Donnie Speaks at ASCA - "Life Skills and Character Development"

Donnie addresses the ASCA conference in San Diego on "Life Skills and Character Development". As a followup to that presentation, John Leonard (ASCA) wrote the following email to the ASCA Board:


Ronnie and I wanted to share an email that we received from the Executive Director of The American Swimming Coaches Association, John Leonard.  Last fall, we were asked by John to give a seminar on “Life Skills and Character Development” for ASCA.  That seminar was last Sunday in San Diego.  I made the presentation as Ronnie was in Austin at the Grand Prix meet.  The majority of the material was from the talk we gave at the ASCA World Clinic in September, on “Putting Character First.”  The seminar was fairly low-key, with about twenty coaches.  Most were age-group coaches and there were a few high school-only coaches.  John Leonard sat in on the approximately five hour talk and Tom Avischious from USA Swimming’s Club Development Division flew out for the presentation as well.

John sent a brief thank you note to me the next day and then sent the following note to the ASCA Board of Director’s.

I share this with you, not as nod to the coaches but as a sincere thank you and to acknowledge a team that has truly adhered to a standard and a vision that is not only uncommon in youth sports, but in youth in general. Thank you for rising above the fray, and the “societal headwind”, and becoming not only a model team, but a group that may very well have a positive affect coaches and swimmers around the country.  Most coaches talk about character, and many do it aggressively, but very few have a group/team that embraces the pursuit as you have, not by rule but by lifestyle.  So to OA swimmers past and present (and parents), we thank you very sincerely for creating a special environment, and we assure you that our pride for all of you is immeasurable. 

As Margaret Mead stated, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”


(below is John’s email)


New Coaches – What Do They Really Need?

To: The ASCA Board of Director’s

By John Leonard

I just came back from a clinic ASCA /FINIS sponsored yesterday (Sunday, Jan.15) with Coach Don Heidary of Orinda Aquatics. It was about Developing High-Character People who also happen to be High-Character Athletes. Don, his brother Ron and I had conversed about these ideas for years. But for the first time, I was able to sit through his whole presentation, uninterrupted by administrative “stuff”.

Shook me to my core.

Now, I am someone who has always said, “half of a coaches’ job is to get young people to swim faster and better. The other half, just as important if not more, is to help their parents raise better people.” Anyone who has read any of what I have written over the past 40 years knows that I “care” about this stuff.


Despite Don’s exhortations to “never complain”, I felt like the golfer standing on the tee, looking down the fairway and seeing NOTHING but sand traps and water hazards. And I don’t even play golf. Don’s presentation was matter of fact, which made it even more “stunning” - the proverbial “two by four to the side of the head.”  The scarcity of questions from the other people in the room made me think that I was not the only one “in shock.”

I teach some life skills; everyday, I think. But I don’t get the results these guys get. And I don’t do 10% of the job of teaching what they teach. And my first realization was, “I NEED TO,” because the coaching issues I face, are these cultural issues.

Because I have “given in” to some degree, over the years, to the “cultural headwind” as the brothers describe it. What’s that?

It’s the every teen movie, teen magazine, teen website, teen “tweet” that glorifies self…me, my..possessions, beautifulness, sexiness (in pre-teen mags) and behavior that is so ultra-provocative it is incredible, not even mentioning the language issue.  It’s watching our professional athlete “role models whether they want to be or not” who have to point to themselves and draw the camera to themselves at every opportunity, even when they are thirty points behind and make the most routine of plays. Absurd. Whatever happened to “act like you been there before” when you hit the end zone once every few games.?

The cultural headwind continues in the lying, cheating, stealing, disrespectful behavior that is cultivated on television every night. Only the most outrageous Ricky Gervais stuff gets him his next gig. Hard work, which used to be the ticket to success in our great country, is sniggled at behind raised hands…..only suckers work hard. Only suckers serve other people. Only suckers are humble. Only suckers worry about anyone but themselves.

Frankly, until I listened carefully to Don present it, I didn’t realize that I had carefully and subconsciously withdrawn from hearing it, seeing it, and dealing with it. I was shrugging my shoulders internally…”what can you do”. And I’m not spending enough time battling it with my swimmers. And I need to. Now. Today.

At the same time, I have a son who is learning to coach, because he loves it, from some of the greatest coaches I know. I found myself wondering how he and thousands of young coaches like him, can be prepared to stand in this “cultural headwind” of negative influences and overcome them. The issues he will face FIRST in his career are not, knowing how to teach strokes, knowing how to train ten and under's, knowing how to teach race skills. His challenges will be to deal with young people immersed in a culture that glorifies everything that is OPPOSITE to the things that we know from 120 years of our sport, make swimming worthwhile, life affirming and important and valuable in creating good young people. And he will have to work with parents, who in many cases come closer to sharing the values of the cultural headwind than the values of our sport…at least until they have some time to consider it more carefully.

Again, our main coaching issues are not coaching issues. They are dealing with sociology and our culture. How do we educate our young coaches to navigate that hurricane successfully?