John Crawford is one of the best coaches Fredonia has ever seen. After serving as Head Swim Coach from 1980-88, he returned as Diving Coach in 2003 to immediate success. Since then, his divers have won 28 SUNYAC titles and 11 All-American honors, including Kelly Sponholz’s NCAA Division III Championship in 2009. In 2015, four divers went to the NCAA Championships — the most in program history.
I sought Crawford out to learn the methods behind his success. Before the interview we chatted candidly about the divers he’s coached over the years. The level of depth he told me about each one was surprising: family histories, triumphs and struggles, and current updates from their lives. He even gave me a detailed biography of a diver he recruited from Long Island two years ago who ended up taking a Division I scholarship instead. He still keeps in touch with her.
Before the interview started, Crawford revealed the secret behind his success: he loves his athletes unconditionally.
Ryan Maloney: You know so much about your divers even before they walk on campus for the first time as freshmen.
John Crawford: Right.
RM: Because you seem to care.
JC: Well, I do care. That’s the first thing (the athletes) need to know, is that you care.
RM: When you came back in ’03-’04, it didn’t take you long to find success.
JC: There’s no doubt that I’m a better coach now than I was back in the ’80s. I would expect that, as a lifelong learner. I think there’s a tendency in younger coaches to put more emphasis on emotion, shouting and enthusiasm. As an older coach, you learn that what’s really important is that you prepare the athlete.
RM: How did you prepare Kelly (Sponholz) to win a national title in ’09?
JC: Kelly was afraid of the reverse two and a half. It’s a very difficult dive. I told her that as we were preparing for nationals we would work on each fundamental skill separately: taking off, creating the rotation of the somersault, and the entry. But in each practice we only did the full dive once. When she got to nationals she was ready to do the dive just the one time, and she did it extremely well. Everybody has different fears and frailties and as a coach you have to help them through that process.
RM: I hear older coaches bemoan the lack of teaching ability in younger coaches. Do you see that as a big problem?
JC: I think the big problem is coaches getting caught up in results. It’s not about the results. It’s about the process and focusing on the preparation. That was the key: we should prepare for success and expect success. I expected success this year, and look what happened.
RM: In the back of my mind, I would love to win a national championship.
JC: But do you know how many excellent coaches there are who have never done that? I mean excellent coaches. Yeah, I have a girl who won an NCAA Championship, and I know I’m blessed. You may never win a national championship. It’s great if you do — but if you don’t, it’s not going to change the opinions of the kids you coach. If they have an excellent opinion of what you did for them in their formative years, I think that’s more long lasting than the national championship.
RM: That’s good stuff.
JC: But I understand why you’d want to win a championship. I do, too. But with Kelly, I never thought of winning the national championship as a goal, I just wanted her to do well.
RM: My first memory of you was when I was 22 years old. I was training a few athletes and you saw us doing an exercise that you thought might help your divers, and you stopped to ask questions. Here’s someone who’s been coaching for close to 30 years asking questions to a recent college graduate. There’s so much humility in that.
JC: For my whole career I’ve never been afraid to ask questions. Part of coaching is that you want to compete and you want to win. But if you really want to be a good coach you need to continue to learn to help your athletes, and if you can convey that passion you’ll find winning will be the by-product.
RM: In terms of winning, does it keep you up at night? Trying to win?
JC: No. What keeps me up at night is, “What can I do to help Meghan Bartlett do a better two and a half,” or, “How can I help Heather Colby stay positive coming back from an injury?” or “How can I help Arron Carlson not be so tough on himself?” The best moments aren’t necessarily when you win, but those intimate moments when you see them grow.
RM: Is this a constant process of needing to put aside the striving for accomplishment?
JC: Human relationships last longer than the accomplishment. Some of the Coach of the Year awards I got back in the ’80s, I don’t even know where they are anymore. Maybe they’re in the basement somewhere.
RM: How do you get these divers to come to school here in the first place?
JC: I try to show right away that we’re interested in the growth of the young person. I really think that if they know they’ll have a coach who cares about them rather than how many points they’ll score in a meet, they’ll come. Surround them with good people. If you’re surrounded by good people, you’re going to become a better person.
RM: So what is it that motivates you right now? Has it changed over time?
JC: It’s definitely changed. I think it’s changed into serving others. There’s a business concept called, “Servant Leadership.” I can summarize it as this: “How can I help you today?”
RM: How can you help?
JC: Right. I’ll often ask it to the divers: “How can I help you today? Is there anything that I can do for you?” Did I have that at the age of 22 when I started? No. But eventually if you’re a good teacher you find yourself going into that mode.
RM: Say a particular department on this campus wanted you to come give them advice. What would you tell them?
JC: Get to know the people that you work with. Get to know the people you teach. Show that you care. Show that you have their best interests in mind. The personal relationships you develop are more important than the wins or losses, the testing, or anything like that. The college experience for students has changed quite a bit.
RM: How so?
JC: I think it’s less personal. We have great facilities now but I think what’s lasting to kids is the personal aspect. I’ve been blessed in my life with these kids. Today I had a phone call about (former athletes) Sarah Ficarro and Emily Ginty. They’re getting an apartment together down in Binghamton. The landlord was asking me about them and I said, “They’re exceptional people, they’ll leave the apartment better than when they found it.” She said, “Anything else?” and I said, “Yes, tell them I said hello and give them a hug for me (laughs).”