Deryk’s Team Talks

It was sad news to hear the passing of Deryk Snelling. I was one of lucky swimmers who called him ‘Coach’. Deryk had a timelessness about him, so it is sad in an unbelievable sort of way, but an inevitable eventuality, we all sadly reach.

I would like to share some of my experiences with Deryk to maybe give you a flavour of his ability to inspire a team and hopefully share how he is known as a distinguished coach. He was an amazing ringmaster at getting a training group together, then allowing its organic development, continually improving it until it was a powerhouse.

My place on the pecking-order in Calgary was somewhat low on the totem when I arrived in 1983, since some swimmers already had Olympic medals, but I was happy to observe and climb my way up, eventually earning my Olympic ring. It gave me a unique perspective to observe and absorb.

Deryk on the cover of Swim June 1976 after his announcement as Canadian Olympic Swim Team Head Coach

As a wide-eyed teen I had huge respect for Deryk. His track record enticed me to his program. His coaching team in Calgary included Dr Monika Schloder who is a warm generous coach who helped the fledglings adapt to life away from home and also Graham Smith who was a gruff, tobacco chewing, fastback mustang driving cowboy, who seemed like he was in a constant bad mood but strangely caring, in a nickname-for-everyone sort of way.

Some of Deryk’s senior swimmers at the inaugural Western Canada Games spoke to me about what being on their team was like and I was more convinced by swimmers talking to me than coaches. Deryk had a long track record and a team of young and old swimmers who all seemed to gel together. I was looking for a team, not just a coach. Deryk knew how to build a team.

That ‘senior’ status was a respected role within the team dynamic that Deryk encouraged. The team that Deryk developed had a leadership hierarchy within the ranks. He engendered a family of swimmers who worked together, travelled together and who won together.

Go on…name them all.

The ‘Team Talk’ started every season and was the mental glue he poured from day one. His talks were legendary. During the season, from time to time, he’d very often get his swimmers together to have a ‘team meeting’ and boost our morale. In this regard he coached intuitively. Every national finals (and heats) he would lay out the evenings races. We were primed before we even got to the pool.

Deryk lived in Olympic cycles. Saying he ate, slept and breathed Olympism would not be an exaggeration. In his own swimming career he had been denied a spot on the British team, by team selectors, despite owning the British record in 200m breaststroke, so I think this inspired in him to dominate the sport in Canada. The team talks in the lead up to ‘84, ‘88 and ‘92 were pivotal in my career and I’m sure there are swimmers who could attest to this in ‘72, ‘76, ‘80s talks. He made us all want to get on the team and experience representing Canada!

Those talks were highlighted with an audiovisual counterpoint of some herculean Olympic event. It was always a goosebump moment. Deryk had a impressive library and found something to get us thinking.

Training through huge sets after those team talks made it seem possible; we were in it together.

His military background wasn’t lost on me and, for me, wasn’t too far from home. I grew up with an understanding that a job well done was one done thoroughly. Deryk insisted on it too. We were all striving for an Olympic berth (many striving for more than just a spot on the team) and cutting corners was discouraged. He had a way of getting the most out of everyone.

For example, arriving in Calgary , just freshly an 18yr old, I was not yet a convert to early mornings. First year university students generally are not. In Uni residences, I got up for morning training and students were still up from the night’s revelry. Deryk was aware of this and in his typical old-school style, to discourage late arrivals to training, …as I meekly arrived on deck as the warm up finished… (I had no excuse since the residences were literally across the road from the pool), he loudly asked if I was late because I was ‘up all night masterbating’. This caused me a red face and no reply, since I wasn’t sure, and a big laugh from the team. Deryk was like that and I wasn’t late ever again.

Looking back at those years is not bittersweet. I relish those days training with my friends and learning from a master. Winning or not winning, our team-mates were behind us. Deryk created a team spirit that cheered for everyone, not just our superstars. We cheered till the last race was done. We made up cheers constantly and some I still hear on deck today.

Deryk made training a team event and often put more thought into relays than anything else.

He created that sportsmanship and comradeship that was infectious. I will miss him. I will miss his mentoring, his exceptionally sharp eye for talent and for his love of sunny weather. He had a predilection for sunshine and he tanned quickly in team-issue speedos. He was his own man, never happier than on poolside in scorching hot mid-day Hawaiian heat, in Speedos with a stopwatch in hand.

Goodbye Deryk, you were the closest thing to a father I had after my own father. Thank you for everything you did for me and for instilling in me an ability to arrive to morning training on time. ❤️

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What’s in your coaching bag?

We all have our critical items in our coaching bag: a phone, a stopwatch, likely a ledger with your plan, some flip-flops, and then various highlighters, pens and paraphernalia. (And a face mask!) There is one more thing you need at every session.

Before I reveal the last item, follow this hypothetical story;

You have been exceptionally busy in your working day and now you rush to the pool, probably a little late due to slow traffic.

In the back of your mind you have a good idea of the drills you want to do based on your plan but you are considering options as you arrive late.

As you barge past people in the pool entrance, who are slowing your route to poolside to try to ask you an inane question, purposefully ignoring some them, and finally you rummage through your bag looking for your stopwatch and whiteboard markers. You’re still thinking about some things you’d like to get done at this session.

Your start to the training session is by shouting at the stragglers who didn’t get in the water on your first command. Finally everyone is swimming except for the one or two having swim cap or goggle issues.

What did you not bring out to make this training session productive?

You’ve already lost your coaching productivity. You’ve got everything you need but because your sour face, (or more eloquently; your resting bitch face) switched off every child. Your body language and frown says: ‘I’m angry’!

What needs to be in your coaching bag of tricks? A smile. Bring a smile to your sessions.

If you set up a feeling of negativity around you, swimmers won’t like you. They won’t want to impress you to get praise or want to talk to you. Your coaching bag is empty without a smile. If your face and body language says; I’m unapproachable then you will get nothing back.

Success will be achieved more easily with swimmers who love being at the pool because you are fun to be around.

For those with a face-covering a big hurdle to try to overcome is smiling with a face covering. But you can always say things that are positive and saying your are happy to see the team.

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Teen Depression

Teenage suicide is not a topic of my choice but one I now can’t stop thinking of.

A young man I knew decided this world was too… lonely? scary? uncertain? He has left everyone behind now.

His broken-hearted Mum said “Encourage them to talk…” in a hope that other families are not torn like theirs. And I certainly agree. I know there are other interesting young people in our world like him so maybe I can help those families with young swimmers experiencing depression.

Engagement in conversation with teens is a bit tricky at times. My coaching experience leads me to regularly speak to teens. I hope my experience can help someone.

Teens who were, in pre-COVID days, very busy individuals, have a big hole in their lives now. All that energy without a vent can spiral down. COVID has brought us to a very strange crossroads. Teenage life is tough enough but imagine going through this COVID situation as a teen! As adults we have coping mechanisms due to our experiences but we must pause and have some empathy for the teens around us. Adults cope by keeping things going with friends and family. By getting into their hobbies. But teens might not have that.

Anyone can begin to spiral into a dark place if they are left alone with their own thoughts. It is why solitary confinement is so evil. Talking with a friend will be a great joy; we all know it’s great to be around friends.

Engagement is the trick, and it’s tricky. To engage in conversation a question should be asked. For example…How was your day? A rubbish question like that will not engage because it can be answered with one word. ‘good’ or ‘fine’. And it is a stupid generic question with no thought anyways; stupid question…stupid answer.

Engagement in conversation creates a sounding board and is what friends do. Friends are interested in you. COVID has narrowed the number of sounding boards in our lives. Maybe down to none! As parents we must be included as a sounding board for our kids and in particular teens.

To get engagement you should ask a specific meaningful question. (Yes you must think about this question). Then…(the important bit).listen carefully.

Now you have the power in your hands to have a conversation with a teenager! Based on the answer, ask another question to begin a discussion. Just talking is enough. The important thing is to show you care enough to listen.

Teens will need a more intellectual and relevant question from you to be taken seriously. You will have to be able to ask a good question.

In our COVID-world our social space has shrunk. So parents may be one of the very few true interactions experienced every day by teens. Emotionally immature teens might not know how to initiate conversations. They are often too shy or get treated like small children (which they are not).

This young man loved coming to my swim camps in Perthshire. He quickly made friends and often had his lane laughing. He was integral to all of our games-hall games out of the pool, involved in every challenge, but mostly he really loved to swim!

He was always keen to learn and he was a sponge for new ideas to train or race faster. He was easy to coach and happy. If he wasn’t laughing he was smiling.

Anyone can get depressed, watch for warning signs. As parents, in particular Mothers, can tell if there is something amiss but only if we are engaged.

Corey, I was looking forward to seeing you at our next swim camp. You have made me sad and I wish this wasn’t happening too. Goodbye wee man, you are missed by all your friends.

Miss you.
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Why it is right to be wrong

Most people hate being wrong. But being wrong is what we do rather often.

So we block out the memory of what we did incorrectly and only remember the good bits.

However, you’re already good at the good bits.

Think about the possibility that maybe you are not improving at all right now and so possibly you are at an interesting place; the waiting place. Dr Suess’ genius captures it perfectly.


And what are people doing there:


I hope you can read that….if not, the text goes like this:

...for people just waiting

Waiting for a train to go

or a bus to come, or a place to go

or the mail to come, or the rain to go

or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow

or waiting around for a Yes or a No

or waiting for their hair to grow

Everyone is just waiting

Waiting for the fish to bite

or waiting for wind to fly a kite

or waiting around for Friday night

or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake

or a pot to boil, or a Better Break

or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants

or a wig with curls, or Another Chance

Everyone is just waiting

So are you waiting for the future or are you trying to live in the present?

So what is left after we are good at what we are already good at? The things we are missing.

In quarantine there are many things we are probably not good at. Assessing them by keeping track will show you them. Keep a log or diary.

Racing mistakes can be changed but there are other areas to improve . Your body weaknesses can be changed.

You must observe yourself by reflection and try to figure out what you are good at and what you’re not. Address them!

Taking the time to reflect on any race or training session is valuable because it helps to improve faster by fixing errors, but now, in our unique situation, you have an opportunity. So don’t make the same mistakes twice, make a plan based on your reflection, and enjoy the journey.

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Swimmer’s Guide To The Medulla Oblongata

Breath in. Breath out. Simple.

Or not?

Breathing is necessary of course, everyone needs to breathe, but you don’t have to spend time considering when or how.  Except during swimming.

Breathing is one of the autonomic activities that is governed by a part of our brain at the top of our spinal cord called our medulla or also the medulla-oblongata. (I prefer medulla-oblongata because it makes me seem intelligent). Automatic at all times, even when you sleep, but importantly; not when you swim.

So there is something very important going on that many swimmers and coaches don’t pay any attention to: an autonomic system that isn’t allowed to be autonomic.

The medulla-oblongata controls all automatic things like sneezing, blinking, vomiting and the respiratory rhythm to name a few. It is everything about us that is unconsciously ticking over in the background of our lives.

The respiratory cycle and sequencing are still being studied and remain an area of study that is not completely understood. But basically our cortex is given a signal by the medulla-oblongata to breathe faster when we experience stress like when our blood becomes more acidic during exercise.

When your medulla oblongata senses stress it tells our cortex to activate intercostal muscles, which are between your ribs, to speed up pumping your lungs so you can add more oxygen to your blood.

So swimming creates an unusual stress on a human, that impacts, what Bill Boomer called, the primal part of your brain.

Impacting the primal part of your brain can not be treated lightly. In fact, in low oxygen environments, it causes panic by a gasping reflex which is caused by a tiny part of the medulla-oblongata called the pre-Bötzinger complex that specifically deals with respiratory modulation.

This area of the medulla-oblongatta produces two types of breathing rhythms: in normal levels of oxygen we have a smooth easy rhythm but under stress a faster rhythm happens.

So stress, including exercise, has a trigger to speed up normal breathing, then peculiarly, in a swimmer, the ‘speed up’ breathing message has to be ignored due to your face in the water.

An ignored ‘breathe more’! message will set off the mechanisms of panic and gasp reflex but also alter mood. Since the medulla oblongatta also regulates a person’s mood many stress-related autonomic systems would start to activate. Many people find swimming exceptionally stressful and the breathing aspect is likely why. Most successful swimmers learned very early in their lives when they had better neural plasticity (ability to learn new things).

This then implies two steps: that the physiological demand of swimming creates stress by blood acidity and the Pre-Bötzinger complex immediately responds by increasing breathing rhythms. BUT in swimming this response can not happen immediately complicating things with additional stress.

These mechanisms are an area of research that is not currently thoroughly understood.

Neurology of the respiratory systems is obviously complex and I don’t assume to understand it as an expert would. Even experts agree there is a great deal remaining to understand about this system. However my swimming experience and coaching experience has given me some degree of understanding that may help.

To decrease stress a swimmer must forcefully exhale and not just hold their breath. This permits a proper inhalation to follow the exhalation (as per normal). The purposeful exhaling makes a normal response to exercise and keeps all of your subconscious mechanics ticking over.

Holding your breath during a stressful event will quickly escalate to become an urgency to gasp. This gasp reflex is the feeling of the Pre-Bötzinger complex being stressed and changes a calm mood-state into panic. Panic or gasping are not mechanisms that are helpful during a race.

For example, I learned about the usefulness of controlling exhalation in the late 1980’s. I was firstly a backstroke swimmer that had switched to freestyle to exploit a gap in the market because Canada had at least five backstroke swimmers in the top twenty, so my coach and I decided to turn to 400 free. However I was still called up to swim on relays as a backstroker from time to time with our club. I’d recently seen a Canadian swimmer called Sean Murphy swim a 100m backstroke just outside the world record by hundredths. He did an emerging new thing that exploited a fast underwater dolphin kick for most of the first 50m of the 100 back. I was keen to try since I had a very good dolphin kick.

During the 50m backstroke leg in the 200 medley relay (Long Course) I tried to kick the majority of the distance underwater like Murphy since there was no 15m underwater rule yet. In preparation for it, in the warm up, I realised that it was too hard to hold my breath that long during maximum dolphin kick effort. However I had discovered in the lead up to the 87/88 season, in my 400free short course, that proper forceful exhaling helped the oxygenation of my blood in the early parts of my race. Additionally I used a slow exhale on turns which subsequently made them the strongest part of my race crushing my competition off the walls.

A 10m underwater phase is significantly different to a 45m underwater phase so I tried in my warm up to exhale for 45m. I found that if I held my breath past the 15m false start rope (when underwater on your back you can see the things above the surface if the surface is smooth) and then exhaled very slowly to get to 45m (or even better: 44m). Then I’d come up just before the flags, completing the race with normal backstroke stroke-count to the wall.

When I popped up at around 45m and sprinted into the touch beside A-team backstroke swimmer Mark Tewksbury, he was incredulous and thought I’d somehow cheated. It was the ultimate complement.

Since those halcyon days I’ve taught breathing skills to swimmers with some great success. I called it humming while you swim. Good breathing skills are important in all distances!

Even if you don’t care that the Pre-Bötzinger complex part of the medulla oblongatta tells your cerebellum to activate a faster rhythm of breathing. And that this is subsequently complicated by submerging in water… simply get your swimmers to exhale consciously so that you don’t put too much stress on one of the most primary aspects of being alive. It makes swimming far easier.

Simple. Breathe in and breathe out.

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