Pursley Pep Talks: Self-Reliance and Adaptability

Swimming World will publish a collection of coaching perspectives written by Alabama head swimming coach Dennis Pursley. This is the 17th installment of a series that will be rolled out throughout the coming months.


Most national federations and elite programs endeavor to provide their swimmers with sophisticated support, services and resources that are designed to optimize and enhance performance at the highest levels.

Our sport has progressed dramatically in this area in recent years. Sport science support includes soft tissue massage, race analysis information, biomechanical filming and analysis, tracking of physiological data, specialized strength and conditioning coaching, nutritional guidance, sport psychology support and lifestyle counseling. Support staff commits countless hours of service and large sums of money to provide the ideal environment in which to train and compete. Nothing is left to chance.

Only a few short years ago, this level of support was nonexistent in our sport. Support for swimmers consisted exclusively of a coach and an overcrowded pool—often available only at inconvenient hours.

While the commitment required of today’s world-class competitor certainly deserves all of the support that is currently provided, there is a potential down side to all of these benefits. We must guard against the inclination to become overly dependent upon this support for performance results.

Regardless of the extremes that we may go to in an effort to control the environment, there will inevitably come a time when we will be confronted with obstacles that we cannot control even with our best efforts. The self-reliant and adaptable athlete will be advantaged in these situations.

We can all think of inspiring examples of great accomplishments that were achieved under the worst of circumstances. A self-reliant athlete will rise to the occasion when faced with obstacles, while others may tend to succumb to them and use them as excuses for a subpar performance.

It is important that we accept full responsibility for our performances—both successful and unsuccessful. By doing so, we will retain control of those performances rather than putting ourselves at the mercy of the circumstances.

If we simultaneously pursue both objectives of becoming the best supported, but also the most self-reliant national team in the swimming world, we will be advantaged in the face of adversity. Success will be assured whether it is because of or in spite of the circumstances.

About Dennis Pursley
After getting his start as a volunteer coach on Don Gambril’s first Alabama staff, current Alabama head coach Dennis Pursley has gone on to one of the most extraordinary careers in the sport of swimming, a career that led him to be named one of the 25 most influential people in the history of USA Swimming in 2003.

Pursley has helmed coaching staffs throughout the world, including stops as the first head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport, the inaugural director of the United States National Team and most recently the head coach of Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic squad. Pursley returned to the deck in 2003 as the head coach of the Brophy East Swim Team in Phoenix Ariz., before becoming the head coach of British Swimming in 2008.

Pursley and his wife Mary Jo have five children, Lisa, Brian, David, Steven and J.J. Lisa and David have joined him on the Alabama staff.

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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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