5 Methods of Athlete Development

Commentary by Jim Lutz

During the 1980′s I was coaching with the Des Moines Swimming Federation in Des Mones Iowa. At the start of each season, the swimmers would complete a goal sheet to have a focus for the season. What I would later discover is what we considered goals are really desires. Goals are something that we have 100 percent control. Desires are wishes, followed by action.

If a swimmer wants to break a minute in a 100 yard race, they can do everything the coach tells them in training and a day or two before the meet, they may get sick and cannot compete or their energy level is less than 100 percent. They did not plan on getting sick, but they now have to deal with the situation. They no longer had control.

What they did have control was going to practice everyday and giving their best effort. The speed of the race was a desire and the attendance was a goal. You have control over attending practice.

One of my swimmers was every quiet. He was a nice kid, just very quiet. When I had his goal meeting, I discovered he had pet snakes. I hate snakes. I’m like Indiana Jones when he jumped down in the pit and said, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

When I asked him about his pet snakes, it was like a verbal flood burst through the gates. He was excited to discover that I truly cared for him as a person and not just as a swimmer. I’m not so sure that anyone every asked him questions that went below the surface questions like, “How are you doing?”

I would also discover that he was also extremely talented in music; played first chair trumpet and also had the lead in many of the school musical productions. After a little encouraging, he agreed to sing the National Anthem before swim meets. If I had never asked the questions with the intent of learning more about the person beyond the athlete, I would not have fully understood him, or his athletic capacities. I have learned in recent years, the best way to respond is with another question instead of a statement.

As we are trying to develop someone, we have to find their base level. From that point we find ways to challenge them to go beyond anything they had achieved previously. It may be a real challenge and seldom is it simple. What motivates them can be their starting point or the base level that that want to achieve.

When I asked him about his pet snakes, it was like a verbal flood burst through the gates. I would also discover that he was also extremely talented in music; played first chair trumpet and also had the lead in many of the school musical productions. He would eventually sing the National Anthem before swim meets. If I had never asked the question, I would not have fully understood him, or his athletic capacities.

As we are trying to develop someone else, we have to find their “ground zero”, their starting point or basis and then find ways to challenge them to go beyond their previous best. It seldom is as simple as it seems as we look for their real motivation.

I have never met anyone who said, “I want to make more money, so I can say I make more money.” I never met Ebenezer Scrooge. Most people want to make more money as a vehicle to get something they want. It may be a new car, a new house, a family vacation or just the comfort of no longer living check-to-check. Whatever drives them must be the focus for us in developing a plan for their improvement and ultimately, their sustainable long-term success. The more you develop their talents, the more their confidence will grow. This will ultimately lead them to expand to a far-reaching capacity.

As you work with these people, do your actions allow people to say what you would like them to say about you?

1) FINDING THEIR STRENGTHS
We must not only find their motivation but we really need to find the “Hot Buttons” that take their effort to the next level. A Native American proverb: “I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy – myself.” The biggest strengths they have are internal, not external. If you are able to harness this internal force you will exponentially gain an advantage.

Every coach has had those special athletes known as “gamers.” They may or may not be the best trainer or hardest worker, but when the lights are on, they rise to another level. Former Philadelphia 76er, Allen Iverson made a classic comment about the rumors of his apathy towards attending and giving a good effort during practice.

“Practice…we’re talkin’ practice. It ain’t no game. We talkin’ practice.” Yes he was one of the top players in The NBA for a few years but it was talent, not work ethic they afforded him the opportunity to perform at the highest level.

If you are blessed with a talented athlete, you absolutely can learn as much as you direct. Find out their tendencies and habits and then maximize those areas. You may only need to remind them once or twice a week while others athletes, with equal talent, will need a little verbal TLC on a daily basis. I treat athletes fairly, but seldom equally.

2) INDIVIDUALIZE THEIR DEVELOPMENT
If you foresee an issue coming down the road, we can train to overcome that hurdle to the point failure is not an option. To the best of our ability and our situation, we must avoid a “cookie cutter” approach.

This is geared more toward senior level swimmers as I don’t feel age group swimmers should specialize, and we only have a finite amount of space with 7-8 swimmers per lane and it is easier to have generic training than down time with kids getting bored. Various intervals and distances can individualize within reason. For example, the group may be swimming 100′s yet your best may swim 125′s and slower swimmers are doing 75′s, all on the same interval.

All of our efforts are geared towards making progress. Progress however, is not the ability to maintain but rather making it better by overcoming what you have already mastered. Some swimmers will present themselves as clueless. While others needs to know every detail before they can begin the process. They do not need to know everything at the beginning. Take small step and build on that which they have mastered.

When my son Kyle was in elementary school we were working on math. After he learned to add and subtract, he began to multiple and divide. He needed to learn the numbers, before getting fancy with them. During my formative years, the nuns made sure I had numbers memorized even if I didn’t understand what I was doing. To this day, I can do math in my head and figuring splits during a race is almost a joy. Sister Mary of Perpetual Motion would be proud.

3) REDUCE WEAKNESSES
Some coaches will say we need to find their weaknesses, development them to the point they become lesser strengths and no longer viewed as weaknesses. The opposing view is, why focus on weakness and become mediocre in a number of areas. Find 2-3 areas and become great at those. This is a coach’s decision and my view goes back and forth and it is usually dictated by the athlete.

Some swimmers are great relay swimmers. They enjoy the team aspect much more than the individual race and it does not matter what order they swim on the relay.

I have also coached swimmers who were great on relays, as long as they went second or third. If I had put them as lead off or as anchor, they would be horrid. I wanted them to know I had confidence in them and their ability, but their lack of confidence never let them perform up to their full potential. Eventually, I would put them second or third and they would be fine.

You should not avoid adversity at all costs as I believe this is what enables them to grow, to go beyond.

You must decide what is the line of demarcation when you make the final decision, this is the best course of actions for us to take for is person. That is the art of coaching.

My mantra has become; see it, face it, get over it.

4) LOVE THEM ENOUGH TO LET THEM HATE YOU
Hate is a vile and deeply intense word. Hatred is not a virtue we desire to display. I ask you this, can you challenge your athlete enough for them to hate you. Whether it is a personal life or a professional life, the only way to grow is to challenge them to go beyond their comfort zone. Through years of pressure, a lump of coach becomes a beautiful diamond. Can you challenge them to eventually achieve their beauty?

There were days when I told my assistants, “Our objective today is to remove our names off of as many Christmas card lists as possible. They may hate us today, but they will love us in March.” If your swimmers know you are challenging them for their sake and not for your demented pleasure, these ill feelings will be temporary. If the swimmer walks out the doors after practice and is not excited about returning for the next training session, you efforts maybe misplaced.

Yes, this can almost be perceived in biblical proportions. Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it.” I hoping the nuns are still smiling.

5) HOW IS SUCCESS MEASURED
How many times have you returned from a swim meet and the first question you hear from a friend or non-swimming person is, “Did you win?” You respond, “I dropped three seconds and made cuts for the state meet.” “Yea, but did you win.” “No I got third but I made my cut.” “Oh yea, that’s nice. Better luck next time.” Insert LOUD mental scream!!!

John Q. Public doesn’t understand the grey area involved with swimming. Winning and losing are part of our sport but you cannot restrict someone from beating you, you can only take care of yourself. You are the only one who can truly decide how success will be viewed for you. No matter what level of success we achieve, either through ignorance or lack of concern, some will never be impressed with our results.

The NASCAR Hollywood legend, Ricky Bobby stated during an interview, “Second place is the first loser.” Whenever I hear someone venture down to the corner of Ignorant Avenue and Clueless Boulevard, I try to defuse the situation with logic and wit.

When a parent complains that little Johnny or Susie is not improving every time they race. They may not be aware of things we are working on in practice and these adjustments may cause regression before progression. If they still seem to display limited mental capacities I will unload the following.

“So you think they should improve every time they race.” “Yes I do.” “O.K., well we are going to start swimming meets every weekend so by process of elimination, they will break the World Record by the end of the year.” “Uhhhhhhh… wellllll… maybe that’s not possible.” “But there is only so much time available and if we keep removing time, it’s only logical they would go that fast.” That usually opens their eyes enough to open their ears as well.

The athletes we coach all possess wonderful skills and talents. They are the only person who can ultimately decide what is right for them, what is important and how they want to control their life. It doesn’t matter which course they choose, just decide they are willing to make a difference and set your course for success.

See you on the podium.

Coach Jim

Jim Lutz is the Head Age Group Coach for Viper Aquatics in Westfield, Ind. Lutz has coached at the club and college levels for more than 30 years, with stints as head coach at Illinois and Michigan State as well as serving as an assistant at Arizona. He’s also served as a head coach for several club teams. Lutz also is a published author with several books available on Amazon.

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Author: Jason Marsteller

Jason Marsteller is the general manager of digital properties at Swimming World. He joined Swimming World in June 2006 as the managing editor after previous stints as a media relations professional at Indiana University, the University of Tennessee, Southern Utah University and the Utah Summer Games.

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