An Ode to Masters Swimming and the Science of Improvement

I remember my first day of swim practice, way back when I was six years old. It was at the Little Rock Boys’ Club and Coach Brooks led the workouts. It was my first experience in a locker room, where I quickly learned that even though I was small enough to do it, you don’t change clothes inside the locker. You just put your stuff in there. That was a good learning moment right there. And I was mostly able to ignore the laughter.

Coach Brooks was a motivator. He did not believe in much rest between laps. He kept one of those fat pencils behind his ear, and if you hung too long on the edge of the pool, he would use that pencil to remind your hand it was supposed to be pulling through the water. I later switched to Coach Miller at a different facility. Mom or Dad would drive me to practice (thanks Mom and Dad!), sometimes very early in the morning, and I improved enough to start placing in a variety of meets. Eventually, I was swimming four hours a day as a ten-year-old, and doing very well.

I remember getting ready for a big meet down in Dallas when I was 11 years old, and I expected to be among the best in my events. My youngest brother Bill chose the week of that meet to annoy me, as only he can. (Yes, I meant to use the present tense.) When we Matthews tell jokes, our strategy is to keep hammering on a funny line until everyone is sick of it, and only then do we really start to lay it on. I’m pretty good at that, but Bill is a Jedi Master. Anyway, I may have tried to convince him to stop tormenting me by hitting him in the head. For those wondering, Bill and his hard head were fine, but I broke my hand! I had to drop out of the meet, and after six weeks in a cast, I quit swimming. I got back into the pool competitively in high school, but I never worked very hard. I could go pretty fast for 50 yards, but after that, I was pretty much exhausted. Sometimes I wonder if I could do it over again, should I have gotten back in the pool after my cast came off and continued that intense focus on swimming. As I was taught by the owl with the Tootsie Pop, the world may never know, and my swim career peaked at the ripe old age of eleven!

Forty years later, I started swimming with a coach again, when I joined my first masters swim group in 2013. They practiced at Loyola Marymount near the LAX airport. Masters swimmers are some of the most positive people I’ve ever been around. Also, a little crazy. We jump into the water early – workouts start at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. We all love our coaches who are there to entertain us, motivate us, and of course make us suffer. There’s way more camaraderie and conversation in swimming than most people would expect. We swimmers joke and laugh, and then push ourselves to keep up with, or edge out, the swimmers in our lane or the ones adjacent. It’s not a competition, but it’s totally a competition. Unfortunately, the LMU workouts closed down with COVID in March of 2020, and still have not restarted. I miss coaches Bonnie and Clay. I miss my lane mates Wayne, Kat, Brian, Bob, Nader, Shauna, and so many others from our workouts, even Jim and Karl.

I’m swimming at a new place now, with Coach Nancy at the helm. On my first day with Coach Nancy, she said, “Your swim techniques tell me you might have been a decent swimmer back in the ‘70s.” Ouch. Just because she’s right doesn’t mean she had to say it. Or did she?

I turn 60 next year, and as anyone who does age group competitions knows, aging into a multiple of 5 means that you move up in age groups. When I do future meets, I’ll swim against people aged 60-64. You’d think I might do pretty well in that age group, except, there are some really fast sexagenarians out there! (At least we’ll all be called sexagenarians.) So … if I want to be faster and more competitive, and if I now have a little more time to work on that, how do I go about it? And by the way, swimming isn’t the only thing I want to improve on – I want to be a better golfer, guitarist, writer, and chef. But let’s focus on swimming, shall we?

When I was taking Dawson out to Colorado, we listened to several podcasts. One that put Dawson to sleep was the Freakonomics podcast on how to get better at anything. It was all based on the research by Anders Ericsson. He’s devoted a good part of his life to this topic, and I read his 2016 book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.

What has Ericsson found?

  • Be motivated and have a specific goal. My goal is to be as fast in the 100 freestyle as I was back in high school. I was close to that four years ago, but my recent times have sadly been headed in the wrong direction. It’s almost like I’m getting older or something. Weird.
  • Make yourself uncomfortable. I’m very comfortable swimming with I techniques I learned back with Mr. Brooks and Mr. Miller in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, Coach Nancy is on my ass – telling me to swim with the “new” techniques that have been developed over the last 50 years. Swimming records are being broken all the time because experts have learned what works. And while it still does not feel right to me, I believe in the process and I’m sticking with it. I’m paying money to get this kind of treatment – and I love it.
  • Be persistent. This is the 10,000-hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell gleaned from Ericsson. Bottom line, you have to put the time in and that time cannot be used just to go through the motions. You need to push yourself hard, really hard, and stay at it. As my friend Will says, “You have to suffer now so you won’t suffer later.”
  • Seek feedback from experts. I do best when an expert is reminding me for the thousandth time to keep my fingers close together, as well as to employ all of the other effective techniques that I’ve been told to do but have not yet internalized.

I’m determined to use these approaches to set the bar high, and I know I cannot do it alone – I need the support (and the competition) from my fellow swimmers, as well as the guidance, hard feedback, and encouragement that my coaches will provide. I’m grateful for all of the coaches I’ve had through the years – the ones who cared enough to push me, to overtly identify my shortcomings and to be on my ass about them, and to advise me on how to overcome them. I’m building on what they gave me, and I know I am better for it.

An aside – our most effective classroom teachers embody Ericsson’s ideal and take the role of an effective coach by going far beyond the role of a giver of information.  Sadly, Ericsson believes that most teachers and doctors stop improving after just a few years in their profession, mostly because they stop seeking and using outside expertise to constantly improve.

To all of you who have read this far (and I thank you for that!), I urge you to use Ericsson’s research and commit to improving on something you’re passionate about. It is never too late.

Life is better lived when we are living to get better.

PS – During COVID, after the LMU program closed, I swam for about a year with a great group of Masters swimmers in a lousy pool in Manhattan Beach. I did not swim under coach Steve Hyde’s tutelage long, but I loved all of my time doing it. Steve has coached for about 100 years all over the South Bay. His philosophical and humorous style, including his morning rants, has charmed and pushed thousands of swimmers over the years. He would greet me with, “Are we feeling ferocious today?” Then after some kind of rant or philosophical opining, he would nonchalantly state, “Well, we are all here, so we might as well do 20 100s on the 1:30.” And then, with a little smile before the pain, off we went. Coach Steve is fighting to overcome a stroke he had last month, and my thoughts and prayers, as well as my deepest thanks, go to him and his family.

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#6, Counselors, April 7, 2020)

I did not have any counselors in my high school. We had an English teacher, Mr. Bersey, who offered to help students in the college application process, but that was about it. Overnight, he went from being my sophomore year English teacher who taught me words like zephyr and zenith and who also gave me many days of Saturday school for my smart aleck comments, to the person I went to for advice when I had questions about college application process. It wasn’t much, but having someone who knew something, as opposed to relying only on the heavily dogeared college application books I was reading, was helpful.

With the exception of what seemed like 37 years in middle school, I led a pretty charmed life through high school and never had anything close to a need for counseling. My parents divorced immediately after I left for college, and the 2000 miles of distance spared me from having that pain in my face every day. My younger brothers and sister were not so fortunate. But life has a way of eventually bringing its share of pain to all of us. The longer you live and the more you listen, the more you know that. I’ve had my share of pain since my twenties, and counseling helped me get through the hardest times. Having someone to talk with, to listen objectively, to question and push, and to call me on the carpet on some of my thinking has helped me tremendously at key points in my life.

As a high school principal, I got to work closely with school counselors. I considered our counselors to be a vital part of my leadership team. In many cases, counselors know students better than anyone, and their insight is often essential to making high quality instruction possible. I spoke last week with the counseling teams that support the students at Mira Costa High School and Manhattan Beach Middle School. I am grateful for the time they shared with me and loved being able to spend an hour with each team, hearing about how they are transitioning to “distance counseling.” I continue to love how Zoom connects us during this crazy time. I have spoken with our counselors many times, but seeing them working from their homes, talking with the group while also attending to the needs of their sometimes very young children, and balancing work and life in this new environment made me feel even more connected with this team of very caring people. All of us smiled when we heard that one of our counselors just witnessed her oldest son take his first steps.

MBMSCounselors
The MBMS Counseling Team

MCHSCounselors
The Mira Costa HS Counseling Team

What a critical thing it is to have people in an organization who are solely devoted to helping students make good decisions and helping them get through difficult times. I wanted to speak with our counselors to learn how they are able to do this without the in-person connections and day to day interactions of regular school.

One of their top priorities has been supporting students who were already in crisis while they were in school prior to March 13, our last day of normal school. Stress and anxiety are real in our high-pressure community. Expectations are high. Some students seemingly thrive on that, but it can be too much for others. It’s often hidden, but many of our students, and students across the country, are in a lot of pain. It made the cover of Time Magazine a few years ago. All of our counselors see students who are in crisis, and this move to distance learning creates an even less connected world that could be even tougher on students. Our counselors recognize this, and when we moved to our distance learning model they immediately began reaching out to these students to try to maintain the connections they have already built and to provide a familiar touchpoint for students who need one. Their conversations are often about school, but they are more about emotions, mindsets, and the tools that students can use to process and cope with self-doubts and sometimes giant challenges in their lives. It is reassuring and comforting to know that our counselors are taking the initiative and maintaining relationships with students during this COVID-19 time.

Our College and Career Counselors have been busy as well. Mira Costa seniors have heard from colleges and are making decisions on where to attend, without the ability to visit their prospective colleges, on where to attend. Counselors have been having telephone or Zoom meetings with the families of our junior students, who are starting the college application process now. It is a crazy time for them, too. Our college and career counselors recently sent out the April edition of the CCC Newsletter as another way of keeping our students and families informed. My son Dawson is a junior. He took the SAT back in January, and now we are not even sure if schools will be accepting SATs. I’m not certain my older son Ryan would have gotten into any competitive university without his SATs. He was not a big believer in turning in homework, and his GPA reflected a stubborn adherence to that lack of belief. But he was born to take tests, and that helped him. As he still tells me regularly when we reflect on those high school days, “It all worked out, didn’t it Dad?”

LawSchoolGrad
Our family celebrating Ryan’s law school graduation. Yes, Ryan, it all worked out!

It worked out for Ryan, but for Dawson, and for all of our juniors, the college application process has never been more uncertain. Our counselors are trying to guide students and families, meeting with them and their families through Zoom to help them navigate a process that none of us yet understands and that is changing as we go. To me, the main point we need to remember is the point that Frank Bruni repeatedly makes in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Successful people are not successful because of the college they attended. It’s about their desire to learn, to improve, to take chances, and to work hard through all of it. Bruni writes, “What drives earnings isn’t the luster of the diploma but the type of person in possession of it…A good student can get a good education just about anywhere, and a student who’s not that serious about learning isn’t going to get much benefit.” Channeling Frank Bruni to all of our high school students, our middle school students, and parents – it’s going to be OK.

Our counselors reminded me that life goes on even in this time of social distancing, and that sometimes brings hardship and pain. As they learn about new and sometimes very heavy circumstances that our students are facing, our counselors are reaching out to support them as well. One of our students just learned that his mother has cancer. Other students have witnessed a parent or grandparent go through COVID-19. We have students whose parents are on the front lines in the medical profession, risking their health every day. Financial stresses are straining our families. The health, the emotions, and the lives of the ones we love matter more than anything. Having a trusted adult to talk with outside of the small circle of people with whom we are sheltering in place is sometimes critical to being able to get through difficult situations. Our counselors are working to provide this for students as they go through these real challenges, and I know that it helps.

I’m also grateful that our counselors are not alone in this work. We have so many teachers, instructional assistants, school staff, and administrators who have connections with our students, who love and care for them, and who are still connecting and listening. I know that these trusted adults are providing important and much-needed support, sometimes explicitly and sometimes just by letting students know they are still here. I have often said that teaching is not solely based on traditional content and that the best teaching happens when teachers focus on growth – and not just on academic growth but also on students’ growth as people. My wife used to be an AP Calculus teacher, and now she’s a 5th grade teacher. She talks about how people ask her, “What do you teach?” and for many years her answer was, “Math!” Now when people ask, “What do you teach?” she says, “It’s not a ‘what,’ it’s a ‘who’….I teach 30 individual students.” Meeting each student where they are, knowing what makes them tick, and helping them to grow into the people they will become is way more important than making sure that they remember every single fact and figure that we teach. As Paul Simon sang, “When I think back on all that crap I learned in high school. It’s a wonder I can think at all.” I’m a big fan of the idea that as many adults in the school as possible should teach students to think, to be creative, and to solve problems (that is not the crap that Paul Simon was talking about), help students to grow into good and caring human beings, and support students so that they know without a doubt that adults in their school care about their success a person.

Thank you to our counselors for caring for our students, particularly in this time of social distancing. Thank you to everyone in our schools who is reaching out to do the same. And let’s all remind ourselves that we are in the midst of a brutal time, and that kindness and love are more important than ever.

 

 

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#4, Distance Learning, March 28, 2020)

I am writing this entry on Saturday, March 28, 2020 – after two weeks of distance learning. When I first started visualizing what teaching using distance learning would look like, I mistakenly imagined it would be very similar to classroom teaching. I pictured students spending the day from 8:00 to 3:00 either listening to their teacher providing direct instruction, interacting with their teacher and their classmates, reading, or working on skills or materials. I pictured teachers prepping as usual, giving directions, and being available during their normal work hours. I did not take in all of the complexities that being home due to an epidemic brings. It is remarkably complicated.

And it’s not one size fits all. Not one bit. We have students whose families have stresses that prevent them from being available. We have teachers in the same situation. We have teachers who now have to learn a whole new way of teaching, with entirely different uses of technology. In general, the teachers who are doing their best are spending far more hours than they were spending in the normal jobs. There are long hours of learning, preparation, trial and error, collaboration, research, and more. It’s tough on everyone.

Two weeks in, people are seeking to know the expectations and objectives this new distance learning paradigm. I drafted a set of objectives for our district, then received feedback from a number of teachers and instructional leaders, and together we have developed version one of the MBUSD Objectives for Distance Learning. We will be using this as an overall framework for the teaching and learning we want to see with distance learning. It is clear in its objectives, but leaves the “how” up to the teacher. I already have seen plenty of highly effective strategies and uses of technology that teachers are using to achieve these objectives, and I look forward to seeing more. We will learn together.

MBUSD DISTANCE LEARNING OBJECTIVES

 

Students will continue to learn. This is the message from the Governor of California, and it remains our primary objective in MBUSD. Our teachers have made spectacular efforts to be a source of strength, normalcy, care, and connection in our students’ lives. Teaching and learning will continue in MBUSD through distance learning. 

Teachers will be streamlining the curriculum and focusing on what is most critical for students to learn. Our commitment is to utilize distance learning to prepare students for next year while understanding the evolving challenges that all of us face in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. We will seek ways to focus our content on our essential standards, so we can better keep all of our learners engaged, and in order to have more opportunities to support students who are not meeting the standards. When we begin the 2020-21 school year, teachers will need to keep this unique year in mind and will teach or review critical concepts as needed before moving to new concepts.

Teachers will strive to help students regularly connect with their classmates and their teacher. The amount of isolation we are all experiencing during this epidemic presents a major challenge to our social and emotional well-being. Our students need opportunities to remain connected with their classmates and their teachers. Teachers will be using a variety of methods to achieve this.


Students will receive feedback on their assignments. We are continuing to communicate with other local districts, the county, and the state regarding report cards, final grades, and, for high school, grades on transcripts. This is an evolving discussion, and one that will place at its center the best way to reflect student learning in circumstances that are far from normal. Unless students are failing multiple courses or are notified that they are not meeting standards or are at risk of failure/retention, they will be progressing to the next level in 2020-21.


Teachers will receive additional time each week to collaborate with colleagues, discuss curriculum, and to share and learn best distance learning practices. Our teachers have done an amazing job in moving to online instruction. But there is still so much to learn, so we will build in one half day of time during one school day each week for additional learning, as this remains an extraordinarily new and evolving world of teaching. MBUSD supports each school in developing its own schedule to provide this time. Each school site will be in touch with its families once that is done.


Everyone needs to be patient and flexible with themselves and each other. Our teachers are working to adjust to a whole new method of instructional delivery and are learning as they plan, often while dealing with the same challenges that all of us face as we adjust to working from home and caring for ourselves and our families in this new reality. We will all work together to help provide students with the ability to plan, manage, and structure their day to the best of our ability. We understand that lessons and assignments may take a little longer or turn out differently than we expect. We know that flexibility is important – for students as well as teachers – and we will seek to provide that flexibility when it is needed.


We will strive to provide assignments and directions to students and families in a timely and consistent manner. Our community has many working parents, including teachers, who appreciate having the lesson plans ahead of time so they can prepare their students for the day/week, which is particularly helpful to students who may need more support from their parents to plan their day. As everyone begins to settle into this new structure, teachers will be more and more able to establish a routine for posting assignments and schedules for upcoming activities so that students (and their parents, when needed) can plan ahead. 


These Distance Learning Objectives will evolve. As we receive feedback from teachers, employees, students, and families, we will learn more about effective and meaningful practices for teaching and learning through distance learning, as well as ways to maintain strong connections within our classroom and school communities. This will be a living document that evolves as we learn.


We will get through this together. With kindness, compassion, creativity, support from the MBUSD community, and a commitment to teach and learn in a sea of change, our teachers and our students will prevail through this epidemic, and our community will emerge stronger and more together than ever.