By Doug Beavers
Like all youth sports, the sport of diving can be a fantastic journey for coach, athlete and parent. The benefits of organized sport for children are well-documented, and those benefits are often the motivating force that brings kids and parents to the pool deck on that first day, starry eyed and eager to start on the path toward excellence. But “it’s complicated,” as they say.
While we all start with great intentions, the day to day and year to year experience of being involved in a sport like diving is absolutely fraught with pitfalls. There are multiple stake-holders involved; coaches, parents and athletes all have their own motivations, priorities and expectations. Inevitably some of those motivations, priorities and expectations align beautifully, and some are in conflict. Take those occasionally conflicting issues and play them out over a six-ten year relationship with daily interaction, cross country travel, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? Well, like I said, it’s complicated.
I have found that it’s helpful to think of this relationship as a multi—person marriage. Just like a marriage, it requires sustained effort from all parties to be a success. It requires us to learn to forgive, and to ask forgiveness. It pushes us to see situations from other people’s point of view, and as the years go by, it’s easy to find yourself carrying the baggage of disappointment, resentment and frustration. When it goes well, it is an amazing experience to know that you have all worked together, slogged through the challenges and made something wonderful happen for a kid.
After almost thirty years of coaching the sport of diving, I have noticed a few interesting patterns in this relationship, a few common themes that tend to cause trouble, and a few behaviors that have allowed parents, coaches and athletes to navigate this journey to great success.
Let’s imagine that “success” is a bullseye. When the arrow strikes the target, the members of this multi-person youth sport marriage have succeeded. Our team analogy has three parts— the arrow-head (the athlete) is what actually strikes the target. Family is the arrow shaft, and the coach is the bow that aims and fires many arrows at the target. In order for this complex assembly of parts to hit the target, we have to work together. Specifically, we all need to understand a few things.
1) Understand Our Roles
A frequent source of friction in this relationship is a lack of clarity when it comes to each party’s role.
Coaches create the environment for training, they set standards for behavior, expectations for performance, dictate technique and determine the progression of skills. Part of their role is to cultivate an organization that will continue to provide training for future athletes in years to come.
Parents provide a support system for the athlete, addressing the diver’s emotional needs, logistics such as getting to practice on time, getting to meets, providing appropriate nutrition and medical care, and taking care of the financial obligations associated with team participation. Diving programs require a considerable amount of volunteer support to succeed. While not possible for every family in every situation, volunteering at meets or on a parent booster board is generally considered a standard part of being a diving parent.
Athletes have the tough job of getting out there and training their buns off. Because they are part of a larger unit (the parent-athlete-coach system) and others are working hard to make this all possible for them, they have an obligation to train with honest effort, and to communicate openly with respect to goals, fears and reservations.
2) Understand Our Motivations
Coaches are motivated in many ways. Some are motivated by competitive success, such as how far they can get an athlete (State Championships, Nationals, Olympic Trials, Olympic Games.) Some are motivated by seeing continual improvement, others just want a fun environment and enjoy the camaraderie of working with kids.
Sadly, some coaches are motivated by a need to control others, to manipulate children, or to gain prestige within their peer group. This is an area where problems develop.
Coaches with large teams are generally motivated to see their entire program succeed over the long term. Their decision-making is often guided by the needs of the many, and this sometimes conflicts with the needs of individuals.
Parents are generally motivated to see their children succeed and get the greatest benefit possible out of the sport. Parents participate in a diving program for a finite period, while coaches have a longer term perspective. As a parent it can be difficult when the needs of the many conflict with the needs of your kid.
Occasionally of course, we encounter difficult parents who are motivated in unhealthy or dysfunctional ways. Hyper-competitive parents sometimes unknowingly use their children as a means to replay their own athletic past. Controlling parents may feel a need to demonstrate dominance over others. In these cases, it is extremely difficult to establish healthy boundaries. In our archery analogy, these parents want to be the arrow-head themselves.
Frequent and clear communication regarding roles and expectations is required, but sadly the result is often a situation where the child is robbed of the opportunity to hit the target of success themselves. Even if they succeed competitively they can suffer lasting emotional trauma.
And it’s not just the classic crazy parent that runs afoul of these boundaries. It’s easy for any parent to get swept up in the excitement of Gold Medals, Olympic Dreams and College Scholarships. Parental support is a critical ingredient in a diver’s long-term success, but there is a real danger in allowing your enthusiasm to exceed the enthusiasm of the actual athlete.
Athletes are generally motivated by a wide variety of things - desire to belong to a social group, desire to master a skill, desire to please a parent or authority figure, and a pure love of the activity itself. The combination of these things typically translates to the athlete’s sense that diving is fun. When you ask a kid why they dive they will say “It’s fun.” When you ask them why they quit? “It wasn't fun anymore.”
So as a parent what can you do to help your child ht the target?
Perhaps you already help with team functions, assist in running meets, or even run the meets yourself. This is noble and appreciated work, and you are truly a saint. Unfortunately that is not the kind of thing that will directly affect your child’s performances. The way you talk to your child about diving does have such an effect, as does the way you interact with your child’s coach.
Do you ask your son if he enjoys it? Do you go to your daughter’s meets? Do you talk to him about his training habits or drill her on her handstand technique? Be careful what you say “yes” to – some subjects should be off-limits between a diver and a parent. Sometimes parents want to get specific when discussing diving with their children; “When are you going to do an inward 2½?” “Why haven’t you made top ten yet?”
Parents can unknowingly create anxiety and even resentment in their children when they step outside of their role as a parent and take on the duties of the coach. Perhaps a preposterous example will help to illustrate my point….
Suppose for a moment that you were at work and your spouse (who knows nothing about your field) came in and said,
“Hold it! I don’t want you working on those Johnson papers anymore. From now on I want you to pay more attention to these Smithson papers here.”
Now, do you disobey your boss and get to work on the Smithson papers, or do you tell your spouse to shove off? Either way you’re in pretty hot water, and it’s getting deep too. That’s the kind of no-win situation you put your child in when you start feeding them ideas on how to improve their diving. Perhaps the coach has completely different plans for your child, of which you are totally unaware. Perhaps he or she knows that attempting an inward 2½ would be absolutely disastrous at this point in your child’s development. Of course your son wants desperately to gain your approval, but he also wants to please his coach as well. It sounds like the Smithson papers all over again.
I will be blunt. I have heard this same sentiment expressed by just about every coach I have ever met, so I speak for them as well when I say this; if you are paying me to coach your child, then let me do it. I understand physiology, psychology, physics and fear. I’ve talked to the experts, and I have the experience. If you contradict what I have said, then you undermine my authority (or your own) and you certainly confuse your child. If you do these things, then we are much further from our goal than we would hope.
So what sort of relationship does the most for a world class athlete? If you accept the archery metaphor, it is apparent that we all have to work in careful coordination. Coaches have to communicate expectations clearly. Athletes have to engage the sport with honest effort and a willingness to challenge themselves. And parents have to play a critical supporting role. These kids need you as a steady source of emotional support. Diving is scary. Sometimes it really hurts. It can be terribly frustrating. They need you to listen to them. Allow them to vent. Share in their victories, but don't steal their glory. This is his moment to shine; it is her chance for glory. It is not yours to take.
Remember that divers are trying to do something physically and mentally extraordinary. As you can imagine, this is a lot easier if they know they have a stable support team to catch them when they fall.
Treat the coach-diver-parent relationship like a marriage. Cultivate an atmosphere of open communication and be supportive of one another. Let your coach know when a child is under stress or feeling overwhelmed. Expect that there will be struggles. When things get strained, as they surely will, model functional adult behavior for your kids. Talk through issues calmly and with the intent to work it out. Don’t disparage a coach in front of athletes or other parents. Deal openly and directly with your concerns.
When this relationship is healthy and functional, it empowers the athlete to surprising accomplishments. Your contribution as a parent will have a huge impact on your child’s diving career. As coaches we will work with you to guide them on a path toward success. We will feed them the concepts necessary, we will train their bodies and their minds, and together we will take a shot at the bulls-eye.