Culture of Care: Finding Joy

Updated: Mar 24

Written By: Amanda Caldwell

“They don't care how much you know, unless they know how much you care” - A coaching theme to adopt, as embodied by legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt.

When your student athletes know who you are, they know how much you care. If your student-athletes do not know who you are, they will make up stories to match the moods, emotions, faces, body language you share with them. Crossed arms can be seen as being closed off, self-conscious, angry, uncomfortable, cold, etc. When they spend hours in the water and looking up at you, it’s up to you to create the story for them, one that reflects your true self and true intentions.

For every hour spent on planning and executing swim training, I put an hour into growing communication and team culture. I want student-athletes to know that they will always be more than their results, a body on a roster, or just someone going through the system. The student athletes I coach are unique individuals that wear many more hats than being an athlete. Growing myself and our team culture this way drives our success forward.

At the core of our team communication, bridging the coaching staff and athletes, is our team “nests” (nests to fit our school mascot). Each assistant coach oversees a nest of ⅓ of the team members. The assistant coach is responsible for serving as the initial contact/ally in talking through issues beyond swimming, sitting in on coach-athlete meetings with the head coach, and checking in on athletes 1-2 times/week about non-swimming things. The athletes know who their first contact is, and the coach can be the first to alert me of any serious concerns, or anything I need to initiate on my end with an athlete. The nest concept streamlines our program’s organizational structure, and ensures there is a staff member connecting with them.

Athletes must show each other they care about each other in front of their teammates, just as the coaches do. The plan for showing care is not only addressed on the individual level, but also on the team level where there can be open communication and transparency.

Each Monday, we have a PQM session (Personal Quality Monday’s) - where the goal is to build self-confidence in front of others through sharing and discussion. Everyone participates, including coaching staff and present support staff. Athletes will share thoughts from check-ins, reflecting on wins and gratitudes, journal prompts, and/or what emotions they’re currently experiencing (OK and fine are not emotions). Sharing almost always starts off very basic and surface level; but when someone takes a leap of faith, and feels confident to show some vulnerability in front of their teammates and staff (injuries, competitive setbacks, losing a loved one, current struggles or emotions), more athletes follow suit and begin sharing more. More sharing and vulnerability means more self-confidence, and results in athletes making more connections with their teammates than they thought possible.Through these shares and meetings, I hope to help my team see that not everyone’s life is perfect, and that your struggle, though may be minor to some, is a struggle for you.

Our second meeting each week involves our sport psychology staff, which can include guest speakers from university programs relevant to our student-athletes (counseling center, nutrition, and student-athlete success program, amongst others). This year our Friday’s first focused on team cohesion and then focused on confidence. Our support staff find topics to present to our team through watching workouts, one on one sessions with our student-athletes, and input from the coaching staff.

At the start of the COVID pandemic I was grateful that the NCAA was allowing us to meet virtually with our student-athletes while they were spread across the country. If the very least we could do was connect and keep building our team culture, I was all for it. I wanted to make sure they were hanging in there with so many at home staring at the four walls of their bedroom when lockdowns had started. We continued with our two weekly meetings.

I will never forget that first week of April on one of our team Zoom calls when I first felt my team knew me. One of the check in prompts was to share an emotion you were feeling. We used an emotion wheel to find one that matched what you felt inside. I led off with Joy. As my team and staff passed around the wheel, there were a lot of negative responses - everything from anxious, overwhelmed, sad, lonely, stressed, and nervous. I felt awful for them because while I was full of Joy their world’s were being turned upside down by the pandemic. I was Joyful because after so many years I had just recently learned I was pregnant and my heart was full. Little did I know, two rising seniors talked after getting off the call. The one said to the other I think Amanda is pregnant. The clues were there: ginger ale (I do not drink soda really), turning my video on and off between waves of morning sickness, a few rescheduled calls as morning sickness was kicking my butt, and what else would bring so much Joy in someone’s life while everyone was in quarantine??

Not only was I joyful for my own family, but joyful in feeling my team knows me. Both fronts were signs of hope for the future. Those Zoom calls over the summer were some of the best days I had in coaching, and not one yard was swum.

While most everyone is familiar with the 20-hour rule in college athletics, it’s not the countable 20-hours that build and grow your team culture, give one joy, or show the athletes how much you care. As a person deemed “high-risk” by the CDC, I was regulated to keep office hours at home - no one could just stop by the office to chat. Days leading up to and post pregnancy, I wasn’t on deck for the social interaction before and after practice. Traveling to meets meant I had to drive myself instead of absorbing and connecting into the social dynamic on the bus ride. More Zoom and FaceTime calls filled my weeks before and after my daughter’s birth.

For the joy I knew it would bring, I just wanted to be there in person more to see our team culture flourish. The best example came 1 week before my daughter was born on a 3-day team travel trip. Athletes were equally motivated to cheer for one another, have a presence on deck as a team, and showed they were grateful for their teammates as they were to turn in some exceptional performances. Gone were our summer worries of getting to have a season or athletes creating inaccurate narratives.

Since stepping back on deck after Ella was born, showing that I still care is my top priority. Evening calls with student-athletes are much different than before as I balance both roles of mom and coach. Now I am calming down a student-athlete stressed out about her class schedule while gagging from changing a dirty diaper; I am suspending a student-athlete for the rest of the season while trying not to smile as my daughter is learning how to babble; I am hugging my daughter tightly as I discuss with a senior and her parents that the athlete’s season is over due to an injury, and Ella has no idea why I’m crying.

This year my team showed me how much they cared as I was trying to show them. With this as the foundation of our program, we’re using a caring team culture to advance our competitive nature.

Amanda Caldwell is completing her third season as the head coach at Georgia Southern University. In her third season, Caldwell had 8 school records broken, saw Hornyak (CCSA Freshman of the Year) get her NCAA B cuts in the 100 and 200 breast, and what would have been 6 qualifiers for the NIC meet if it hadn't been canceled including both medley relays. In addition the program moved up two spots in the conference championships.

In 2020, Caldwell had 12 personal records broken on the final day of the CCSA Championships. Caldwell has had multiple swimmers and divers of the week, as well as having Elizabeth Chemey earning Google Cloud/CoSIDA Academic All-District Honors. In 2019 the Eagles finished fourth in the CCSA Championships hosted in Lynchburg, Va. Anna Moers advanced from the CCSA Championship and earned herself an invite to the CSCAA National Invitational, racing in four events over a three-day period. Moers advanced to one final heat and earned 13 points for the Eagles during those events. Amanda Caldwell was named the Georgia Southern head women's swimming & diving coach on May 4, 2018. Caldwell joins the Eagles from Rice University, where she has served as the Owls' assistant coach for the last six seasons. During her time at Rice, the Owls have captured three Conference USA titles, as well as the 2014 CSCAA (Collegiate Swimming Coaches Association of America) Invitational Championships. Individually, Rice swimmers captured 28 C-USA meet titles in six seasons and the school qualified swimmers for seven different NCAA Championship events in those seasons. Caldwell was also the recipient of the prestigious Jean Freeman Scholarship from the CSCAA in 2018, given annually to assistant coaches whose exceptional contributions have brought recognition to their college or university, and whose leadership, integrity, honesty, competitive attitude and personal graciousness epitomize those characteristics reflected by Jean Freeman, longtime women's swimming coach at the University of Minnesota. Prior to joining Rice University, Caldwell served as a volunteer assistant coach at Georgia Tech for one season, while also coaching for the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta for four years. A four-year letterwinner at Youngstown State, Caldwell received her bachelor's degree in Exercise Science in 2006 from the institution and earned her master's degree in Athletic Administration from James Madison University in 2008. A native of Martins Ferry, Ohio, Caldwell resides in Statesboro, Georgia with her husband of 9 years (Beau) and daughter (Ella Mae).

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