Written By: Nathan Lavery
I know I have done it, and every time I have it feels like the wrong word to use. “Our kids”, “these kids”, “they are just kids”, “We need to get these kids to do this or that” And so, and so on, and so on. But…. are they kids? They are definitely still developing and maturing (especially when it comes to things like risk analysis) but are they kids? They can drive, get insurance and volunteer for military service. They can get married, have children, hold a job, vote and run for most political offices. They can purchase property, take out a loan, and in most places can drink and/or smoke. Most societies grant people that are 18 years and older all the rights and responsibilities of an adult, as well as fully applying all laws and restrictions.
“Not me,” most of us would say (myself included at times), “I respect and listen to my athletes”. We all do. This isn’t to say that we as coaches don’t respect and listen to our athletes. I write this as a plea to understand that if our initial words are wrong, then our thoughts and actions are influenced by that and in doing so may become more entrenched over time.
I know it seems like a small thing to call college athletes “Kids”. Maybe even irrelevant. But I would urge that we reconsider. Imagine if your parents, or your boss or someone you looked up to still called you a kid. Imagine if you were actively trying to be a socially responsible young person and maturing but people referred to your entire age group as kids without a second thought. If one of the goals of college is to learn, grow, develop, and become someone who is seen as an adult then being referred to as a “kid” may challenge those goals. The goal may begin to seem unattainable and perhaps even something to give up on or avoid when those who surround you start most interactions or thoughts from a position of you being a kid. Our words influence our thoughts. Myself and Kara (Assistant Coach at Drexel University) have talked about actively trying to avoid this particular trap. It’s not always that easy to do.
So in our limited experience and with the knowledge that this is an evolving problem to tackle - what guidelines have we found that may help? In an effort to get us all to think about this, there are 3 short points below. Each are interconnected, but also valid on their own.
Two wrongs don’t make a right
Because the demographic we are talking about is comprised of NEW adults it makes sense that they are learning as they go through it. And like anybody who is new to something, they make mistakes. They are still getting to grips with where their newly granted freedoms might end. Still pushing the envelope to find out when it’s ok to speak out or when it’s maybe understandable to miss a deadline. When it’s ok to be a bit rowdy and obnoxious and when it’s better to act with more discretion. Or maybe even just learn how to simply talk to strangers and make friends. Which is why we have to employ some empathy and understand that they get to make mistakes that older people don’t get to make (or get to make as often, anyway). Younger people may make snap judgments or may not always see the bigger overall picture, which can create some frustrating moments for those interacting with them.
Everyone working with young people will fail at dealing effectively with this at times. Days when we are tired or preoccupied and we maybe respond with a short remark or just a command in return. It’s OK and we are human but it can be easy for stuff like that to become the norm.
Try keep in mind that 2 wrongs don’t make a right. It can be a tough line to walk, but the more we can understand young adults’ current development then the better we can handle these moments with patience and empathy.
Sandbox adults… and sandcastle instructors
I’ll propose an analogy. Imagine someone is in a sandbox trying to make a series of 5 different sandcastles. Fairly intricate castles that all require some sort of knowledge to build (maybe an arch or a spiral, and each has to have a specific load bearing quality). They have some knowledge of HOW to build with sand and some of the concepts they need to do it, but this is their FIRST TIME in a sandbox. They look around and see others who are all in the same predicament as them. Some of the others even have the wrong knowledge or faulty knowledge and they don’t know it’s faulty because it’s the only knowledge they have ever known.
How do we imagine this is going to go?
Each of those sculptures represents a concept we have to grasp to become moral, upstanding and contributive members of society. Things like self-awareness, manners and civility, creativity, initiative and grit to name a few. Holding people accountable to good behaviours is difficult, and if we can’t explain why we are asking them to change or be different then it’s almost impossible. Being able to explain things like the tragedy of the commons or moral hazard is imperative if we wish to show young people that we respect them and where they are in their development.
We should be striving to be better sandcastle instructors.
I know a lot of the likes and dislikes of the young people I coach. Favourite music, TV shows, movies. Funny stories that happened to them at this meet or in that grade. Who they may be dating and what they may be dealing with (anxiety, ADHD, etc). Where they went or what they did for Christmas or summer. All good information, all things that can bring us closer together. Stuff most coaches know because our profession does truly care. But none of it tells us HOW they think or makes them believe I am listening to them.
When was the last time we asked an athlete something that involves their interests beyond pop culture and funny stories? Something with a structure or a complexity that they have to pause before they explain? Or maybe even something a little off the wall that pertains to their interests but might open up to something else? Maybe even *gasp* something political?
We should be asking our athletes about concepts they may have recently learnt. Ask them to explain it to you. After they mention what they have learnt or read recently say “Well, educate me. Tell me what that is.” It might even be a topic you know but you are giving them a chance to explain things. A chance to turn it over and say things in their own words. To give their own viewpoint on something. This isn’t a scantron, and it isn’t regurgitation of a textbook. And of course our next question is going to be “Why is it like that and why is it important?”
This simple act does wonders. It shows that we are listening and interested in what they have to say ABOUT IMPORTANT THINGS. They may put a unique viewpoint on something in a way that I hadn’t thought of and then has the added bonus of teaching us something as well.
But most importantly - It gives them legitimacy.
Wrapping up – it’s not easy
The fact is that it’s easy to think of college athletes as kids. It is easier to give orders than it is to encourage questions. It is easier to keep things superficial than to engage on topics that may seem dense or heavy. However, I would encourage coaches not to take this easier path. By inspiring young people to think and act in ways that may be challenging we aid in their development not only as athletes but as adults as well. And although it may be scary that on some level opening this door may also give them the ability to critique your coaching and the program they are in, respectfully challenging your ability to describe your own sandcastles and why they are built that way is a good thing. This can make us more accountable, and our programs even more beneficial.
Nathan Lavery was hired in September 2020 as the Head Coach of Drexel University Swimming and Diving. The Dragons faced only 6 weeks in the pool during the Covid-mired season, and yet still went to on claim 3 CAA titles and break 2 school records. In his first year the women’s team has posted a GPA of 3.73 and 3.86 while the men’s team has put up a 3.46 and a 3.49. Prior to Drexel, Lavery coached at TCU where the Horned frogs broke 28 school records in 2 years, achieved multiple Olympic Trial cuts and 2 athletes were selected to compete at the World University Games. He spent 1 year at Georgia Tech before TCU, where 2 athletes qualified for NCAA championships and 6 school records were broken. For 5 seasons before he joined Georgia Tech, Lavery coached at Villanova University. While on staff at Villanova the Wildcats won four consecutive women's Big East conference titles and broke 56 school records as well as qualifying individuals for Olympic Trials and World University Games. He served as the Head Coach of Finland at the World University Games in Gwanju in 2015. Every team Lavery has been a part of has been named to the CSCAA Academic All-American honor roll. Before arriving in Villanova, Lavery coached in the club ranks with the West Houston Aquatics Team and First Colony. He initially began his coaching career as an undergraduate assistant at his alma mater, Texas A&M. As a student-athlete Lavery competed for the Aggies from 2008-11. As a sophomore in 2009 Lavery earned All-America honors and as a junior, Lavery scored 41 points individually at the Big 12 Championships and made two NCAA Championships "B" cuts. He would again earn All-American honors at NCAA championships that year. He and his wife Amy enjoy getting caught in the rain, aren’t much into yoga and have half a brain.