Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Safe Sport Discussions before Swim Practice Led to Better Teammates, More Support
Before the pandemic hit, Tri-City Channel Cats in eastern Washington state implemented a 16-week Safe Sport discussion for swimmers at one of its two pools.
It was the brainchild of April Walkley, USA Swimming Safe Sport Western Zone Chair, and Jen Tonkyn, Head Assistant Coach for Tri-City Channel Cats. Both Walkley and Tonkyn are passionate advocates for keeping children safe by empowering them to speak up if they feel something is wrong or a situation is uncomfortable. In addition, they have worked with USA Swimming Safe Sport to continue its mission to provide a healthy and positive environment free from abuse for all members.
On Wednesdays, Tonkyn invited Walkley to talk to her swimmers for the first 10 minutes of practice after showing a short video clip. Parents had advance notice of the subject matter for the week’s discussion and were able to view the video in advance so that there were no surprises.
As time went on, the swimmers felt encouraged to speak up, ask questions and add to the discussion. Walkley’s son presented certain topics and Tonkyn added her perspective as a coach. Tonkyn said the swimmers became better teammates, cheerleaders for each other and on-time attendance on Wednesdays increased.
When the idea was first proposed, eyebrows were raised at the thought of 10 minutes of pool time being lost, but ultimately it proved to be a huge benefit for the athletes.
“It was only five or 10 minutes of pool time, but you could see what was going on mattered to these kids,” Tonkyn said. “That’s what made it easy to keep going… I don’t know a single coach out there that would say 10 minutes once a week to save a life is not valuable.”
Discussions around Safe Sport can be delicate or uncomfortable, Tonkyn admitted, so swimmers had different versions of the presentation based on their age group.
“You don’t know what is the right age to stop or start at the line of information,” Tonkyn said of the topics, which included grooming, appropriate and inappropriate actions, and coaching behaviors. “But we had to draw a line somewhere.”
These conversations even made Tonkyn’s job as a coach a little easier, she noted.
“Normally, they would run up and expect a hug,” she said. “Now they understand that I can’t, but if I give a side hug or a fist-bump with a smile, that’s good enough. That has to be good enough—but in the past that might have been a brush-off in their eyes.”
Swimmers became empowered to speak up, either to their parents or their coaches, about issues they saw both in and out of the pool. The adults were then able to address the issues previously unbeknownst to them. Tonkyn believes swimmers will continue to apply the lessons learned for the rest of their lives and it will eventually become second nature.
Tonkyn also said there is a lesson for coaches here in the midst of teaching Safe Sport principles to swimmers: There is a parallel between asking swimmers to grind through a tough set and be uncomfortable in order to get better and for coaches to discuss topics that make them uncomfortable to better the swimmers.
“We get better and the kids get better the exact same way,” she said. “If we’re going to implement something that we’re not comfortable with, we show the kids that what we’re asking them to do, we can do too. This is not an easy subject, but it matters.”
Because the Tri-City Channel Cats laid the groundwork for open, honest and proactive active listening discussions, another swim coach has been able to lead “restorative circles” during the pandemic and encourage swimmers to open up about their mental health status.
“With all the stuff going on in the pandemic, I would love to see something regarding mental health,” Tonkyn added. “Michael Phelps has come forward with his struggles. Allison Schmitt has come forward with some struggles that she’s going through. I would like to see, instead of the physical side, the mental side. I do think there is a platform for that.”
The positive relationship between a coach and athlete stems so much farther than in the water practices, as coaches really do make a positive impact on swimmers every day. Taking time to talk with athletes, even about tough topics, creates a safe place for them and ultimately helps them build towards a strong future in and out of the water.
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