By Doug Beavers

If you sit back and think about it, diving is crazy. As coaches, we sit on the side of the pool and ask young people to attempt things that a normal person would not even consider. Ours’ is a sport of real risk. Every time a diver steps onto the board he or she risks a wipe out. While the risk of serious injury is low, the threat of real pain is ever-present.

As a result, all coaches must deal with the anxieties and fears of each individual athlete, as well as the group dynamics that result from unsuccessful dives. I refer to this process as fear management. Certainly technical knowledge, good progressions, experience and compassion will help to prevent many crashes. And a diver who smacks less will have fewer issues with fear, generally speaking. But even when we as coaches do everything right, somebody’s going to face-plant sooner or later.

Over the years I have developed several very dependable strategies for managing fear in individuals and groups that I have found quite effective. As with any strategy for cultivating change, it starts with you. How do you react to smacks? The coach is often looked to as the barometer of the team. How he or she responds to various situations will set a tone that the rest of the team will follow. Do you coddle your divers, hugging and consoling them after a smack? Are you the Drill Sergeant that wants to rip into a kid for not spotting while he is still trying to get the water out of his eye sockets? Of course, there are no hard and fast rules when dealing with athletes and other types of human beings, but I think these strategies will help you to make your pool less fearful and more focused on improving skills.

First, remember that kids love attention. In fact, most humans love attention, and we learn more than we realize by conditioning. Example: Little Kristin lands on her back on a front flip from one meter. Coach stops practice to see if she is all right, and the other four girls in line rush to the side of the pool to console her as well. Now Kristin doesn’t know anything about diving, but judging from the reaction she sees in the coach and her teammates, she can deduce that she may, in fact, be dying. So, Kristin’s first smack is painful, and the pain is supported by a complete stop of practice while everyone rushes to her aid. If she’s like most little kids when everyone gathers around she will burst into tears. The whole situation adds up to a mild trauma that this kid will not soon forget. 

Let’s not forget the fact that everyone else in your practice just saw this drama unfold, and kids who were not afraid before are now a little spooked as well. The big take-away here though, is that Kristin was the blubbering center of attention during this episode, which is actually a powerful reward for behavior.

Let’s try another scenario: Same situation, Kristin smacks, she comes up and the coach’s reaction is minimal, encouraging her to swim to the side, assuring her she will be okay. At the same time, the coach instructs the next diver to go, hardly missing a beat in the practice session. If divers are tempted to rush to Kristin’s aid, the coach can wave them off, saying, "She’ll be fine, stay in line." Now the coach has minimized the drama surrounding a smack, and can call Kristin over for a little talk. 

Here is the pep talk I give every beginner diver I work with after their first smack: 

COACH: (Calmly, but kindly) “Aw jeez! That hurts doesn’t it?” 

KRISTIN DIVER: “SNIFFLE-COUGH-GULP yeah!”

COACH: “Hey come here for a second, I want to tell you something.” [Looks over at the boards] “Next diver go ahead!”

KRISTIN DIVER: [Slowly swims to the edge of the pool by the coach]

COACH: “Hey do me a favor - can you see the clock right over there?”

KRISTIN DIVER: [Confused] “Umm yeah?”

COACH: “See the skinny red hand on the clock? The one that’s going around fast?

KRISTIN DIVER: “Yeah?”

COACH: “Watch that hand, and tell me when it gets all the way back to the 12”

[Coach continues working with other divers]

KRISTIN DIVER: “It’s a 12 now.”

COACH: “Right. now when you first hit the water it REALLY hurt didn’t it? But by the time you got to the side of the pool and we were talking, it wasn’t as bad. But now, 30 seconds later it hurts even less. Right?

KRISTIN DIVER: Uh huh…

COACH: “I know it still hurts, but check this out - if you watch the clock for another 30 seconds, it will feel even better, and by the time you get out of the pool and back in line, it will just be really warm on your skin.”

This is a good opportunity to assure Kristin that no one ever died from a one-meter smack, although sometimes it kind of feels like you are going to.

I make it clear that Kristin is expected to get back in line and return to practice as usual. I probably wont have her do the same dive again unless I am VERY sure she can succeed. The double whammy is hard to recover from for a newbie. When she does get back into line and does her next dive, I make sure that I mention to her how impressed I am with how tough she is, because toughness is super important in diving. This always elicits a big smile.

In a short amount of time I gave little Kristin a ton of information. I showed her that it was not a crisis - practice continued without interruption and I remained completely calm. She learned that what was happening was unpleasant and I understood that and empathized with her, but then I gave her a distraction to refocus her attention from the pain. Then I showed her how temporary the pain really was, and showed her a strategy for managing that experience. Finally I turned the whole situation into an example of what a tough cookie she is, and how much I really value the character trait of mental toughness. 

When implemented consistently over several weeks or months, this general strategy of downplaying smacking will significantly improve the group dynamics within your team. Individual mental toughness will improve first, but then the kids will start to feed off each other and you will see a cascading effect of confidence throughout your group. Once the stigma of “the awful and terrible smack” is broken kids are more able to relax. This can lead to a reduction in balking and an improvement in the time it takes to get off the board for new dives. 

Smacking is a simple fact of life for divers. If you play football you get tackled. In gymnastics you eat the mats. In diving sometimes you smack. That’s what makes it a sport, rather than a game. So participants must recognize and accept that risk. And if you can help them to minimize the drama surrounding this inevitability, or even find some humor in it - you have helped your team tremendously.

Think about it: Where else in an average person’s life would one fly through the air in a full body flail? Most people who experience such things have just stepped into an empty elevator shaft, or fallen off their roof. But almost every diver has had this experience at one time or another. They forget what dive they are doing or lose a leg in the middle of a trick. It is a truly unique experience to go through without being very seriously killed. So when the momentary terror is over, it is perfectly reasonable to laugh yourself sore. Laughter can take the fear right out of a pool.

When a coach truly understands how to manage fear, the team is transformed. Welts from the occasional smack are regarded as badges of courage. Divers take a hit and giggle about it. New dives are much easier to get off the board, and therefore training sessions are much more efficient. Teach your athletes to accept smacking as part of the sport. Demand proper progressions, and continually educate yourself to ensure that your teaching methods are minimizing this unpleasant occurrence. Then, when it does happen, react with compassion and humor. Because sometimes it really is funny.

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