Thursday, December 22, 2011

Athlete Protection should be Common Sense

I have been reading the Chris DeSantis Swim Brief posts about his meeting with Chuck Wielgus with much interest.  In his most recent post, "100 Minutes with Chuck Part 3: Why?", he posited the idea that perhaps there is a generational gap in the issue of dealing with athlete protection.  He points out that nearly all of the USA Swimming leadership, be it the board, or the national team staff, are...shall we say long in the tooth.  It's true, but it really got me to thinking.  Is there a commonality in our leadership that led to the problem in the first place?  I wonder, has our culture made a shift in the last 20 years that has left many of our older and more experienced coaches and leadership behind?

I am 41, and I began coaching in the fall of 1991.  It was a sweet gig, and the only experience I had with teaching swimming, at any level, was as a Red Cross swim lesson instructor.  I never had anyone who explicitly taught me about good or bad touching, but I have always been a pretty empathetic person.  With the Golden Rule in mind, I have always tried to be sensitive to the feelings of those with whom I am interacting.  If I could imagine my actions or behavior making someone uncomfortable, I would not do it.  Have I hurt peoples feelings over the years?  Of course.  However, I let my sensitivity and my common sense guide me.

I was practicing the side-to-side and A-frame hugs from the beginning.  I wouldn't let conversations with swimmers drift toward inappropriate topics in my presence.  I was careful not to "motivate" swimmers by belittling, embarrassing, and verbally abusing them.  It just seemed to be the natural and proper way to behave.

I think that when USA Swimming began it's process of implementing an Athlete Protection Program, I took offense because I have always worked hard to not be one of those problem coaches.  USA Swimming doesn't know me, how dare they treat me like the bad guy.  As it turns out, the mandatory Athlete Protection Training is much better than I anticipated.  While I do worry that it may be training the "bad guys" by showing them the warning signs we will all be looking for, I think it is probably a good thing to have...considering.

I still think that our leadership needs to pay for their cluelessness.  I mean, I had heard snippets of accusations about Andy King (whom I have never seen or met) way back in the early to mid-90's.  If I, the plebe coach that I was back then, was hearing about this guy, USA Swimming had to have heard about him.  When something like this slides by, heads have got to roll.  Not our heads, but the heads of those in charge.  That is the Board and the CEO.

I still think there are ways to prevent abuse and raise awareness without putting our volunteers through the same ringer that we put coaches through.  In Anchorage, officials do not interact with swimmers directly.  If they write up a DQ, it is delivered directly to the athlete's coach.  In this way, the coach can notify and coach the swimmer about the infraction.  It also helps retain officials since they do not have to confront swimmers about these infractions.  Officials do not like being the one who delivers the disappointing news.  This is a win-win for all involved.  Because of this practice, there is never any instance for an official to pull a swimmer aside.  If USA Swimming adopted this methodology, we could probably recruit and retain even more good volunteers, and we would not have to put them through the same rigors coaches.

But I digress.  Perhaps this is a topic for another day.  Perhaps it is an idea for new leadership to pick up and discuss.  Maybe fresh ideas, from fresh faces would be helpful.  It's something to think about anyway.

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