Written By: Steve Romito
During the first 17 years of my coaching career in Charlotte, NC, I never gave much thought to how the effects of an urban environment on its swimming community might be different than in a rural environment. Until the opportunity arose, I never thought much at all about coaching in any community that was different from where I started.
As I transitioned into a smaller community a little more than three years ago, there were many cultural differences that I became aware of. I realize now that many of these realizations are probably something most people come to when they move from densely populated areas into less populated ones, or vice-versa, or even commute one-way or the other for work.
Selfishly, my favorite difference is the amount of traffic. While easily imagined, you start to fully experience and appreciate the real effects less traffic has on your routine when you’re actually driving down two-lane roads with only a handful of other drivers on your way to work each day. When I coached in Charlotte, I passed no less than 15 stoplights during a 6 mile, 20 minute drive to the pool that routinely took longer due to construction and/or accident delays. In Cleveland County, I’m driving almost 10 miles to the pool through only 5 stoplights, which consistently takes 15 minutes.
Getting a better feel for the environment? The proverbial choir I’m preaching to is made up of those of you who already live and work in rural communities. But I’ll add some more color to the picture for you city folk… I ask swimmers to communicate with me via group chats when they are going to miss practice. Recently, a swimmer texted to say he couldn’t make practice because the cows had gotten out and he had to herd them back inside the fence. I wasn’t sure how to react, so I wished him good luck… that was a big “welcome to the country” moment for me. The number of people I now know who own cows and chickens has increased dramatically.
The difference that has presented the biggest challenge is that there are no feeder programs in the community. When I coached in Charlotte, there was a huge summer swim league (about 60 teams), winter recreational leagues, stroke clinics, countless lesson programs and at least 8 club teams. In contrast, Cleveland County has no summer league, no competitive recreational leagues, one lesson program (YMCA) and one club swim team. This issue, in my mind, quickly became the most important to the long-term sustainability of growth and performance on our team. How do we recruit, and get swimmers ready for the team? Not only that, but how can we offer a quality learn-to-swim program to the community? This continues to be a challenge, especially during a pandemic. While often a frustrating conflict, the possibilities of being able to develop a healthy, consistent lesson program in the future bring more excitement than anything else.
I could go on about the nuances of rural life that I’ve noticed, which I think are important to at least acknowledge when eyeing the main goal of growing and developing a quality swim team, but there are some things that are constant regardless of location.
At the end of the day, we all go home to our families. We all have similar training conflicts arise that are part of life (birthdays, doctor visits, school, car trouble etc).We all perform better with the right amount of pressure. But how far are people traveling to and from practice? What, specifically, are the conflicts that sometimes get in the way of folks engaging fully in the program? What is the right amount of pressure? These are all questions I asked myself while searching for familiarity through variation as I learned the culture of the team, and the surrounding community. The process of answering these questions involves connecting with your team members in a way that will eventually help you better serve the community.
I made some mistakes when I started.
Assess practice attendance. How often athletes are coming to practice will be a good indication of their level of commitment, and the overall team culture, right? To say that their practice attendance was in need of improvement was an understatement. So, I held them accountable. After all, we had work to do. Low practice attendance means low performance. These kids had been swimming for years and didn’t have much to show for it. I thought that was because they didn’t come to practice. I started taking attendance, and sending it out to the team every two weeks. It worked. Their attendance improved dramatically, as did their performance. Then, I realized something. They didn’t (swimmers nor parents) have the background to do the training we were attempting. They had no motivation to attend practice, and consequently performed unremarkably, because they hadn’t been developed.
First step (take two):
Teach. I had to teach not only stroke technique, but how to train. I still sent attendance, but also sent weekly news to get parents and swimmers up to speed. We still had work to do, and most of it was mental. There was no way I could do this by myself, and luckily, I had some great coaches in the area who helped me with the initial transition.
While I was challenging them to get better, I had to remember to HAVE FUN, and keep them excited about staying engaged with the team! We made sure there were regular opportunities for the team to get together outside of practice and strengthen their relationships. We made sure the workouts were challenging in creative and effective ways so they could swim fast and enjoy the benefits of their hard work. We worked on developing them as people, not just athletes.
When you take the reins of a team, ideally you will have people there to welcome you who can educate you on the current state of the culture, especially when that culture is influenced by a different surrounding environment than you are accustomed to. Thus begins the creation, or continuation of a culture of communication. No matter how appropriate the expectations are, they only take hold if properly communicated, and subsequently fairly enforced. No matter where you are, people will respond to suitable challenges put forth by caring coaches. Education, of both parents and swimmers, is essential. Find out what they know, and how you can help. Find people in the community you can rely on to educate you and help you make connections with others who can help, and those who might join the team. Listen and observe first, and harness your infinite supply of patience. By communicating to understand the culture of the community you serve, and to establish the expectations for your team members, you can change the culture of your team, and it will grow. Our team quadrupled in size during the first three years I was head coach. We are still a small team, but have a solid foundation to continue developing for years to come.
Coach Steve is from Charlotte, NC, where he has been involved in swimming for most of his life. He has been a part of the Masters program, and the swim lesson program at Brace Family YMCA for almost seven years, and is in his third season with Sharks Aquatic Club. Prior to joining SAC, Steve served as a coach at New South Swimming in Charlotte for more than eight years. While an assistant, and head coach at NSS, Coach Steve worked with all levels of the team - from beginning year-round swimmers to National Qualifiers, including NCS Select Camp and IMX Camp participants, State and Sectional Champions, NCS Zone Team members, State Record Holders, and Nationally Top 10 ranked athletes. He has also twice been voted a member of the NCS Zone Team Coaching Staff. For 10 years prior to joining NSS, Steve ran a successful business as a self-employed swim instructor, and coached summer league, winter league, other year-round teams and Masters programs. Steve currently serves as Coach Representative on the North Carolina Swimming Board of Directors.