Welcome to the second episode of Second Breakfast, an audio companion to the Second Breakfast newsletter, which explores the history of the future of food and fitness and "wellness" technologies. Here on the podcast, we look at our own stories of our bodies in motion and at rest.

Today's guest is Lee Skallerup Bessette, Assistant Director for Digital Learning at the Center for New Designs for Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, where she specializes in technology and pedagogy and collaborative learning — and I know I know, I said I was done with ed-tech, but I think — I hope — that if we adjust the lens slightly we can see not only the ways in which stories about tech shape our brains but shape our bodies. And we can look at the multitude of ways in which teaching and coaching work (or fail to work) in our day-to-day lives.

Before we get into today's conversation, I want to thank the paid subscribers to Second Breakfast, who make this show and the newsletter possible. Among other things, I'm able to pay my guests for their time. This podcast is available — as soon as I get my act together with the syndication — via your favorite podcasting app, as well as on the Substack platform.

Audrey: Yay! Okay, so honestly, when I started this whole project, the whole second breakfast idea, I knew I wanted to talk to you about it because I just have so many thoughts and like, unformed ideas about how coaching relates to and doesn't relate to teaching. And the whole idea of being a progressive educator, like what does that look like for coaching? Right? I think there's just like a lot to unpack… all of the fitness stuff and the tech stuff, it's like so much Skinnerism, right? And it's so much about training and conditioning. And so I just knew of all the people I know, I knew that there were just like handful of people that also think about these things. And so, yay, you.

Lee: Well, it's actually a really great question. And I have done a lot of thinking about that. And I don't know if I have a perfect answer because, you know, like I was educated in the 80s and 90s and I was swimming in the 80s and 90s. And the idea of what good teaching was then and the idea of what good coaching was then is very different than what it is now.

As background, I swam competitively for 13 years from the age of eight to 19. I tried to swim collegiately in Canada and just I, you know, I couldn't do it anymore. And then still love the sport and have been coaching off and on ever since. I did some master's swimming when I was doing my PhD, which was fabulous. And I've coached masters, I've coached kids, I've coached. And so currently I'm coaching in Northern Virginia for a small swim team up here.

So I have to do coaching certifications. Swimming is one of those ones where it's not just a background check, right? Like we have to take water safety. We have to take CPR. We have to do a lot of work.

And one of the things now is safe sport. And, you know, the first time I did safe sport and the first time I've done some of these trainings was like, this is what abuse is, right? And they outline every single one of them. And I was like, oh, I experienced every single one of these as a swimmer.

And, and I know that friends of mine experienced in other sports as well, right? If we were where I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, aquatics was huge. We had Olympic divers, we had Olympic swimmers, we had gold metal synchronized swimmers. We had tons of people on the national team. The current head of swim Canada is where I'm from and was one of my colleagues. The current head coach of water polo, same thing. The current head coach of Canada swimming — West Islander, right?

That's what, what I grew up in. But it was humiliation. It was body shaming. It was — breaking point — it was sexual harassment. That was just how you coached, right, or how you were coached.

But on the flip side of that in order to become a swim instructor in order to become a swim coach at that time actually had to take coaches classes in pedagogy.

Audrey: Interesting

Lee: We had to learn how to give good feedback for swimming lessons. how to organize a class. What do you do for 30 minutes with different swimmers of different levels? There are skills you need to teach them and here's how you build skills. And here's how you deal with different age groups and different levels and not overloading and all of those kinds of things. And then so when I went into a classroom situation as a PhD student, I'd never had any pedagogy courses but I'd learned all this stuff from teaching swimming and taking these lessons five, six, seven years earlier and was like, oh, okay, well, here's how I plan a 50 minute session. Here's how I adjust my expectations. Here's how I build. But I was still in lecture mode because that's how I had been taught.

And it wasn't until, you know… I may have been coached horribly, but I, as a swimmer, wanted to create the team environment where people wanted to come to practice. And so, and there's lots of reasons for that, you know, more personally, it was because I made swim team my family, basically. And I was like, what is the family I wanna be in? What is the kind of team I want to be on? And I worked really hard to make sure everybody was included, to make sure that the swimmers felt supported, even if we had just been treated like shit by our coach. Now we would call it gaslighting. I refuse to gaslight. I would acknowledge that, yeah, that was a shitty thing. And it wasn't perfect, because I'm 15, and you know, I fucked up as much as I did well as a 15 year old trying to be like, I'm trying to create this positive inclusive environment because we were a small team. We were a small fish in a big pond. And so in a lot of cases, by the end of my career on the swim team, we were getting swimmers coming back to swim who had burnt out from other teams because we had that reputation of being the least bad. And part of that was very, as purposeful as a 15 or 16 year old can be about something, I would organize team outings. We would crash at my dad's place after Saturday morning practice to watch movies. We would make sure that, you know, everybody cheered for everybody else at swim meets. We made sure that we didn't care what size you were. We didn't care what, how fast you were. Everybody was welcome on our team and everybody was a valuable member of our team.

Audrey: This is super interesting to me because I've been thinking a lot. I was just never, ever, ever an athletic kid at all. Part of it's my eyesight. I mean, I can't see like more than like a foot in front of my face. But swimming was something that I always really enjoyed, got much better once I was in middle school and I got contacts and I could wear goggles. Swimming was never a sport that frightened me, even when I couldn't see in the pool.

And now that you're talking about this, it was so different than my experiences in PE. And part of that is that swimming lessons, I mean, any kind of lesson as like extracurricular thing, your parents are paying for it. There's a different kind of investment, literally in the children. It's a smaller setting, you know, there's never 35 kids in the swim class. But this is a lot. Yeah, yeah, but it was just pedagogically like a very different experience than gym class at school, which was pretty much the worst part of my week, I would say, school, and worst part of school. And the reason I don't actually have a high school diploma is I needed two credits of PE to graduate high school. And I took swimming in high school. So I think, oh, they offer swimming. And then I never took the second PE credit because I'm sorry, like, fuck that. So yeah, I mean, swimming is really, yeah.

Lee: Yeah, I was terrible at PE as well. Like I am the most awkward person on land, which is actually kind of funny where I later was diagnosed with ADHD and it is very common for people with ADHD to have bad proprioception, like body knowledge.

And even now I walk into walls, I misjudged where door frames are, I have no sense of balance and fall over really easily. I was a distance swimmer. I was working out 30 hours a week between weight training and swimming and other kinds of cross training that we would be doing on dry land as we called it. And I could barely pass any of the any of the P.E. the beat the beep as we call it (which they still do, shocks me). The pacer test they call it, we call it the beat the beep.

You can listen to the full episode, and/or read the transcript on Substack. (Syndication to all the various podcasting apps is coming very, very soon.)

Audrey Watters


The Second Breakfast Podcast