Orinda Aquatics has created a highly unique environment which has merged an extraordinary culture of character and humility with significant success at the individual and team level in an unprecedented academic backdrop. As a small team, Orinda Aquatics has consistently remained one of the top teams in USA Swimming's Virtual Club Championships, has traveled with fifty swimmers and no chaperones, and has an average GPA among high school swimmers of 3.75. Historically, the team has had nearly ninety percent of its graduating seniors swim in college. And most significantly, the "Senior Letters" reveal an incredibly positive and impactful life experience.
The motto of Orinda Aquatics, "Character First", is preached and lived daily by coaches and swimmers alike. The overriding philosophy is that participation in youth sports can and should be a life enhancing experience and not an activity in and of itself. This program emphasizes structure, teamwork, integrity and discipline - the better the person, the better the athlete, the better the swimmer. It is the program’s and the coach's objective that the benefits of swimming, and of Orinda Aquatics, go far beyond the pool.
As the years pass, we become more convinced that what can and should be gained from sports is truly invaluable and can be life-changing. For the countless hours committed, the physical, emotional, and financial commitment, and the sacrifices made, there has to be more than a time at the end of this process. Too often in swimming, we see careers stray for the wrong reasons: overzealous parents, coaches with a single-minded focus on winning, kids obsessed with times or ego, and poor role models. Athletes become concerned more about who they beat in practice rather than whom they helped and seem to care more about their time and place rather than their effort and attitude (life skills). Energy and effort can flow into areas that actually break down a career rather than support its health and longevity. An environment driven by ethics can significantly mitigate this.
In a broader sense, coaching is much more of a life and people process than an athletic pursuit. Not only are kids wrapping their lives around a team, training, a process, and a coach, but in many ways, their emotional development, college decision, and the person they become will be shaped by this experience as well. Our mission is to be more than a coach, but rather a partner with our swimmers on their athletic journey, and to a greater extent, partners on their life journey. Our ultimate goal is that four or eight years from now they are swimming at their very best, loving the sport, are leaders on their teams, and are better people.
Our philosophy with regard to training is that training should support a career and not a season. Athletes should embrace training and not become slaves to it. The best career is a long, healthy, and positive one with continued development in terms of performance, efficiency, and training ability (see Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas article, “Too much too soon”). Orinda Aquatics’ training philosophy can be characterized as “efficient” training, i.e., every stroke matters, with an emphasis on technique, race strategy, and “walls.” As such we have virtually no “burn-out" at Orinda Aquatics and nearly every swimmer looks to compete at the collegiate level.
To support movement between training groups, we have developed a detailed training progression plan for each swimmer on the team where training, competition, skills and goals are outlined. The plan was developed to assist the swimmer in terms of both athletic and character development as they move from group to group within the team.
A diligent student represents a great deal more than his or her academics. We have seen academics and athletics work hand in hand and support and complement each other. The more an individual commits to either, the more the other is strengthened. Athletes that do not embrace academics are generally not leaders (in the student-athlete sense) and can become one-dimensional. Their lack of academic focus can open the door to less productive alternatives. Our objective is to foster and support student-athletes at the highest level. Our team must commit to both.
Some general team and personal concepts we employ are:
People over Times
If people feel and know that you care about them as individuals first, they will do virtually anything for you and the team. Unconditional mutual respect must drive the coach-athlete relationship. This eliminates lying, deceit, disrespect, etc. This relationship is and should be a true partnership.
Humility over Ego
An environment based on ego is toxic. We let kids know that if they have an ego, they have a problem (need attention). And without being psychologists, we let them know that their need for attention will not be satisfied or tolerated. There is a quote that refers to two types of people, one who walks into a room and says, “Well, here I am,” and another who walks into a room and says, “Ah, there you are.” Needless to say, there should be room for only one of these two types of people on a team.
Team over Individual
Athletes must learn early that the team always comes first. Swimmers must place the team above themselves at all times. We suggest this is analogous to having the wind at your back as you move through a demanding season. From a coaches' and an individual’s perspective, decisions and policies should reflect only one thing, the greater good and the team as a whole. Sacrifices become easy and automatic when individuals care about the team (and their teammates) unconditionally. A phrase we use is, “Teamwork takes work. It is created by you, not for you.”
Coaches and swimmers should take ownership of the program and the environment. They should feel and act as if they are a partner or a shareholder. We tell our swimmers that they are all co-owners of the team, like it or not, want it or not, “you are a stakeholder, and thus accountable”.
Team attire is and should be a statement of pride and not a policy in and of itself. Your team attire is your representation of the team. We believe there is a correlation between one’s commitment to wear team attire and one’s general feeling about the team. Our swimmers do not compete in a meet or travel if they are not in team attire. It is not about the clothes or the rule. It is about what statement they are making with their appearance. Coaches should lead the way in this regard.
Build Leadership from Day One
Ethical coaching should support the leadership process. Every team and athlete must know that the younger members are future leaders and role models. Therefore, we begin from day one in building leaders. Swimmers are made aware of the standards and responsibilities, and what is expected of them now and in the future. Hazing or “tradition” as it is euphemistically put, that makes people feel less or inferior, is not tolerated in any form and has no place in building young leaders. It simply becomes a rite of passage that allows individuals to “give back” what they “took”. It is a cycle that builds on itself. It is a negative feedback loop that can be replaced with guidance, motivation, mentorship, leadership, and support. If we want extraordinary and inspirational leaders in the future, they must see that play out in front of them and aspire to be that. Through swimmers (captains, seniors, and anyone of influence), and coaches, young athletes must see role models and leaders. They must see a demonstration of work ethic, integrity, and a resiliency that inspires. We must develop in young athletes, the “uncommon professional”, and an understanding of the moral foundation that drives the culture, the day to day operations, and the success of the program.
Our travel policy is very simple. If you need to be watched (or babysat), you need another team. We fully expect that our swimmers carry themselves as mature, dedicated, athletes (and individuals) on a “business” trip. They owe this to the rest of the team, the culture that defines us, and their parents who pay and support them. We would even say that neutral behavior is not acceptable. They must add value. And if they can’t do that, not only should they not be on the team, they really have no business being an athlete.
Little Things Matter
If one bad word is acceptable, then why not two? If one minute late is acceptable, then why not five? If one act of disrespect to another is tolerated, then why not to a group, or a coach? If it is acceptable to “cheat” on a lap, then why not a set, or a season? Ethics and character are black and white. There is no middle ground.
Take the path of “most resistance” is a theme we ask the kids to embrace. They should welcome the most challenging aspects of swimming, and their life, and reposition them as a positive, as a growth process. A quote that is relevant is, “Be aware when the going is easy, you may be headed downhill.”
Appreciation of Parents
This is probably the most significant sign of character. As the saying goes, “Gratitude is the mother of all virtues.” A young adult who does not appreciate the unconditional commitment and support of their parents would typically be unappreciative of other key support functions, and miss the broader parent-child connection. A sincere awareness and gratitude for that which supports an individual is a critical component to a well-rounded athlete, person, and team. We devote meetings to this topic and make it clear this is a part of our culture and mission.
The Team Concept
The team concept is a life concept and there is no better place to learn it than in an athletic setting. “Team” is family, friends, students, co-workers, community, and on and on. It is coexisting and co-producing. The ability to be a good team person or a leader can be developed in the pool and the locker room every day. It requires empathy, sacrifice, and an unconditional commitment to a greater cause. This ability and understanding will serve athletes long after their careers have ended.
How do the Coaches Execute Their Philosophy?
During June 2011, Ronnie and Donnie were asked to lead a USA Swimming On-Line Coaches Clinic called "Developing Athletes' Character on Your Swim Team". This seminar summarized their coaching philosophy in addition to what the athletes see and hear on a daily basis. This, coupled with the Senior Letters ("Character First" tab on this website) will provide an overview of the unique Orinda Aquatics swim and life experience.