By Lauren Gaskill//Contributor | Saturday, November 12, 2016
Dedication runs deep when it comes to the sport of swimming. Between the 5 a.m. morning practices, afternoon practices, dryland training and long meets, swimming demands a lot from those who choose to suit up. With that amount of dedication and hard work comes a healthy dose of pride.That’s one of the many reasons why it’s common for a love of swimming to get passed from generation to generation. Parents who fell in love with the sport encourage their children to join in and become a part of the greater swimming family.
As a second generation swimmer, Kristy Brager was encouraged by her mother’s swimming legacy.
“When my mom enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, she joined the women’s collegiate swim club,” Brager says. “She got to be a major part of the Title IX movement and, as I was growing up, it was fun to hear how much women’s athletics have advanced from then to now.”
Brager’s mom instilled her passion for the sport to our entire family — always encouraging but never too pushy.
“I ended up playing a number of sports leading up to high school, but it was really the people I met in swimming that kept me involved,” Brager says. “My best friends to this day are all friends I met through swimming.”
Today, Brager is an assistant swim coach for the University of Michigan women’s swimming and diving program. USA Swimming sat down with Brager to learn more about her passion for the sport, and her keys to coaching success.
What moment did you know you wanted to be a coach?
During college I decided I wanted to stay in the realm of athletics. My group coach while at the University of Wisconsin, Kari Woodall, was a tough but encouraging coach and she really helped me grow as a person. She had a strong influence on my decision to pursue coaching as my career.
I was a good swimmer but not a superstar, and I thought the only way into college coaching was through an impressive athletic career. So I started interning in the athletic department and was hoping to end up as an athletic administrator. While I was finishing my final semester in college I got my first coaching gig as an assistant coach for a local girl’s high school team. I barely made enough money to cover my gas to and from practice, but I enjoyed every minute working with those hardworking girls.
After graduation, I started working full time in the compliance department at the University of Wisconsin and was coaching before and after work with Badger Aquatics Club. I quickly learned I enjoyed coaching more than compliance. I was fortunate to be mentored by Drew Walden and Jack Pettinger at BAC. They both played pinnacle roles in my coaching career and gave me the confidence to pursue it further. Their connections lead me to my first college coaching position at George Mason University.
What's your coaching philosophy?
My coaching philosophy is ever evolving. However, one constant is the cultivation of meaningful relationships with swimmers. Understanding and connecting with the student-athletes outside of the pool is just as important to me as a coach. I am also fortunate to have worked with so many experienced coaches that have helped me evolve my philosophy including Dave Korst (GBY), Jim Merner (UWGB), Drew Walden and Jack Pettinger (BAC), Eric Hansen and Kari Woodall (UW-Madison), Peter Ward (George Mason), Marc Long and Frannie Malone (Iowa), Robert Pinter (Gator Swim Club) and now the staff at Michigan. I feel it’s important to mention all these people since they played such a major role in my professional and personal growth.
What do you love most about your current position?
I’ve only been at the University of Michigan for a short time but the energy and passion Coach Mike Bottom has is contagious. There is a high level of accountability both for the athletes and for the coaches. The way the staff is organized is critical to our success. Everyone has a specific role which allows both our men and women’s team to thrive. With Mike, Josh White, Rick Bishop, and Sam Wensman it is a really experienced and dedicated staff that challenges and pushes each other to be great. I feel fortunate to be in the position to learn from all of them.
What has been the crowning achievement of your career so far?
My crowning achievements have nothing to do with lifetime bests or trophies. Helping and watching swimmers grow into confident and outstanding people makes it all worth it. In college swimming, the transformation over just four years can be astonishing.
My goal is that every senior is able to walk on deck at the end of the year and take control of themselves and their team, no coaches needed. We preach a lot about accepting others, but I find that swimmers often struggle more accepting themselves. At the end of the day if I can help someone learn to embrace who they are, I can prepare them to do awesome things long after swimming is over.
Kristy Brager’s 5 Keys to Coaching Success
1. Embrace Change - My instinct is always to stay where it’s comfortable. Moving across the country for new jobs is not something that is easy or natural for me but each time I’ve done it, I feel as though I’ve gained both great work and life experiences.
2. Define your role – It’s easy to focus on all of your weaknesses. When working on a large and probably opinionated staff it can be a struggle to find where you fit. I’m never going to be a loud and in your face coach so learning where my strengths fit to best benefit the team and the staff dynamic is key.
3. Be mindful – It’s easy to worry about what if or dwell on how things could have gone better. This is a daily challenge to be in the present moment, acknowledge I can only control what’s in front of me right now, and that my attitude is my choice. It’s important to take a moment to appreciate the small victories and remind myself that what I do matters.
4. Set your own goals – When I was a swimmer, I was a diligent goal setter. Once my own athletic career ended though, I stopped setting them for myself. I quickly found that writing down and working towards goals makes me more productive and happier overall.
5. Build a network – Ultimately if you want to move up or get better at this job you have to network.