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Navigating October

Written By: Samantha Williams

My college coach used to start each season by telling us “This year is special. This year is the one time that we have to be this team. This team won’t exist next year and it didn’t exist last year. Let’s make the most of it.” - Jessen Book

Even though I heard the same speech year after year, it never failed to give me chills (in a good way). It was a reminder that our time together is finite, that our opportunity to create something magical with this particular group of people is fixed. It was simple and incredibly poignant.

By the time I hit my senior year of college, I had seen a lot of sides of collegiate swimming, specifically NCAA Division III. I am the daughter of a DIII student-athlete turned coach turned administrator; I am a lifelong fan of collegiate swimming; and I would go on to become a DIII student-athlete, student-coach, administrator, and eventually head coach. As a student-athlete, I of course understood that every season has to end, but it wasn’t until I began coaching that the ‘finite’ part of my coach’s message really sunk in. My time with my team each year feels like it’s over in an instant.

In DIII, we get 19 weeks of coaching contact with our student-athletes. That’s it. Anything outside of the defined weeks of the season cannot be mandatory, and it cannot be dictated by us as a coaching staff. When all said and done, our season boils down to 114 days. As a result, coaches at the DIII level have learned to be innovative, to maximize the time we have in order to give our student-athletes the best experience possible, and to see them grow in and out of the pool each year as they take responsibility for their own improvement.

Even though 19 weeks seems short in the eyes of coaches, it’s been my experience (personally and through observation) that managing the month of October is one of the most challenging parts of the entire season. It tends to drag on for most of our student-athletes. Most DIII programs start their season near the end of September, so October is a time where we focus heavily on aerobic development and endurance.

In my personal season plan, by the second week of October, we’ve phased out of our more stroke technique-focused practices. Now, we’re putting that technique to work. This means repeats at threshold, a lot of sets descending to threshold, and kicking … a lot of kicking. Our practice volume is high, with heavily increased yardage. We’re strengthening our base and building endurance all so that we can taper about 100 days later. Sure, we’ll throw in a little race pace here and there early on, but it’s not the focus of this time of year, which can be difficult for student-athletes to embrace in a sport that places a heavy emphasis on time. After all, they’re conditioned to touch the wall and immediately glance at the clock. Did I drop a tenth? A hundredth? If I’m not faster, am I at least close?

To have a significant period of the season not directly focused on dropping time can be monotonous, and it’s usually hard for our student-athletes to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Our first few meets of the season happen at the end of October, and they rarely produce best times. The inner monologue changes when they touch the wall… I just spent the month doing some of the hardest training I’ll do all season…for what? Our challenge as coaches is to proactively combat this feeling.

For me and my staff, we help our student-athletes stay motivated and focused by spending time each day discussing why we’re doing what we’re doing.We explain to our team that the work they’re putting in now will directly impact the end of the season. Right now, they’re investing, and they have to wait for the payout (it’ll come sooner than they think!). We discuss focusing on what they can control - their effort, their technique, their attitude - and letting go of what they can’t. We talk constantly about the importance of swimming while tired and pushing past the barriers their brains decide they have on any given day. We chat about the un-uniqueness of their situation - every swimmer in the country is doing something similar right now. Everyone’s tired, it’s a matter of resilience.

Something new we’re trying this year to help build this resilience is to put a defined ‘focus’ at the top of each practice. In a book I revisit each year, Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence, sports psychologist Gary Mack writes, “It is said the eyes are the mirror to the soul. They also are the mirror to the mind. With great athletes, their eyes aren’t searchlights. They aren’t even spotlights. They are laser beams.” (p. 153, emphasis added).

That’s our goal with the focus at the top of each practice: to give the student-athletes a target for those laser beams. We’re looking for something easy, something controllable, and something to help them focus on the process, not the obstacles. As Mack writes, “If your mind starts to wander, so will your performance. Keep your eyes centered on the target and your mind set on the task at hand. Focus on the process and let go of the outcome” (p. 154, emphasis added). By giving our student-athletes a focus (“5 dolphins off each wall,” “increased tempo,” “six kicks per stroke cycle,” etc.) we’ll remove some of the fear and barriers associated with each set. The focus gives the student-athletes something to set their minds to outside of the times they’re posting, while simultaneously serving as something controllable that will help them to hit their times. They have little to no power over the clock. It’s going to move whether they want it to or not. And oftentimes, the more they focus on a time, the further away it gets. So, instead of focusing on where they want to go, let’s focus on how they get there.

It’s our hope that through constant conversation about the why and constant reinforcement of how, we’ll overcome some of the barriers we find during October. I’ve found that the more open we are about the why, the more bought in our team is and the more they’re willing to push themselves during this integral part of the season. No one, especially Gen Z student-athletes, likes to be kept in the dark. I spend much more time talking to my team about my season plan and the reasoning behind it now than I ever did before. Not only is this helpful for creating buy in with the student-athletes, but it also allows me to constantly be checking in with myself. Being open with the team about the whys and the hows makes my practice writing more intentional and allows me to make the most of the short time we have together as this team to create something exceptional.

Williams comes to Wittenberg after two seasons as the head boys' and girls' swimming coach at Mount Vernon High School in Mount Vernon, Ohio, where she guided every swimmer to at least one personal best time. She also spent the 2019-20 season as a volunteer assistant coach at her alma mater, Kenyon College, helping the team's swimmers achieve multiple record-breaking performances before the NCAA Division III Championship meet was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Williams earned her bachelor's degree in Spanish from Kenyon in 2016, at which time she already had extensive experience in a wide range of positions related to swimming and diving and athletics administration. She coached in three different youth swimming programs in and around her hometown of Mount Vernon while still an undergraduate, and she also participated in the Branch Rickey Mentorship Program through the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) during the 2015-16 school year. Williams' first college coaching experience came as a volunteer assistant at Kenyon, one of the traditional powers of NCAA Division III men's and women's swimming and diving, while still an undergraduate at the college. After graduating, her first professional stop came at Wilmington College, where she was the assistant to the director of athletics, a position with the NCAA Ethnic Minority and Women's Internship Grant, from 2016-2018. That was followed by one season at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where she served as the assistant men's and women's swimming and diving coach for the 2018-19 season and even stepped in as the interim head coach for three months following the season. After helping every swimmer on the roster achieve at least one personal-best time, Williams was instrumental in recruiting a strong class of 13 student-athletes in 2019. "I am humbled and honored to be the next Head Swim and Dive coach at Wittenberg University," Williams said. "Wittenberg's rich tradition, distinguished academic reputation, and beautiful campus make Wittenberg a great fit and I'm incredibly excited to get started! "I'd like to thank Brian Agler, President Frandsen, and the rest of the search committee for entrusting me with the opportunity to lead the Wittenberg Swimming and Diving program. I'm excited to grow and develop this program and its incredible student-athletes." Williams takes over Tiger men's and women's swimming and diving programs with a long track record of individual success, including more than 80 All-American performances since 1965. Most recently, the Tiger teams both finished ninth in the 2020 NCAC Championships under the direction of former Head Coach Noah Moran. The Tigers were limited to a small number of dual meet competitions in the 2020-21 season.

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