Pacific Swimming
Level 4
Excellence 300

Putting Character First

Letter to the Team Regarding Alcohol

Written by Don Heidary

The following is a real life example of a situation that was dealt with aggressively, and in our view, ethically.  In this situation, many would have seen no issue, simply “young adults being young adults” away from the pool.  We saw the seed of a breakdown in a culture that we were committed to build and foster.  Many years ago, we became aware that some of our swimmers were involved in an incident involving alcohol (not a team event or a team activity).  These were great kids, committed swimmers, great students, and always respectful individuals.   We, as coaches, were very upset and had a firm meeting with the entire senior group of over fifty swimmers.  Prior to the meeting, we became aware that a few of the kids involved didn’t understand why their social life (outside of OA) was any of our concern.  One swimmer even asked, “If my parents are OK with it, why do you care.”  This was our response in a letter to the group:

“Let’s simplify the key issues for all of you to understand. We do not own your social life, nor do we want to.  We do however own the team and have a responsibility to every member.  That being said, ANYTHING that affects the team IS a team issue.  Period.  It does not need a memo attached or Board approval.  One person or one action can become a “team” issue.  Chatter in the locker room Saturday morning made it a team issue.  If in your world, this is not a team issue, what is?  Will you know when it is a team issue and when behavior threatens reputations, athletic careers, and even lives? We truly believe that we as coaches are infinitely better qualified than you to assess the effect on the “team”.  You do not have to answer to parents, or rumors.  You do not sit in living rooms defining our team and its environment to perspective members, or sit in Board meetings answering questions.

What you did was not legal, not right, not positive, not conducive to being a serious athlete, not responsible, showed no leadership, hurt parents, and deeply affected coaches that have unconditionally supported you for most of your swimming lives.  It is not obvious to us why someone could think this is “OK”.   And the fact that your peers or friends may have done this does not legitimize it but rather suggests that you need to find other friends and better role models.

We have seen, up close, every aspect of substance abuse from alcoholism to hard drug abuse to endless rehabs, an abyss of a mother’s pain, and even prison.  Please don’t insult us by telling us it is “no big deal”.  Wait until your daughter tells you not to worry, that, “it’s no big deal.”

About five years ago, a swimmer walked on the deck of this pool and told us he wanted to join our team.  We knew he was a known drug user.  We pulled him aside and told him that we were aware of his reputation and his social life and while we would allow him a trial period, if we heard one word related to drugs spoken in front of any member of this team, at any time, he would be gone and regret this meeting.  He chose not to join the team.  You were about twelve years old at the time and neither you nor your parents were ever aware of a two-minute conversation that put your safety and the protection of this team ahead of a new member, added revenue, and his “social life”.  So you tell us where a “social life” ends and “team” character begins.  We may not know the exact answer but we will always err on the side of caution, for you.  And by the way, while some of you want to draw a line that separates this team from the rest of your life, we never have.  We have never stopped caring about you or stopped supporting you when we leave the pool or take off our team jacket.

Some day you may have a thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen year old child and you will pray every time they walk out the door that they are safe and with good people doing the right things.  You will pray that they can avoid drugs and alcohol, that they don’t lie to you, and that someone is looking out for them.  You will also hope that they might find an athletic program that places a premium on character and doing what is right.  While you would not assume it, you would take comfort in finding overprotective people that run the program, people who actually care about your child as a person, even when they are not at practice.  You will be grateful for a second pair of eyes to watch over them.  You will care less about their success as an athlete than you will about their safety and personal well-being.  Ask any parent.

When we were kids, the most important part of sports was earning the respect of the coach, from an athletic and a personal perspective.  Too often in this day, the coach is simply a spoke in the wheel of a teenager’s life, and not a partner.  Today, focus is more about being happy and being “right” rather than being respected and doing what is right. We cannot, and will not, fit into that world.  We want to be your partner and not someone who is dismissed when he is not in agreement with you. We are not administrators enforcing rules, we are simply people who care passionately about you bringing out the best that lies within you and those around you.

As for insight into our reaction, it is not when we care this much or get upset that you should be concerned.  For this you should feel fortunate.  It is when we stop caring that the greater loss and the greater problem begins.  And if you are not into the whole “character first, do the right thing” thing, you should know that every college coach we talk to asks about it and praises us for emphasizing it.

Should you disagree with this, that is fine, it simply means that our priorities and our philosophies are completely opposed to one another and that this clearly is not the proper environment for you.” 



A Letter from Peter Varellas

2008 Olympic Water Polo Silver Medalist, Stanford Athlete of the Year

Peter was an athlete on Orinda Aquatics, and one of the greatest leaders in the history of the program. He addressed the issue of leadership and alcohol, in a letter to the team (while still on the team)


Expectations are a big deal on a team. The expectation to succeed; the expectations to improve; the expectation to learn, grow and have fun; and the expectation to form friendships. Each individual surely has their own expectations for what they want to get out of their experience with a team. The fallacy, however, is that expectations are static. Many do not see that the norms, ambiance, and general sentiment of a team are constantly being reformed and re-evaluated. Some call it a tradition, but “tradition” carries with it the illusion of permanence. In my opinion, it is the function of the coach to monitor and influence the general atmosphere of the team. In many cases, as you know, the coach(es) will extend a great deal of this responsibility to some of the athletes themselves in the form of captains, leaders, or upperclassmen. Orinda Aquatics is no exception.

When I joined Orinda Aquatics as a sophomore, the leaders of the team were immediately apparent. They set the “tone” and expectations for the team. I was fortunate enough to have a high quality group of leaders that, in addition to the coaching staff, taught me not just how to swim fast, but how to be a good person, and in turn how to be an effective leader as I became an upperclassman. I found that swimmers spend so much time together in the pool that it was quite natural to also spend a great deal of time together away from practice. Many of my friends were in fact swimmers. For me, high school social situations never included alcohol. Not only did I not drink, but alcohol was not even present when my friends and I would hang out. The question is, why?

Why, indeed? Is it just coincidence that I never had the desire to drink and that my teammates felt the same way? I doubt it. I feel that my own actions were strongly influenced by that same group of leaders I spoke of earlier. Whether you realize it or not, there is a definite attitude toward alcohol on any sports team. A personal choice is no longer merely personal when it affects the atmosphere of the team. “Peer pressure” may seem old and outdated but trust me, it is still at large. The actions of friends, teammates, and leaders, serve to create the expectations of what a social situation entails. In a team environment, a norm is developed that can often be directly attributed to the actions of its oldest members. A team is supposed to be composed of individuals who are brought together by certain commonalities. Don’t make one of them alcohol.

Moral: You are constantly reshaping the expectations and general atmosphere of the team. Be sure that you understand how your actions relate to others.

A final note: Listen to your parents and coaches. These are the people who not only care about you most, but also have the knowledge of experience. These two forces combine to create your greatest assets as young people. The most important choices I have made in my life have been based largely on the advice of my parents and coaches.

Peter, December 6, 2005