Know Who You Are & Know Where You Are

Updated: Feb 26

Written By: Jessen Book

I am entering my 11th season as Head Coach at Kenyon College. Like all things, it is amazing how quickly that time has gone.

This week was supposed to be the

ACSA Conference, where I was supposed to give a lecture on Freestyle technique.

As much as I love Freestyle, the talk I really wanted to give was this one: Know Who You Are; Know Where You Are.

The more I understand what success we’ve had at Kenyon, the more I understand it has been built on an ever-growing understanding of ourselves and this place. What we do here works here because of who we are, who we recruit, and the culture we build. We coach in a community, add to that community, and attract people that also add to that community.

The first part of doing this well, has been “learning” who I am, what I believe in, and how I believe “things should be done”. This, like all journeys, has taken time – and is not yet complete. I am thankful for the mentors I’ve worked with along the way, both the formal mentors (the head coaches I’ve coached under), but just as importantly the informal mentors (assistant coaches, family members, community members, and especially the swimmers I’ve coached).

However, ten years in, I know a few things about myself: I approach things logically, I ask people for their opinions, I value communication & hard work, I believe in compromise & collaboration, and I believe the journey is just as important as the destination.

Knowing these things helps me do things authentically as a coach. I can be consistent in how I approach problems, and how I build the world around me.

The second part of our success at Kenyon is knowing where we are – and bringing people to Kenyon that are great fits for Kenyon. For us, that is student-athletes that are student-athletes. They are passionate about both, and learn similarly in both arenas. They are hard workers, they are curious learners, they are team driven, they are diverse, and they learn best in collaborative environments. They want to be pushed, but more than that they want to be guided. They like knowing there is a clear pathway ahead of them, and like being responsible for the steps they take down that pathway.

With this understanding of who we are, and where we are, we coach in ways that compliment Kenyon, and the student-athletes we recruit and coach. We create a program that is detail driven, we offer an abundance of options for the students, we give suggestions for where and how we believe they will train (and race) best, but we also give them a great deal of agency in their own decisions. If they believe strongly in a pathway we will most often give them the chance to walk it (the more strongly they believe in the pathway the more likely it is to be the “right” pathway … even if it may not seem like it on the surface).

To give you some detail: currently we offer six different training groups on our team, from a super sprint group (low volume, high intensity, focus on speed and power) to a high volume distance group (those lucky souls for whom volume plays a significant role in success). In between we have stroke groups, IM groups, underwater groups, and change things from day to day.

As coaches we re-examine our training groups each summer. We look at where we were successful the prior year – and where we were not as successful. We think about the new team we will have, how our complexion changes as we add in new freshmen and subtract our seniors. We revise our training program to reflect our changing team – and evolution as coaches. We then put our team into training groups based on what we know about our swimmers. For the freshmen that includes sending them a short questionnaire to better understand their training habits from high school – and we encourage them to talk to their club and high school coaches to better understand how they have trained in the past. With this information we put the team in training groups. Some students find themselves in one group for every practice (sprinters and distance swimmers are most likely to be defined by one group). But many find themselves in some hybrid state: spending part of the week in one group, part of the week in another group. We take several days to come to our decisions on training groups, and then release them to the team.

This is merely a conversation starter.

Team members look at the new training groups, the new definitions for each training group (those are the tweaks we make each season to the cycling of our work) and either opt to run with what we’ve given them, or they offer suggestions on where they believe they will train better.

This collaborative approach to learning (and training) is a big part of how we educate at Kenyon – both in the water and out of it. For us as coaches it requires a lot of communication, patience, and understanding. But it is also – I believe – one of the reasons we are successful. We create a program that compliments the type of student we have and the place that we coach.

It has taken me several years to understand that this is an integral part of our program and our success. The first few years were as much about me figuring out who I was, and where I was, as it was about the team figuring out me.

The good news is I now have a strong sense of myself. I know (most of) my strengths and my weaknesses. I know how to ask for help, and how to surround myself with people that push me when I need to be pushed.

This past year was a strange one, but still one I am very happy about. In the end we were the best team we could have been. We struggled along the way, we challenged each other, we had moments of re-correction, and we found strength in ourselves in ways that were unique to this team and this season.

But we did these things in Kenyon ways, as Kenyon students and Kenyon coaches. And that, I believe is the foundation for our success.

I’m excited to be a part of this conversation and to have something to post. I look forward to learning from the others that post here, and the conversations that grow out of it. In the vein of an ASCA talk, or a graduation speech, my missive to you is simple: Know Yourself, and Know Where You Are. The more you can do those two things, the more stable you will be. And the more stable you are, the more creative and challenging you can be.

Jess Book enters the 2020-21 season having coached both the Lords and Ladies together since the 2012-13 campaign. In his first season of coaching both the Lords and Ladies programs, Book was voted the 2013 NCAA Men’s Coach of the Year and the 2013 NCAA Women’s Coach of the Year. In doing so, he became the first Division III coach to earn both awards in the same season since the NCAA combined the men’s and women’s championship meets. What Book accomplished in his initial season as the Lords coach was nothing short of spectacular. During the 2013 NCAA Championship run, he steered his squad from what was perceived to be an underdog role to wresting the title away from Denison University, the two-time defending champion. The NCAA team title was a first for Book, as a head coach, and was the record-setting 32nd for the Lords program. Book’s swimmers took two individual-event titles and three relay titles while posting a winning team tally of 499.5 points at the national meet. To date, the men's program is coming off a third-place finish in 2017-18 after claiming second place in 2016-17. Prior to that, the team had won three Division III national titles. The Lords are just one national title away from being the NCAA record-holder across all divisions as they currently have 34. On the women’s side, Book was hired as head coach of the Ladies beginning with the 2010-11 season. At the national level, he directed the Kenyon women to back-to-back fourth-place finishes in his first two seasons. In 2013, however, the Ladies took the NCAA by storm, setting over a dozen College records and claiming the runner-up spot in the team standings. Two Kenyon swimmers, a diver, and two relay teams claimed event titles during that 2013 championship meet. In 2014, the Ladies claimed their second straight runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis. A season ago, the Ladies finished as the national runner-up and the year prior, earned a third-place mark. At the end of the 2012-13 season, Book had three swimmers earn NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships and two named to the Capital One Academic All-America Team. A total of 28 Kenyon male and female swimmers were named to CSCAA All-America teams. During his own swimming days, Book, a 2001 Kenyon graduate, was a four-year member of championship-winning swim teams and was an All-America award-winner in the 1999-00 season. He captained the 2000-01 Lords squad and closed out his senior season with an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship and his third-straight spot on the CSCAA’s All-Academic Team. After graduation, Book returned to campus and served as Jim Steen's assistant coach four times in a six-year span. As an assistant, he helped guide the Ladies to three national titles and the Lords to four. He also played a key role in the development of 20 NCAA individual-event champions and seven NCAA Division III record-setters. Following up on that time with the Lords and Ladies, Book moved on to gain experience at the NCAA Division I level working as the assistant men's coach at The Ohio State University. During that stretch, the Buckeyes improved from fifth place to first place at Big Ten Championship meets and moved from twenty-first place to ninth place at NCAA Championship meets. Book, who earned bachelor’s degrees in English and biology, acquired his master’s degree in sports and exercise studies while at Ohio State.

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