BY DENNIS SILVA II | email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last season, around this time of the year, William Coakley hit a mental block.
Then a junior at Seven Lakes High, Coakley found himself worrying too much about results going into the state swimming meet. It was not an ideal predicament.
“It was getting into my head too much, and swimming is a mental challenge,” Coakley said. “You get in your head about wanting a certain time so badly or you set expectations too high, but at the end of the day you just want to show how hard you’ve worked. I’m ready to do that.”
Still, Coakley exceeded his expectations last year at state, finishing third in the 200 freestyle and fifth in the 500 freestyle. He followed with a strong summer, placed sixth at the Winter Juniors Championships in December and is headed back to the Class 6A state meet for the third consecutive year after being named Male Athlete of the Meet at the Region 5 meet two weeks ago.
Aside from the 200 and 500 freestyle events, in which he won gold in each at regionals, Coakley, who has signed to continue his swimming career at Texas A&M, will also be competing at state in the 4×100 and 4×50 relays for Seven Lakes, the defending regional champion looking to beat its program-best 10th place finish at state last year.
“I’m always looking to improve,” Coakley said of his expectations at state. “The competition’s a little more rough this year, but I also think I’ve gotten much better since last year, as has the rest of our team. Mentally, definitely, I’ve improved. Mental is the hardest part. Swimming is the easiest part.”
Instead of shooting for a specific time when he competes now, Coakley aims for “showing how hard I’ve worked.”
“You clear your head and focus on the training you’ve done,” he said. “It’s about never saying you can’t do it before you’ve even done the race. If you’re right mentally, you can always keep yourself in the game, even going up against a faster, better opponent.”
Coakley wasn’t always a dynamo in the pool. He worked to get there. Seven Lakes coach Jordan Beck, who has coached Coakley since the summer after his eighth grade year, said when the current crop of seniors were freshmen, Coakley was “probably the least talented of the bunch.”
But, Beck said, Coakley had a feel for the sport early.
“You could see the potential his freshman year,” Beck said. “We had a 500 record that had been around since 2009 or 2010, one of our oldest records. We’d had a lot of kids come close, and he just came out of nowhere, and he broke it at the regional finals. So we knew something was there, and it was just going to take time to get him to where he is now.”
Coakley benefitted from a change in training regimen Beck implemented after his freshman year.
To focus training on different aspects other than swimming, Beck encouraged his top swimmers to not get in the pool after spring break. That allowed a much-appreciated break before the swimmers transitioned to the long-course club summer season, which often holds 11 practices per week.
Beck also put his swimmers in uncomfortable positions during practices, incorporating more swim sprints after exhausting workouts, to build mental toughness. During Coakley’s sophomore year, Beck introduced a “dry land” training approach. He had his swimmers get on the turf practice field and push sleds or flip tires. He had them work in the weight room with Spartans track and field coach David Cooper.
“We wanted to make them more into athletes, not just swimmers,” said Beck, who often talks to college swimming coaches and athletes to know more about how they train and work. “I found out that swimmers swim more in high school than college, practice-wise, and do more weight room.”
It paid off.
“It was definitely a big change, but I think it very quickly helped a lot of us,” Coakley said. “We had a great summer after that.”
Coakley made the finals of his first juniors swimming event last summer and then placed sixth at the winter event two months ago.
“I really decided to buckle down last year, after I got over the mental block, and took it as seriously as I could,” Coakley said. “I realized I was good, and, more importantly, I realized I wanted to be better than just good.”
Beck said Coakley is a prime example of the growth of the program. Once a participant in swimming, lacrosse and band, Coakley put all his marbles into swimming, giving up the other two activities during his freshman year.
“I told myself I’d rather be really good at one thing instead of being subpar at three things,” Coakley said. “I chose swimming and I don’t regret it at all.”
An understatement, as he has one last shot at bringing home gold at state and putting a finishing cap on a brilliant high school career.
“The only thing I’ll take differently is the rest going into it,” Coakley said of state. “But I’ll treat it like any other meet: swim fast and go for gold.”