Standing in five feet of water, Julie Pinero looked at her four charges, pointed upward, and said, “See that cloud? Keep your eyes on that cloud, OK? Keep your chin up.”
The pupils entered the pool, some jumped in, splashing water onto the deck, and at least one slowly lowered himself into the sapphire water, grimacing with the cold. But all of them made the same mistake of dropping their chins when Pinero and fellow coach Joanna Ladas began teaching the backstroke.
“Chin up! Chin up!” was a popular refrain used by the two 17-year olds Thursday at the Strathmore Bel Pre pool in Silver Spring. Pinero and Ladas are developmental coaches for the Dolphins, the summer team that competes in the Prince-Mont Swim League. They work exclusively with children between ages 4 and 8, teaching them the fundamentals of swimming.
So when it was time for the backstroke, Pinero diligently instructed the kids, explaining the stroke to them in a way that would make sense to a 5 year old. When she wanted one to arch his back, she said, “Give me that Santa Claus belly.”
Pinero and Ladas swim for the Dolphins, and are two of the team’s top swimmers in the up-to-18 age group. Ladas swims freestyle, butterfly and backstroke, while Pinero is focused mostly on the butterfly. But five days a week, twice a day, the swimmers shift roles, in what is a common practice throughout summer swim leagues across the Washington metropolitan area.
“It’s a lot of individual attention that they need at that level,” said Sarah Bechtol, 22, who is the assistant coach at Strathmore Bel Pre. She was a developmental coach for the team when she was a teenager.
Strathmore has about 80 kids on the team, and Coach Terry Kominski said letting older kids take on coaching roles frees up she and Bechtol to work on technique and strategy with kids who are competing in meets. The swimmers coached by Ladas and Pinero don’t typically compete in meets, but work toward it for next summer or, in some cases, later this year.
“You kind of wouldn’t be able to offer [developmental swimming], because we’re working with other groups that are already swimming across the pool,” Kominski said.
Mentoring kids as they go from beginners to competing in meets is the most gratifying part of the job, said 12-year-old Hannah Miklich, a junior coach in the Old Dominion Swim League.
“My favorite part is when you see the kids who are struggling in the beginning and they’re starting to learn how to swim,” she said.
But it’s not necessarily just the coaches who learn from the relationship. Katie Engen, the board president for the Cedarbrook swim team in the Montgomery County Swim League, said her daughter, Katelyn, also benefits as a junior coach in MCSL.
“As a parent, I see the benefits for her are being able to learn the basics of coaching and interacting with young kids,” Engen said.
The number of developmental, or junior, coaches varies by team. So does way they are selected. Pinero applied last year and was selected. This year she was joined at Strathmore Bel Pre by Ladas, who was selected out of four applicants. At Strathmore, the developmental coaches get paid. At other pools they are volunteers.
Ladas said she decided to apply to coach after she taught mentally disabled children to swim over the winter as part of community service for school. She will be a senior at St. John’s College High School in the fall. Pinero will also be a senior, but at National Cathedral School.
So far Ladas has found that the key to being a successful youth coach is keeping it fun for the kids.
“I think you have to be able to work with kids and have fun,” she said, “because they’re not going to want to do anything if its all hard and work.”
But sometimes, especially when the pupils are all under eight years old, the coaches must sternly remind them of the task at hand.
As Pinero slowly held up a flailing boy Thursday, guiding him across the pool she reminded him, “You don’t blow bubbles in backstroke.”