Written By: Alexis Keto
I'm going to address a wonderful and exciting topic that can also be one of the scariest years for a coach...there will be some dark secrets where I say the quiet parts out loud, and some really obvious moments where we both kind of roll our eyes and say, "well, duhhhhh."
Let's start with one of those moments.
The moment an athlete qualifies for Olympic Trials.
Holy Heck, it's exciting.
There's a rush of emotions.
First, this kid made their goal, their dream, the BIG step. That's a lot of hard work paying off and the joy flooding the coach's body sometimes leaks out the eyes for a second. Just a second, though, because for some reason, it's important to play it cool, like this was inevitable while other coaches pat shoulders and donate handshakes. The team is cheering wildly and this kid, because they're still just a kid, has accomplished a grown-up sort of goal.
And no matter what other coaches may say, while the first one is always special, every single time a kid makes their first trials cut - there's a lot of joy and eye leakage from the athlete's journey to that point.
The other emotion at that moment, that isn't talked about as much, is relief. The moment, as a coach, where this unspoken weight lifts off those shoulders. The relief is for any number of reasons. Perhaps a parent has been doling out "wisdom" to their athlete and it's created ungodly amounts of tension. Maybe the athlete has gone through an unbelievable journey to get there. The board of the team may be second guessing a hire for lack of results (stay tuned for the irony there in a bit). And then there's the imposter syndrome & professional pressure created internally. And yes, that one shows back up, almost like clockwork at the end of every quad. When that time flashes on the board - there's a little of that relief too.
Next step is preparation - the athlete now needs to get ready for the "BIG" meet. Sometimes, this may have been in the works already, sometimes the athlete gets the cut and it's like...ok, we need to get ready and we are NOT ready.
What does that look like? Well, optimistically, the athlete can be part of the 10% of the meet that goes a best time at Olympic Trials. And yes, statistically speaking, it's more likely the athlete will not be in that 10%, but dream big, Coach. Dream Big.
To properly prepare, it's smart to expose a young athlete to the big swimming scene as early as possible and as frequently as possible. Hit up some Pro Series, the US Open, the Santa Clara Invitational - anything where the swimming is destined to be bananas fast and swimming superstars will be out in force. This is a crucial step - the younger a burgeoning elite swimmer is, the more likely they'll have the irrepressible urge to be star struck. Sticking to "the plan" becomes more challenging when their head is on a swivel. If the athlete can be exposed to the fastest swimming in the world as soon as possible - there's a stronger likelihood that trials won't be as daunting.
Even better if they can sneak a World Championship or International Trials in there - it's not quite the same intensity & spectacle, but it'll be close. In the luckiest of worlds, the athlete will make the National Junior Team and they'll get some international flavor and Junior Team training under their belt which will elevate their composure and confidence because they will have doubts about their validity as well.
Plan out a full competition year. Assuming the athlete qualifies in the summer prior to Trials - here's a typical schedule leading up to the big meet: December 2023: US Open (4-5 days) - this is usually a very busy and chaotic meet, great opportunity to get the starstruck nervousness out. Even the most confident kid will need that moment. January or March or April 2024: Pro Series Meet or similar (4-5 days) - Work to get some second swims and polish up the race and maybe try for a 2nd or 3rd cut. Ideally two of these, but money could be prohibitive, but one plus sectionals meet or similar with the team.
Late May/Early June 2024: (1-2 days) Some local LCM meet - get a couple of pops in to race LCM with a team
Late June 2024: Olympic Trials (6-8 days) - have a plan but realize that it will be totally shot by the second day. Have fun and celebrate the athlete as much as possible. Attend finals at least twice. Talk to all kinds of new coaches. Immerse 1000%.
July 2024: (3-5 days) Attend a championship meet (Sectionals/Futures/Juniors) with the whole team where they can swim whatever they want, but 4-6 events and relays and have some big swims.
Each meet throughout the plan will have ups and downs - providing several opportunities to have them level up mentally and work through disappointment. This is a crucial step for Trials not to be underestimated. Remember that 10% best time statistic? It's real. We can hope against hope for something special to happen, but help the athlete navigate the entire meet, especially for their first Trials, it will set them up for a much more successful next National level competition.
To reiterate, working with the athlete to navigate this journey emotionally will be a big part of this year. Once the initial joy & excitement subsides, nervousness will escalate. Trials means something different outside of swimming. So many people hear Trials and think - gosh, this kid could make the Olympic Team! And while the athlete understands the statistics about making the team, there's still that slight hope that maybe they'll have that magical drop and make the team! Their teachers, their friends and even their family pipe their pride and their hope for the Olympic Dream, adding additional stress for the athlete as they continue their preparation. Encourage them to celebrate others and support their teammates, who may also be looking to be qualify for Trials. Work with their parents to make sure they are also involved with the team. Develop a strong foundation of trust with them to process their training and performances while keeping the sport fun!
Here's the dark part of this process...to do this preparation well, coaches need to attend several meets throughout the year with a very small roster. Sometimes just that one athlete. And their parent. This means a LARGE portion of the team will not be getting the coveted attention of the coach. A lot of jealousy can result and it may accelerate significantly if not outlined early in the year.
Navigating this space is extremely challenging. More than once, a coach has had their job threatened or even lost their job as a direct result of supporting a trials qualifier, even if the team has pledged that support. Here's that irony mentioned earlier. Many boards/parent groups/teams want a coach who has coached an athlete to Olympic Trials to lead their program. Oddly, that can only be achieved by supporting an athlete (and coach) to the top level of swimming, where they'll have to miss a lot of time with the team, which can be seen as a major negative.
There's a lot of cost (financial & emotional) associated with the level of commitment required to prepare and support an athlete to perform at Trials. This is going to cost the team around $6,000-$10,000 depending on flights and hotels and number of meets throughout the year. A Coach can be gone around 20-30 days not including local meets. There are small ways to help mitigate the cost - fundraisers, partner with other teams for travel, drive instead of fly. Have an honest talk with the board or club management now. Lay out the whole plan. Research the hotels, flights, meet entries and food ahead of time. Consider sending an assistant to a meet like the Pro Series if they work with the athlete on a regular basis. If not, because sometimes that's not an option, have a very clear plan of practice and meet coverage well ahead of time. Using local coaches also can help or retired coaches who happen to live in the area and be a fun substitute.
From an emotional standpoint, coaches should discuss the upcoming schedule with friends/family. Olympic Trials preparation may mean having to prioritize work more than normal (even for a coach), especially for a smaller team. When not at the big meets, coaches are expected on deck in some form on most other weekends. Planning for one weekend with friends/family and no swimming every six weeks will help maintain a semblance of normalcy.
It may feel a little intimidating but it's going to be a great next 9 months. Take the time at each of the meets to breathe & relish the moment. Coaches grow & change through this process too. It's awesome to walk on the deck in support of that kind of athlete - a journey that can be quite special.
Streamline Teams COO, Coach Alexis Keto has been working with the Bolles School Sharks since May 2022 as the Late Night Senior Coach after club stints as CEO at New Trier Aquatics & Head Coach at Colorado Athletic Club & college roles at N.C. State & Northwestern. She now spends time coaching coaches, creating educational clinics and has created a swimmer's logbook through her new small venture - Digital Aquatical. As a coach, she's been fortunate enough to be part of several athletes' experiences at Olympic Trials since 2000 as a college coach and club coach - both older athletes and teenagers - it's quite fun and each time is just as special as the last.