As a lifelong competitive swimmer, I was fortunate to be coached by three very capable teachers. Each coach taught me more than just swimming technique; they each instilled distinct management lessons.
At Providence College, I was coached by John O’Neill. John will never be described as a verbose man and we had a rather monosyllabic relationship over the past thirty years. In 2000, John left Providence College to coach at Army and stayed there for five years before returning to reclaim the helm at Providence College. I went to the pool to reacquaint with John after not seeing him for five years. He was standing at the end of the pool deck watching a small group in the water working out. I entered the natatorium and walked up to my former coach.
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We watched the swimmers change from backstroke to breaststroke. They rested and started swimming freestyle.
And just like that John walked to the edge of the pool and started showing a swimmer proper elbow positioning. Many people might be bothered by the lack of affection after not seeing a mentor for so long, but for me it reinforced one of the great business lessons I learned from John O’Neill. John taught me that leaders need to show confidence in their team members if they want superior performance from them.
It wasn’t easy to learn this lesson.
At the Big East Championships during my freshman year, my hotel roommate was Mike Epright, a sophomore breaststroker. I heard a rumor that Coach O’Neill would come to each of our rooms to discuss race strategy for our events the following day. This was the biggest meet of my life and I was anxious about the atmosphere. I was scheduled to swim my best event, the 200 backstroke, in the morning and I was looking forward to the one-on-one coaching.
An hour before lights out time, John knocked on our door and entered the room. He talked with Mike about his upcoming 100 breaststroke. John reemphasized that Mike should press from his hips during the kick. John demonstrated how he wanted Mike to hold his streamline through each of the pullouts. John finished and slapped Mike’s hand.
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Now it was my turn. I was ready to hear the “Swim one for the Gipper” speech. John walked past Mike’s bed, kept walking past mine and opened the door. In the doorway, John looked at me and said, “Trent. Take it out fast tomorrow.” Then he closed the door behind him.
I was in shock. I felt cheated. I couldn’t understand why my coach, on the eve of my biggest swim, wouldn’t want to review the race plan.
It wasn’t until three years later when I truly understood the events of that night. This story was relayed to me by a fellow swimmer. He saw me standing behind the blocks of a home dual meet yawning before the start of the 200 backstroke. Standing next to Coach O’Neill, the swimmer said, “Look at Trent. He’s falling asleep out there.”
Coach O’Neill replied, “He’s not falling asleep. He’s relaxed. He knows exactly what he needs to do to win this race.”
Hearing of this exchange helped me understand my relationship with Coach. He wasn’t ignoring me. He understood me. And he was exhibiting confidence in my ability to manage the situation I was facing.
This notion—one of truly empowering a team member—can be troublesome for some managers to embrace. Showing confidence in an employee and giving them the latitude to manage the situations they are facing demonstrates a strong leadership ability and, ultimately, will lead to better results.