure of Success

Aim for achievement and feel the difference

Chris Campbell | August 17, 2012

At the end of February, I had a conversation with an old friend who is now the head men’s swimming coach at a Division I university. His team had just finished up its conference meet. I dropped him a line, congratulating him for all of the season’s best times that I saw.

His reply surprised me. He noted that the big drops in times had come from his B- and C-level swimmers, but his A-level guys didn’t perform well enough to take the team to the next level. No one made it to NCAAs this year. He was disappointed, and it was back to the drawing board for next season.

When I read that, I thought to myself, “Wow. Masters swimming is really different. It’s like we’re from different planets.” The Olympic Trials in Omaha highlighted that difference in a big way.

It made me wonder how we, as Masters coaches, define success. Ironically, I found some input right in front of me. I have a quotation, passed to me by a colleague from my day job, tacked up at my desk. It’s from two-time Oscar-winning actress Helen Hayes:

“My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that ‘Achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others, and that’s nice, too, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.’”

Achievement? Success? Well, I was headed to Summer Nationals in Omaha right after Trials, and I figured I’d ask a bunch of my Masters buddies what they thought.

Dee Haynie of The Olympic Club stopped by while I was having this conversation with USMS Club and Coaches Services Director Bill Brenner. As we were all catching up, we found ourselves lamenting the absence of some cancer-stricken friends, and we agreed that however well or poorly we swam that weekend, we were truly grateful just to be there.

Kent Westphal, a former teammate, now with Illinois Masters, echoed the sentiment, saying that he considered it a successful meet if he felt good in the water and he had the opportunity to catch up with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time. Heather Howland, also of Illinois Masters, met head-on the exciting challenge of trying an event way out her comfort zone (we’ll make a miler out of you yet, Heather!).

I had the opportunity to turn the tables on roving reporter and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Misty Hyman. Obviously, she’d heard this one before. She answered, “Number one, HAVE FUN! Number two, do the best that you can, and number three, and this one is way down the list, swim some good times.” Then she noted, with a bit of a chuckle, that with her background, she was always “kind of itchy to know” what her splits were.

Writer Jeff Commings was one of several swimmers at the meet who had swum in the Trials the previous week, and his goal is to swim his race the way he trains for it. The ability to prepare for that, to embrace that, to act upon that, is what gives him peace of mind as he steps up on the blocks. After a long eight days in the crucible of the US Olympic Trials, he decompressed for two days and was rarin’ to go for Nationals. If you look at the results, he had a scintillating meet.

That aspect of preparation and confidence in your training came up again when I had a conversation with 2009 USMS Coach of the Year Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno of Conejo Valley Multisport Masters. She found herself in the position of racing after a short buildup following a long layoff, and she confessed that perhaps her level of performance expectation was a bit too high. She was okay with her races, but she also needed to remind herself frequently that she was swimming in the light of a larger life context and to judge her performances accordingly. And that is an art form.

Certainly, both Nancy and another friend, Cheryl Kupan of Maine Masters, hit a resonant chord with me, citing the injuries, ailments, and life events we needed to overcome to be able to race in Omaha.

Yeah, I, too, had a rough year of training, missing Greensboro in the spring, and that empathy was most welcome. Sneaking past my modest goal times in my races in Omaha was quite satisfying, and, as Nancy pointed out, there is some value in the numbers as a measure of progress. While not as fast as I have been, I once again have a foundation upon which to build and improve. I also have to keep in mind that I’m not 19 years old anymore, and I haven’t been for a long time.

The recurring theme through all of these conversations was a sense of perspective. Each person I asked, from Jeff and Misty to Coach Nancy, spoke of their races and training in the larger context of life events. That may well be the hallmark of the truly successful Masters swimmer—the ability to temper our expectations in light of current circumstances. As coaches, the triumphs of our swimmers are our triumphs, even more important than our own. Perhaps our biggest task in this business is helping them to manage their expectations.

Coaching Masters swimmers is a funny thing. The science of our sport is pretty well understood. There is a lot of technical expertise and empirical data that we can access. Certainly, we can learn the mechanics of swimming easily enough, and we can find all sorts of creative drills and sets online or from our fellow coaches. We can track times and yardage, we can log our records.

But then there’s the art of dealing with a flesh and blood Masters swimmer, rather than a cold and soulless bunch of numbers, and there is no quick and easy way to do that. Perhaps what we do as Masters coaches is more challenging than what my college-coaching friend does. Although his stakes are much higher (win, or hit the road), working with our swimmers is a much more subtle endeavor. There are no cut-and-dried right answers or formulae for us.

Our workouts may have an Olympian in one lane, and an octogenarian in the next, a novice triathlete two lanes over, and an Ironman qualifier on the other side. They all have vastly different criteria for success, different motivations, and no one set is more valid than another. All are equally important. We have to help our swimmers level set their expectations, lest they become discouraged because their goals are too lofty, or, worse, bored because their goals aren’t challenging or lack meaning. And, just to complicate things further, every swimmer comes with a unique set of life circumstances.

The solution is to get to know your swimmers on an individual basis, and to help them set goals. Work with them to find a definable target that is appropriate for them. I’ve borrowed a method of goal setting from my day job, and I’ll write about that in a future column (or you can email me, and I’ll send my column to you). Keep in mind that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to Masters swimmers. If you take the time to help your swimmers custom tailor their goals, the relationship that you build with them will give them the confidence to achieve and the motivation to persevere.

Aim for achievement, and don’t worry about success. That will surely follow.

Chris Campbell has been a member of Mountain View Masters since 1990, and a coach since 1998. He has swum in 21 Masters nationals and World championships, not winning much in the way of hardware. He’s had lots of fun anyway. You can reach him at coachchris@mvm.org.

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About the Author—Chris Campbell

Chris Campbell is a long time swimmer and coach with Mountain View Masters. A veteran of psychic wars, he loves swim meets, is a shameless foodie, and takes forever to walk from one end of the pool to the other because he has to stop and chat with so many people.

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