By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
Last week, I took my first coaching job.
I won’t be charting watts or checking TrainingPeaks. The workouts will be measured in yards, not hours or miles – I am now officially the new assistant coach of Buffalo’s girls high school swim team.
Swimming was my first love in sport. It took winning an elite national title, racing on my first championships team and a strong awareness of the fast-approaching end of my collegiate career to force me out of the pool. That love has endured: even now, hopping in for a few leisurely laps is the most reliable mood-booster I know.
I can’t think of a better place to have spent the majority of my teenage, non-school waking hours than on the pool deck, so it’s thrilling to return to that world and share that experience with another generation.
(As a side note, today at practice they put on a mix of early ‘00s music that included Fountains of Wayne’s hit, “Stacy’s Mom.” They did this because, “The music today just isn’t any good.” So, you heard it here first: “Stacy’s Mom” is a high-quality classic.)
In the same way that many of us emulate our parents as we age, I appear equally prone to echoing my sports mentors of yesteryear. It is astonishing and entertaining to see just how many of the hard-impressed pearls of wisdom from my high school swim coach, Grant Holicky, come spilling out of my mouth.
Excellence is a habit
Swimming, particularly as I was trained to do it, is a technique-oriented sport. That means there are simultaneously a lot of opportunities to excel and a lot of opportunities to cut corners. Grant committed to teaching us about the accumulated value of putting in scrupulously conscientious work. Skipping that little 200-yard warmdown at the end of every practice adds up to miles skipped over the course of the season. Similarly, showing up five minutes late every day eventually turns into hours of workouts lost. Those who do lazy turns in practice shouldn’t be surprised to see them turn up on race day.
The ethic of excellence was a more common worldview in the elite peloton, but Grant was the first to teach me to honor the work I put in. Because my swimming talent is best described as lackluster, I learned early how important it was to strive to be my personal best, long before I ever thought of lining up with the top athletes in the world, or getting paid for performance.
Whatever an athlete’s level, Grant offered them an equal opportunity to reach their own potential, a measure of respect I want to be sure I extend to all of my own swimmers today. To meet that level when I was the one wearing goggles, I had to learn a healthy dose of self-awareness and accountability. They weren’t always natural traits as a 14-year-old, but continually being reminded to practice them was integral to the athlete I would become.
Take every opportunity
Swimming is also a sport of repetition. With every stroke and on every length, a swimmer has a quantifiable, replicable, and visible opportunity to practice toward perfection.
“Why,” Grant frequently asked us, “would you ever want to do something in practice that you wouldn’t want to do in a meet?” When we are tired or nervous, we are more vulnerable to mistakes, he explained, so it is critical to develop good habits in training.
Each workout is a chance to improve, but so are the little things that make up a workout: each interval, each pedal stroke, each readjustment of head position on your time-trial bike. From a young age, Grant taught me to look, in training and in life, for opportunities to improve, rather than obligations to execute.
Long-term success in sport demands resilience. I’ve found it is much easier to rebound when I remember that each successive moment offers the chance to improve on my past performances, and even my ten-minutes-ago self.
Follow your own goals
There is no way that any group of thirty high-school girls will ever have a uniform set of goals. One athlete might be aiming toward a college scholarship or an Olympic Trials cut, while another might be in it to stay fit and have fun competing with her friends. Both desires are equally valid, and I believe it is my job as a coach to understand what each of my athletes is shooting for.
At the beginning of each season, Grant made us sit down with him for a goal talk. It didn’t matter what he thought of our physical potential or what our teammates told him they wanted to accomplish. Our job, he explained over and over again, was to tell him what we wanted to become. His job was to hold us accountable to that stated desire and to give us the tools to succeed.
Whatever you are working toward, always make sure that the goal is authentically yours. You will never be properly motivated working toward a dream that belongs to someone else. Even if you get there, it won’t really matter when you arrive.
You don’t realize how lucky you are
There is a single morning practice that stands out among all my memories growing up. It was sometime in the 5 a.m. hour, before school, still dark. I was in lane five, the wall lane, and I was standing toward the pool edge, in front of the ladder.
I don’t remember exactly what we had done to spark that particular lecture, but we had launched Grant into one of his infamous speeches – tough to listen to because 1) it was cold, and 2) he was usually right.
“You don’t know how lucky you are to have something in your lives that you are willing to get up for at 4:30 in the morning,” he shouted, striding the anti-slip-mat deck in a full-length black, white and grey swim parka. “Not everyone in the world has that.”
I had grown up with a passion for sport and an outlet for excellence. Caring deeply about the quality of every stroke I took was my own very bizarre, unspeakably fortunate, normal. As I have grown older, met more people, and suffered through less-than-inspired phases of my own existence, I have started to use his words as a life-quality litmus test.
I always want there to be a goal worthy of 4:30 a.m. And if there’s not? Then it’s time to sit down for a goal talk with myself and figure out where I can find it.
My greatest hope now is that in rising early and returning to the pool I can pass that passion on to a few young swimmers myself.