Monday, January 14, 2013

Far From The Olympics: Coaching Tips For The Ground Level

"I'd love to hear your thoughts on the best training methodology for the real world. For high school coaches who get their kids four times a week for an hour and a half at the time and then lose them when the kids go on vacation"

Last week I was chatting with a friend of mine, a real swim nerd who coaches high school swimming. Most of my blogs come from conversations like this, where someone says "wouldn't it be great if someone did (this)?". In this case, I couldn't resist for a couple reasons. On the one hand, I had two high school swim coaches who taught me approximately 99.9% of what I know about coaching swimming, They provided great coaching for ALL the swimmers in the pool, whether they were junior national qualifiers or 1:54 100 freestyle malcontents who were scared to put their face in the water. 

To kick things off, let's get right to the first question (future reader questions as well as ground level coaching tips can be sent to What do you do if you train swimmers in a limited time (6 hours) on an inconsistent basis (probably a 12 week season, with one or more school vacations busting right through the middle of your season).

My first adult job was as head coach of a high school team. The team was at a private school with some pretty good history. Unfortunately, that history was firmly settled about five years in the past, something I quickly found out upon arriving.

My best swimmer could swim a 100 fly in 54 seconds. After that, there was a 2:08 200 IMer, and then a 52 100 freestyler. Then a 2:30 200 IM, and a similarly steep drop off from there. I had one swimmer who could not do a flip turn, could not swim butterfly or breaststroke, and could not finish a 100 without stopping. In all their were 40 swimmers on the team, and we had 90 minutes of practice time five days a week.

The first thing you have to do is evaluate all your swimmers needs. The great thing about coaching someone who can't even finish a 100 is that they pretty much have nowhere to go but up and almost any kind of swim training will improve them. The faster your swimmers are the more specific their room for improvement will be. Don't be tempted to put most of your focus on your most advanced swimmers. This feels good in the short term but can be disastrous long term. You will pay for it in the long term with bad morale and poor results.

Once you've identified your swimmers needs, start planning and executing workouts to address them. Don't let yourself get overwhelmed. Inevitably you will have to group swimmers with others who have needs similar, but not identical to them. Group as much as you can effectively plan for. Explain to them why and what they are doing. Swimmers will appreciate that you have made training "for them".

Remember as you go to carry the attitude you want your athletes to model. You need to be excited about swimming, but you also need to be excited about coaching ALL levels of your team. When your 1:54 100 freestyler goes 1:53, GET JACKED UP about it. If you can't get jacked up about one of your athletes improving regardless of the level they are at, you should probably find another profession. Likewise, if you don't even know when someone you are coaching has improved, you should probably find another profession. But I digress...

Lastly, evaluate whether your athletes are actually enjoying being on your team. I won't argue that swimmers have to "enjoy" all of their training, but, they should like doing some of it, and they should feel proud instead of dejected after they accomplish the less than fun parts. Again, it's important that you do this for ALL swimmers. Resist the urge to make snap judgments on kids (after all, they are KIDS), deciding that they "don't really want it" or simply "aren't on the same page" with you. Likewise, don't abuse your power to punish kids simply for not doing what you want. Your effectiveness as a coach is measured by how many athletes you can win over and make better at swimming regardless of where they start (both physically and mentally). If you stay mostly positive, you will not achieve perfection but ultimately be winning the war. Going negative, threatening and punishing those around you for disagreeing, you are ultimately fighting a losing battle.

If you do the above, you may just find that it gets a little better, every year. You may also find a few kids begging their parents to let them stay and swim with you instead of going on that ski vacation.


  1. "You may also find a few kids begging their parents to let them stay and swim with you instead of going on that ski vacation."

    -And breaking their arm!

    Great post, Coach!

  2. One of your best posts to date. I coach independent swimmers--swimmers that don't even have their HS recognize them as a school sport. I have 8 total swimmers, adn they swim 5x week for 1.5 hours, except T/Th when i can only get the pool for an hour, so they tack on 30 minutes of dryland.

    I think the biggest frustration I have is that because they aren't "mandatory" practices...the schools are just "happy" if they "participate" and give them a letter for it... they don't always show up. It makes planning the season difficult, because half the time, what you planned goes right out the window. One day I had one HS swimmer show up to this awesome fun (hard but fun) morning practice I had planned over xmas break. Or the kids that don't show up to half the 5 swim meets you managed to talk the big swimming schools to let your kids swim in. That part is frustrating. Any ideas?

  3. Caroline,

    Sounds like a familiar situation. I have been there and I'm sure sometimes you want a "hammer" to make these kids come to practice: i.e. you would like the schools to hold them accountable to a basic athletic standard. However, sounds like they aren't going to, so what are you going to do? You have to see if you can make whatever time you have something these kids are trying not to miss! If you haven't gotten there yet, forgive yourself and start figuring out what you can do to make your practice "can't miss" for your swimmers. Ask yourself these questions:

    1. Do the swimmers get better every time I coach them? If not, what can you do to make sure this happens?

    2. Do I have a good relationship with the swimmers, for example am I someone they look forward to seeing? The situation you describe sounds frustrating, but if they are seeing that frustration from you it is probably making things even worse because it makes you less fun to be around.