Staying Positive In A Negative World

Written By: Jeff Berghoff


“Mrs. Johnson. Good to see you today at the meet. Susie did an awesome job today. I am very proud of her. She swam best times in 3 of her 4 events.” “It wasn’t good,’ Mrs. Johnson stated matter of factly. I started wondering to myself if I had missed something or maybe she as the parent knew something I did not. Had Susie swum best times that were not in our system? I was confused but knowing I was right I asked Mrs. Johnson why a meet with 3 out of 4 best times was not good. “She swam those times a year ago.” How many times do we as coaches deal with expectations like these? Part of our job as a coach is to not only coach the swimmer but to coach the parent as well. At the heart of it all Susie had done a great job. Her coaches had let her know. She felt good about herself leaving the pool deck and what she had accomplished. What sort of environment had she left to though? I kindly explained to her mom why I was so proud of her. We are in Covid times where we train less and more inconsistently. Her best times were almost a year old but she was unable to race since that time. She also had achieved those times at a championship meet she had prepared for and wearing her expensive tech suit. Plain and simple, her meet was awesome and proper praise from her coaches was given.


Swimmers these days are under so much pressure to be successful, to be “perfect”. A lot of it stems from the culture they live in. Almost all my swimmers aged 13 and up and many aged 11-12 have a cell phone these days. On that phone they are “connected”. They can open any number of apps and look for praise posting pictures of themselves or instantly sharing accomplishments. Sometimes those posts are rightfully celebrated with a “Good job Susie” or “great outfit Susie” but oftentimes these same youngsters are met with negative comments or people they thought were their “friends” post things about them. In the old days, this was being talked about behind your back. These days it is front and center and easily accessed by anyone. It is a wonder these kids can keep it all together trying to be “liked” on so many different social media apps.


This year it became even worse for them in my opinion. Where before they could escape constant scrutiny by putting their face in the water or even going to school, the majority of 2020 they spent out of the water and out of school. Practices became online meetings and online drylands. When they could get in the water, it was for less at a time and less often if at all. Sometimes a meet would be planned only to find out days or a week or two before that it was cancelled. Often, comments I would hear back included why are we doing this and what is this for?


So how do you help young minds and bodies to be successful under such daily duress? I find what works best for me and my program is to overwhelm them with positivity. Many of my former swimmers and even colleagues have termed me annoyingly positive. How do you find the positive in everything? “Coach Jeff you’re the most positive person I know.” My rules of thumb to helping my swimmers be successful and what has worked for me are follows and I’m sure many of you already do the same things and have found similar success.


Kill them with kindness.

Such a simple concept, being kind. My swimmers come to me with a wide variety of topics, most of which have nothing to do with their swimming. Why? Because it’s important to be kind to them. Listen to them. It has been said numerous times that as coaches we see these kids more than their parents. When you really think about it it’s true. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be honest with them. But you can allow yourself to be approachable.


Be honest with them.

I have shared it with my staff that we give them an Oreo sandwich when we give them criticism. We know what we want to get across to them to change but we also want them to know they’ve done good things as well. So, we start with a positive and then throw in all of the changes that we need to see or the “negatives” that they may need to hear and do it in a way that’s constructive not destructive and then end it with something positive. It works wonders and we’ve found they make the corrections quicker than just coming at them with you need to do this, you need to do this, you did this again, or quit doing that. How you sell change to them makes all the difference in the world.


Know your athletes.

Most of us coach many athletes and like snowflakes currently falling outside my window no two are 100% alike. They may have some similar tendencies, but they also have different needs. Our job as coaches is to figure out how to reach each of these athletes and we must do that in multiple different ways. Some may need you to slow it down and give them more basic instructions. Some just want to go and get after it. Luckily, I have an 8-lane facility and the pool is ours from 2:30pm to 9pm which makes it easier to be able to give each athlete what they need knowing that you still need to coach to the group.


Be the boss.

Sometimes as coaches the swimmers see you joking with them and smiling with them while learning about their days and they mistake that for you not being in charge. I am notoriously not a yeller in practice and am extremely laid back. I like to cheer for my swimmers as they’re training, and I get very excited and involved in their races but practices are usually pretty laid back with lots of correction and encouragement. However, there are times where you have to stop and get them to reset. It is at these rare points I use them to my advantage to not only teach and get my point across, but to also do it in a louder stricter tone. Sometimes they need to hear it a little louder. For those of us as parents, it is the same with our own children. Sometimes you must raise your voice to get your point across. Sometimes you need to “get their attention”.


Presentation can be everything.

I have found in more recent years with today’s world that I come across more swimmers than I’d like who immediately perceive being given correction or ideas to make things better, makes them feel they’ve done something wrong or that they are bad people. It is interesting to see how some of my swimmers react and not just to constructive criticism from myself, but members of my staff as well. Taking the time to help them see and understand the why of what they are doing or the why is key to their understanding. Kids are not dumb, but many are extremely sensitive. It is up to us as their coaches to figure out how to work with each of our swimmers.


Smile and the world smiles with you.

It is amazing how far a smile can go to reach someone. With the daily pressure our athletes are under, we never know what is behind their eyes, what is in their mind. Giving them a smile, letting them know that you care and most important letting them know they are valuable will help to ensure a great coach athlete relationship. I love music on the pool deck. I love to sing and dance while they are swimming. I love to coach them up while singing and dancing. I am not there to entertain them, but I do enjoy what I do. If they see that I am having fun, my hopes are that they too will have fun as well. Part of the fun I always stress to them is the hard work. I love to look down in the water during a hard set and have a swimmer rock their goal time of the set and be so pumped that they are also dancing in the shallow end, or smiling, or truly enjoying themselves.


It is incredible what you can get your swimmers to do by pressing the right buttons with them. I love that my swimmers will do what we put forth in front of them. Some of my swimmers are still learning. They are learning to trust. They are learning that a positive influence on them in an otherwise negative environment will help them to believe in themselves and achieve remarkable things. And when they believe, when they truly believe in what you are giving them, there is no limit to their success. I once heard one of my swimmers on one of our upper level travel teams who was not performing how they wanted or had expected themselves to perform lean over on the team bench and ask another who was having a phenomenal meet “how are you swimming so fast?” Their answer made me smile and brought a sense of accomplishment at reaching another swimmer. His response was simply, “I do the work. I go to practice and do what Coach Jeff asks me to do.”


I have been doing this for 32 years since I coached my first summer league team at 16 years old. I have been blessed to coach swimmers of all levels and abilities and from many different countries. I love that even today on Christmas Day 2020 a swimmer I coached years ago wrote and sent me a family picture with her kids just to say Merry Christmas. Knowing that in all that my swimmers go through outside the pool that I have been able to touch them in their hearts and made a difference to them inside the pool is what makes it all worth it. Most of us don’t get into coaching to be millionaires. However, I know that I am rich in more ways than can be counted in a bank account. I am thankful to God that I get to work in a job that is never work. I am thankful to Him to be able to get up every day and deal with amazing athletes and coaches and parents and administrators. I believe that all of us have a purpose here, that only He knows what that purpose truly is, but I feel that mine is to help my athletes see the positive in an otherwise negative world.


We are pleased and excited to introduce you to Steel City's Aquatics Director and the Moon Site head coach, Jeff Berghoff. Coach Jeff comes to us with over 20 years of coaching experience that spreads between, USA Swimming/AMS Aqua Club, High school/Varsity, and Collegiate level swim programs. As an Assistant Head Coach for Women’s Swimming at the University of Pittsburgh, Jeff had swimmers represented in several NCAA Championships, had 1 NCAA Honorable Mention All-American, and had 6 athletes placed in the prestigious Pitt Panthers Varsity Walk. During this time, Jeff was also the Head Coach for Team Pittsburgh Aquatics, an AMS aqua club in our LSC. Jeff coached Eastern Zone Record holders, junior national, senior national, Olympic Trial qualifiers and multiple PIAA State champions. While coaching at Oakland Catholic High school, Jeff produced 2 individual State Champions, 16 NISCA High School All-Americans, and the 1999 PIAA Class AA State Championship Team.

Another one of Jeff’s strengths is his talents with operating high-level swim meets. Jeff has previously served as the Meet Director for USA Swimming meets that ran at the University of Pittsburgh, including the annual Christmas Meet – one of the largest Age Group meets in the country – and the 2011 USA Swimming Summer Speedo Champions Supersectionals Meet. Jeff earned his bachelor's degree in economics from Carnegie Mellon University in 1994. He lives in Monroeville, Pa. and has three sons and a daughter-in-law.

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