Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The result should never overshadow the process

When Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel wanted to talk coaching and philosophies, he turned not to another football coach, but to a D-III swimming coach at tiny Kenyon College by the name of Jim Steen.

Last spring, the 60-year-old Coach Steen, whose swimmers have won 47 D-III team titles in his 33 years at Kenyon, spent an afternoon with Coach Tressel, who "sat in Steen’s office and scribbled pages of notes one afternoon as Steen shared his philosophies."

A NY Times article today describes Coach Steen this way:

[He] bears a resemblance to the actor John Lithgow and stars as Kenyon’s version of the absentminded professor. He is 6 feet 5 inches but walks with a slouch, as if he cannot bear to tower over others. His work attire is shorts and flip-flops, but he exudes a formality that is rooted in good manners. During the season, which runs from September through March, Steen frequently misplaces his cellphone or his eyeglasses, and he often forgets to eat. But his focus on his swimmers is so keen, it cuts through the chlorine haze of their lives.

According to one Kenyon professor, "it’s the intangibles that set Coach Steen apart. He has this ability to connect with people, to figure out what makes them tick. He’s a genius when it comes to that."

Though swimming is an individual pursuit, Steen treats it as a team sport. He preaches to his athletes that everybody has a redeeming quality; as teammates, their job is to find the positive in one another and let go of the rest.

“We need to be ready,” Steen said. “You guys as much as anybody will set the tone when we go into the conference meet.” He added, “We could not win it.”

Then he reiterated one of his simple truths: “Not winning the war is not nearly as bad as not winning the battles.

As you might tell from that quote, Coach Steen "is a big believer that the result should never overshadow the process. It is why he rarely mentions his 29 consecutive national men’s team championships or his 22 overall women’s crowns in his 33 years at Kenyon. (He arrived in 1975, and has taken two one-year sabbaticals.)"

It's his belief that "the pursuit of a single goal often inhibits the risk-taking and creative thinking necessary for personal growth."

The NY Times article tells of how, "in one mass e-mail message" to his swimmers recently, "he wrote, 'Find a place within yourself where success and failure don’t matter, a place where you can engage in battle without compromise.'"

Another of Steen’s simple truths comes from the Bible: The exalted will be humbled and the humble will be exalted. The road to success, he will tell you, has no neon signs to herald your arrival.

One of Coach Steen's swimmers talks about one lesson her coach taught her that's impacted her the most:

“The one that’s really stuck with me,” she said, is, “you can approach anything two ways: under a threat or for the challenge.”

What did Coach Tressel take away from his meeting with Coach Steen?

One of the things that jumped out at me was Jim’s passion for working to be certain that his young people reach their potential,” Tressel said. “It’s even agonizing for him the thought of that not occurring.”