Coaching Q&A: An Interview With NOVA of Virginia’s Norm Wright

Norm Wright

In the April issue of Swimming World Magazine, longtime contributor Michael Stott chatted with Norm Wright of NOVA of Virginia.

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Come August and with the retirement of founder Geoff Brown, Norm Wright looks to continue leading Gold Medal NOVA of Virginia to aquatic excellence.

Norm Wright
Head Coach
NOVA of Virginia
Richmond, Virginia

• Asbury University, B.A., psychology, 2003
• Head coach, Northern Kentucky Clippers Inc., 2015-19
• Head coach, director of competitive swimming and aquatics/Waynesboro (Va.) YMCA/Shenandoah Marlins Aquatic Club, 2010-15
• Assistant coach, Georgetown University, 2009-10
• Associate head coach, The FISH, 2008-10
• 7x National Junior Team coach; U.S. National Team coach, 2019
• Head coach, U.S. National Open Water Select Camp
• Head coach, U.S. team, UANA Junior Open Water Championships
• Coach, Junior Pan Pacs, 2018
• Coach, Open Water World Junior Championships, 2018
• Coach, National Select Camp, 2017

Wright, an ASCA Level 5 coach, has coached Olympic Trials qualifiers in 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2021. He also is a member of the USA Swimming Senior Development and Open Water Development Committees.

Q. SWIMMING WORLD: Your parents started you swimming at age 2. What was that like?
A. COACH NORM WRIGHT: I became a summer leaguer when a coach saw me swimming after jumping off a diving board.

SW: You left Asbury University with a B.A. in psychology. How did you jumpstart your coaching career?
NW: A shoulder injury ended my college swimming. The coach asked me to help him my senior year. But I really got my start helping coach summer league for the Germantown Gators in Ohio.

SW: Much of your early coach education was ASCA-related, yes?
NW: When I graduated college, I was told to get a life membership to ASCA. I attended every ASCA clinic for about 10 years and completed every course available. I was Level 5-educated very early on as I worked toward the Level 5 performance side of the certification.

SW: Ray Benecki at The FISH was instrumental in your development.
NW: I moved from Ohio to D.C. to learn from Ray. He was coaching Kate Ziegler, and she had recently broken the world record in the 1500 free, one that had stood from 1988 to 2007. I knew I could learn from that level of accomplishment. Ray and Kate attended the 2008 Olympics, and I witnessed all their preparation. The level of detail and consistency that Ray and Kate did was eye-opening for a young coach. Coaching with the FISH in the Potomac Valley LSC exposed me to many high-level teams and the business side of running a high-performance club team.

SW: How did his debriefing habit help you as a coach?
NW: I always saw Ray’s detailed practice planning, but he showed me that the tracking what was actually done was just as important. Tracking times and volume is something everyone does, but actually recording the practice as done was something new to me. The daily practice debriefing process helped me trust what I was doing and allowed me to pivot from the plan when required.

SW: What were some foundational learnings you gained from him?
NW: Ray got me asking a lot of questions. Then I went out and researched what other clubs were doing around the country. I found that there is a level of work and focus that everyone with sustained success was doing—from age group through senior swimming. There are no short cuts in this sport.

SW: You devised the Clippers Development Model while in Kentucky. How did that change your coaching style? And to what benefit for the swimmers?
NW: I wanted an easily understood system that would allow new and current parents to identify where their children stood in the swimming progression. I used the terms exploring (8-under), learning (9-10), dreaming (11-12), planning (13-14), achieving (15-16) and performing (16+). These levels have built-in goals for coaches regarding swimmer progress that also allow parents to track long-term development.

SW: You subscribe to an annual 6% improvement objective for your swimmers. How do you make that happen consistently?
NW: We discuss it and make it a priority. I look at not just best-event improvements, but at all events and total improvements. A rising tide does raise all ships. Learning how to improve and get better at both weak and strong strokes ensures improvement of both.

SW: In the past, volume has been a staple of your training, as it has under Geoff Brown at NOVA of Virginia. What’s the role in volume in your training today?
NW: Daily I track volume and intensity. I do not obsess over exact volume, but monitor it to make sure we are hitting a baseline of work. That way I can factor reductions in volume for our rest periods. There is a standard of work and volume required for performance at the highest level. I track that and watch volume, but it is not the only factor.

SW: How do you teach “safe swimming” to swimmers?
NW: Through technique work and body awareness. Teaching strokes correctly based on biomechanics reduces injury. We also use dryland and weights to develop the muscles to counter any potential overuse injuries.

SW: How do you empower your swimmers to believe in themselves?
NW: By complimenting them when they are doing well and telling them how to improve. I also give them choices and explain what those choices mean in terms of understanding the sport and their training. I also like to have swimmers race in different situations, whether it be at local meets where they can place high or national meets where they are unsure what the results will be. Situational swimming can be a great teacher.

SW: As a huge proponent of open water swimming, what’s the value of that to your athletes? How do you make that work in land-locked Richmond, Va.?
NW: Open water training is mostly done in the pool. I also approach it as another event in the Olympic lineup. I have had swimmers make World Juniors, national teams and select camps from OW that they wouldn’t have otherwise. OW is just another event that is available for athletes to try. I like to provide many different menu items ranging from 10K to the 50s. Everyone can find something they like.

SW: How are you still learning as a coach?
NW: I have a very experienced staff at NOVA. Many are former head coaches or coaches who could be head coaches. I also have studied other sports to understand how the body responds to stimulus and improvements. High-level athletes have many things in common. Seeing that from outside swimming and then applying it to aquatics has helped greatly.

SW: You have worked to “improve the business” at both Clippers and NOVA. Specifically, how have you done that?
NW: I learned a lot from my family’s 130-year-old business. I have taken that success and applied it to swim clubs with whom I have worked. I have also studied the best business practices and financial statements of some of the nation’s most successful clubs—nonprofits and otherwise—to better understand what makes them tick.

SW: How does having a wife as a physiologist help you become a better coach?
NW: She has a doctorate in physical therapy, and she has taught me a great deal about how the body actually works and about recovery modalities. She has helped keep the swimmers healthy and injury-free. A former swimmer, she is fluent in coach-speak.

SW: As you have transitioned into the top position at uber successful NOVA of Virginia, the team has just opened an impressive 8-lane, 50-meter pool. What’s the short- and long-term future hold?
NW: Short-term, our founder, Geoff Brown, will be stepping off deck in August, and he has entrusted three pools and his life’s work to me, a responsibility I take very seriously. Farther out, LC training will allow us to put added focus on national and international performance. More pool space will allow us to partner with local high schools and summer leagues and grow Richmond-area swimming. More water means more opportunity to expand our very successful lesson program and provide another outlet to teach the life skill of safe swimming.

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” was published in June 2021, and is available from store.Bookbaby.com, Amazon, B&N and distributors worldwide.

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