The Storyteller and the Torturer

by Casey Barrett

Lessons in Motivation…

Orlando, FL   The view from room 761 of the Disney Swan Hotel is disorienting. Adrift neck deep in the land of make-believe, this is what I see: A green-canopied expanse of Florida palms and citrus trees, eleven hotels dot the horizon, a water tower with Mickey Mouse ears off in the distance, a faux New Orleans complex of time shares on the banks of a new canal, the parking lot below circling with Disney buses, depositing stroller-pushers into the hands of the Disney army, whose customer service is dispensed with relentless good cheer. A long way from home…

We’re here for the annual United States Swim School Association conference. I spent a good deal of time preparing my German partner, Lars, whose only American homes have been in Berkeley, CA and the East Village of New York City, for one of his first real tastes of soul-free Americana. As we approached the hotel entrance yesterday afternoon, he admired the “frozen yogurt architecture.” I asked him what he meant. He pulled an imaginary frozen yogurt dispenser, over and over, each imagined swirl exactly like the last. I got it.

The first presentation of the conference, which we’d just missed, was from the keynote speaker, a Disney executive talking about “Building a Business Through Storytelling”, something I wholeheartedly embrace. I was sorry to miss it, and the reviews we heard from fellow swim school owners were all glowing. It’s long been Disney mantra, the power of the story to sell anything at all. Our environment was proof. A sweltering central Florida wasteland transformed into a money-gushing machine of make believe, built of the backs of Mickey and Goofy, Snow White and the rest. I’ve never much liked these stories; truth be told, I’ve frequently found Disney’s essential existence offensive. The story as sales pitch. Without apology, inauthentic and phony being the actual point.

Fortunately, I remained absorbed in the Book – the Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. The same one I plugged last week, for those of you following along… Not that Harbach needs the plug for the swimming audience; his novel currently sits comfortably on the New York Times best-seller list at #9. But this Book is becoming something of an obsession with me with each passing page. It could be viewed as the anti-Disney tale. Something that asks questions so hard and deep that it couldn’t possibly be distilled into a theme park ride or blockbuster film. (Though it wouldn’t surprise me if one of Disney’s many tentacles has already purchased the movie rights…) As our flight descended over Orlando International, I read a (another) page that stopped me cold, a paragraph that might just distill the very essence of coaching. And as providence would have it, yes, it was all about storytelling…

Coaches, please read carefully:

“All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph… People loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer.”

In the fourteen nomadic years that my life was consumed by butterfly, I was lucky enough to swim for a wide collection of world-class coaches. While my career started at the same spot as Michael Phelps, North Baltimore, mine was not a path of one coach-swimmer relationship, forming the ultimate age-group to Olympics bond. It was dotted with stops — from NBAC to Badger to Bolles to USC to Pacific Dolphins to SMU… Each stop run by men who knew how to tell these stories. At their best, all made your story epic, and each at his worst was no more than mere torturer.

As Harbach notes, the key is in choosing the form of suffering. Because when suffering makes sense, we truly do love it. If we didn’t, no sport would exist. For that matter, nor would any successful business. Sacrifice hurts, it’s often a pain in the ass. It’s never, ever, fun to wake up before dawn, but as the Chinese proverb goes: No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.

The men and women who’ve built this often horrifying edifice of Disney understand this. Walking a faux Atlantic City “Boardwalk” with an ESPN Zone at one end and fake carnival barkers along the edge of a fake body of water, these things might make me suffer without sense, but for many millions, the escape makes all the sense in the world. The story they wish to hear does not include doom or flaws or obstacles, but the complete imagined absence of such things in the world. That’s a powerful sales pitch, and the stories of talking mice and dwarves do the job.

But where sport is concerned, especially swimming, the story must have darkness. It needs pain and sacrifice to make sense, to make it worth it. The balance is never easy, and I realize there’s a whole lot more to coaching than weaving inspiring, personal tales for each athlete. Like, say, the actual scientific and artistic knowledge of the sport itself… But ultimately, like everything else, it’s a sales pitch. How do you make your swimmers buy into being the best they can be? By selling them a story.