The concept of excellence and success can be thought of in both relative and absolute terms. The beauty of our sport is that every athlete can enjoy success in relative terms by working hard and improving. The improvement can be by time, accomplishing stroke corrections, event placing or succeeding at race strategy. Absolute excellence generally is reserved for the pinnacle in our sport: Olympics, gold medals, records and titles.
For the purpose of this article, the point is not in the distinction between the two terms but in the basic concepts of excellence and success at all levels. At every level of our sport, from summer leagues to high schools, YMCAs to colleges and through all of USA Swimming, there are coaches and clubs who have developed a Culture of Success within their programs. That Culture of Success is not accomplished by accident and it will usually carry through several generations of swimmers. Most often it continues for as long as the same coach is leading the program. Whether Santa Clara, Mission Viejo or Irvine Novaquatics at the club level, or Stanford, Texas, Auburn or Georgia at the collegiate level, in every case, it was a particular coach who made the difference. Although it is not impossible, rarely has a club or school maintained the same level of performance when the swimming leadership changed. Neither a club president nor an athletic director can create the Culture of Success. Only the coach, along with his or her staff and athlete support, can accomplish this task.
The following promote the Culture of Success concept and the various components involved.
1. Leadership: The number one ingredient in creating a Culture of Success is a head coach to lead the charge. The coach must have a clear vision of the goal and a specific plan of action to accomplish it.
2. Goals: The coaches who create Cultures of Success have very specific goals for themselves, the program and the athletes involved. Those goals are specific, public and generally the focal point of what they want to accomplish. As an example, at 2004 at the USA Olympic Swimming Trials, held in Long Beach, California, 52 different swimmers qualified to be on that team. Not a single one of those athletes made the team by accident. In each and every case the goal of both the athlete and the coach was exactly that: to qualify for the US Olympic Team. There were undoubtedly as many swimmers who did not qualify for the US Olympic Team who had similar serious goals, so obviously not every goal can be achieved. But it is still important to have specific, public goals that start with a dream and a vision.
3. Sell the Vision and Dream: Possibly the most important element to the whole process is for the coaching leader to visualize the dream and then sell that dream to those around him or her. The Culture of Success that exists in one program and not in another has much to do with the coach’s ability to get the athletes and parents to buy into the dream. The most difficult part is getting everyone to believe in their ability to reach the pinnacle. To illustrate, here is a story about the rise of the Auburn University program. Coach David Marsh was attending his first NCAA Championships as Auburn Head Coach and was at the meet with just a few athletes. The competition was over and awards were being given to the top three schools, top athletes and coaches. Normally while this is occurring, most of the teams not getting awards are quickly dressing and leaving the arena. Coach Marsh, to the chagrin of the Auburn athletes, had them sit in the stands and watch the ceremonies. When questioned, he stated two things. First, he wanted the athletes to honor those individuals and schools who succeeded at the highest level and second, he wanted his athletes to actually visualize their dream.
4. Know Who You Are: Many coaches complain about not being able to get their athletes to work hard, while other coaches, old and young, seem to be able to do just that. Every program has a theme. The important part is to get your athletes and members to support the theme you want. Here are some examples of positive themes: “We are the club that succeeds.” “We work harder than everyone else so we can swim faster.” “Nothing is too hard, too far or too tough.” “When the going gets tough we get tougher.” Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. Teams can have negative themes that are not actually spoken, but everyone knows what they are.
5. Obstacles vs. Challenges: Every program has challenges and potential obstacles to overcome. Programs that succeed see them as challenges to make them stronger, those that do not see them as obstacles that impede progress. Our swimming community has seen coaches like Paul Blair create a USA Swimming National Championship team in Little Rock, Arkansas, an area not exactly known as a hotbed for swimming, and Paul Bergen who created a USA Swimming National Championship team training out of a 3 lane x 20 yd. pool in Nashville, TN. While others might believe they could not create a Culture of Success in those settings, Blair and Bergen kept their eyes on their goals and forged ahead.
6. Assessment and Responsibility: Anywhere that a Culture of Success exists, there is a coach who is constantly assessing his or her program and his or her performance. The coach views his or her own results with the most critical eye, believing that the program or swimmers’ success is mainly due to the athletes, but program failure is part of some shortcoming in coaching or leadership. The coach regularly assesses how he or she operates and is willing to make changes, sometimes very bold changes. As many of the best coaches state, “from season to season, if nothing changes in the program, why should anyone expect different results?” These coaches believe that the talent lies in the athletes and the great coach creates an environment for positive results. They also believe that in every pool there are swimmers who can succeed. The best leaders constantly evaluate where they are and strive to get better.
7. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone: The final piece of the puzzle is the willingness and ability of the coach, staff and athletes to leave their comfort zones even though the outcome may be uncertain. We may be afraid of setting high goals because of the perceived consequence of failure. When the club, coach and athletes feel most comfortable at the local level they will rarely venture forth to the regional level or higher. They are often surprised then when one of their athletes moves on to a more challenging program. Possibly, the most successful coaches are those who are most comfortable outside of their comfort zones, when they challenge themselves and their athletes to move to higher, less secure levels.
Creating a Culture of Success is not an easy process. It is a process that takes time, commitment and courage, but a Culture of Success can be created anywhere. The key elements, as outlined above, are dreams, desire and determination. A Culture of Success is in operation every day, somewhere in the swimming community. Why not in your pool, in your program, with your athletes?