Joy in Mudville

by Casey Barrett

Todd Schmitz and the Art of Play

It’s Sunday morning. You’re 16-years-old. You’re in incredible shape, you swim over twenty miles a week after all, but right now all you want to do is sleep. When you decide to wake – late – you just want to relax, waste away the day on Facebook, far from the pool. Who can blame you?

Some coaches understand this basic need for balance and step-away sanity. Others don’t. There’s a school of thought that says young swimmers should be in the water everyday. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, for years on end. Physically speaking, there is a lot to be said for this. It works. Constant contact with the water, never losing the feel for your strokes, ever, not for one day throughout your teenage years… This path produces champions. Long term sanity not included.

Todd Schmitz, aka Missy Franklin’s coach, is firmly in the first camp. He wants his swimmers to step away. Often for entire weekends. What they might lose in feel will be make up for in fun. Because, come Monday, his kids will want to be back at the pool. You can’t tell me that’s the case for those kids who were forced to swim a few grand on Sunday.

This week the Wall Street Journal ran a terrific profile on Schmitz. It’s say-no-more headline: How Not to Ruin a Swimming Prodigy. The piece reveals a supremely grateful coach. A guy who recognizes that all top coaches, at their inception, have to be insanely lucky. In Schmitz’s case, he was fortunate enough to find 7-year-old Missy Franklin in his Starfish group during his first ever coaching job. He’s not the first coach to find himself in the right place at the right time with the right swimmer, and while that might make plenty of other coaches crazed with jealousy, he deserves huge props for not screwing it up. Which is all too easy to do… Just take a look at the National Age Group records for 10 & Unders — how many found themselves in Missy Franklin’s position seven years later?

The Colorado Stars are like a lot of clubs teams across the States. It’s a rag tag operation that jumps from pool to pool wherever the team can reserve practice time. Fact is, it’s a stepping stone job. A team where an up and coming coach produces some big talent, gets named to a few national teams, and then rides his phenom’s wave to a more high profile position… Except, it seems Schmitz isn’t interested in taking that next leap to the so-called big time. He seems more interested in having a good time with the group he’s got. How refreshing is that?

In that Journal story, the reporter writes: “Even when it comes to improving form—something other coaches regard as a strict science—Schmitz believes in the art of play.”

Yes, the Art of Play — perhaps the most powerful concept in all of education today. This is something that’s being studied with all seriousness by child psychologists these days. The findings are in the process of turning early education on its head. For this reason: Playing works better than working.

In the recent best-selling book “Imagine, How Creativity Works”, author Jonah Lehrer writes about a study of four-year-olds divided into two groups for a year of education and observation. One group was given a classroom full of “unstructured play” – that is, plenty of time to explore on their own, follow their own imaginations, and have fun with the way they chose to learn. The other group was given a more traditional classroom experience full of phonetics and memorization, you know, the usual ways of “learning” found in most schools. After a few months, the researchers did some preliminary tests to see how these two groups were learning. Here’s what they found: the first group, the one given all that unstructured play was uncomfortably far ahead of the ‘traditional’ group in every measure of intelligence and learning. Uncomfortable because the educators found it unethical to continue the study — because of the disservice they were doing to the latter group.

That study was with a group of preschoolers. While it’s undeniable that kids need more structure as they enter grade school and beyond, the power of play can’t just be tossed aside like an outgrown pair of old shoes. Teenagers need it too. Especially ultra-dedicated teenage athletes who already spend a huge portion of their lives staring at a black line at the bottom of a swimming pool.

Because, when you step up to the plate, with all the pressure in the world on those young shoulders, there needs to be joy. Without it, what’s the point?