Monday, March 12, 2012

Adding to Your Coaching: Professionalism

Over the last two years, this blog has turned a critical eye to the coaching world. It is, in many ways, a diary of my own journey through the coaching ranks. Much of that attention in the past two years has been focused on reshaping attitudes towards abuse of swimmers. Today, I'm going to tackle a more benign topic which is nevertheless sorely in need of changing. Swim coaches in America are, more often than not, unprofessional.

I was reminded of this when in a meeting I had last week with someone who's job requires him to be in constant contact with swim coaches. He was asking for advice, because in large part his communications with coaches go unanswered. Emails are not replied and phone calls are ignored. The experience he describes is very much familiar to me. When I set out to become a swim coach, I was largely ignored by many of the people I contacted.

As a college coach, I've also noticed this phenomenon on the recruiting trail. It's an all too frequent refrain from many swimmers I recruit that they were often considering another program until that program fell completely out of contact. I'm not talking about walk-on athletes that other schools may have a passing interest in- these are athletes who could immediately help. As I've covered before in another blog, some athletes also face pretty harsh words when they tell a school "no".

So what does it mean to be a professional coach? Let me at least start a definition:

1. Communication. As discussed above, reply to e-mails that are sent to you, respond to phone calls. Speak and write the way you would expect somebody in any other job to do.

2. Knowledge. Imagine a doctor recommending surgery because "this is what my doctor did to me twenty years ago". Totally unacceptable. While it's true that doctors get far more formal education than your average swim coach, swim coaches have every opportunity to be informed about what they do and why they do it. Know the "why" behind what you are doing and share it with your athletes. Also, know about the sport and those who take part in it. Still too often I hear of coaches called "swim geeks", as if knowing who the competitors are locally, nationally and internationally makes them some sort of freak. This kind of knowledge should be the expectation.

3. Responsibility. Too often I hear coaches moan about the burden of their work. They complain about the swimmers, or their parents, or some administrative body above them. With each group, remember your responsibility to them and yourself. You will meet parents good and bad. Regardless of what they do, keep to the high road and treat them the way you would want to be treated. With athletes, remember that they are entrusting you to guide them through one of the most important parts of their life. And whether or not you agree with the decision makers above you, never make them an excuse for your own poor performance. Regardless of their leadership you still have a responsibility to do your job well.


  1. Lack of communication was a huge issue on my daughters club team. Three practices within a six day period were cancelled with minimal notification (night before a morning practice). When I questioned it, I was told, "the team is not for college age swimmers and we could have a refund". (My daughter was 17 years old).

  2. would love to respond but scared of retribution I guess we have one of those unprofessional coaches. Its those wonderful coaches that we have had before that have inspired my kids, so they know that not all coaches are like the current one. That ASCA level thing seems to be a joke.

  3. I often wondered if coaches, officials have read the rule books. I've wondered if people realize that SWIMS is a public database. Do these people really know what is going on or are they doing what others are telling them to do, how to act, what to say?

    My daughter was entered in the 1650 at a age group meet. Upon check-in, the meet administrator (Bettie Williams)told her she was not eligible to swim. According to the rule book, she was. The coach asked me to show him where the rule was. Bettie told the coach that the rule didn't apply and the entry form takes precedence over the rule book. I told the coach that every meet form states, "the SCS rulebook takes precedence over any errors or omissions on the meet form". This poor coach had to battle with her for at least a half hour.

    I tried to enter my kids in another meet and the woman told me they weren't qualified to swim. She had the audacity to tell me, "have their coach contact me and I will explain the rules to him so he can explain them to you". I told her my son was unattached and referenced the rulebook. Never heard another word from her.

    On another occasion, I was told that I misread the rulebook.

    I'm beginning to believe that the rules and regulations are written, for one prupose only, so the LSC's look good in the eyes of USA Swimming.

  4. Three swimmers, including my daughter, were entered in the 800 free. As I was timing, I noticed the meet administrator, Bettie Williams, approach the three different coaches. Shortly after, my daughter told me that her coach said that she didn't have to swim the event because she would be the only swimmer. I told her that other swimmers were entered. Next thing I know, Bettie is at my timing chair telling me that nobody else is swimming.

    Later I realized that Bettie did not care about these swimmers she wanted to end a morning session that was running late. If my daughter was, in fact, the only swimmer, why not ask if someone else wanted to swim? Where's the encouragement? Where's my refund?

    Are the coaches bullied into going along? How often should an individual or a group be sacrificed for the good of the whole?

  5. As a Club Coach, I find it frustrating that collegiate Coaches (who are supposed to be the next rung up the ladder from where I am) don't communicate with me about swimmers they are recruiting. I have two athletes headed to Division I schools next year. In both cases, they are getting scholarship money to swim. I have emailed both Coaches indicating that I am willing to talk to them about these athletes, to give them all my notes about those athletes, race tempos, strengths, weaknesses, volume progressions, etc. I have received zero communications from either Coach.

    On the other hand, I had a fantastic meeting with a Coach from a Division I school this last weekend to talk about specific athletes on my Team, Coaching philosophy, and what he is looking for. And he isn't actively recruiting any of my swimmers (or at least he wasn't until after talking to me). Needless to say, I am much more likely to think of the University of North Dakota than I am of the other two programs the next time I have an athlete who wants to continue his/her career collegiately.

  6. Agreed Anon Coach. As a club coach I have gotten some very enthusiastic and eager emails and some that don't consider your opinion until you force it on them. Granted they are busy coaches, but at the same time a club coach (like yourself) has very valuable information to help a college coach hit the ground running with a HS Senior. We may not be better coaches overall, but we do have information to share.

    Your thoughts on not sending kids to those programs is a rule of thumb all college coaches need to remember I call, "don't burn the locals". A college coach has few chances to make an impression and if they make the wrong one with me,I will not send a swimmer that schools way until they are gone.

  7. I agree that professionalism is important, and there are good points here. There is a flip side as well. I have dropped recruits, after 6 emails and 4 phone messages have gone unanswered for weeks at a time. It is amazing how they sometimes pop back into the picture when something else falls through. No hard feelings, they are welcome aboard. It may be that the school stopped calling them when they stopped responding.

    I am also guilty of not answering every unsolicitated sales email or call from a recruiting service, banner company, bleacher salesperson, swim shop, travel service, etc. Maybe that is a character flaw, but I don't like being cold called, I like to do my own preliminary research and decide what I want. Sales is tough, as is recruiting. You need thicker skin. Time is a tight resource on understaffed teams, and as I divide it between recruiting, coaching/planning, and being aquatics director/lifeguard coordinator getting back to slaesmen falls pretty far down the list.

    Also coacherik, I love club coaches, and was one myself for almost ten years. The suggestion that we better butter up a kid's club coach for you to "send" us your swimmers is offensive. If you have info and insight to share I'm all ears, and absolutely give a call to advocate for a kid, but don't insert yourself as the kid's agent. Let the parent's and swimmer deal with the recruiting coach.

  8. CollegeCoach,

    Its not a matter of buttering up a club coach. I don't need or want someone I don't know to blow smoke up my @$$. In fact, that is a dead give away when some one tries to tell me how great a job I've done with a swimmer.

    All it takes is emails and phone calls in correspondence, as Coach DeSantis said. Write and speak with professional courtesy. So far I have a had very pleasant experiences with the coaches I have dealt with this year. I have had coaches who I have spoken to and have dealt with that are less than cordial in the past and that sends a strong message to me. For me, all it takes is being polite in an email or phone call. Asking for thoughts (please?) and being appreciative of information given (thank you, sincerely, warm regards, etc??). That's all I am looking for. If a college coach doesn't treat another coach with professional courtesy in an email, phone call or even in person, that says a lot about the program in my mind. If a coach can't do that, why should I send an athlete their way? How can I assume they will treat them as an individual and with the same courtesy and professionalism?

    You don't have to tell me I'm great, just don't be an ---hole.

  9. Gentlemen,

    I think you are talking past each other. Collegecoach, I don't think that Erik was suggesting that you needed to butt kiss him. If you are a college coach it makes sense to do your homework and ask the coach currently working with a kid what they think. Coach Erik and I had a small instance of this earlier in the year, where a swimmer of his sent his info to us. I don't think either side was too invested but I still had a quick chat with Erik about it too find out.

    You are right about anyone trying to sell something, but I think you owe them a simple "I'm not interested". If they continue to pester you, then they are the ones that are being rude, not you.

    Anon, great call on Steve Parsons. We swam UND this year and he was awesome.

  10. Parents are also ridiculed for knowing anything about other swimmers.

    Are we the freaks for knowing or for admitting we know?

    How could people not know? I've spent the past eight years of my life at swim meets - I read the meet info and the results. I wouldn't be able to point a kid out in a line-up, but I know names. My kid most definitely knows which teammates are faster or slower and which teammates have or have not swam the distance events.

    At a board of review hearing I was surprised that I was asked, "how did you know the times were falsified".

    I'm sure the National team athlete knows who is faster than him and the shit would hit the fan if my kid showed up at a meet seeded faster than the Chairman's kid.

    No I don't have magical powers - I just pay attention!!!

  11. Replies
    1. Yeah - parents are a joke - OH wait a minute - without them - there would be no money - no clubs - limited coaching jobs etc.

      I wonder how long USA Swimming could survive without the parents, their kids and their money?

    2. How about SPEEDO design a muzzle and blinders for parents - this would make the sport of swimming sooo much better.

    3. Don't forget the corral - we'll let them out when we need timers.