The Excellent Swim Coach
Swimming is very much a sport of observation. Swimmers observe others’ strokes underwater during practice and have a lot of time on deck during meets to watch the coach-swimmer dynamics surrounding us. I had 12 swim coaches in my 18 years of swimming. It’s fun to go back and think of the varying strengths of these individuals. Every swimmer’s definition of the perfect coach is different because everyone has distinctly different needs.
So what makes an excellent coach? Here are a few prerequisites..
1. Astute Observers
The best coaches are typically the keenest observers. Of course, stroke mechanics need to be continually evaluated, but coaches seem to pick up on much more than an over-reaching right arm. Sometimes I wondered if my coach had somehow hacked into my journal and read that I was having a rough week. How did he know to ask me, “You doing okay?” in that loving paternal tone?! Sure, some swimmers are easier to read than others. Some are so stoic that they feel it’s a sin to allow a coach or a teammate to see them crack, and others are relentlessly pleading for more attention. Somehow, the best coaches know how to meet the needs of the mixed bag of personality types on their team.
The best coaches I had were those marching (former University of Arizona head coach, Frank Busch, used to literally march to the tune of the college band playing nearby) up and down the pool deck as we swimmers mentally fought the lactate building in our legs during a kick set. My college coach, Greg Rhodenbaugh, would give me a very specific focus to keep my mind off the pain of a taxing set. It seems logical for a coach to be engaged during each lap of a practice because that is precisely what swimmers are asked to do. And swimmers know it is a million times easier to stay engaged when there’s a passionate coach, seemingly omnipresent on the pool deck, to hold you accountable.
3. Empathetic, Not Sympathetic
There were definitely times in my swimming career when I wanted sympathy. I want my coach to say, “You have worked so hard this week, why don’t you take the night off?” This is a hard line to draw because the nurturer in your coach wants desperately to comfort you, not torture you. This has been a tough thing for me as a new coach– I look into my swimmers’ eyes and hurt for them when they’re feeling pain in practice. Ouch. I remember the way this set feels…I know you want an extra minute of rest right now….OK. You can have it. That’s often my thought process. I’m a self-proclaimed pushover. But sometimes that will skew the design of a set. Empathy might adjust a set according to the technical look of the swimmers, sympathy adjusts a set because it pities the swimmers.
Goal setting in swimming is a tad more clear cut than goal setting as a coach. As much as swimmers jump to the conclusion that your coaches value you for your fast swimming, that’s just not why coaches get into the profession. Every coach I’ve interacted with is a coach because they love to witness a human grow into a better person because of the lessons imparted through swimming. Yes, absolutely, it’s fun to watch a swimmer achieve a long-awaited and hard-fought goal, but even more satisfying is the deep message felt in that moment– that a massive commitment has a massive payoff and nothing feels as satisfying as a victory, not handed, but earned.
Meetings. I used to celebrate them as a swimmer because a meeting meant more time on deck, less time cranking up my heart rate. But many times, the words spoken by coaches received an applause of rapid heart rates. A coach can convey passion during practice, but I saw the passion in my coach’s eyes as he vehemently spoke on the correlation between attitude and effort or the expectation and culture associated with the university logo on our caps. Convening to hear the lofty ambitions and wise perspective of a coach can give a group a united mission. Some of my fondest memories were diving into a practice, so eager to get better, after hearing Coach’s confidence in us and his aspirations for us.
6. Lifelong Students
I worked with a man who coached some big names. But if you shook hands with former Tucson Ford Head Coach Paul Stafford, you would never know it. He floated around the pool deck, and acted like every coach on deck knows something more than he does. He asked me for advice, despite the decades of coaching he has on me. He exhibited one of the traits legendary Olympic coach and University of Texas coach Eddie Reese endorses:
“Overall, what I’m telling you is that you have to forget yourself. Take care of the swimmer first. It sounds a little idealistic, but I’ll guarantee you it works. Back in the ’60s, back in the era of ‘Take care of #1,’ all people did was take care of themselves, and it didn’t work very well. I’ve seen that the way you take care of yourself best is by taking care of other people.”
Taking care of other people is a coach’s job. I’ve seen egos in the sport who want to be seen with star swimmers; gain credibility and confidence by brushing shoulders with Olympians. Typically, that’s the extent of their contact with stars– a brushing of the shoulders. Because the best coaches do not think highly of themselves. They have humility which allows them to continue learning and reminds them there’s always something about their coaching that could be better.
How can a swimmer possibly approach the blocks with confidence when their coach is jittery and unsure of the training they’ve supplied the swimmer? There were many times my coaches gave me a reassuring iteration of “You’re ready” as I headed to the blocks. In order to say that to a swimmer, my coaches needed to have genuine confidence in the way they had prepared me (or be really great at faking it). A coach’s confidence is readily absorbed by a swimmer, and sometimes exactly what that swimmer needs to be at ease in those defining pre-race moments.
It’s not integral to have the funniest coach, but humor sure helps when the monotony of swimming begins to wear on you. As age groupers level up, swimming takes on a new tone of intensity and begins to feel like all that matters in life. Matt Grevers attributed his longevity in the sport to his high school coaches, Lea and Erik Maurer. He said he would have quit without their laughter and light-hearted approach to swimming. Swimming is serious sometimes, but can be seriously fun with the right coaches.
Special thanks to the all-star lineup of coaches I’ve had. You continue to shape swimmers into driven, committed, humble people and your influence is treasured.