Coaching Is Paying Attention

By Tim Welsh

We have all seen the picture many times by now.  Everyone who was there remembers the moment.  Probably, they always will.  After eight days of racing, morning and evening, Olympic Trials ended Sunday night, July 3rd. Then, with the house lights darkened, and before anyone left the building ... onto the stage for the first time, dressed in identical long sleeved white t-shirts with red collars, and light blue sleeves with white stars on them came the 2016 USA Olympic Swimming Team. Streamers were flying; overhead hung a huge medallion-like white circle with “United States Olympic Team” written in white letters in a red ring around the outside; inside, on the white background, were the Olympic Rings, uniting every continent and every country; above them was a flag representing the American Flag, with thirteen stars and thirteen stripes.

     What a magnificent moment: our 2016 USA Olympic Swimming Team assembled as a full team for the first time! Over 1700 swimmers had come to Omaha to compete in these Trials; 45 remained. There they were standing on stage together in USA Team t-shirts.  The races (over 100 splashes in most events), the interviews, the commentators, the back stories (all 1700 of them), the celebrations, the disappointments, the hugs, the tears, the joys...etc., etc... They were all gone now.  Phase one of USA Olympic Swimming preparation was complete: our 2016 Olympic Swimming Team had been selected.  These 45 swimmers would carry the hopes, dreams, and expectations of our entire nation to Rio. None of their individual back stories mattered right now.  From this moment forward, they are TEAM USA, and they represent all of us.

      The chanting begins: “USA!  USA!  USA!” What a glorious moment of celebration, unity, even national pride.  “USA!  USA!  USA!”

       This moment, however and as we all know, is not the end of things. It is just the beginning of Phase two – the final month of preparation for the Olympic Games and the races for the medals. This ceremony was Sunday night. First USA team practice was Monday morning right there in Omaha.  Swimmers and coaches ... back at the pool ... working to get even better between now and their races in RIO.  Go USA!

          This scene at the conclusion of Olympic Trials has always reminded me of the BroadwayMusical, A Chorus Line.  In that show, produced in 1976, a group of dancers arrive in New York City to audition for a place in “a chorus line” that will perform on Broadway.  Making it into a Broadway show is, of course, making it big, so the show opens with the actors/dancers singing “I Hope I Make It.” (Parallels to Olympic Trials already).  Early on, the large group of dancers is cut to 17 (semi-finals?).  From there, the show follows each of the dancers, male and female, old and young, new comer and former star...they are all here... telling their back story and what the hopes/dreams of making the chorus line mean to each one. They perform and dance when called upon and cuts are made. Just before the end of the play, the cast is selected. They go backstage to put on their costumes (top hat, tails and all). Then, the conductor raises his baton,

the music begins, and out they come Two. Three. Four “ONE ......SINGULAR SENSATION, EVERY LITTLE STEP [THEY] TAKE.... ONE...THRILLING COMBINATION, EVERY MOVE THAT [THEY] MAKE”... and, just like that, everything that went before disappears.  They made it! They are a cast now! They are dressed alike; they dance alike; they are performing together, dancing on Broadway. In our language, they are a “team.” What counts now is less the back story of how they got here and more the coming story of what they do with the opportunity now that they are there. Our Olympic Team and coaches face the same challenge.

    After this glorious moment on stage at Olympic Trials, the night ends; everyone leaves the building; the team remains. Team USA training begins the next morning.  A little over a month remains until THE GAMES, in capital letters, begin.  How do the coaches and the team members manage this challenge?  How do they blend 45 different athletes, from different backgrounds, and different training regimens, and different places, and different amounts of experience into one team that will create “One Singular Sensation” of excellence when they perform in Rio?

         There is, it seems to me, only one way. That way is by paying strict, close, and personal attention to each athlete and to each coach so that a shared vision becomes a shared partnership and a shared collaboration that all lead to great performance.  Ego’s aside. This is about relationships, and caring, and sharing and unity. Performance comes at the end of all this. Paying attention is where it starts.  It is hard work, but it is also work that must be enjoyed. Preparation to race and mounting excitement for everyone means paying even more attention to every little detail for every person every day. Mary Oliver, the American poet, puts it this way: “To pay attention.  This is our endless and proper work.”  Indeed, it is.  Coaching is paying attention.

            The month is almost over now – and what a month it has been for distractions! From Zika mosquitoes to unfinished dorm rooms to worries about safe water toreports of state sponsored doping to a disqualified Russian track team, but not a disqualified Russian entire team, to headlines about the IOC and WADA and FINA to national political presidential conventions and too much violence here at home...and on and on and on...the distractions have been everywhere. And this is a generation we are told, and we know from our own coaching experience, that lacks coping skills. Oh My.  Pay Attention; Pay Attention; Pay Attention.  Be here now. Be All In.  Take the next step. Trust. Share. Work. Love. Listen. Forgive. Give Thanks. Give support.  Focus.  Enjoy.  All of these actions may be required of each athlete and coach between the end of Olympic Trials and the end of the Olympic Games.  They are all important skills; and they are all ways of paying attention. Coaching is paying attention.   

        Good Luck, Team USA!  We are all watching; we are all hoping for that “singular sensation.”  And we are all cheering: “USA!  USA!  USA!”




Tim Welsh

One of the most respected coaches in the nation, Tim Welsh brought the Notre Dame men's swimming and diving program to unprecedented levels and the verge of becoming a national force when it entered the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013.

Under his guidance, the Fighting Irish captured the program's first BIG EAST title in 2005 and repeated the feat in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013.

Welsh was not unaccustomed to success, as student-athletes and teams under his care have exceeded expectations and broken barriers throughout his 36-year career as a head coach. Welsh's squads experienced great team success over the years. In 1978 and 1979, he helped Johns Hopkins to back-to-back Division III national championships, while being named National Coach of the Year on the latter occasion. In all, Welsh has coached 33 teams that have claimed conference championships and 21 that have won nine or more dual meets in a season.

A published writer and master motivator, Welsh and his wife, Jacqueline (who served as curator of education in the Notre Dame Snite Museum of Art prior to her retirement), are the parents of two sons. Tim, a 2002 Notre Dame graduate, participated in the University's Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program before completing his English Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. John is a 2005 Notre Dame graduate.