On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Dara Torres, the oldest swimmer to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic Team, 12x Olympic medalist, and former world record-holder in three events. Torres is also the author of Age Is Just a Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage in Your Life.
On this episode of Bring It In season three, Dara sat down with Sam and discussed trusting your coach, the differences between good and bad practice, and relearning skills.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Torres shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: Today in the workforce, developing skill is a hot topic, you know, companies are thinking about how we skill up workers for jobs today.
People are thinking about reskilling for the job of tomorrow, but when you think about skill development through your life experiences, being a successful Olympian, athlete and so on, are there any things that come to mind as you think about how you perform at your best?
Dara: I think it’s all about repetition. You know, every single athlete out there has to get the repetition in to make them the best they can be. And if you want to get the skills, you gotta work at the little things too. All I can talk about it’s from my experiences, but with swimming, different strokes have revolutionized over the years that they were much different when I first started swimming till later on in my career. And it was all about being open to not doing the same thing over and over again that you’re used to and being open to change. I think athletes are very set in their ways, as it is very hard to sort of break yourself out of that habit. So I think being open to change, believing in what your boss or your coach says, and buying into it, I think are probably the most important things that I’ve learned over the years in my athletic experience.
Sam: What does the role of the coach play in your own skill development journey?
Dara: They’re kind of the boss. They tell you what to do. They’re kind of the person who guides you, I guess. They’re kind of on the line too, because your performance will reflect how they coach you a lot of the time, not all the time, but a lot of the time.
And I feel like the coach wants to make you be the best that you can be, which to me is very enticing because you don’t want to let your boss/coach down. And I think they’re just sort of like the coach is a coach, a person who you listen to get guidance from and learn from.
Sam: If you were a coach today, do you think that something stylistically has changed for coaches in order to be more effective to the new generation of athletes?
Dara: Yeah, I think you don’t have to be a hard-ass. I think there’s a fine line between encouraging and being tough on someone then going over that line and being demeaning and stuff like that. Like I see that still. But I think a lot of coaches are more open to the athletes opening up to them, which in the past, you never really talked to your coach about anything except swimming, you know?
I think what I said before about guidance, I think they really are there to guide you, not just in your sport, but also through things through life, because you’re with them all the time. And they’re sort of like, I don’t want to say a father figure, to me it became like a brother figure because I was so old in the sport, but sort of like a father figure or a mother figure to you.
Sam: You’ve been through, obviously, a lot of practice over your life. And you said a second ago, repetition is critical to skill development. What’s the difference between good practice and bad practice?
Dara: I think bad practices when you try something wrong and continue to do it in practice and don’t correct it, and good practice is no matter how hard it is to change something you’re not used to doing, to keep doing it in small portions until you have that and then develop the next skill and then the next goal. It’s not about all doing it all at the same time in developing your skill. It’s about taking little pieces of it. Get that down, then go to the next one. And I think that’s something that I really learned because the stroke changed so much over the years. I had to basically relearn how to swim later on in my career. And that was hard. That was really hard for me.
Sam: What do you think about the role of struggle in that? Because it sounds like piecing it together, while that makes sense, it’s probably a lot of almost accelerating failure by doing that. What’s the role of failure in that process in your mind?
Dara: It’s kind of high. So when I came back for the 2000 Olympics, I hadn’t swam in seven years, and I dove in and literally did two laps and the coach was like, ‘Oh, we don’t sound like that anymore,’ and I’m like, what are you talking about? And he said, ‘the stroke that you’re swimming right now, we used to coach when you were younger, that was like the style. But everything has changed; the aerodynamics, where your hand position is, where your hand comes out at the end of your stroke like everything changed.’ And this is a true story. I was now relearning and relearning the stroke. The coach always did stroke drills in practice. Every single practice, a lot of coaches don’t do that. Maybe they may do it a couple of times a week, but he was very adamant that I couldn’t stroke correctly. And so we would do stroke drills all the time.
So about nine months into training, about a month before, probably four or five weeks before Olympic trials, I go to a meet and he stops me in warmup, but he says, ‘Dara, you know what, in swimming and freestyle, you have to rotate evenly on both sides. You’re not swimming on your stomach when you front crawl or freestyle, you’re actually swimming side to side,’ and he goes, ‘you’re really rotating well on one side, but not on the other. I want you to breathe every other stroke, so you’re rotating evenly on both sides.’ Well, I don’t want to do that. It’s one lap you’re supposed to hold your breath. Like, how am I going to win this? He’s like, ‘Dara, this is prelims. Don’t worry about it.’ I said, I will do this in prelims if you let me go back to my stroke and finals so I can win the finals.
And there were a lot of swimmers that were in that event going to Olympic trials in four or five weeks. So I kind of wanted to make a statement. He’s like, yeah, yeah, no problem. So I assume in the morning, I do find it was fine, but in this particular event, you try to hold your breath as long as you can, because it’s just one lap as fast as you can go and try not to breathe a lot because you slow down when you breathe a lot.
And so I get to the finals, I’m warming up and my coach comes up to me. He’s like, ‘you know what, you’re still not rotating evenly on both sides.’ I’m like, look, you said I can breathe the way I normally breathe, which is to hold my breath. He’s like, ‘do you care about winning here? Do you care about winning at the Olympic games?’ And I’m like, oh, okay, good point.
So I get up on the starting blocks and I breathe the way he tells me to breathe. I touch the wall, I look up, an American record. I won the event and he comes up to me, he’s like, ‘well, I guess we know how to read the coming up to Olympic trials and the Olympics.’ And that we did that through the Olympic trials, I get to the Olympic games as some of the prelims, the semi-finals you get to the finals and he goes, ‘you know what Dara?’ There is literally like 25 minutes before my race. He says, ‘you know, you’ve done such a good job rotating side to side, I think you can go back to holding your breath.’
Now when you’re an athlete and you’re used to doing something a certain way and you get it in your head, you continue to do that. And so for him to change it on me about 25 minutes before the finals and said, okay, now you’re good on that, go back and hold your breath after practicing that for like four or five weeks, it was hard.
Like, it was hard. I’m like, okay, I’ll do that. And I ended up re-breaking the American record and I got a bronze in that event and did my best time. So it sort of goes to the mindset that you have to buy into what your coach or your boss is telling you to do.
Sam: You mentioned, seven, I mean that’s wild, seven years before you jumped back in the pool. And I was able to read Age Is Just a Number ahead of this, and that comeback is obviously something that you’re known for. There are a lot of workers today that are in many ways trying to make a comeback. They’d been off from the sidelines because of COVID, they’re trying to recreate themselves, recreate the resumes. They’re kind of, in many ways, jumping back in the pool. What advice do you have for them?
Dara: I think it would be, don’t be afraid. I mean, you talk about my book, I wrote in there that I didn’t touch the water for seven years. Like I literally did not touch the water, like the closest I got would be jumping in a jacuzzi and going back out on my chaise lounge. Like that would be it. I didn’t get in the pool at all for seven straight years. So it’s just a matter of having the mindset that ok, I haven’t done this in a while, but I’m going to do it and no matter what it takes, it wasn’t easy at first. My coach didn’t have me doing hard things for like three months.
He’s like, ‘I just need you to relearn the stroke. I need you to just kind of get your bearings again.’ And when you go in, jump in with both feet, but don’t feel like you have to make great strides at the beginning. Have some patience. It takes time.
Sam: I have a five-year-old daughter. We just came back from Jamaica and she’s like swimming, like crazy, by the way. My wife played college soccer, we were college athletes, we’re starting to think about sports. What advice do you have for me as a father and a parent and a coach about how to put her in the best position to be successful?
Dara: Well, one thing is don’t live through your kid and if you’ve been in sports, you probably won’t. But a lot of parents haven’t been in sports and they put their kids in sports and they make idiots of themselves on the sidelines, on the bleachers. I’ve seen it all. For me personally, I had my daughter do a lot of different sports.
Like she was in dance, she did soccer, she did tennis and I just let her kind of decide what she wanted to do. Like, I knew nothing about lacrosse, like not one thing. And that’s what she wanted to do. And I’m like, okay. And I still can barely watch, I don’t know what the plays are. I don’t know anything. I stayed to myself, but I do encourage her and once in a while I’ll say go test and she looks at me like shut up. But for the most part, I just let the coach, coach. I can give her some advice from my point of view, as far as training goes, but you really just let the coaches, coach.
Sam: Dara, last question for you. We talk a lot about the future of work and a lot of folks talk about that in terms of the robot that’s going to flip your hamburger for you. Thinking about it more in terms of people and the things people come to work every day, what is your hope for the future of work?
Dara: That’s a tough one. All my work’s on the road, so I don’t have to go to an office or anything, you know? So that’s a tough question for me, but you know, I think a lot of people are enjoying working from home after this whole COVID thing hit. I think some people use that as an excuse. I think some people just work better from home.
I think just do what’s best for you, and me personally, I feel like I got a little lazy during COVID and stuff, I started watching all these Netflix shows and it’s kinda hard to get out of that, but there’s so much life out there, there’s so much you can accomplish.
And after I kinda got out of that rut, I was able to sort of find my footing and get back into hustling, trying to get work, and doing stuff with my daughter and just kind of getting that energy back and it takes a little bit, but just know what will come back.
Sam: Thank you for taking the time.
Dara: You’re welcome. My pleasure.
Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Coaching, Practice, Skills, Parenting, Mindset, Olympics