Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 75 - Marko Djordjevic - CHANGING LANES

As my coaching philosophy is that’s how it’s recruiting, this is a two-way street, it’s definitely a two-way road. So, we need to, we’re reaching out to the people that we believe that we want to have here.

“As my coaching philosophy is that’s how it’s recruiting, this is a two-way street, it’s definitely a two-way road. So, we need to, we’re reaching out to the people that we believe that we want to have here. And when I say that I’m not saying just because like, “Oh, I want to coach this person because he’s talented” but I need this person to be a great fit for what UC San Diego culture is. So, you need to be— Obviously we’re a highly academic institution, so you need to be able to handle that load, and then you need to be fitting in what might my vision of my team is, the vision of my team energy is.

And like I said, like when you got— And that’s a pretty much a big different between coaching [inaudible] and high school level, when you go to the college, because in college really you’re becoming a professional. If you didn’t have that mentality— And when I say professional I’m not talking financial aspect only, I’m just talking like, “listen, you’re coming to college and I’m recruiting you. The reality is you need to want to do this.”

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JESSE: [01:34] Welcome to the Smart Athlete podcast. I’m your host, Jesse funk. My guest today is the head swim and dive coach at UC San Diego. He’s also involved with team elite, a pro swimming team in San Diego. Welcome to the show, Marko Djordjevic.

MARKO: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

JESSE: Thanks for hanging out. It’s always— I say this every once in a while, but it’s always funny we’re talking before we get going and then I have to officially get going, it’s always this weird little like interruption, like were having a conversation but let’s start over. It’s that awkward thing you have to do for official recordings and all that kind of stuff.

MARKO: Well, it’s just a quick reset, but we can just keep going.

JESSE: [02:16] Yeah. Well, we were talking about the issues with— We’re on zoom for this particular recording, so you’ve got the sweet UC San Diego swimming dive background going on. If you’re just on the audio version, you’re missing out on Marco’s background, so you can join us on YouTube if you want to see it.

MARKO: Well, and I have to say, this is just like a big kudos to my assistant coaches. Like, I wouldn’t know how to do this, but we just figured it out like having a big team meetings with zoom was we were kind of losing the attention of our athletes and all that.

So, I wanted to come up with something new and the assistant coach coming with these, like moving background which was just like, “I’m under the water all the time. I’m actually at the pool even if maybe not.” So, kudos to my assistant coaches.

JESSE: [03:01] So, is that how you’re doing— I have no idea what UC San Diego has decided to do as far as school right now. Is everybody still at home doing like virtual school and practicing at their own pools? Or how has that set up?

MARKO: [03:15] Actually we are— UC San Diego was started like a long time ago, even at the beginning of the summer to be a pioneer feeding instead of being the situation to have people return on campus. So, we had a program that was operating pretty— that did operate pretty well until this point, and I hope that it continue, return to learn.

So, it’s a sort of a hybrid, and the majority of classes are still basically online, but the campus is physically open. So, we on September 19th was a first moving day for on campus leading students, and I believe we have about 11,000 people on campus. At least that was planned, I don’t know if everyone really decided to come back.

And then the classes officially started October one because we quite assistant schools, so we’re starting a little bit later than everybody else, which actually gives us a little bit more time to learn from the experience from other campuses, I think. And not that I’m a huge fan because swimming is like, athletes got pushed back a little bit longer than everybody else, but the expectation, our scholar athletes are actually going through all these testing phases so everybody are medically cleared to go back to practice with a college program.

And officially the college pool will be open October 13th, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed the next Tuesday the college team as a unit will be back to get her on next Tuesday.

JESSE: [04:57] And so from there, is it a matter of you keep the campus closed? This is a little bit of a pure personal curiosity, I guess, I don’t know how much our listeners care, but you know, do you use a close community? Like everybody that’s on campus stays on campus or is it just, I’ll say normal, or more like normal kind of activity, people can come and go, and then there’s periodic testing?

MARKO: [05:25] Well, I can tell you It’s a sort of like, It’s a blend. I think I don’t [inaudible]. I don’t think that we really have a strict thing. Like, okay, if you’re living on campus, you should be staying on campus. But reality is that most of our students after the freshman year they leave off campus, we’re in the middle of [inaudible] so you’d definitely want to be around the campus. So, it was like literally five minutes walking distance from the beach. So, it’s pretty tempting, you know?

But do have, especially with scholar athletes, we’re testing them once a week. So, and keeping a pretty tight regime. And I think like with athletes, they sort of have that they got used on that, like discipline, this is what we’re expecting you guys to do it, and we’d all totally understand that you being home for six months, you you want to spend some time with your teammates and your friends. School’s over, you’re obviously starting sort of a different type of life.

But in the last six months, we were preparing our athletes that this is going to be a different campus, it’s just going to be a different world. And I think we’re doing pretty good job, they’re understanding in terms of like, “Hey, wear the mask until the point you are getting into water, keep the distance of the six feet between your teammates, even if you are doing something together.”

We sort of like a step away from those like safety bubbles, I think so ,as a team. Because most of our athletes, even when they start living off campus, they’re still rooming together. So, what we call with their little families. And to be honest, like UC San Diego was pretty good adopting what USA swimming did pretty early in this situation by providing the guidelines of here’s how safely we can use the pool. And college programs are a little bit smaller than maybe a club [inaudible].

So, we have two beautiful 15-meter pools, so we can fit everyone within respect of all the safety boundaries and realities of the outside of the pool and training time. It is a little bit of like on athletes to be mature and understand like, “listen, hey this is a real thing and it’s serious, so we need to be very, very careful with what we’re doing so we can continue with what we want to do, which is coming in and practicing.”

JESSE: [07:59] I think it’s good to be proactive in terms of testing weekly. But beyond that, the practicality of— Kind of like we were talking about before we get going, just if say you weren’t able to be all together, there’s something you miss. Even if coach Marko is sending out workouts and we’re all doing zoom calls, and we’re all getting the workouts in, but in our own pools, back home, wherever home it is, it’s not the same as we are all here together doing the sets together, being together.

Because there’s something there’s something that happens just in that time spending the time together. It’s a little melodramatic for me to say this, but shared suffering that kind of binds us together as a team, as a unit. It helps, I don’t know, at least to me makes you something more than just an individual.

MARKO: [08:57] Well, definitely. You know, with my experienced in swimming coming from Europe, swimming is very individual sport, let’s be honest. And then when you come to college and when I joined UC San Diego eight years now, like I was completely one-on-one dummy or like what to expect in terms of like, okay, swimming is individual sport, and then you have a bunch of athletes, a bunch of swimmers, they are professionals swimmers and that’s what they do.

But the reality is college swimming is a really team-oriented environment, not just because of what’s happening in the pool, it’s just what’s happening with the team in terms of like living situation, classes, reality is like, our athletes are spending a lot of time together, a lot of time together. So, not just with what’s going on specifically in the water, but like classes, living, social aspects of them.

So yes, you’re absolutely right. Just the fact and the fact that we were in this difficult situation not being— And another thing is with swimming is, swimming is a year round sport. So, we really spent the time to get her a year around, like for 12 months. In reality, with a little break for Thanksgiving, a little break for Christmas and the summer, there might be around two weeks, everything else pretty much you are spending your time with your team and your teammates.

And this was— Just the fact and how it started for us, because we were at the meet at the NCAA championship, which was our last division two NCAA championship because we just elevated to division one. So, we were really, really excited about the season, preparing a big splash to make a big boom before we leave division two.

[10:56] And on that day one, we were able to have a national champion in 50 freestyle. So, everything was like moving in the right direction, our [inaudible] are leading. And then after a second morning of the heats they just cut the meat, and it was very emotional. It was it was a really an emotional rollercoaster for everyone, for seniors, for the whole team, because the energy was so high that the preparation for something big was just like right there.

So, it was literally when somebody just popped the balloon, it was just like, down. So, it was pretty hard to spend next couple of days to actually fly us back from Ohio to San Diego. And I can tell you, the awareness of the team that we’re not going to be swimming for the next six months was zero.

And then after a couple of weeks when we had our first zoom meeting at the beginning of April when I told them, “hey, listen, the reality is the preparation is like we’re not going to have summer. So, let not even think about that.”

And in my mind I’m focusing about what’s going to happen in September and the fall.
[12:13] And at that time my team was, they told me I’m just totally crazy, like “no way this is going to be like three or four months, we were going back pretty soon here.” And to be honest, I was mentally prepared, no summer let’s just focus in September. And then when September came and we were still not being back I started freaking out, I wasn’t prepared for this.

So, I want to say it was definitely—n what I want to say is it was definitely an emotional rollercoaster, starting from the swim meet, then not really even understanding what’s happening worldwide around us and how serious the pandemic is and what is really important. Yeah, we did last national championship, but like, we’re really talking about people losing lives here, to the point of now we have figured out a way to live with that and then we want to start a season, but we really don’t know how the season’s going to look like.

And to be honest, like for a majority of my swimmers and divers, this is very maybe first time in their life situation when they didn’t swim for six months. So, they really don’t know what to expect. So a lot of mixed emotions and all that, like not just being physically out of that, I think this is going to be the biggest, the number one hurdle for every athlete, I think, it’s going to be to mentally go back.

[13:43] Because like within six months some of them figured out like, “swimming is not part of my life anymore, so it’s time for me to move on and do something different.” Some of them miss it even more, some of them feel the anxiety like what’s going to happen?” Obviously senior classes are very affected, this is definitely not the way that they were just expecting to graduate college. So pretty, pretty difficult time, really difficult time. So, that’s for sure.

JESSE: [14:13] The closest thing I can think about this situation being similar to is like an injury where it’s like, you’re doing all this preparation, you’ve got this thing in mind, whether it’s a PR or national championship or particular meet, whatever it is. You spend all this time, effort, energy, as I always say, blood, sweat, and tears, you’re serious, you got the singular focus and then this thing, just this thing outside of your control takes it all away from you.

In normal life, whatever that is, that can be an injury and it happens to an individual and then they’re left, “well, you can’t swim now, you’ve got X weeks or months of rehab to get back in the pool.” And you’re your whole world turns upside down where it’s like, you don’t even know what’s real anymore, there’s no bearing on this is real. It’s just everything seems fake for a time.

MARKO: [15:12] Exactly, exactly. And that’s what I’m saying. Like with an injury, even sort of like when you were going through the recovery process, depending on the type of the injury and all that, you’re still able to— If you’re a highly motivated— because in my career I had a— Actually it was here at UC San Diego, I had a swimmer, she was about to graduate, she went through a lot of injuries during the college career, both shoulders, surgery, still coming back.

I convinced her that we have a legitimate shot to qualify for Olympic trials four years ago, and she bought it and it was all amazing. And then she was walking down one morning for her practice and she looked like she broke her ankle. And it was just like, we thought like, “okay, this is it.”

But I convinced her like, “this is not it, you’re not going to be able to swim, but let’s just go back to the gym, let’s do what we can.” And she bought it, and she really did it. And she ended up breaking a national record at division two nationals, and then [inaudible] being second, like runner up at nationals. And she just barely missed the Olympic trials cut, which was amazing.

[16:23] But in this situation I think that a lot of, like I said, a lot of swimmers, because whether division one or division two, our national championship, the collegiate peak meet has been canceled right in the middle or before even started. So, that just brought a lot of emotion, number one, and a lot of emptiness. So, and like you said, like athletes were not even ready like, “okay, well, what do I do now?”

Because like, when you get injured, you figured it out like, or you’re just up and the injury just kicks you out, or you bite the bullet and you just get better. Like if you got shoulder injury, you become better kicker. If you hurt your ankle, then you work with your arms and your upper body or your core, you do something.

And here, first of all, nobody want to do nothing. It’s the fact that it was just like no final meet, no big hype, no big excitement, no one didn’t want to do nothing, number one thing. And then when they sort of processed that the whole situation a little bit and become a little bit more aware, then they didn’t have the opportunity and it’s like not everyone had the backyard pool, a lot of pools will still open, some pools opened sooner rather than later, most of the gyms were closed as well.

[17:49] So, it is really a struggle. Still to this day I can tell you I have a group of athletes that are training pretty hard and that are sort of like back on the track. And then I have another group that are still like, “okay, I cannot do this.” I’m waiting for us to go back and continue doing it.

JESSE: [18:11] I know, I wish I could remember her name, but I know one of, I think Canada’s pro triathletes, when everything shut down she was getting ready for the Olympics, and again, I think in part because it’s like “what do I do?” She got an above ground pool, like set it up in her parents’ garage and then attached like tethers to the wall so she could just swim in place, do something, something so she could stay in the water.

MARKO: [18:44] One of the current athletes here on the team, she actually came up with a brilliant idea. Usually we use all these cords, power towers, different toys in today’s swimming. And she didn’t have that back at home, but she did have a pretty short backyard pool.

So, she figured it out, she pick up all the old swimsuits that she’s not using anymore, she tied them together, made an elastic band, and she was just like swimming with a resistance, put up a rope from the old swim. And lot of athletes become creative during this time, that’s for sure.

JESSE: [19:25] Yeah. I am not a very good swimmer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a triathlon history, I’ve kind of come back to running this season just because of the complications of everything and how simple running is comparatively. But I have for a number of seasons, you know the Vasa trainer, I’m sure you’re familiar with that. That’s, it’s several thousand dollars if I remember right, it’s really kind of out of reach of the average person to own.

So, what we ended up doing, my coach and I decided on is we got a total gym, like these infomercials for the total gym, and attached to the Vasa trainer paddles to it.

MARKO: [20:05] It’s pretty much that, it’s a similar system. Vasa specifically is like a swimming bench, but it’s a pulley system that actually works with a couple of different— And you can pretty good [inaudible] that with a different, with some of the other different—

JESSE: [20:20] Yeah. it’s not perfect. The big downside of it is that you pretty much, you can only do flying. You’ve got to do both arms at the same time. You can’t do detached, it won’t work that way. But I use it as like supplemental, like I do my pool set, I come home, I get on there and do it as like my strength work to try to work on that high power.

But that was, for my triathlete friends I was like, “see if you can pick one of these up.” Because like I got it off of Craigslist or Facebook marketplace, I don’t remember, for like 50 bucks because all these people buy them and then they don’t use them. So, there’s tons you could pick up cheap.

MARKO: [20:58] Well, I talked with several athletes and recruits, to be honest, when they figured it out and build their own gym, like pretty cheap now, because like they find a lot of things. Although I have to say a lot of people staying at home being bored figured out, “okay, I think it’s a time to pull out my rusty bike.”

JESSE: [21:19] Yeah. So, we were talking earlier about we’re talking about Skype versus zoom and recruiting. I was wondering, especially now as you’re moving to division one, are you still in charge of all the recruiting? Do you have an assistant helping you with that? or is it Marko’s on calls chasing leads down, doing all that?

MARKO: [21:43] Well, Marko is on calls all the time. So, that’s, I think that college sport is based on recruiting, and I think that’s the number one thing because like you want to have the best possible team, and coaching is amazing, but reality is you want to recruit the best possible team, the one that you recruit, that’s how you coach, that’s what builds the coaching philosophy.

But reality is I do have one of my assistant coaches— All my coaches are on calls, so when I have a— One of my assistant coaches, he is my top assistant and recruiting coordinator. So, he’s the one when I tell him like, “okay, this is what I want.” So, now with being a head coach that’s changed, because with UC San Diego I’ve been through every single position, from a [inaudible] coach to the head coach, and it was in a fairly short amount of time.

And so, it’s very fresh in my memory, like what do I need to do and how to do it. So, I have a great communication with coach [inaudible] in terms of like, “okay, this is what I want.” And then we do a lot of scouting together. I still have great connections with coaches and certain federations around the world so we can do a little bit more and get out a little bit more from California and the United States and try to recruit internationally as well.

[23:21] And then I’m still doing a lot of phone calls, I do actually enjoy recruiting to a certain point, but I have to say that my coaches are sort of doing the filtering calls. So, I’m not really calling every single one, and they are sort of like preparing them a little bit for me. But I have to tell you that this little pandemic break, and especially because recruiting game changed a lot just because no in-person visits, no in-person contact, so you really need to do a good job with your homework scouting, okay, who are you talking with?

Reality is we had a great class coming in for a fall of 2021, and we really didn’t have a chance to show them campus in person, because that was always a big and really important part of recruiting today, because we’re in a recruiting period, which means no in person contact until the end of this calendar year.

So, basically you need to make even more phone calls to do the best possible job to paint the picture about the campus and the team energy and what it looks like, because reality is seeing the campus is a big advantage at UC San Diego, like we’re literally sitting in the top of the beach, five minutes from the sand, you can smell the ocean for every like— when you wake up for 5:15 for morning practice at 6 AM you can smell the ocean. We have like seven dorms buildings, three of them has a million-dollar view because they see the ocean, they can see the beach.

So, I think that is in these days like sort of a marketing, and everything is important during the recruiting process. It is affecting us a lot for recruits and prospects not being able to actually explore the campus, which just to raise the number of phone calls to make sure for you as a coach to actually paint the picture as colorful as possible.

JESSE: [25:38] Yeah. Well, it’s like your job, and please correct me if I’m wrong, or the recruiter or whoever’s making that first contact, part of it is figuring out like what does this kid want from college? What do they want their college experience to be? You know, if they’re already like, “hey, I know about coach Marko I’m already sold” you don’t have to do much, right? He or she’s like “I’m coming” but if they’re like, “well, I don’t know, I may go to San Diego, I may go down to Florida or I don’t know where I’m going to go” then it becomes a tougher conversation.

MARKO: [26:16] Well, I mean, definitely those conversations are tough conversation, because as my coaching philosophy is, that’s how recruiting is, this is a two-way street, it’s definitely a two-way road. So, we’re reaching out to the people that we believe that we want to have here. And when I say that, I’m not saying just because like, “oh, I want to coach this person because he’s talented” but I need this person to be a great fit for what UC San Diego culture is.

So, you need to be— Obviously we’re a highly academic institution, so you need to be able to handle that load. And then you need to be, you need to be fitting in what the vision of my team is, the vision of my team energy is.

And like I said, when you got— And that’s a pretty much a big different between coaching an age group in high school level and when you go to the college, because in college really you are becoming a professional. If you didn’t have that mentality— And when I say professional, I’m not talking financial aspect only, I’m just talking like, “listen, you’re coming to the college and I’m recruiting you. The reality is like, you need to want to do this.”

And that’s a guess at the beginning that’s like, “okay, you’re making a commitment to something that you want to do.” And if we have— That’s why the phone calls are really important. And in these days, like even a face time and something that you can connect sort of like a face with a voice and a name, it’s helpful because to me, the only happy swimmer is a fast swimmer, the only happy student is a good student.

So, I can tell you all the beautiful things about UC San Diego, but if you’re not a good fit here, you’re just going to be a miserable. And trust me you know, as a triathlete, you will know swimming is not the funniest sport that we have. So, it definitely can make your life miserable if you’re doing that.

And I’m a little bit of an out of the box thinker, so I’m trying to make this is, our sport, as much as possible being like enjoyable and fun, but at some point like you have to swim it, you know? So, and it’s going to be really hard if you’re not a good fit.

And the reality is going from high school to college is a stressful, big step in life. And yes, someone just handle that easier, and for some of them it’s a struggle, you know? And that’s why you’re going to see a lot of athletes— You’re going to see a very small percentage of athletes going to college and make a tremendous impact on the team as a freshmen. You know, it’s sort of like it takes time to do it.

And I’m not talking about like professional part like, okay, basketball, football, NCAA athletes that they’re staying in the colleges for a year or two before they get drafted as professionals, that’s a different thing. I’m just talking about we’re still in a development sport. And even if you’re coming as a high school star, now you’re coming in a different environment because we’re recruiting sort of like, when we’re trying to make the strategy, we’re recruiting into clusters.

[29:40] So, if you were the fastest 50 freestyler in your team as a high schooler, or you’re a sort of like a high school star, and now you’re getting to a college program that you are the fastest one, but we have about four that are breathing in your neck. So, it’s just like the training environment is a little bit different. So, you’re not always— Not necessarily always like a big fish in the pond. Hopefully we can create that environment that—

In college, hopefully college athletes’ coach themselves more than anything else. Like we’re here to provide and create the best possible environment and situation. But reality is that’s the best training, if they can self-coaching or like self-feedback or team feedback.

JESSE: [30:26] So, a lot of this I feel like it’s hard to describe the step up when you go from high school or college, or I did not— I was not able to make this step up, but what it was described to me, and I’m sure it’s very similar, going from amateur pro, in in whatever your sport is, because you go from say high school to college, “yes, I’m the fastest in my state” or division or whatever it is, to now all of the fastest and all of the divisions, now we’re all together and it’s not a matter of, hey, you’re winning by a whole body length anymore, it’s a hand or—

MARKO: [31:10] I think there is a lot of things, like when you’re back home in high school, first of all, like high school is very, maybe not today, we’re in a situation that we’re mostly online and all that, but like in a pre-pandemic time when you are in a high school you sort of have a very structured day, you wake up in the morning, you go to swim practice, then you go to school and you go to swim practice, then you do homework and that’s it.

In college, it’s really time management is the key, time management is the key. And I think that that’s the biggest struggle, that’s the biggest leap step from high school to college. I mean, the thing stays the same, you’re still going to swim twice a day, you’re still going to lift or do the dry land, you’re still going to do the homework and study probably more than in high school. Not probably, but absolutely sure.

But it might happen that okay, you come to the practice and college swimmers are a little bit more spoiled than the high school swimmers, because high school usually swim from five to seven college swim from six to eight and then some classes starts until nine.

It’s going to happen like, “oh Friday I don’t have any classes, it’s my free day” but it’s actually not, and you just need to understand that it’s just like it’s Friday and you don’t have classes, but it’s not surfing days, it’s no time to go to the beach, you still need to go to the library and do what you need to do [inaudible] rests and do everything to prepare your next practice, especially if we’re racing on Saturday.

[32:41] So I think that that’s the big, big difference. And of course, the environment in practice it’s completely different. And like I said, it’s very, it’s very team-oriented, becoming very team-oriented. So, it’s really important who are you surrounded with. Usually the good ones want to be surrounded with good ones, so that that’s how it goes.

But I just think it’s just mentally, whoever made that transition in terms of time management and understanding being a little bit more self-driven when you go to college, those are the collaborators that they’re actually making this transition faster.

JESSE: [33:21] Yeah. Well, let’s see, I was going to ask earlier and you kind of answered it before I got to it is, do you recruit for character or do you recruit for talent? Obviously you have to do a little bit of both, but you know, that personality or the character of the athlete you’re recruiting, if they’re self-driven, if they already have that ability to say these are the things I’ve got to get done, it makes, as you mentioned, the transition easier.

Is there any, I won’t say tricks, but is there any way to try to help suss out those character traits and when you’re having those conversations with athletes? You know, is it you just get a feel for them by having a conversation or is there anything that kind of stands out?

MARKO: [34:05] Well, reality is it’s just like as much as we were trying to say, like recruiting is marketing, because you’re trying to sell— You’re trying to get the best prospect, the best recruits outside. But reality is like, you need to find the one that it’s going to work with you. And I was just fortunate enough to work with the different coaches, some of the best in the world, and being with them I just learned that they’re not the best coaches in the world for everyone, it’s just like—

That’s what I’m saying, this is a two-way street. And of course, like on the first day when we’re allowed to call, you’ll call top 20 best recruits in the country and when you just look at their time you want them all, and then when you start talking with them, you just figure out like, you know, I’m not going to be able to coach these kids, it’s just not going to work.

And I think that that’s why those conversations and get to know each other is really important. And you know, you’re going to find out— Even in swimming we have a lot of transfers between the schools and it’s just like, that’s because recruiting is becoming super, super, super crazy early, like too soon for young athletes to make a decision and say like, “I want to go there. I want to go there.” And then you make a decision as a sophomore.

[35:35] Remember, we can start with a prospect after on the June 15 after their sophomore year. So, they totally do not have a clue, nothing about it. But then like all these college phone calls, they’re becoming overwhelming and they got like these little shiny toys, and “I want to go there.” And then two years later when they’re going to college they figure out like, “whoa, this is not even close to what I was expecting it was going to be, this is not a good fit for me.”

That’s what I’m saying like, you need to really do your job to make sure— And guess what? We’re going to make a mistake for sure, and it’s going to be the honest mistake, it’s not going to be like in a malicious mistake. It’s just going to be like, you think that somebody is going to be a good fit. And also, like I said, recruiting process is a very long time, and when you start recruiting you basically get to know someone for two years before you actually even start pitching them on daily basis. So, you need to keep doing it.

[36:41] And to a certain point is, like I said, on one side you’re trying to recruit what is going to be the best fit for the environment that you’re working at. And in that case, in this case, it’s not just swimming training, it’s school, it-s the character of the people and the rest of the team that you’re having. And at some point when you’re rebuilding the team you can maybe recruit the people that are maybe not fitting ideally in what your coaching philosophy is currently, but the coaches need to change as well, so we need to adapt as well.

So, you just need to try to see the big picture at a time and make the adjustments to maybe your language, [inaudible] those expectations and changing things and adapt, because reality is we are here for athletes, that’s number one, athletes are number one, they are the most important one, very next one the coaches are, and then everybody else.

But again, first of all, you’re trying to get the athletes that will be ideal fit for you, at least that you think, “okay, this is a two-way street, and this is going to work.” And I’m very committed to my athletes and they know from the beginning that I’m going to run through a wall for them, and the expectation is that that’s how it’s going to work.

And that sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t, and I’m just happy to say that over 20 years of my coaching career I did create only friends in my sport, and partially it was because of the relationship that was based on honesty.

So, I was able to say like, “listen, I’m going to try my hardest to do this, but this might not work, so let’s just see how we’re going to do this.” Or another side, like I was able to create that trust, to get the trust from my athletes to that point that he or she started achieving more than she was, or he was just expecting that she or he can do.

So, I think that relationship is a number one thing, especially in our sport, that the bottom line is it’s very individual, like at the end of the end of the day you’re going to start behind a block, you’re going to dive into water, you’re going to at that black line at the bottom of the pool and try to try to work as hard as you can.

JESSE: [39:02] Yeah. So, thinking about trying to find the right— I’ll call it coach athlete fit, right? Where you’re trying to find the right relationship for each other. I was kind of wondering, because as you mentioned, not every coach is right for every athlete and vice versa. Is there an overarching principle or philosophy that kind of guide you? I know I saw on your Twitter you seem to post a lot of football coaches, I saw one with Andy Reed, so go Chiefs, I’m here in Kansas City.

But I did see a lot of retweets from Nick Saban, who I’m a big fan of, and as far as I understand his philosophy is all about trusting the process, regardless of what’s going on, trusting the process. So, do you align yourself with Nick Saban’s philosophy? you have your own? is there any kind of guiding principle there?

MARKO: [39:57] Well, I mean, I have to tell, I think that we’re always learning, that’s number one thing. And I think that we need to learn, because when you’re a coaching for 20, 30, 40 years, I can tell you definitely you’re coaching different kids 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 30 years ago, and today. So, I think that we need to be really an open sponge all the time. And I think that’s what makes us staying mentally young, I guess, just because you need to stay at the level of the people that you are working with.

And as far as of the mentorship I was just lucky enough, I’m coming originally from former Yugoslavia, Serbia. So, we have a famous— We’re a pretty small country, right now a little bit less than 10 million, but we have a great successful tennis player, Novak Djokovic, we were successful in basketball, we had a great water polo history. I was just fortunate enough to be exposed to some of the best coaches in the world.

[40:58] Honestly, my coaching philosophy, regardless of what’s happening in the pool, it’s coming from basketball coaches. I’m a huge fan of the European basketball, not as much as the NBA, but college basketball is more here, sort of European basketball and college basketball in the United States. And I do what—

Of course, I didn’t grow up watching American football, so it was a new toy when I moved to United States, and it’s a great source of information if you want to learn from a coaches. Of course, you cannot really relate football with swimming in terms of what’s happening, but in coaching philosophy absolutely a lot.

And I think that I I’m trying pretty hard to be very open minded and pick up the coaching philosophy from different sports, not necessarily just for swimming. But the bottom line is at the end I try to find my own way out of all that. But definitely even if you just see what I’m looking at, it’s a relationship, it’s just like, It’s trust, it’s the honesty. I don’t even know how to define what that relationship needs to be based on, but definitely trust, if you trust me—

Because what are we going to do? Like, swimming is a pretty hard sport, so you know that as a triathlete, it’s a mix of the endurance doing it all out.

JESSE: [42:33] Right. Well, it is swimming you don’t— I come from a running background where it’s like, you can’t run, you can’t train for running the same way you can train for swimming. Like, they’re two different— In the pool, you can go harder much more often.

MARKO: [42:48] And my knowledge, I had like physiology is my starting knowledge in education. And I always believed in physiology of human body and what we can do in practice, but then the mental aspect is huge component, and that’s why how I was just developing myself as a coach, from someone who was just like, “okay, vital numbers and physiology” and to the point where it’s just like, okay, sometimes motivating people can do things that are not necessarily going in alignment of what they should be, what we consider talented to do.

It’s just to get an athlete to that level, and to have that relationship, like I said, It’s five or six things that are really important that you have that makes a difference between a good or great to the best athletes in the world. So, definitely a mix of everything, whit a hint of myself.

JESSE: [43:55] Yeah. So, you had mentioned always learning because college age athletes are constantly changing. And college is a good [inaudible] in some aspects of what the latest culture is, right? College athletes are going to be on the new thing, whatever that is. Do you have any, can you think of any good examples of say, when you started coaching versus now? You know, something that would illustrate the difference in kind of the mentality or the kind of character you talk with now?

MARKO: [44:37] Well, first of all, when I started coaching I was just coaching in a different environment back in Europe, so completely different situation, I want to say. The number one thing, we were struggling with the cold water, and the number one enemy of swimming is cold water, that’s a period. If you don’t have a nice and warm water, it’s going to be really hard to teach anyone.

But I want to say that definitely the main difference even then and today is like, it was more disciplined, I guess, the athletes were responding more to the discipline and things being very structured. “This is what we were going to do, this is what we’re going to do and let’s go.” And they were a little bit more focused, they could listen with a little bit longer time span. Because today kids and athletes if you are talking more than 10 seconds you’re just going to lose them, it’s not happening, but they’re very visual.

[45:45] Back 20 years ago we didn’t even use the cameras, like if you’re coming with a huge camera and then you’ll make a video and then you sit down and then two days later you watch that and it’s just like, it doesn’t really make sense.

But they were athletes who were, like I said, probably maybe because of less exposure of the technology they were more focused to listen to the feedback and being coachable that way. And these days, today my practice is definitely not as structured as it was at the beginning, there is a lot of flexibility and all that, because I’m reacting on that feedback from the athletes.

And the second thing is just like, in these days, “okay, you’re just going to pull up your phone, a quick video, just look it out, come here and that’s it. And just let’s go and let’s do it.” They are very visual. And I think that with all the technology and everything that we have today with underwater cameras, with the go pros, reality is you just need to give them feedback right now, quick, a couple of seconds, they can see it, they can repeat it.

[46:52] I just think that would be the number one biggest change off the top of my head that I can see doing. And again, different environments than today was also a factor, because it was pretty hard keeping a swimmer in the cold water and trying to explain something and they’re just shaking, they’re not listening. You need to be in a good, comfortable environment for somebody to be coachable, I think so.

JESSE: [47:21] Well, it’s so funny that— We talk about the attention span a lot, and I think there’s some truth in that, for sure, with all of our gadgets constantly screaming at us, lights flashing, the notifications going off, you’re getting zoom calls, you’re just all over the place, and you’re like, “oh, I got to do this and that” and you’re so distracted. As you mentioned, you’re talking longer than 10 seconds then you can’t keep any intention.

But at the same time you also get the other side of it where it’s like— Maybe this podcast or you think about other podcasts who they even go two or three hours where people could digest this really long— It’s you’re either with these tiny little segments or very, very deep dive into something, there’s like no in between anymore. So, it’s interesting you could do both.

MARKO: [48:14] Well, first of all, I think that the good thing is that we can give the feedback pretty quick, if you understand that then you can give it pretty quick. And the bad thing is, to me, with a quick feedback we all do things that we can— we’re great multitasking, and we’re not, we are not. Let’s stop lying, we’re not. We can pretend—

And I’m not saying that there is no group of people that it is. But in these days I think we’re all multitasking, we’re all trying because it’s just a short quick text, it’s a short quick video, it’s do that, but I’m driving, but I’m taking note of this, or do this. We all think that we can multitask, and I think that we are doing a lot of average things, and I think that the successful people, especially in the sport of swimming, are the one that they’re actually able to focus in doing one thing at a time and executing that a hundred percent.

Because again, you have to understand, in [inaudible] swimming I think that we have— And maybe this number is now off, a couple of years ago I was pretty sure that I know that number, but I think we’re about 3 million some sort of registered swimmers and [inaudible]. And then the highest level in United States competition is every four years, the Olympic trials and we have about 2000 people qualifying for that, out of 3 million, 3 million goes to the Olympic trials, and it’s 2000, and then out of those 2050, 55 or 56 makes the team.

[50:06] And you know, you’re not going to tell me that this 3 million at the beginning will never get in this one of these 50s or 60s. So, the differences between, especially in the world of swimming, is nothing. You think that it’s nothing, but it is something. And I think that something is created from the ones that are actually able not to multitask everyday all the time, but focus on one thing and execute one thing a hundred percent.

JESSE: [50:37] think that, honestly what you think, but I think part of the issue is that the word itself, multi-task, at least as far as I understand the mechanisms of the brain is a lie because it’s not multitasking, it’s tasks switching. You can’t do two tasks at once, it’s I’m doing this task, then I’m doing that task. And when you pattern interrupt yourself and you say, “oh, I’ve got to switch to this other thing, or I’ve got to I have to do this and do that, and then come back.”

There’s a certain amount of time it takes to focus in on that task again, so now instead of being more productive you are effectively being less productive because you’re going to this, to this, and you can’t get your brain focused and narrowed down on this particular thing. So, it’s the word we use, multitask, and I use it, but I think it hides the fact that multitasking isn’t actually what’s going on with our brand to begin with.

MARKO: [51:42] Well, listen, we started this pandemic with a lot of like, wrong— Social distancing is definitely the worst way to say it. Like, we don’t want to social distance. Come on, we’re already [inaudible] becoming socially disabled. We don’t want to be socially distancing, we just want to physically be distanced, but socially, especially with all this technology, we should not be this. Like, as a matter of fact, we should be more social than ever with this technology.

So, the same thing, I agree with multitasking. Yeah, multitasking means just you’re doing two things at the same time and you don’t, you’re actually not, you’re doing something and then you jump on something else, which means that you need to stop doing something to jump on something else. You just have a shorter time span that you can actually focus on that, and it takes a lot for a brain to actually stop and then start thinking about something else.

[52:39] I mean, I’m not— I’m guilty of charge, definitely, when I read a book, I need to read three different books, it’s like, basically— But I’m trying, when it comes to swimming, when it comes to the details, and obviously in a practice that it’s two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon with the phone calls and recruiting and everything that was going on, I’m trying to the portion of that practice to be just that, that’s it, that’s the essence.

And like I said, in these days of coaching, I didn’t even think that coaches need to be a hundred percent on it at some point, like the athletes just need to be self-coaching so you can give them that quality time so they can be just like, just got it a hundred percent instead of just giving them feedback all the time and asking them, “How do you feel?”

If you ask your athlete, “how do you feel” 30 times during the two hour practice at some point he is going to say “I really don’t feel very well” and then what are you going to do then? Say “oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Because we always just asked how do you feel? Because we’re expecting, “I feel great” all the time, but then you hear “I don’t feel that good” and you’re just like, “okay, I’m sorry, I’m sorry that I asked.”

JESSE: I’m sorry, [inaudible]

MARKO: [54:07] Yeah. But that’s why I’m saying, I think that at some point it’s good to just focus on the portion, you know, “okay, we need a hundred percent of that.” And that’s what swimming is. Like, of course the really important part of swimming training is recovery, and the people don’t understand is just like how you recover is swimming. Because you still need to do a [inaudible], okay swim easy, you still need to do something, moving through the water, but it’s not really necessarily our natural habitat to be around.

So, it’s hurting even when you do easy, but I think that it’s a mental engagement. The whole trick with today’s swimming is we’re doing something all out every day, and when I say all out, it doesn’t necessarily means physical effort, just I need you all out mentally to be on this. So, that’s the goal.

JESSE: [55:08] Well, that focus It’s like— We live in this culture of multitasking or being distracted by all these things, but it’s like, I think it’s easy to forget that focus is, I mean, your brain is another muscle, that focus is something you grow over time. You can’t just go from, “okay, I’m listening to coach Marko and I can only pay attention for 10 seconds.” You can go from that to, “okay, now I can pay attention for two hours straight.”

It’s a building process of, “Hey, I can listen for 10 seconds, I can take a break and then another 10 seconds.” And then you go, “Hey, I can listen to coach Marko for a whole minute now, next week—”

MARKO: [55:50] Well, that’s what I’m saying, I absolutely agree. You know, building those blogs, that the athletes they’re actually able to build those blogs and build that muscle and the attention span, those athletes can handle the races because swimming, even in pure, pure, pure sprint is still going to be close to 20 seconds. You know, so it’s just like you need [inaudible].

And as a matter of fact, last night I was just at the event, there was a short course meter event and it was all about sprinting, and you just lose— I mean, hey, one of the best examples is a great friend of mine, Milorad Cavic, who was at Olympic games swimming against Michael Phelps and got out touched by 0.01. It’s just a little thing, something that it just makes a big difference. It makes a difference. It means that all difference in the world. So, that’s why I’m saying the ones that are actually able to build those blogs and stay focused.

[56:53] And that’s what brings us to another aspect of like, okay, mindfulness, yoga is a very popular in these days. It was definitely not as popular 20 years ago as a key factor today for them to, for athletes to be able to actually debrief and turn off the brain and actually go into a zone and do something.

Like I said, if you just look by the numbers, you’re going to see that it’s a very handful group of athletes performing at that level. And just, the whole Atlantic body is way bigger. And what makes a difference?

Well, it’s definitely not those hundreds that we’re doing, it’s a couple of different things, and one of those are just the one that actually can turn off the brain and focus on what’s going to happen with the next 20 seconds, one minute, five minutes.

[57:52] And even for distance swimmers, if you’re just somebody who swims a mile, short course yards, that’s about 60 turns right there, and is it really going to be like how many times you’re going to swim up and down? or the big difference is just going to be who’s going to tide up that streamline on the very last turn or every single turn? And that actually doesn’t hurt that much, except they’re hurting your brain, you need to be aware of that.

Like, what am I going to do now? You know, I was already spinning my arms as fast as possible, I cannot do it faster than this, I’m already kicking as fast as possible, I cannot do it— What else can I do to make that little different? And it’s just like, if you are mentally focused then you’re going to remember what you need to do.

JESSE: [58:39] Yeah. It’s getting your body as flat— I’ll say flat, but you know what I mean, that nice tube, getting your turns just right, very crisp, it all adds up, right? You know, if you do your turn, if you do the 15, you miss one turn, it’s off just a little bit, that could be it.

MARKO: Yeah, that’s it. Absolutely, yeah.

JESSE: [59:04] Coach Marco’s, as we’re running short on time, this is a question I’m asking everybody this season of the show cause it kind of transcends all sports, so I’d to ask you what do you think the purpose of sport is?

MARKO: [59:21] Great question. You know, the purpose of sport. Well, that’s a great question for asking someone who’s professionally doing and living sport, I’ve been doing swimming as long as I know from it. Well, like I said, at some point I said, I am a coach for— I started coaching in 98, January 5th, 98. And so, it’s 22 years now, and I create only friends, so I think the purpose of sport it’s changed in the last 20 years, but the relationship we’re building with our athletes are something that stays for life.

These days, I’m getting the phone calls from some of my first generation of athletes, they’re at different levels right now, having hanging around with the UCSD alumni’s that I was coaching eight years ago, that’s a different relationship.

[01:00:20] I think you can always say that sport is a healthy, creates a healthy environment. Maybe not necessarily true completely, because it’s becoming very, very competitive, not everybody were ready or expecting that’s going to be the level of the competitiveness when you go, it’s just at some point it’s kind of brutally competitive, and what do you need to do? It’s brutal to be able to stay at that level.

But I think that relationship that you’re building in the role of sport is something that stays forever. And besides the fact that we’re coaches and we want to compete, we’re life teachers and life friends, so that’s what drives me. And but it applies on everything, even when I’m recruiting, I’m recruiting the person that I’m going to be friend for life, not just for a season or two, or for like we were saying, in college.

JESSE: [01:01:20] I like that. I don’t think I’ve got an answer yet, so it never really hits home with me. So, I appreciate that answer a lot. Coach Marko, if people want to keep in touch with you, see what you’re doing, where can they find you?

MARKO: [01:01:34] Yeah. I mean, guilty as charged, I’m a big on my phone, so I’m like— But email email is always the best way to reach out to me, and it’s pretty simple. It’s with Marko with K. I’m sure my assistant coaches are doing a great job of keeping UC San Diego Instagram and Twitter, even in these days when our sport is not too busy we’re still posting a lot, so you can follow us and see what you see what UCSD is doing and how California and San Diego look like these days, and how beautiful and sunny can be in December and January But definitely those are, those are the two best ways to stay in touch and connect with us.

JESSE: Sounds good. Thanks for hanging out with me today, Coach Marko.

MARKO: Thank you for having me. It was really amazing.

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