By Guest Author Matthew Brajuka, Competitive Long-Distance Swimmer
She’s doing it again. It frustrates me to no end. Finally, wide eyed, she stares up at me from the water’s edge, like something I say might unlock the secret to immortality or teach her how to swim backstroke properly. She wants to be fast so she foregoes the “unimportant” things like technique and flails down the lane in a frenzy. I don’t blame her. Every swimmer at that age wants to lead the lane. They understand that being fast is good but they have yet to comprehend the means by which one achieves speed. One of the other kids passes her and she starts crying.
The tears roll down her cheeks and memories from when I was that age come flooding back. In that moment, all the coaching courses and certifications in the world couldn’t have prepared me to deal with a crying child, but experience could. Besides, there was a time I was just like her. A past coach of mine often jokes about how this is divine retribution for all the years I put him through hell and, to some extent, he’s right: Coaching definitely isn’t easy. Maybe it’s because every practice is a different experience.
What works today might not work tomorrow and as a result, practices that have been carefully planned in advance are often pushed to the wayside. Maybe it’s because coaching is not simply giving an instruction. People must choose to follow the instruction given and to inspire others to follow that order is a challenge, especially when those you are trying to inspire happen to be children.
So, why is it difficult to inspire children? Well, it turns out kids are like goldfish. They can only remember things that happened within the last three seconds and spend a lot of time swimming without a clue as to what’s going on. So, to teach a kid anything you have to make it fun for them and often that means finding ways to relate to them. To teach this girl that everybody has to start somewhere, even if that somewhere isn’t the beginning of the lane, I shared my own experience with failure and what I did to overcome it. I told her about the first time I tried out for my swim club.
I was six. They had asked me to swim two lengths of every stroke. Determined, I poured every ounce of my six-year-old heart into them. When I finished, I watched intently as the assessor talked to my father about my future with the team. I was giddy at the thought of it. I showered, still excited, and asked when I was going to be starting. Calmly my dad explained that they really liked me but they wanted me to come back when I was a little older. How could they like me yet turn me away? Then it dawned on me: I wasn’t good enough. But I knew what I had to do. To my six-year-old self it seemed all too simple. All I had to do was get back in that pool and swim two lengths of every stroke until, finally, I was good enough. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I tore off my clothes, determined to get back in that water.
I don’t know if sharing my story made a difference for her, but from there on out she listened more intently, asked questions when she didn’t understand, and was content wherever she was in the lane… she swam with a purpose.
I know what brought these kids here, I know what they have to do to achieve their lofty dreams, and I know it will be anything but easy.
We will not fail.
Matthew Brajuka is only 17 years old and a competitive swimmer specializing in distance events. When he isn’t competing he coaches the next generation of young swimmers. Starting in the fall, Matthew will continue his swimming career while attending and competing for La Salle University in Philadelphia.
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