Why Focus on Team?

There are three essential components to a great team: Swimmers (duh), coaches and parents. But before we go about giving each group’s roles, we need to ask several fundamental questions:

Why focus on team?

What is a team?

What makes a GREAT team!?


Why Focus on Team

Peyton Werner is by far the most dedicated swimmer we have ever met. The son of a former Navy Seal (who was also his coach), Peyton would do things many would consider overkill for the sake of swimming. He transferred from a brick-and-mortar high school and enrolled in an online prep school so he could have more control over his daily schedule to get more training in. He carefully watched his diet, pre-loaded for every workout with organic supplements like beetroot juice (disgusting tasting stuff), trained two (sometimes three) times a day, recovered with stretching and arm/leg massage machines… and he mostly did it alone.

His work showed. He was one of the fastest swimmers in the state of Iowa for years, breaking multiple state records from his pre-teen years on. When he started plateauing, he moved to Florida to train with the Gators… while finishing his last year in high school. No homecoming, no prom, no BS. Just swimming.

Although Peyton did well with the Gators, it took its toll and he was forced to take time off and focus on recovering. But things changed when he joined the Princeton swim team. For the first time in his swimming career, Peyton had a team to swim for. Something bigger than himself to train for.

His coach asked him to swim races he hated and that he had not done in years, like the mile. Instead of pushing back and fighting it, Peyton realized he was being asked to do this service for the team and he was more than happy to help score points whichever way he could. Not only was he happy about it, he had one of the best seasons of his career!

Peyton was an accomplished young man by almost any objective standard, but he was still missing his maximum potential until he reached college. He needed a team to serve and a bigger purpose to swim for. He may have been satisfied for years, but he wasn’t happy until he got on a team.

The fact is swimming sucks! It hurts, it’s uncomfortable and costs almost everything (for the swimmer and parent) if you intend to do it right. No one in their right mind does this long term for small reasons. If there is no greater purpose than to swim for one’s self (a small reason), then the second the road gets rough or the set gets tough or the season doesn’t go as planned that swimmer will be out of the game either mentally or physically. It’s easy to quit on yourself because no one else gets hurt in the process.

The “team” concept is how we build a greater purpose in our swimmers. It gives them something more to work for and it’s much more difficult to quit on your team than it is to quit on yourself. Long ago, it was discovered that Catholics were much less likely to commit suicide than Protestants. The reason being that Catholics tend to have large families and suicide was like giving up on them, so it didn’t happen as often.

Swimmers who feel a responsibility to their team stick through the tough times. This is the foundation of building a long-term successful club. This is how we build a generational team that continually improves from year to year. As head coach, CEO, King/Queen of the pool it’s your job to create this culture and maintain it through the years. Fast swimmers come and go, but culture is present every day.

To our next question: What is a team?

The definition can be variable and based on circumstance. A team may look different in the high school, swim lesson, club, or professional team setting. At its core, the term includes some sort of belief that the individual’s decision affects the group. Therefore, individuals should hold themselves and each other accountable for their actions (giving up on sets, swimming easy on relays, skipping practice, partying…etc.).

We also like to add an element that even if one person “succeeds” in accomplishing a great feat (makes the Olympics for instance), everyone on the team had a hand in that accomplishment and deserves some of the credit. This way, even a “slow” swimmer on the team can be part of the contribution that ends up being recognized publicly.

Tangent: When people talk about going to the moon, we use terms like “we” and “our accomplishment.” In reality, only a handful of people ever stepped on the moon’s surface, but we all feel part of the accomplishment, part of the team.

On day one of every season, we remind our swimmers what our definition of team is:

One person’s success is everyone’s joy. One person’s failure is everyone’s fault.

It’s up to you what you want the term “team” to mean, but make sure it’s something inspiring, holds the kids accountable for their actions and instills a sense of greater purpose. Here are some other examples of what a team can be:

  • A group of individuals that trust each other
  • All for one and one for all
  • Individuals with a common goal
  • A group working together that is more than the sum of the parts

The final piece of the puzzle is to share this vision of your team with everyone all the time! Your swimmers, assistant coaches and parents should hear about the team at every turn. It should be bannered and hung from the walls and written on the kickboards. Other clubs and the community at large should know it too. That’s how you are going to recruit more swimmers and grow the club.

Tangent: For more real-world examples of corporations succeeding and failing at focusing on their purpose, read Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”.

Now that we are convinced of the need to create a team, the next obvious question is how to build a GREAT team!?

All of the components of the team we mentioned (swimmers, coaches and parents) need to be operating at their best and we will get into the details and real-world examples of what that looks like. But first, what’s going to be the overall goal for this new team of ours? What is this new 8-year old joining the team supposed to really focus on every day? Should we just worry about times, qualifying for meets, breaking records and swimming fast? Nah, we can think bigger.

Character is what our 8-year old should focus on. Ok… maybe that’s a stretch, but it should be what YOU focus on and here’s why.

Tangent: “You cannot protect people. You can only make them strong.”

– Dr. Jordan Peterson

Most coaches, swimmers and parents want to focus on the result: swimming fast. Unfortunately, most of the factors that determine someone’s maximum potential are out of everyone’s hands. If you broke down the ultimate swimming performance a person can achieve (the greatest result), here would be our estimate of the factors at play and their contribution:

  • Genetics 50%
  • Personality and upbringing 25%
  • Coaching/training 15%
  • Facilities/opportunities 10%

How can anyone (swimmer, coach or parent) claim credit or blame for any result when so much is out of each person’s control? In addition, only one person can truly be “fast” at any one time and everyone else by definition is just less fast, aka slow. For these reasons, we will focus on our swimmer’s character.

A great TED talk to watch and share with your team was given by Brett Ledbetter called Building Your Inner Coach. In summary, “winning is not a result, winning is a process that is driven by character.” He wanted his athletes to have a strong inner voice that would be their coach at all times until their dying moment. This inner voice has the power to build or destroy and its ability is built on character. He (and we) want to give our athletes that character driven inner voice. 

TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7a5TIzOmeQ


So, how do we do this in real life? After studying and speaking with 100s of top athletes and coaches, these were the skills that feed into a great athlete’s character.

Performance Skills are what we want every athlete to master and Moral Skills are what we want every human to have. These apply whether you are an employee, spouse, sibling… etc. Again, this comes back to the idea of “make a great kid first” and the rest will take care of itself!

Tangent: What gets measured is what gets done. Measure times, and times will get better… for the short term. Measure character, and you can never lose.

How you build these skills will be your challenge. Read leadership books, share regularly with your team, help them understand failure is not a step backwards but is tripping forward and is a great teacher. Be just and fair and hold your athletes accountable for their actions in and out of the water. Rebuke, when given by someone we trust, is accepted and welcomed. It’s what makes us better and we know it.

For example, when writing this book, Karl is/was a radiology resident. Medical school, residency training and being a doctor in general is a constant learning and growing process. The best learners seek out mentors who aren’t afraid to tell us what we did wrong and how to get better. It hurts your feelings for a bit, but makes you better in the long run. Coaches and swimmers need to have the same attitude towards their own growth.

Focusing on the results all the time only means we are focusing on the future and never living in the moment. How can we do our best work in the moment if our minds are elsewhere? Impossible. In addition, solely focusing on results makes the athlete’s self-value based on their last performance. A couple bad performances in a row and that swimmer isn’t going to feel good about themselves and will spiral down the vicious cycle. Instead, we want character that pushes through and overcomes, not succumbs. This is called grit and we will touch on it again later.

In between character and results is process. We have all heard the phrase “focus on the process” and we know it to be true, but what does that look like in real life? An easy way is to constantly ask two questions:

  1. What did I do good and why?
  2. What can I do better and how?

After every set, practice, swim meet and season, these questions should be our guide.

Another real-life example of putting these vague concepts to use is to remember that winning isn’t everything. We tend to only use this phrase when we fail to help ourselves feel better, but the fact is this is true even when we win. When kids come up to you after a race they won all excited, what’s your initial response? Good job, here’s some sprinkles on your ice cream? Or do you go back to our questions and ask what’s the next step?

In medicine, this is called the “Satisfaction of Search” error. When you find what you are looking for or achieve your result, you quickly lose motivation to keep searching and cover your bases. Swimmers encounter the same effect. Once we reach our result, we let satisfaction prevent good from becoming great! Swimmers with strong character can overcome their failures and success to continually chase improvement.

If all we care about is character, is there no more room for results and goal setting? Of course there is! But we need to use them properly (more on this coming up). Goals help us stay motivated and on target during a long tough season. But they should never be the end result. There should be no end result, but instead a continuous process of improvement using goals as our stepping stones. The second you think you have reached every attainable goal and result; it is time to quit and find something else to help you grow.

My parents have the tradition of going to the same restaurant every Friday night. The food is mediocre at best, but they love going. That’s because they don’t go for the taste or flavor (swimming times), they go for the company, the service and the atmosphere (the culture). We want to do the same thing on our team, and all of this comes together in the culture you build. The idea of culture is to foster an environment where character is the primary concern regardless of how fast the swimming is.

It’s a tough job, often hindered by success and ego, hopefully by the end of this book your chances of success will be higher!

Tangent: Always want more, but never be greedy.