Rachel Stratton-Mills is the head swimming coach at Asphalt Green, a sports training facility located in New York City. One of the few female elite coaches nationwide, Stratton-Mills is "the quiet force" behind Lia Neal, who seemingly came out of nowhere, to win a bronze medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
In this candid interview, Rachel Stratton-Mills explains what it really takes for an athlete to compete at the Olympic level.
A. I began coaching during college and after, while working on my teaching credential. I knew that I wanted to work as a coach or teacher but gravitated towards coaching because I enjoyed working with people who were electing to be part of a sport.
I believe sports teach so much about responsibility, hard work, joy and pain; lessons that young adults don't always have a chance to learn in the school environment.
Q2. What makes for a good coaching relationship? What are some key components?
A. I think trust and communication are "key" in a good coaching relationship...well in any relationship for that matter.
I also believe that a coach must take time to learn the personalities of their athletes to try to communicate in a way that each athlete can understand. Some athletes respond well by asking their opinion on issues while some simply want their coach to give specific direction. If a coach is able to distinguish these subtle differences, I think the relationship between coach and swimmer can thrive.
Q3. How did you happen to work with Lia Neal and for how long?
A. I started working with Lia Neal when I moved to NYC to become the head coach here at Asphalt Green. That was in August of 2010. Lia has been on this team since she was 9, so when I took over the program I became her coach.
Q4. How does a child prepare to become an Olympic swimmer? Describe the typical training regimen and competitive tournament schedules?
A. Our elite athletes train long hours, 12 months out of the year. We have workouts three mornings a week before they head to school. Every afternoon after school for 2-3 hours and both Saturday and Sunday mornings.
We compete about once a month, with a travel meet about every 2 months. These athletes have to sacrifice so much to compete at this level and also have to plan their days around their training. Lia often spent her lunch hour (during school) doing homework so that she would be able to go straight to bed after evening workouts, allowing for enough sleep before waking up at 4:45AM for morning practice.
It takes a lot of planning and support from parents and teachers to allow for this schedule. Competitions often land on dates of important events such as high school graduations, proms, SATs, etc. and these athletes have to miss those important milestone events. However, the elite swimmers here at AGUA are truly like a family, so the travel meets become milestones themselves. So, these swimmers are not necessarily missing out, just sacrificing one event for a different type of monumental event.
Q5. How does a parent know if the child is really ready?
A. As a staff, we are constantly having conversations with parents about what the next step is for their athlete. Sometimes, this is urging a parent to "take a step back" while sometimes, it's about taking the next step towards being an elite athlete. Our goals as a program is to have our swimmers be successful throughout their time here at AGUA and continue into college.
We have a specific plan for each athlete, which begins for some at age 7. A parent with a young, talented athlete should look for coaches who speak about the athlete's long-term goals, not simply how good they can be at 10.
We also remind parents that as athletes grow and mature, they will improve, so there is no reason to over train a young athlete. However, young athletes need to start learning about dedication and commitment as soon as they join a program.
Being an athlete will take "extreme commitment" by the entire family and this is a lesson that can be learned at a young age. Never forget to keep it fun! A happy athlete is a more successful athlete; especially with young kids.
Q6. Diversity is an evolving topic as it relates to swimming with Lia Neal as an African-American swimmer, and you, as an elite female coach. Are things improving all-around?
A. I think the sport of swimming is very open to increased diversity in our sport. Though there currently are a low number of African-American swimmers and low number of elite female coaches, those I know in the sport are excited about that changing.
Many people in our sport are simply passionate about swimming. They appreciate great talented athletes and any coach who shares their passion for training fast swimmers.
Q7. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
A. Lia is not only a great swimmer but also a great person and an accomplished student. I think it's important to remember that in a young athlete this is just as important as their athletic achievement. We have numerous athletes training like elite athletes, but only a small percentage will ever reach the highest level.
However, because they are learning great life lessons and studying hard in school, in addition to leading a very dedicated athletic life, we have an impressive list of colleges our swimmers attend and compete for each year.
I thank Rachel Stratton-Mills for taking time out of her busy schedule to share this important information with budding Olympic swimmers. Parents in the NYC area who are interested in the swimming, or other sports programs, at Asphalt Green should click here.
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