Pacific Swimming
Level 4
Excellence 300

Putting Character First

Don & Ron Heidary – Developing High-Character Athletes and High-Character Teams

Don and Ron have produced a character-building manual for the American Swimming Coaches Association and were also asked to present a Life Skills course to USA Swimming coaches. 

ASCA Clinic - January 2012 - "Life Skills and Character Development"

Follow-up response from John Leonard, Executive Director of ASCA, below* 




ASCA Manual and 4-Part Video Course

In this video presentation, Coach Don Heidary reviews the contents of the corresponding manual, which is based on material the brothers have presented at ASCA clinics both in the US and internationally over the years.

"Character First”reads everything attached to Orinda Aquatics, in Orinda, California and coached by brothers Don and Ron Heidary. They don’t just talk about it, they live it every day. The brothers have presented material about developing character that they use daily at clinics run by ASCA both in the USA and internationally.  They are hugely popular clinics because they “make real” what many of us “talk about” every day as a goal in our programs. Now, for the first time, Coaches Heidary have put together a written and illustrated manual and made it available exclusively through ASCA.  “The influence of “Character First” and the work of the Heidary brothers is among the most important work being done by any swim coaches in the world today. When it comes to creating Value for our customers of all levels of swim skill, this is IT! I can’t imagine a team that would not want to use this manual!”  John Leonard, ASCA Executive Director
At Orinda, they don’t just talk about character, they live and build it every day.  This manual is based on material the brothers have presented at ASCA clinics both in the U.S. and internationally. In over 360 pages, it goes through a team-based system to build character in your swimmers.

New Coaches – What Do They Really Need?

To: The ASCA Board of Director’s (published in the ASCA Newsletter)

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?


Other Coach Comments


I read the Power Point that your team posted from the ASCA 2011 Conference on coaching. This was the first article I read that dealt with character and putting being a good person ahead of being a fast swimmer (although I'm glad you noted that it is very possible be both.)

I'm in high school and I've always been the "slow guy" in practice. However, my friends respect that I finish all the sets even though I get lapped pretty frequently. I sometimes have trouble socializing with them because I don't curse or feel comfortable discussing profane topics with them.  My area is very well known for having wealthy families that have lots of kids on drugs/alcohol. It was extremely depressing for me when I found out that many of the fastest kids on my team that I always looked up to turned out to be heavy drug and steroid users.  I do not know if my coach knew about it but we never discussed the issue.
I went to my first travel meet, we needed a couple chaperons to keep just twenty kids in line and people only came together to really cheer at finals (otherwise everyone's on their iPods).  So I was really impressed to see you didn't bring any chaperons with fifty swimmers.
Anyways, I just wanted to thank you for putting that presentation on the web. I changed my attitude after I saw the incredible speed that people were putting out at the national meet.  This September I began actually showering before doing practice like the sign on the locker room asks (I have not seen anyone follow this rule either from my club team or high school team) and getting in first while other people were trying to avoid jumping in.  Sometimes I ask myself why I bother trying to be honest or avoid hanging out with the druggies, when taking the opposite path would make me more popular/make life easier. However, I feel much better after reading those slides.  It was a reassuring beacon of hope in this modern world where most reports are so cynical about what effect adults can possibly have on improving the character of teens.  A lot of people have given up.
Your team looks like a very fun and character-building group.  In any event, I'll thank you again for putting that presentation out there, and I hope you'll keep posting more valuable resources on your website. Keep up the good work.  It's appreciated by invisible eyes.  Sincerely, C

Don and Ron, thank you so much for a great presentation at ASCA. What a fantastic job! That was the best talk of the entire clinic and the subject matter was so perfect for the swimming/youth sports world we live in nowadays. Thanks for being stand up guys. Now I know why you two have become so successful. I greatly appreciate what you did for us. SS


Hello Don,

I spoke to you for a time after your talk at the ASCA Clinic on Friday. I was very disappointed to have missed most of your session, but I saw the last half hour or so and I’m incredibly grateful that you have made your PowerPoint slides available on your website.

I have just finished reading through your whole presentation and I am simply filled with excitement. You have beautifully articulated the principles that I hold as most important in life and that are sadly and conspicuously absent from most activities in the lives of kids. You have also inspired me to “sharpen the stone” as it were — to make sure I’m leading by example.

Can you share with me some of the things that you have found useful on your own path to where you are today? You reference a wonderful variety of sources in your quotes etc.,  and the spiritual nature of your message is unmistakable.

Thank you again for a wonderful presentation. I wish you all the best.