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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The Haaland Flow

The concept of flow is a very interesting phenomenon in sport and also in art. This curiosity was seen in artists who seemed to lose time while engaged in their art and was first studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. in the 1970s. If you could watch an athlete like Erling Haaland, you would see a person in flow. During his warm up, you would notice that his warmup and game style are much the same. This style of performance is often called in the zone or flow state..

I as extremely fortunate to have very close seats to pitch-side on Tuesday (14-3-23) at the Etiad stadium to watch Leipzig vs Manchester City. I was in G section which is about 50m away from the corner spot. This was a UEFA knockout stage match, so a critical game to win. Winning would move the team to top eight and into contention to win overall. It is a hugely lucrative event.

One of the most interesting parts of attending a live game, to me, is seeing the players’ preparation and warm up prior to the game. These superstars are like movie stars and seeing them live is almost surreal. I have a underlying belief that watching the warmup might reveal something upcoming in the game.

As a simple swim-coach observer, I claim no expertise in football. In fact our busdriver and the high school teachers from Wallace High School in Stirling whom I travelled with on a school trip could talk for hours on football … and did. It is a semi-religious, inexhaustible, fountain of knowledge. I am not an ant on their shoe when it comes to understanding this football religion.

But sport of any type is interesting to me and I try to see if there’s something to learn. I don’t really care who wins.

Haaland was sublime in his warm up and so were his team mates. In particular I watched #47 and was dumbstruck as he nimbly took a 50 ft pass off his outside foot, he cleverly popped the ball onto the other outside foot, pirouetted, then softly popped it into the air a couple more times, then sliced it high into the air to have it land perfectly onto his teammate’s foot, 50 ft away. (#47 is Philip Foden).

I quickly realised I was watching pure expertise, the cream-of-the-crop artists of players who had years of skill beyond their age. A group of circus-like talent, probably the finest in the world, exceptionally well paid and sandwiched together on two teams.

The game started as expected, a close match, but a VAR penalty tipped the balance about 20 minutes into the game. Haaland scored the penalty but then he seemed to sense a deflating opposition . The party was only starting and he seemed to be everywhere at the right time.

Haaland noticed, as expected, a heaviness in his opponents demeanour after the penalty and attacked! He sprinted towards the opponents goalkeeper causing a mistake and soon scored again. Running from behind players, around players, like a Secondary school teen in a Primary school’s game. He scored seconds after the penalty goal. He scored again, and again and again. Five goals. No question in my mind he could have scored another four if he’d not been taken off with 30min still left in the game. He scored five goals in less than half of the game.

How did he do it?

Haaland’s style was fascinating. He accelerated fast as he ran, he dipped, pushed and played hard. But he looked at ease. He seemed to do it by playing the game like it was still part of his warmup! It was like he was having fun laughing with his mates in five-a-side

Haaland played differently than his team, they tightened up a bit for ‘the game’ and he did not. To him ‘the game’ seemed fun; simply a game. But his teammates were still incredible and found him at every chance. They knew that he was on fire. With the innate knowledge of an expert, like a Wayne Gretzky, and the keeness of a child, like an early Tiger Woods, he played for fun and anticipated openings. Like #47 did in his warm up.

For me this was a lesson in flow. After the game, in his interview he said, “If I think too much I don’t think it’s a good thing”. Csikszentmihalyi found that flow is playful and carefree but often is followed by an unclear memory of the event. In another interview on the night Haaland said; “i should be honest now, I’m a bit blurry in my head, I just remember shooting and not thinking.”

Creating a flow state for swimmers and any sport requires a coaches understanding of what it looks like. Watching Haaland has given me a new idea of how to make that happen.

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