The Quality of "Approachability"By John Leonard
Recently at a swim meet, I had "accidental contact" with a young coach whom I had never met before. He came to offer his thanks and appreciation for what ASCA and WSCA are doing in the drug wars in our sport. After a few kind words, he mentioned that he didn't agree with all of ASCA's "philosophies," but knew that things are "a balance" and wanted me to know that he appreciated my efforts. Very nice of him.
I thanked him, and then asked what particular things he didn't agree with.... I am always interested in how the things we are working on are perceived. I was prepared for criticism of some program or project that we were undertaking, because I have certainly come to recognize that you can't please all of the people all of the time. What he said however, surprised me.
"Well, maybe its not philosophies, exactly... its more like, well, uhummmm... ah .... well ... ummm, it's that you seem so unapproachable sometimes."
Unapproachable? Me? Moi? Mr. Telephone-stuck-in-head, Mr. Walk the deck at every meet, talk to everyone, Me? Me? Gulp. What am I hearing?
I got over the shock, and asked him what he meant. He said, "you always seem so busy, and I never get to talk to you." As he said it, I saw something else cross his face.
My response was, "Gee, it doesn't seem like that to me. I spend about half of every work day answering phone calls from coaches, and another hour a day answering e-mail from people I often don't even know, and another hour a day writing letters in response to letters I get. If I'm unapproachable, an awful lot of people have gotten past it."
My new friend thought about that for a moment, then said, "you know, as I said that a second ago, I thought maybe really the problem is in me, not in you." Now I wanted to leap on that and agree with him... anything to avoid blaming myself ... but I resisted, and thought some more.
"You know" I said, "I think if you walk around this deck, you'll find an awful lot of coaches who bring me ideas in hopes and belief that I, and the ASCA Board, can help bring them to fruition. We have a pretty good track record in that regard.
"I know" he said, "and I think that's why I feel like I'm cut off ... I have ideas I want to get out there also."
A light came on like a cartoon in my mind.
"How old are you, coach?"
Well, at the time of this incident, I was two days short of my 50th birthday. "Coach, you know, you may have something there .... when I was 29, I couldn't even bring myself to talk to any of the name coaches in the sport. You're a long way ahead of that curve, you already have some ideas."
Some age-old principles of communication came back to me. The most relevant of which is that work expands to fill the time available. So does communication. I do an enormous amount of communicating. Everyone I have known and know now, communicates with me, some quite regularly, some everyday. Some, several times a day. And we are all like that. As a swim coach, we spend most of our time getting and receiving information from those we know. We rarely or scarcely have time for those we ... don't know.
So we are all "approached" and communicate very often, sometimes it seems, way too much. But each and every one of us spends most of our time communicating with those we know.
For a person like me, working with an association, or a person like you, working with another kind of association, known as a team, there is a huge temptation to reach "saturation level" with communication, and not seek out those people who are a "stretch" for us to communicate with. In my case, this young coach reminded me that I spend so much time receiving communication ... incoming calls, people coming up to tell me something, e-mail, snail mail, third hand reports, that I can neglect to get out and force myself to find ever more people, who I don't know, to get more input from, and seek out ideas. And that's a good idea for every coach.
And I think the young coach had a sudden realization that he was behaving a lot like the young parent who bemoans the "lack of communication" from the coach, but never telephones the coach, or comes to talk to the coach. He saw, I believe, that the opportunity was there, and he wasn't taking it.
The second principle of communication that this reminded me of is that unapproachable is in the eye of the beholder. I have never met a person associated with swimming in the coaching profession, who would not, when asked at a reasonable time and place, take all the time in the world to consider your question, and give you a respectful and well-thought-out response and try and help you. Its a cornerstone of our profession that we help each other to the best of our ability. I was thirty-two when I first got up the nerve to ask George Haines a question, after sneaking up behind him for years to listen to what he would tell his athletes at nationals. I was thirty-five and starting work at ASCA before I could bring myself to ask Coach Peter Daland for advice. Doc Counsilman came to me early in my career, and reminded me "how we do these things," or I might never have met him, and that turned into a lifelong admiration and respect and eventually friendship. I don't know that I ever would have felt worthy to approach Doc for help if he hadn't taken the initiative to help me out by straightening me out.
For young coaches today, including my new 29 year old friend, the key coaches in swimming are the Richard Quicks, the Mark Schuberts, the Skip Kenneys and many others. Those gentlemen are just as "approachable" as Doc, or George, or Peter, or Don Gambril. Respect their privacy and their need to take care of their own teams first, and then introduce yourself, tell them why you are coming to ask them something, then ask. You'll find them just as friendly and approachable as every other great coach throughout history, and as eager to help, and continue the tradition of established coaches helping the next generation the same way they were helped.
As for me, I'm going to make it a point to meet three new coaches I don't know, everywhere I go, and spend some time talking to them. Thanks to my new young friend, I was reminded of the valuable truths above.
And I hoped he learned that "approachable" is within you, not within the person you want to approach. Do it with your team parents, with your school administrators or other teachers .... and do it with your fellow coaches.