How Not to Ruin a Prodigy

The title of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Missy Franklin’s swim coach, Todd Schmitz. It could have also been titled, “How to Piece Together a Rewarding and Successful Career.”

With Schmitz’s guidance, I expect Missy Franklin, 17, from Denver, to spend her last summer of high school collecting medals in London. At least I hope so. I admire her approach to the sport and life. A large part of her success is attributable to her laidback mom and dad, and Schmitz.

The Journal story, linked to above, praises Schmitz for his deft handling of Franklin, specifically, limiting her to ten to twelve hours of training a week, about half of what most elite swimmers do. “One recent week,” Matthew Futterman writes, “Schmitz told Franklin to skip practice to get ready for her boyfriend’s prom.” Franklin says balance is as important to her success as stroke improvement. When her parents were asked why they didn’t encourage her to move to California, Texas, or Florida to swim with a much more prestigious club her father said, “Why would we? We have a kid who is happy and who keeps swimming faster.”

But there’s an at least as interesting a story within the story. And that’s the story of Schmitz’s coaching career. Within that story there are lessons for new college grads or anyone looking to jumpstart their work life.

Lesson one—Plan ahead. Futterman writes: Schmitz’s work ethic and passion for coaching were apparent when he swam at Metro State, where after practice he hung around to write down that day’s routine and ask about the philosophy behind it. “That’s rare,” said Andy Lehner, ex-coach of Metro State’s now-defunct swim team. “Most kids after practice are pretty focused on what their next meal is going to be.”

Ask high schoolers what the purpose of high school is and most will say to have fun. That mindset is evident in college to. I’m not anti-fun, but young people in high school and college need to balance having fun and strategizing about the future. Schmitz’s post practice routine nicely illustrates that.

Lesson two—Figure out what brings the most joy. Again Futterman: Before joining the Colorado Stars, Schmitz tended bar, waited tables and ran a lawn-mowing business. A business major, he became a junior executive with a national restaurant chain. But corporate success was less appealing to him than a career beside the pool, and a year after college he accepted a full-time job as the under-8 coach of the Colorado Stars, a club with about 130 young swimmers. Schmitz’s dad said he wasn’t surprised when Todd quit his corporate job to coach full-time. “It was obvious when he was dealing with kids how excited he was about it. It became real apparent that this was where he was getting his joy.”

Lesson three—Put in the time. No shortcuts. Futterman writes, “Schmitz arrives at the pool around 5 each morning and during the school year leaves most evenings at 7.”

Lesson four—Make other’s lives better. “Colleges eager to conscript Franklin,” Futterman explains, “could offer Schmitz a coaching job—a recruiting strategy that is not unprecedented in cases involving a huge star.” But Schmitz says the Stars club is big-time enough. His dream is to gain funding sufficient to build the club a pool.

I predict that Schmitz, with Franklin’s help, will get a pool built for the club. That will be a nice legacy. Schmitz’s work is worth emulating.

Missy the Missle

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