Coaching Imogene Herdman

Yesterday I made a girl cry.

The head coach told me, “You did the right thing.”

When I told the story to one of my sons, he said the same thing. “That was the right decision,” he said.

Still, I went to sleep thinking about her and woke up thinking about her.

Basically, I’m coaching Imogene Herdman. If you’ve never read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The opening line in the book is, “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” Imogene is all Herdman.

In fact, I’ll call my swimmer Imogene for this post.

She’s mean. A real bully. Lots of name-calling. Shoving. Swimming over top of other kids. Always late — when she shows up at all. Mouthy.

I’ve said to my co-coaches more than once, “I need to figure Imogene out. Where does the mean come from?”

A lot of kids these days are from broken homes and blended families, so I don’t want to assume that’s the root, but I think it plays a part. She’s been displaced by a baby half-brother in her home. She’s a hers, but he’s a theirs.

My group of swimmers is developmental. They’re mostly around 10 years old and still learning the strokes. We practice Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

On Tuesdays, however, I coach a different group, a higher level group, because their coach can’t make Tuesdays at all.

A few parents of swimmers from my group have asked about having their child practice on Tuesday with me. Piano lessons and other activities make it hard to make it to all the practices. I’ve answered that on a case-to-case basis.

Imogene showed up last Tuesday.

“Can I practice today to make up for some of my missed practices?” she asked.

I paused. “Can you be nice?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, looking up at me so hopefully.

“Can you listen and do what you’re told?” I asked. She often doesn’t.

“Uh-huh,” she said, and gave me a please-please-please smile.

“Okay, we’ll give it a try,” I said.

She made it about 40 minutes before she started pushing and swimming over top of other kids.

The next day, she didn’t come to practice. She went to the locker room, though, and told the other girls, “I’ve been moved up to another group.”

“Was Imogene moved up?” my saintly swimmers asked.

“No,” I told them.

She came Friday in full-on bully mode, skipped the meet on Saturday, and then at Monday’s practice told me that she was coming on Tuesday.

“No, Imogene,” I told her. “Coming on Tuesday is a conversation I need to have with your parents. You can’t just decide that you’re coming.”

But she came.

And I made her get out.

“We talked about this yesterday,” I said to her.

“I have a note from home,” she replied, but didn’t offer to show it to me.

“I’d like to have a conversation, not a note,” I told her.

She stared at the deck.

“My problem, Imogene, is this,” I continued. “You aren’t always nice to the other swimmers in your lane. You don’t do what I ask you to do. You skip practices. You skip meets.”

Tears filled her eyes.

“I can’t go to swim meets,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “I have a baby brother.”

“Can you ask some of your friends for rides to meets?” I suggested, but as soon as I said the words, I knew the answer. She doesn’t have many friends.

The tears rolled down her cheeks. I thought of Amanda Beard’s memoir, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry. On deck, standing in front of me, I could see the tears.

“Tuesday practices are a privilege for our group,” I said. “I need to talk with one of your parents.”

With that, she left.

And I felt like crying.

“You did the right thing,” the head coach said. “She can’t run the show. You feel badly because you’re kind.”

I didn’t feel kind.

I felt like I had kicked Imogene Herdman out of the Christmas Pageant. At the start of Advent.

For me, swim team has always been about a thousand different things other than swimming. Now it’s about a Christmas Pageant bully.

How do I reach Imogene?

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The Record Board

Whenever I go to a pool, my eyes are drawn to the record board.

It’s kind of funny, because I haven’t always been a fan of the record board. Helen still holds over 20 age-group records at the pool in Cooperstown — the earliest from when she was 8 years old, and the latest from when she was 13. Then we moved, and she started racking up high school records in Greene.

Margaret in the middle

A couple of years ago, I caught one of the swimmers in my group staring at the record board in Cooperstown.

“Do you know Helen Zaengle?” she asked.

“I do,” I told her. “She’s my daughter, and she’s Laurel’s sister.”

“Wow,” Margaret said. “She has a lot of records. I’m going to break some of them.”

That was the moment my feelings about the record board changed.

Helen was very good at swimming from a young age. She loved winning races — although there was one time when she asked me why she couldn’t get a rainbow ribbon (the ribbon handed out for participation); all her ribbons were blue.

The record board wasn’t posted at the time, and, quite frankly, I think Helen and I were both unaware of all the records. When the record board went up, part of me felt a little embarrassed because I never sensed that Helen was swimming for the glory of the record board or all the accolades. She swam with the truest sense of the amateur — a love of the sport.

But I worked in the pool these last few years with all those records at my back, and I tried not to look at them. Don’t misunderstand — I am very proud of Helen, but not because she rules the record board. I just think she’s wonderful.

Margaret helped me to see that the records are goals for other swimmers, not to induce pride, but to produce hard work.

Michael Phelps said, “Goals should never be easy,” and Margaret took that to heart. She’s 10 years old now and continues to push herself harder than her peers. She still hasn’t made it to the record board, but I have no doubt that she will.

Laurel swimming breaststroke

Last year, Laurel made it to the record board, by breaking a record that had been up there since before Helen was even born. 11-12 100 Breaststroke.

This year Laurel was studying the records to see if there were any she was close to.

“How about that one,” I said, pointing to 13-14 200 Breaststroke. “I think that one is do-able, maybe not this year, but next.”

The name next to the record: Helen Zaengle.

Helen called me right up. “I heard you told Laurel to break my record,” she said.

“Heck, yes, I did,” I replied.

“I think that would be great,” she said.

She holds her records with open hands, bidding other swimmers to take them, and I think that makes me even prouder than all the records combined.