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The Middle

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Written By: Shaynah Jerrell

In June I had the honor to attend my first ever Olympic Trials. It was an emotional experience to say the least. I walked onto the pool deck and sobbed - big, fat, gasping, feel it in your whole body sobs. It’s a coach and swimmer’s dream to attend this event. But I was so moved as I stood there with four ATOM swimmers - some current, some alum. I have known each of them since they were 8 or 9 years old. They were homegrown; ATOM from the time they started competitive swimming. I had seen them struggle to make their first state cut, cried with them when they missed their first junior cut, and celebrated when we broke countless team records. We grew up together. Now we were on the big stage, because we invested in the middle, we took the time to develop a love for the sport, and we taught them to dream big from a young age.

In 2011 I became the Head Coach and owner at the Aquatic Team of Mecklenburg (ATOM) in Charlotte, NC. In a very logical progression I subsequently moved from being the Head Age Group Coach to the Head Senior Coach. I loved this position - not because I was “in charge” but because I loved working with high schoolers. I had spent the previous six years, in addition to coaching, as a high school teacher and had always known that my sweet spot with kids was teenagers. However, after a few years in this position, a unique opportunity presented itself. Our team was growing quickly, and this growth was leading to increased success. I also knew this success was going to be short lived if we didn’t make some significant structural changes to our program. I needed to rethink our practice group structure, hire new staff, and upend our coaching assignments. And so in an unlikely move, I reassigned myself to coach a developmental 10 & under group and our advanced 13-14 group in the fall of 2018. It was an unconventional move to say the least. But it was also the right move. My practice group assignments allowed me to see in every direction of our program. I was entrenched in the middle - which is exactly where I needed to be to help ATOM find long term success.

Initially, I saw this as an obvious opportunity to have a hand in all aspects of development - stroke progression, education on the sport, parent support, event development, and love of swimming. To no one’s surprise, it was all of these things. In this space I taught a core group of swimmers how to have long term swimming success. The moment a Head Coach is so far removed from their age group program that they are not aware of what is being taught, is the moment their program begins to falter. Building the foundation is paramount. There are plenty of teams who find moments of success without building and developing their base, but often this is just a flash in the pan. Sustained success means investing in every swimmer on your team, even the youngest ones.

That investment goes beyond teaching the fundamentals to 10 & unders or developing 13-14 year olds into elite swimmers. The next step is casting a vision and building team culture at all levels of your program. There is no doubt that every coach on any given staff is responsible in this process. However, there is added value in the Head Coach being deeply involved in setting the standard. Ideally the swimmers in the middle of your program will go on to represent your team at the highest levels of the sport and when they do you want them to represent your team in the best way possible. That representation goes far beyond fast swimming. They should represent the team’s core values, vision, and mission. At ATOM our core values are family, intensity, respect, and empathy (FIRE). Taking the time to teach all swimmers what ATOM values will pay off in dividends as they progress through our program. Not only will they represent us well at meets but they will also be an example to future generations of ATOM swimmers.

As I spent a little time in the middle of our program and had a lot of lengthy discussions with our Head Age Group Coach we came to realize we had some shoring up to do in order to really set our ship on the right course. While I am certain our Head Age Group would have been able to reach many of these conclusions on her own, it was a joint effort to roll up our sleeves and really make changes. It took us almost four years to plug some holes, strengthen our vision, and build our base. And while I’m certain we will always be evaluating our structure, successes, and failures I am also certain we are on the right path. Our base is bigger than ever. This season, on a team of only 160 swimmers, almost 100 of them are 12 & under. This is no accident. We recognized the importance of investing in the future of the sport and building a program that will be homegrown for years to come.

And now for a twist! This upcoming season I have once again reassigned myself and will be the Head Senior Coach. These are the perks of being your own boss: you get to make all kinds of fun decisions. I don’t pay myself the medium bucks for nothing! Nonetheless, regardless of my practice group assignment at ATOM I will always be heavily involved in our age group program. Whether that means spending time on the pool deck with younger swimmers or guiding and mentoring our age group coaches, my role will always include being in the middle.

Shaynah began swimming at the age of 12 and continued to swim at the club level in college and enjoyed masters swimming after college. She became the Head Coach at ATOM in 2012 after being the Head Age Group coach at ATOM for 7 years. Prior to coaching at ATOM, Shaynah was an Assistant Senior Coach at Chapel Hill YMCA. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a masters degree in secondary education and also taught high school social studies in Gaston County for 6 years before becoming a full time swim coach. Shaynah has coached Olympic Trial Qualifiers, NCAA athletes, Junior National and U.S. Open qualifiers, and State and Sectional Champions throughout her coaching career. She is passionate about teaching life skills through swimming and providing an environment that meets the needs of each individual swimmer.

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