As a coach for eight years and having witnessed numerous competitions–from monthly races for club and school teams, the Southeast Asian Age Group, the SEA Games and Asian Games and all the way to the 2000 Sydney Olympics– I have seen in so many occasions that proved the old adage about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
I can feel the intensity of the swimmers who truly are there to win, but I also see the carefree attitude of some who are there just because they have to.
From the moment they enter the competition area even from the time they come out of their cars, I can see and actually predict the swimmers who are truly intent on performing their best.
Their eyes light up.
Sweat starts to appear on their faces and they move to position themselves with the best vantage point of the races.
They welcome and are excited about the challenge.
They also ask the right questions: What time is our warm-up, Coach? May I see the start-list? Who are the seeded swimmers? Coach, can you review my race plan?
Others would ask: Where’s the locker room, Coach?
They plan to spend more time there than within the race area or watching the races as they progress because the intensity might be too much for them.
Others would start looking for where the other teams are located to spot their crushes.
In the warm-ups, the focused swimmer will ask me to get their split times in their events.
The intense swimmers would ask me the split up to the tenth of a second.
These swimmers are the ones I have to control since they would keep pushing the warm up. I would step in and say it’s enough already and that they are ready.
Others would simply comply with the minimum of requirements for their warm up.
If I say they need to do at least two 100 meters or four times 50 meters, that would be it.
I get excited as a coach when the racing starts and my swimmers start moving to the ready bench area. It is now me in race mode.
I start doing my routine as when I was a swimmer and shared it with them. I ask them to jump into the warm up pool and loosen up, as they are about to swim in 15 minutes.
I remind them to change into their race swimsuits and inform them who they are racing with and review their race splits.
I tell them what will happen in the race and who, I think, will go all out from the very beginning and who to watch for and how to react.
Coaching is difficult since you need to address each and every need of your swimmer individually.
It is a totally different challenge from being a swimmer.
To succeed, a coach must be able to bring out the very best from them on many levels of ability.
The swimmers who are focused are the ones with the eyes of a tiger when they stare at me while I’m giving them last minute instructions.
They, more than likely, win the race or, at least break, their personal best.
But they, more importantly, achieve their goals.
Sadly, the swimmers who are less focused are now at this point more nervous than anything. This is when they need their coach more than ever.
As a coach, when I see those swimmers who are so nervous before their race, I sometimes wish I could say something to lessen their anxiousness.
But I always say to myself: Let them experience it.
I tell myself to wait until the end of the race when you can now explain to them what happened and what I observed from the time they arrived in the competition area to that very moment of agony.
I believe that is the best time for them to soak up instructions on what they have to do to improve themselves.
Tears more often come out with losing and I feel sad for them.
At this point, I share with my swimmers my personal experiences and beliefs.
I tell them that when I lost a race when I was a beginner, my parents would always tell me “bawi ka” (take back what you lost) on your next race and they would never ever tell me “okay lang” (it’s okay).
They would also remind me never to show my tears to my competitors and point me to the showers if ever, because that is the only place in the competition area that I can shed my tears and then come out with my head held high.
I understand when people say to someone who lost something that it’s okay.
It may be a way to ease the pain and share in the burden of the loss, but in the world of sports I think that when you say, “it’s okay” it may also mean it’s okay to lose.
As a coach I avoid sending a message that mediocrity is also okay.
I believe it’s better to say to that athlete, at that moment of loss, that he or she can achieve excellence if there is willingness to improve.
It’s better to say “bawi na lang tayo!” (Let’s take back what we lost), and prepare ourselves to be better.
I believe focus and hard work can make a great swimmer.
But determination and perseverance — despite the setback — will make a champion.