Good Coaches, Bad Coaches

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, November 3. A teacher at an average high school has a student for maybe three hours a week, on average, for either one or two semesters. The coach of a serious, year round swimmer, on the other hand, can be in charge of a youngster for upwards of 10 hours a week, for several years. Therefore, the coach will be much more of a formative influence than any teacher can be.

Coaches' primary job, obviously, is to get their charges to swim fast. But they can also make the difference between a swimmer looking back on a career with fondness, or with regret. Over time, I've noticed that there are several consistent themes that divide the good from the bad coaches.

Good coaches give credit where it is due, and in general, makes the swimmers feel good about themselves. This doesn't mean they tell them they swam well when they didn't. It just means they don't belittle them, either to their faces or behind their backs. And, hopefully, they give them a little pep talk of the "we'll-get-‘em-next-time variety."

When a swimmer swims well, good coaches are generous with praise. And swimming well means one thing: best times. It doesn't matter if the swimmer won or not, or how many points they scored. Best times deserve praise. The wonderful thing about swimming is that your main competitor is yourself, and if you beat your previous self, that's all anyone can ask. A good coach realizes this. (Chris DeSantis alluded to this in an earlier article.)

The best test of coaching character is how they talk about their swimmers behind their backs. I've known a couple coaches who mostly grumbled about their swimmers. This grumbling usually took one of two forms: complaining about how they're not working hard enough, or how they're not tough enough. You can always find something good (as well as bad) to say about anybody. Every team has a kid or two who is a handful, and coaches get understandably frustrated with them. But if you get a coach who is negative about most of the kids, you've got a bad coach. Teams led by coaches like this are rarely happy teams.

On the other hand, praise can work wonders. I read a quote from Eddie Reese this past spring after NCAAs, in which he praised one of his swimmers for being incredibly tough. I don't remember the swimmer's name, but it wasn't one of his big stars; as I recall, it was a guy who had barely managed to score at NCAAs. Of course, that would make him a huge star at most colleges, but it didn't at Texas. Now, put yourself in that swimmer's shoes. Can you imagine reading something like that about yourself in the newspaper? How will that swimmer look back on his college career, and on his coach? Swimmers will swim through walls for a coach like that.

I got to see Mike Bottom in action at the Race Club in March of '08. He's always had good rapport with his swimmers. Bottom had the usual problems with getting his swimmers to jump in the water at the beginning of practice, but even when he remonstrated with them about that, there was no harshness in the air; it was all done with a friendly undertone.

At one point I overheard him tell one of his swimmers, "I keep telling you you're great, but you just won't listen." When a coach talks that way to a swimmer, the message eventually sinks in, and a swimmer is much more likely to have the confidence to actually be great. As a result, many of Bottom's former swimmers keep going back to him when they want to prepare for a big meet, as they did in the winter of 2007-08. That's one telling mark of a good coach: his graduates return voluntarily.

I read somewhere that some of the Michigan swimmers last year were surprised when Bottom actually asked them what they were studying, and what they intended to do after they graduated. A lot of coaches pay lip service to studies coming first and to a balanced life, but the good ones actually mean it.

It's not fair to hold an age group coach to the same standards as Reese and Bottom. Both Reese and Bottom get to recruit top athletes, neither has to deal with parents, and neither has to coach 60 swimmers at one time. The coaches of big age group teams have their hands full just making sure that the kids swim on the correct interval and correcting stroke flaws when they get a chance. Still, the principle remains the same: treat your swimmers with respect and they will repay you with their best efforts.

Good coaches will admit error, and will be willing to change their ways. You hear some of the great coaches – Dave Marsh comes to mind – talk about what a hard time they have getting the taper right, and how they have erred in the past. If you can't admit your mistakes, and learn from them, you'll keep making them. Having an open mind and being flexible is always a plus.

Good coaches allow their swimmers to rest every now and then. It's my impression that insecure coaches tend to overtrain their swimmers, whereas good coaches are aware of this pitfall. It takes courage to do what Dave Salo did a few years back and buck the trend of big yardage. But he stuck to his guns, and placed six swimmers on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team.

Some coaches seem to regard their sport as a morality drama: good kids work hard and bad kids don't. But morality is about how you treat others, not about how dedicated you are to your sport. And swimming is, after all, just a sport. Yes, it can help you get into college, and possibly even help pay for college. But for the 99 percent of us who aren't headed for the Olympics, the sport is supposed to be primarily fun. And if it's not fun, it's not worth doing.

That may be the ultimate test for coaches: Do their swimmers enjoy the sport?

What I've observed over time is that the good coaches, the ones who can admit their errors and learn from them, are almost always the same ones who are generous with their praise. And those are the same ones who don't overtrain their swimmers, and who realize their swimmers need balance in their lives, and who make the sport fun for their swimmers. These also tend to be – not coincidentally – the same coaches who end up with the fastest swimmers.

The common thread here is good character.

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