A Coach’s Profound Impact: Foundations of Success

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Photo Courtesy: Cece Arrison

By Kristy Kinzer, Swimming World College Intern.

“Who is the most influential person in your life?”

Many stumble over their words searching for a genuine answer to this question, wading through all of the people who have entered and exited their lives throughout the years. When you ask an athlete this question, they will answer nearly every time with their parents first and then a coach who developed them in their early years (or vice versa, but we won’t tell your parents).

As coaches, we have a very unique role in athletes’ lives. Coaches journey with them during their highs and lows, push them to stretching limits, and can spend almost more time per week with them than with family and friends. For the dedicated coach, this means every minute spent on the pool deck, team meetings, or group meals is a chance to develop strong relationships with your athletes, and thus a stronger program.

The Power of Coaching

Chad Jumping Susan Bloomfield

Photo Courtesy: Susan Bloomfield

I have the privilege of being able to credit much of my athletic, job, and personal growth to incredible coaches. Because of these experiences, I’ve turned my career path upside down and have decided to pursue full-time coaching. The one who had particular influence on my life is my high school coach and inductee to the Indiana High School Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame, Chad Englehart (pictured above). To mention a few of his accomplishments, he started the Southwest Allen Community Swim Team (SWAC) where his swimmers achieved U.S. Olympic Trials cuts four Olympic years in a row, produced over 30 nationally ranked swimmers (including a No. 1 ranking), and was honored as the Indiana LSC Coach of the Year in 2002 and 2009.

Although he coached me 10 years ago, I fondly look back to those times as the “good old days.” The environment he created was a hotbed of growth that is difficult to describe, but it required a lot of grit on our part and a whole lot of dedication on his. And when a coach’s passion is able to create a vision and team buy-in, a synergistic effect takes place. Everyone on that team becomes better and accomplishes more as a whole. He was an incredibly impactful coach to many before and after my time.

Building Blocks of a Successful Program

Dan Plan

Photo Courtesy: Kristy Kinzer

As a curious, soon-to-be first-time head coach of a small high school team, I was eager to hear Englehart’s advice on how to build a successful team, not only at a high school level, but also beyond. In my head, it seems as if high school, club, and college swimming are all different “beasts” with different strategies, and I wanted to get my strategy right. We were able to talk on the phone for about an hour during a drive, and I gleaned some important bits of information useful for any team.

If Englehart had to name the most crucial concepts for the foundation of a successful program, he chose the following: communication, passion, plan, and leadership. He emphasized the necessity of clear, open, and honest communication with both the parents and athletes. Without that, “say good-bye to your program,” Englehart said. “You don’t really understand how crazy parents get about their kids until you have one yourself. You have to communicate your plan with the parents and the athletes.” Those light-bulb moments don’t happen unless the athlete has a clear understanding of the basis for certain sets, drills, etc. Otherwise, they’re doing a lot of mindless training.

Race Cheering

Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Crawford

Passion from the coach is incredibly powerful for a successful program. “If I ever lose my passion for coaching, I will quit and find a new job,” Englehart said. “It does a disservice to the kids. A coach should never sit on his phone during practice- the kids can tell when their coach is disengaged. A great coach will always keep a passion for what he does.” People don’t become coaches for the money– they do it because of a passion. Coach Chad always expected the best out of us, making us want to prove we could be better.

I never had to be convinced of Coach Chad’s passion for coaching- all of us could hear it in his tone of voice, we could see it in his maniacal gestures and bulging eyes, we could feel it in our bones. Even when he would dump entire trashcans full of snow on us as we flip-turned during winter training to lighten the mood. Our team knew that he walked into the natatorium giving us 100 percent of his time, dedication, and focus.  Not many of us dared to back down from his sets, and if anyone was out of line, that athlete would swiftly be kicked out of practice.

“I wish I had kicked some of them out sooner,” Englehart said. “I tried too hard to convince them to buy-in, but then they became too much of a distraction. Now, I kick them out without the drama and tell them to reset and come back ready the next day, instead of allowing them to go into a downward spiral.”

Coach Instructing

Photo Courtesy: Kristy Kinzer

Englehart emphasized having a daily, seasonal, and well-prepared plan that is communicated regularly. “In order to be a successful program, the plan has to be coupled with thorough knowledge of the sport. When you’re starting out, people will have grace with you and you’ll make mistakes. But sitting down and writing out a detailed, effective plan using your experience and knowledge is what will lead to results.”

The bedrock of a successful team lies in the leadership, not only of the coach, but also of the team leaders. A coach should have strong integrity and has to be trustworthy, and the best swimmers need to support your decisions.

“You have to have the leaders of the team on your side, or else no one is going to follow your plan,” Englehart said. “If they do the practice, everyone else will do it too. It helps to keep the locker-room talk positive and decreases the grumbling and talking behind backs.” The coach needs to get buy-in from the fastest swimmers, then the rest will have no choice but to follow suit.

Hands In

Photo Courtesy: Kristy Kinzer

I challenged his assumption that the leaders would always be the most talented, but he used this analogy to back his point: “If the coach of the Chicago Bulls told the team to do a crazy practice and Michael Jordan jumped right in, everyone would follow suit. If he said, ‘No way,’ no one else would do it. That’s just how it works. All eyes are on them.”

Defining Success

When asked about his definition of success as an athlete and a coach, Englehart promptly answered with one word: “Improvement.”  When questioned whether success could be measured outside of meet results, he agreed that it can be seen in character development, leadership skills, increased confidence, and other intangibles, but a coach really has to rely on measurable data to display improvement and thus success. I have seen Coach Chad turn mediocre athletes at best into state qualifiers and All-Americans, and transform timid swimmers into powerful, confident athletes.

Biggest Blunders vs. Greatest Accomplishments

All coaches make mistakes, and Englehart has a few regrets from his first years of coaching. He emphasized the importance of respectful communication between parents and coaches, as both have the common goal of doing what is best for their kid.

“You never really understand certain things until you have a kid of your own. A lot changed once I had my son,” Englehart said.

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Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

When Englehart talked about his greatest accomplishments, his voice softened and filled with emotion. “Being able to have an impact on people’s lives. It’s great knowing if I’ve made someone a better swimmer, but it’s even better when I see them five or 10 years down the road as a successful, productive adult. I’m not sure it was the direct time I spend with you athletes, but more the environment I was able to create for you that made such an impact.”

Truly, the environment he created was incredible -from seniors down to freshman- he was able to train a group of 60-some high school girls and guys into an incredibly tight-knit, high-achieving team. He pushed us harder than we thought we were capable of, he believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves, he kicked us in the rear (figuratively) on more than a few occasions, and deeply cared about each individual.

This laid the foundation for strong, long-lasting relationships far outlasting the days in the pool. Our team was known as a “cult” at our high school, always eating breakfast after practice together in the same spot in the commons, traveling in groups through the hallways and cafeteria, and clearing the center of the school dance floor with our chlorinated sweat fumes. We were family.

Coach Dan with Son

Photo Courtesy: Kristy Kinzer

As an aspiring coach with big goals, I left that conversation with some tangible ways to lay the foundation for a successful team and relived some of the best memories of my entire life.

Now I want to leave you with a challenge. Coaches: we have great influence over the character and development of athletes across all ages. Let’s go be the movers and shakers of this generation.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.