I was a camp counselor for two glorious summers, 1998 and 1999. It was a day camp that primarily revolved around time in the pool, the campers had swim lessons in the morning, (which I taught… yikes), and free swim in the afternoon. Plus, the standard ton of arts, crafts, games, and lanyard making mixed in throughout the day. It was the quintessential college student summer job. I loved it! It taught me a lot and stayed with much more than I thought it would. In fact, I am certain I would not have had the confidence to step into being a parent at the age of twenty-five if I did not have such an amazing experience with my campers. Granted, parenting is not an eight-hour day camp, yes, but I had a few tools already sharpened in my tool belt before I met my then five year-old step-daughter, Hannah, and was excited about my future with her rather than freaked out.
Coach T with two of her campers at Rolling Hills Country Day School Camp, 1998.
This past weekend, twenty years after the first time I donned my “Coach T” camp counselor cap, I put it on again as one of the mentors at the ZGirls Lindsey Vonn Foundation Strong Girls Camp in Santa Monica.
I learned about the camp from the women’s FKT Vermont Long Trail holder, Alyssa Godesky, and instantly was intrigued. I researched more about ZGirls, and was impressed at what I discovered, so I inquired with their Community Manager, Bianca Perry, about adding my name to the mentor roster. I was pleasantly surprised that she wanted to set up a phone interview before confirming me to the list, a good sign of the high integrity of the program, plus, I LOVE interviews! We chatted for a while a few days later, and after I gave her my pitch of how I would be a great addition to the mentor team, I was in!
The camp welcomed 125 girls from ages 11 – 14, and split the girls in groups headed up by a mentor. I was matched up with seven amazing young thirteen year olds who traveled from Park City, Utah, San Luis Obispo, (Orange County), and right around the corner in LA. The cool twist was that they were athletes.
We all were.
ZGirls mentors and Lindsey Vonn.
That is what drew me to this camp.
All of the mentors were accomplished Skiers, Snowboarders, Gymnasts, Runners, Soccer players, Lacrosse players, Cross-Fitters, Triathletes, and one Olympic Badminton player. Also, we came prepared, and then some. We were asked to complete a four hour online training program to learn the ZGirls curriculum before the start of camp, and arrived hours before the campers did both days in order to brush up on the lessons we would lead with our groups, and rundown the action-packed daily schedule. It is mind-blowing how much we fit into just two days.
These women were incredible.
A great gaggle of girls.
I knew I would be among like-minded ladies, which was a big perk, but the level of awesomeness they possessed as individuals, coupled with what we formed together, was truly something special. That is what I admire most about women, we are eager to volunteer our time and come together to laugh, create, inspire, and confide in each other all for a common cause, sharing how powerful it means to be strong to the next generation.
The Rockin' Royals and LV, minus two campers who had to leave early to catch their flight to Park City. Photo courtesy of Monique Thees.
Also, Lindsey Vonn is a true class act, and surpassed every expectation I had before meeting her. She was in it with the girls all day, both days, and kept it real the entire time.
Lindsey taking on an arm-wrestling challenge.
On Saturday she shared how she became a skier because she wasn’t good in any other sport, and that even after reaching amazing success, she always fears failure; but not defeat, crashing, or getting injured, but failing at not trying her best. She listened to each of the girl’s questions, participated in our hilarious games, one of which had her in a squat position, which screamed, “Olympic Gold medal downhill skier,” and was genuinely easy and fun to be around. Plus, she confirmed that she does in fact sleep between 8 – 9 hours per night, (a question I posed after reading her book, Strong Is The New Beautiful), and that it is crucial for her health and performance. Gulp. Quality sleep, the final piece of the optimal health puzzle I am still pursuing…
The first day we taught the girls the importance of building a strong team and strong body. We broke out in our groups to discuss the value of being a good teammate, and what we appreciate in others to be strong teammates, like being kind, open-minded, and encouraging of one-another. A game we played to demonstrate teamwork was the fan-favorite, Human Knot. The game is exactly that, they tangle their arms up in a knot and try to get out of it.
They couldn’t do it.
At least not in the short amount of time we had allotted to play the game. Unfortunately, the day was so jam-packed we needed to move on, but as soon as we had a few free minutes on day two I heard,
“Can we play the human knot?” Eva from Orange County pleaded.
“Yes! Go for it!” I replied thrilled that they wanted to try again.
Satisfied smiles after conquering the Human Knot.
They were untied in no time.
It was a great example of how it takes practice, patience, and communication to accomplish a goal. I was so proud of them.
The lesson the teach how to appreciate their strong body was centered around watching a video of women doing a variety of sports, and then they and had to describe how the athlete’s bodies were making them climb, lift, kick, throw, leap, and ski down a mountain. For example, quads to push off of the mountain, fingers to grip the rock to climb, toes to grasp the ground and propel their feet and legs to run, etc. My girls paid keen attention to the video, and brainstormed an awesome list of what a strong body, what their strong bodies can do.
The main theme of day two was learning how to achieve a strong mind. We broke out into our groups to discuss this further, and after two of my girls mentioned the day before how tough one of their coaches was on them, I shared that a way to reframe their coach’s tough talk was to think of it as his way of telling them he believed in them. Even though his delivery was harsh, they should think of his tone as his way of showing them how much he believed in their potential; not that they were doing anything wrong, but that they could improve.
There is always room for improvement.
Since my early days as a soccer player, basketball player, runner, and today as a triathlete, I have always been able to receive notes and feedback from coaches with a positive mindset. I am my own toughest critic, and I know they have always believed I could improve, but I may not know how, which is where their expertise comes in. I think the key to a coach/athlete relationship is trusting you both have the same goal, to improve. However, the athlete needs to be open to receive critiques, because they simply do not have the experience their coach does; but if their coach believes in them, and reciprocates respect, the sky is the limit for success.
Camper/mentor handstand contest. An average activity at an all girls athlete camp.
Another exercise we did as a camp-wide group to solidify the power of a strong mind, was teaching self-affirmations. The girls each wrote down three self-affirmations they believed about themselves, and were challenged to go forward and tell themselves those affirmations every single day. The mentors walked around the whole group to help if any of them were stuck, and I used the opportunity to share with a couple of the girls the self-affirmation practice I do every day, I smile in the bathroom mirror before I leave the house for work, workouts, etc., AND before I go to sleep every night. Even if I am not in a stellar mood, seeing my face when I smile shifts my mood, and makes feel like I am ready to take on whatever comes next, because the last image I saw of myself was smiling, “ready for the world, Taryn.” It works. Give it a try.
A self-affirmation smiling example.
The grand finale of the weekend was a 0:30 lip sync performance in front of the whole camp, and the girl's families and friends. Miraculously, my girls were into oldies, and immediately suggested Abba’s Dancing Queen. I was relieved I didn’t have to contend with a contemporary song with dicey lyrics. Clearly, my girls had old positive souls.
Moreover, the mentors decided we should surprise the campers with a performance, too. After a few songs were batted around, I suggested the timely tune, Respect, from the recently lost Queen of soul, Aretha Franklin. Next, we choreographed a dazzling routine in the slim window before the campers started to arrive for day two. We could have used maybe one more rehearsal before show time, but we still pulled it off to rousing applause.
The ZGirls' founder, Jilyne Higgin's worm kills were wildly impressive.
There were about a thousand other activities we accomplished during the camp, but the main lesson I walked away with was that we are good hands with the next generation. Every camper was kind, funny, polite, passionate, inquisitive, brave, and strong.
Finally, I was honored to be among the inspiring women who lead the camp, the ZGirls founders, my fellow mentors, and Lindsey Vonn. Plus, there is no greater feeling than watching kids light up by making them feel acknowledged, and encouraging their potential. That was my favorite part of the whole experience.
I think we can bet I won’t ever have my “Coach T” cap far out of reach.
Nearly nineteen year old, Coach T pumping up her RHCDS's campers before their big end of camp performance in 1998.
This week I thought I would share a slightly older song that we played a lot during camp, and makes me happy and want to dance every time I hear it, Pharell William's song, Happy. Enjoy.:) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbZSe6N_BXs&feature=youtu.be
Taryn Spates is a Kona-qualifying ironwoman and author of 35 By 35: A Runner's Quest . Read more of her blogs here.