Golden Challenge: Are you empowering your young athletes?
By Greg Bach
Olympic swimming great Dana Vollmer has a challenge for you, the volunteer coach, no matter the sport.
“My challenge to all coaches is to try and get to know your athletes and what motivates them,” says Vollmer, winner of seven Olympic medals, including five golds.
Vollmer was one of the most captivating stories of the 2016 Summer Olympics – Mama on a mission – as she became the first American mother to win a swimming gold medal.
As someone who has competed in sports her entire life, beginning as a youngster in Fort Worth, Texas and later in three Olympics, she knows as well as anyone how important it is for coaches to figure out what works for motivating every type of athlete.
“Coming up and telling me that my competition is going way faster than I am going in practice doesn’t motivate me,” Vollmer says. “But to come up and tell me to ‘try this’ or ‘why don’t you try thinking about this and see if that helps’ empowers me and puts me in charge and makes me want to try even harder.”
LEARNING = SUCCESS
Vollmer is a legend when it comes to U.S. swimming, but even the greats have bad days and disappointing performances.
She knows the sting of setbacks. She failed to make the 2008 Olympic squad and had to wait four more years to try again.
But she didn’t allow that experience to sour her on the sport.
Instead, she learned a lot from those moments, and her message to young athletes is an important one when it comes to dealing with disappointment.
“I can say with complete honesty that I learned more from the bad races than I did from the good ones,” she says. “I think if you let the bad competitions beat up your confidence and make you lose your love for the sport then you’re taking away that learning opportunity to figure out what motivates you and what you can do better, and what happened in that situation that you can improve upon and work on. The whole process is a learning journey. Every race is a success if you learn something from it.”
Vollmer directs a lot of credit to her coaches, who found ways to make practicing fun and didn’t allow pressure to overwhelm the process.
They also kept her focus on learning and getting better rather than being consumed by winning races.
“Don’t let yourself get lost in outcomes and end performances,” she says. “What I found in my own career is that you have to love the process and you have to love the day-to-day. Sometimes kids put so much pressure on themselves, and you don’t know how much pressure they are getting from their parents, so as coaches you have to try to take some of that pressure off while helping the athletes improve.”
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