By Lauren Hardy//Correspondent
Photo courtesy Penn State Athletics
There are plenty of coaches who talk the talk, but for Penn State Men’s Swimming Assistant Head Coach Liz McMillan, guidance and instruction are meaningless if you don’t walk the walk. She identifies work ethic as the dividing line between successful and mediocre coaches. No matter what a practice or meet results bring, McMillan says she is committed to seeing whatever happens through.
“I don’t like to leave things unfinished or any stones unturned,” she says. “Most people know what level of commitment, work ethic and dedication it takes to be successful in our sport. That same level of commitment, work ethic and dedication that is necessary of the swimmer has to be mirrored by their coach.”
Though McMillan admits coaching is not all “cupcakes and butterflies,” she describes it as rewarding and revitalizing. Here, McMillan discusses the roots of her coaching journey, the impact of the Penn State scandal on her coaching approach, and the keys to her success as a top-notch recruiter.
When did you realize you wanted to be a coach? Who inspired you?
During college summer breaks, I coached for the same New Jersey lake team I grew up swimming on. Much like growing up on the team as a young swimmer I started to want more and more out of coaching.
As I continued to coach, two people gave me the confidence to take the leap of faith required to jump into the college coaching world: my college coach, Bill Ball (now at Central Connecticut State University), and my club coach, Keira Cruz (still at Lakeland Hills YMCA). Keira and Bill both took me under their wings at different times in my career and helped me to realize my true potential, not only as a swimmer but as a coach, too.
What role do assistants play in the grand scheme of coaching?
Assistant coaches play a crucial role in the success of their head coaches and ultimately the program. Every head coach is different in their approach and philosophy, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. I believe assistant coaches are meant to fill in the gaps to support their head coach wherever and however they need assistance.
You are considered one of the top recruiters in the nation. What is your strategy and what do you value about that process?
I firmly believe recruiting is all about honesty. When you have 16 and 17 year olds trying to make their first "real" adult decision… it adds in a lot more pressure. The best thing these young adults can do is gain as much information as possible about the process, about the schools and about the swim programs. That is what I try to help them with—getting as much information as possible.
Where do you look for coaching inspiration or to improve your skills?
My colleagues, past and present, as well as the people I was lucky enough to have as coaches. I have been blessed to have so many amazing mentors and colleagues throughout my swimming and coaching career (all the way back to that childhood lake team), and I would not be the coach I am today without each and every one of them! And I can't leave out the athletes I get to work with every day. Every day, at every practice, I ask a lot out of my athletes, and in return I believe that I have to try and learn from them every day, at every practice.
What challenges have you faced as a coach at Penn State? How did you face those?
Obviously the last few years at Penn State have been an interesting time to be part of the athletic department. It has been difficult to sit back and watch people formulate opinions about Penn State, as a school, and the Penn State athletic department, based on very little firsthand information. This has been a huge challenge for me…because Penn State has been my family over the last six years.
I realized very early on that I was going to have very little effect on changing anyone's opinion or perspective, so the best thing I could do for my own sanity, and for our program, was to keep on keeping on. Penn State has an extremely rich tradition beyond what has been portrayed in the media, and if people didn't want to allow themselves to see that, than I most likely wasn't going to change that anyway. I decided to focus on what I could have an impact on: pouring even more energy into our athletes and helping them to reach their goals and being stand-up representatives of Penn State.
What degree does collaboration and teamwork play in your working relationship with head coach Tim Murphy?
Collaboration is huge for Tim. Tim has high expectations of his teams…those expectations carry over to his staff as well. Tim wants to know what his assistants are thinking and what our approach would be. He also demands the same of himself and shares his thoughts and philosophies with us.
What are five characteristics you think make a coach successful?
Discipline, energy, passion, commitment and a willingness to learn.