As someone who grew up across the street from a creek and who is a late-inning, self-taught swimmer who could survive a shipwreck as long as the mishap took place no more than 200 yards offshore, I've never been the type to hang around at the community pool. That changed this summer when my son joined the swim team, a commitment that meant many hours at the cement pond.
Possessing a shyness that I fear is interpreted as aloofness, my socializing skills are about equal to my swimming skills. This led to much standing in the background and observing. Foremost, I watched my son--who before the season started had never swum a whole lap--crank out first 10, then 12 and 14, and ultimately close to 20 laps in practice. Plus I saw him swim three different strokes--freestyle, backstroke and the ever-challenging butterfly--in meets.
I also found myself observing parents and learning some things along the way. "Pull!", it turns out, is the proper shouted instruction during the breaststroke, and "Good swim!" is the post-race greeting of choice. I applaud all of the parent volunteers, and I applaud a little louder the parents who cheer for all kids, not just their own. I hold in highest esteem those who clap from the beginning of a race until the bitter end, which sometimes is 30 seconds or more after the heat winner has touched the wall. And only occasionally did I hear, "Go! Go! Go!" sound more like a command than encouragement, and I'm willing to write that off to the heat of the moment.
All of that is encouraging because in only a couple years as a parent-spectator and parent-coach, I've observed plenty of puzzling behavior. My favorite example comes from the 6-and-under basketball team I coached this past winter, where the opposing coach instructed his two tallest guys, a pair of 6-year-olds, to double-team at half court the player who was dribbling the ball up for my team. The ball-handler in question had turned 4 just the week before and reached 2 and 1/2 feet tall only when her hair was sticking up.
At the risk of making Vince Lombardi turn over in his grave, Bob Knight cuss, and a significant percentage of the population exclaim, "There! That's exactly what's making this country soft," I suggest turning off the scoreboards until the players are 10. In swimming, emphasize to the youngsters that they're competing against themselves and the clock, not each other. We've got ourselves a world where children are forced to grow up too quickly as it is. Why not make the playing fields and pools places where kids can stay kids a little while longer--at least until they hit double digits, for crying out loud. (To sidestep a charge of being holier than thou and to show that my competitive juices haven't run completely dry, I will confess that my first thought after the double-teaming incident was to challenge the other coach to a game of full-court one-on-one. I successfully fought the urge.)
My favorite moment of the swim season--other than every single time my son, flush with the spirit of accomplishment, touched the wall--occurred in a girls' 15-18 backstroke race.
After making the last turn, a young lady was sixth in a six-swimmer heat. As a teammate stood at the end of the lane and cheered her on, the girl looked at him and unleashed a gigantic smile, as wonderfully pure a sports moment as you're likely to see. It hit me that perhaps "Smile!" should be the recommended cheer.