Story time. The hat that caused chaos

chaos at carifta
photo : Cayman Compass

Chaos? A hat? Yes, a hat. Not even a hat, a latex swim cap.

Trouble, you say, what do you mean trouble?

Chaos! International incident! (well, nearly 🙂 )

Pull up a chair, I’m going to share a story in writing I’ve told many times. Perhaps it has evolved in the telling to a legend, I’ll leave that for you to say.

I love telling stories, and as the great Ed Percival taught me :

“Never make a point without telling a story, never tell a story without making a point”

Towards the point of this story, Einstein said “problems are never solved at the level of thinking at which they are created”. So, to solve a problem, the answer is always to raise the “context”, the level of the conversation to a level where all parties can agree, then diffuse (or even defuse, depending on now explosive things have got !) the energy and reach agreement at a level where the problem is solved.

Sounds simple, yes?

So, to our story. Get a cup of coffee and relax, we have a story to tell here for sure!

April 2011, Barbados, CARIFTA Swimming Championships. All of the top 11-17-year-old swimmers from around the Caribbean gathered to compete at the biggest meet of the year. About 18 countries represented and at least four or five languages.

As you can see from the photo above from a later Carifta, a lot of shade is needed. Lots happening, and always hot, both the action in the water and the real temperature. Imagine if you will 30c/86f ++ air temperature and plenty reflected heat that also soaks all day into the concrete of the deck and the stands!. “Real feel” temperature is, well, HOTTTT!

Add to the heat the atmosphere. Friendly and also hugely competitive, as everyone builds up to this all-season then fly in, adding to that mix a highly animated crowd of parents and supporters.

All is always well, unless something goes wrong…

So far, so normal. Carifta is a four-day meet, and on day one I was not a referee, but stationed in a role at the far end of the pool and so away from any energetic issues happening among the meet organisers and referees.

On day two, I was one of the two referees for the day, assigned the role of refereeing all the men’s events. As we arrived at the facility, I and the referee for the female events were summoned by the meet referee and meet director and given two very formal letters.

The first letter was from the management responsible for the facility and noted that, for health and safety reasons. swim caps must be worn at all times when in the pool and that they may not be removed while in the pool under any circumstances.

The second letter from the meet director notified us, as referees, that should anybody remove their swim cap while in the pool, we were to disqualify them. No exceptions. The letter went on to note the FINA rule under which this was to be applied, one that was not to do with the actual rules for swimming races, but fell under a rule around meet facilities.

We were also advised that copies of these letters had been given to every team from all the countries present that same morning so they had been warned.

Well now, what to do? The two of us had only minutes to go until the briefing of the officials and the start of the meet. We first asked, “why ?”. Why was it felt this had to be mentioned on day two? Why so forceful?

The short answer given was along the lines of : “Swimmers kept taking their caps off at the end of their races yesterday. We don’t do that here in Barbados. When we told them not to and told their coaches, they kept doing it.”

Ok, so our job is to tell them to simply disqualify them if they take their caps off before leaving the pool, as they’ve already been firmly told not to do it. Easy, huh?

Umm…no. Heard of a guy called Michael Phelps ? Greatest Olympic swimmer of all time ? Yup, thought so. So had every young swimmer there. Have you ever heard of young athletes looking to emulate their heroes ? Yup, me too.

Do you know what Michael Phelps did with his tight swim cap as soon as he finished every race? This:

phelps cap off


My fellow referee and I knew we had a potential bomb on our hands waiting to go off. So, smart as we thought we were, we figured we could solve the problem by looking at the rule book. Ah, we thought, we only have jurisdiction until the race is over to disqualify someone, and once they finish by touching the wall at the end, the race is over. Hah! We smiled and headed off to brief the officials, figuring we had worked out how NOT to create a pressure cooker environment that could blow up.

Oops.. literally as we were about to walk into the briefing to brief our officials, the meet referee walked up to us and said words to the effect of “no matter what you might be thinking, you WILL follow the instructions and you WILL DQ anybody taking their cap off”. Yikes!

So, off we go, we start the races. Female swimmers don’t take their caps off right away, as a) they aren’t trying to be Michael Phelps, and b) many of them have long hair and it is carefully bundled inside their hats, so c) they keep then on until they leave the pool. That means, you guessed it, the responsibility for disqualifying the swimmers taking their caps off fell to the referee of the male races. Me, in other words.

Every time a “DQ” is made, within a minute or two it is announced over the PA and coaches, swimmers and spectators grab their “meet sheet” and see who it is.

After a short time they noticed a) quite a lot of DQ announcements, b) quite a lot of these are in events which would not normally see any DQs, and c) a number of them are for the swimmers winning the races.

Have you ever been in a kitchen cooking and had the sense a pot was going to boil over before it actually did? Oh yes, that. Hundreds of spectators right above and behind the referees start chattering and then “quarrelling” as would be said in the Caribbean. Coaches slapping their clipboards and yelling on the other side of the pool. Many arms waving and gesticulating beginning to build up.

Not good. Not good at all.

A few minutes later, the other referee heads to the far end of the pool to start 50m races for the female events, while, as normal, I stay at the main end of the pool to check finish orders of each of those races.

However, by this stage one of the coaches has come around to the stands and gone up to the spectators and asked them to make as much noise as possible to protest and cause disruption. Feet start stamping, people start yelling and booing, cowbells ringing vuvuzelas (remember them ?) being blown LOUDLY.

The referee at the far end is gamely trying to go on, but seeing what was happening with a coach goading the spectators, I quickly made the decision to halt the meet entirely, realising it was unfair to the swimmers getting ready to race, let alone the fact it was getting so noisy they may not have been able to hear the start signal !

I turn to the announcer and have him announce a 15-minute break while a technical issue is addressed.

So, we are close to a riot (I kid you not!), and very soon about 15 coaches have surrounded me. I am only the referee for the session and protocol dictates that authority rests with the meet referee. This meet referee is someone I hold in the highest regard and knows the rules of swimming perhaps better and in more depth than anyone I have ever met.

However, when this gentle, tiny and quietly spoken man stood in the mass of seething coaches with a rule book in his hand trying to read from it, I looked on as things went from bad to worse. Pretty soon coaches were threatening to pull out of the meet and take their teams on their charter flights home, and that was one of the lesser possibilities. Suffice to say it got way out of hand very quickly.

Meanwhile, the meet director was simply sitting down some distance away. Another individual massively respected by the global swim community, they were clearly at a loss, as they could not understand how so much DISRESPECT could be shown and that person is all about respect. This was not what they knew and understood to be the way for professional people to behave, so they were frozen.

As I looked at the meet director sitting forlorn in their chair, I thought.. that’s it.. RESPECT!

“Problems are never solved at the same level of thinking at which they were created” ~ Einstein

This will never be solved by studying the rule book it is about RESPECT. Ding !

Grinning somewhat inappropriately, I walked into the throng surrounding the rule-book wielding meet referee. I asked permission to speak and quieted the coaches. Asked them to give us 10 minutes before they do anything at all about their various threats, then  PROMISED them we would then call them back and we WOULD have a solution that everybody would be happy with.

I guess somehow I must have suddenly appeared like Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin, able to grant wishes, as they dispersed quietly, as if by magic.


Now what ? Still grinning, I gathered the other referee, the meet director and meet referee, and we had a conversation about RESPECT.

You see, while there are many cultural similarities around the Caribbean, Barbados has a strong focus on protocol and respect. The meet organisers simply felt that they weren’t being respected by having their instructions ignored.

As for the coaches, professional coaches all want respect. They felt THEY weren’t being respected as they had (they felt) received no advance notice of the “swim cap” rule at that pool, so they felt they could not expect their swimmers to change so quickly their habits of whipping off their caps a la Phelps.

In short, the organisers and coaches were actually both focussed on respect but not talking to each other about it, instead of talking through the rule book and just getting further and further apart and feeling more and more disrespected!

Now I brought out the secret weapon. Respect for.. the sport.. and for THE SWIMMERS !

From that point on it was easy. Meet organisers agreed to my idea to rescind the DQs out of respect to the coaches point that they had not received sufficient notice to make this change. In return, that this would be done on condition that the coaches agreed to instruct their swimmers that THEY (the coaches) wanted them to keep their swim caps on  out of respect for the meet and the Barbados meet organisers.

So, called the coaches back to a huddle, asked them to go to each of their teams and take five minutes to carefully explain the respect issue and then get them to agree to keep their swim caps on. After that, everything went without a hitch.

As Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it”. In other words, raising the context from HOW to WHAT up to WHY is very powerful as a tool for alignment.

I had only recently had my first in depth training course as a coach and learned from Shirlaws about “Context” and “Why, What, How”, so it was perfect to have the chance to apply it in practice !

Hopefully you can all take a learning or two from this story without ever having to face a “hat that caused chaos” incident of your own.

PS I loved telling a long story like this.. I may well do some more soon !