By Doug Beavers
In the fall of 1993, I was coaching an age-group diving team just a outside of St. Louis when I met a little girl who had just moved into town from Dallas, Texas. A little blond stick of a kid, she was a ball of pure energy. She was at her first practice with us - a new club and a new coach. She was there to impress. After an hour of “showing me her stuff" on 1-meter, I asked her if she knew any 3-meter dives.
“YEP!" she blurted, and without another word she was heading up the ladder to prove it.
After a few basic dives, I wondered aloud if she had any more difficult dives up there.
“Oh yeah, I can do a front 2 1/2!”
I was impressed, and settled back into my chair to have a look. She popped up into the air in her hurdle, spun up off the board, and sprang out of her tuck at two somersaults.
POW! She landed ﬂat on her belly at 2 1/4 flips.
I covered my face with my hands, realizing in a ﬂash that I would never see this little goofball again. Surely she would quit diving immediately and take up soccer. But through my fingers I could see a hand poking up through the surface of the water, and I realize this little kid is shaking her index finger in a "WAIT-WAIT-WAIT" gesture.
Her face pops up and she is already talking “No no no! I can do it - Really!"
She was out of the water now. There were no tears, there was no hesitation, not even a moment to acknowledge the welts forming on the front half of her body. Before I could pick my jaw up off the floor, she was back on the board and absolutely determined to show me that she REALLY DID know how to do a 2 1/2. As it turns out, she could.
Seven years later that wonderfully odd little girl headed off to a new program in a new town. She had grown into a high school senior, driving a car, preparing for college. During our time together, she developed into an exceptional diver - a 3-meter national champion, in fact. And all the hours of training never dampened that kid’s supremely silly spirit. Seven years of dedication and sacrifice, including the agony of landing ﬂat on a reverse 2 3/4 from 10-meter and the glory of doing the same dive for 10’s in a meet, had left her older, more mature, and yet still the same glorious goofball at heart. In spite of those ups and downs, she could still crack everyone up with a patented full-body interpretive gesture that expressed just exactly how she felt.
It broke my heart to see her go.
As coaches we become deeply invested in the success and failure of someone else’s child. We feel the defeats and disappointment. But the frustration of difficult times is precisely what makes those moments of triumph so darn triumphant.
We all have moments of self-doubt when we wonder why we do this crazy job. Saying goodbye to a kid you really care about is just one of the heartbreaks inherent in coaching.
As age-group coaches it’s bittersweet to watch our divers graduate. We are proud, but we can also feel a little abandoned. We watch other coaches pick up where we left off with “our” kids. If I catch myself feeling hurt or resentful at the loss of an athlete, I remind myself that there is a reason why I do this job. It’s not the money or the glory, and the more I think about it, it’s not even the diving that matters. Diving is just a means to an end - a vehicle that facilitates the journey. The journey really IS the thing.
That journey is to take an 11-year-old fruit-loop and help her navigate the pitfalls of adolescence. It’s to help her learn how to become great at something, and realize that she can apply that process to anything. It’s to show her how to overcome fear, self-doubt, and failure. The pay-off is in watching kids grow, graduate and move on, knowing that your role in their lives has been a positive one.
I’m convinced that diving in a positive environment molds the very character of its participants. I believe that the true value of what we do in our training will not entirely reveal itself to our athletes until after they have moved on and grown up. The perseverance, dedication and sacrifice required to succeed at any level of our sport is a benefit that will stay with our athletes for the rest of their lives.
My mission is to keep making small, positive contributions to young kids. If kids choose to leave, that’s their decision - I’ll work my tail off for the one’s who stay. l’ll keep on offering them new tools to add to their tool box - tools like mental toughness, self-mastery, and (when self-mastery falls short) forgiveness and self-improvement. As our organization matures and grows, better tools and benefits will be passed on to more and more kids by other like-minded coaches. I like to imagine that perhaps those grown-up kids will also feel compelled to pass some of those benefits on to others; to spread the word, so to speak. When I look at it that way, I am encouraged. We can make a positive contribution to society. In our own small way, even us diving coaches can make the world a better place — one goofball at a time.