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Quiet coach spoke louder than any Mike Rice yelling

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The Mike Rice fiasco has had me thinking about my high school swim coach.

No, Dick Martin didn’t throw things at us, hurl slurs at us or touch us. His motivational techniques were much more meaningful, and effective.

Martin’s magic was such that he was so revered that you would strain to hear what his quiet voice was saying. Most memorable were the 6 a.m. weekday practices in the winter, where, on a day when the water looked especially unwelcoming, you could dilly-dally for a good 5 minutes by making a show of putting on your bathing cap (and chatting up your pals). That is, until the coach had had enough. He would saunter over slowly—and his walk can really only be described as a saunter, even though he wasn’t showy or cocky—and say, in that voice you could barely hear, “Get the (expletive) in the pool.” He wouldn’t wait, but slowly saunter off, likely satisfied at the instantaneous splash of a bunch of teens jumping into the pool.

It got to be where the swimmers would just see Martin starting to saunter over and they’d get in that pool. Stat.

The F word was a big deal in a suburban American high school in 1983. It upped Martin’s cool factor with kids because no other teacher ever used a curse word. But here’s the thing, we also loved him because he was an amazing coach. He never raised his voice, ever. He didn’t need to. Martin got more mileage out of his quiet mental motivational techniques than any taunt, scream or thrown object ever would. You swam your ass off for the guy because he had earned your respect, and you didn’t want to disappoint him.

We were state champions in 1983, my freshman year. Martin was a huge part of it, making some seemingly risky, but always victorious, decisions about who would swim which races for certain meets. It all looked effortless. At the swim team banquet when the season was over, Martin made some remarks, probably the most we had heard him speak all season. I can’t remember a word he said. Then he gave every swimmer a packet of photocopies of the lineup for each meet. Each sheet was handwritten, and there were no cross outs or changes. Then Martin pointed out a number inside a circle at the bottom of each sheet. It was the number of times he had changed the lineup for that meet before settling on a final version. I can’t remember specific numbers, and maybe my memory is embellishing it 30 years later, but I recall that there were some crazy circled numbers on those sheets, like 88. There was a hush in the room among the swimmers and parents as it sunk in that this coach didn’t have some easy recipe for winning, but had worked his ass off as hard as anyone in the water at all those meets. Now, as an adult, I’m even more in awe, because I get that Martin made 88 versions of a single meet’s lineup while also grading papers as an English teacher, being a husband and father, and doing whatever else he did outside the halls of our high school.

In my life as a packrat, I’ve saved so many things not worth saving. The one thing I wish I still had from high school is that packet of swim meet lineups with those circled numbers at the bottom. If I had those sheets, I’d take one and hang it somewhere by my desk. It would be a daily reminder that being the best, a champ, may involve doing something 88 times until you get it just the way you want it. That you lead by example, and what you don’t say speaks way louder than what you can yell. That any success begins by having the motivation to get started or, as Dick Martin would say, getting the (expletive) in the pool.

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