Q&A With Ian Murray, Highly Successful Coach At Dynamo Swim Club

Ian Murray

Q&A With Ian Murray, Highly Successful Coach At Dynamo Swim Club

Life is good when one of your former swimmers (National Team member Brooks Curry) wins an Olympic gold medal one year and takes the NCAA 50 and 100 yard freestyle titles the next. Another of Ian Murray’s swimmers currently holds three spots on the University of Georgia’s all-time list. If that weren’t enough, four of his current male Dynamo charges set 17-18 200 meter medley and freestyle relay NAG records on the way to a first-place boys’ and runner-up combined team finish at the 2022 Summer Junior Nationals.

Ian Murray

• Cleveland State University, B.S., biology, 2001
• Team captain, Midwestern Collegiate Conference champion and record holder
• Head Coach, Dynamo Swim Club, 2017-present
• Associate head coach, Carmel Swim Club, 2013-17; head age group coach, 2006-13, where he worked with numerous USA Swimming national and junior national team members
• Assistant coach, Carmel High School, 2012-17
• Assistant swim coach, Lake Erie Silver Dolphins, 2000-06
• Head coach, Lake Erie Zone Team (2004), Ohio Mid-States Team (2003)
• Volunteer assistant coach, Cleveland State University, 2000-01
• Counselor, Richard Quick Stanford National Swim Camp, July 2001
• Head coach, USA Swimming National and Zone Select Camps
• Coach, USA Swimming junior national trips, Mel Zajac International and FINA Junior World Championships, 2019
• Staff member, USA Swimming College Challenge, 2016
• Named ASCA Coach of Excellence (2015) and Lake Erie Swimming Age Group Coach of the Year (2006)
• Inducted into Lorain County Hall of Fame, 2022
• Nominated for ASCA Board of Directors, 2022

Q. SWIMMING WORLD: You started swimming at a tender age. Where and when?
A. COACH IAN MURRAY: I took lessons when young. My father coached summer league and a YMCA team, and my older brother and sister swam. My first competitive experience was at age 8, and I really enjoyed it. I became a pool rat.

SW: You were a multi-time conference champion and team captain at Cleveland State. Why coaching as a career?
IM: I stumbled into it. I was hoping to study infectious disease. In July of 2000, I was wrapping up my swimming career. I trained with the Lake Erie Silver Dolphins when Diana Munz made the Olympic team. My coach, Jerry Holtrey, needed help running the national group when in Sydney and asked me to step in. I figured it was worth the few extra bucks, and found I enjoyed the coaching. Jerry kept me on, and my passion grew from there.

SW: Who were some important coaching influences?
IM: Jerry was huge initially. He gave me a lot of opportunity. I led the team at nationals or sectionals, and was a sponge on the pool deck when interacting with other coaches. My predecessor at Dynamo, Jason Turcotte, made me feel like I could be good at this. Jason and I both got our start at Silver Dolphins coaching for Jerry. Jason coached me for a year in college. When he started coaching at Stanford full time, he asked me to come out and work the camps. He continued to be a mentor to me until his passing in 2017.

Chris Plumb is likely my largest influence and mentor. He helped me become a professional swim coach. Chris treated me like an equal, especially during my time as associate head coach at Carmel Swim Club. Not only did my on-deck ability grow tremendously under his guidance, but so did my understanding of what it takes to run an elite and successful program. We had a great run together.
I am also fortunate to have a great relationship with Vern Gambetta. His background in athletic development and his lens from a non-swimming mind has been incredibly influential. Because of Vern, I look at swimming differently. Dryland is a large part of our program and our success.

SW: What was so special about the Carmel Swim Club?
IM: From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it. Culture is everything, and the best team cultures are so strong that words don’t always do them justice. The program excels because everyone is all-in, all the time. The athletes, parents, coaches, school administration and community are all about the program. Throw in amazing resources, and you have a great recipe for success. It truly is a unique and special place to live and coach.

SW: What is different about the Olympians and national and age group record holders with whom you have worked?
IM: Mind-numbing consistency. Those athletes are incredibly consistent in their entire approach. That helps them ride the peaks longer, but also shortens the valleys. One great workout, great month or even one great season is never the difference maker. The consistency allows them to continually raise their baseline and leads to big results over the long run. Those athletes had great program buy-in, were very coachable and willing to grow in uncomfortable moments. While they were performance-minded, they were mainly process-driven.

SW: How do you teach athletes to manage outside expectations?
IM: First, high expectations and high standards are a good thing. We work hard at understanding what expectations and standards we can control versus the ones we can’t. I believe we should all be in search of our own personal excellence and developing the best version of ourselves we can. Struggle is good and needed for growth, so we embrace it. Grit and perseverance are needed to navigate the times we struggle. Ultimately, we get to do this. Swimming is what we do—it isn’t who we are. The journey is the reward.

SW: Dynamo has more than 800 athletes. If coaching is about relationships, how do you have time to spend quality time with so many swimmers?
IM: From Chris at Carmel, I learned it’s not my job to coach every athlete well, but rather to ensure every athlete is well-coached. The athletes directly in my care are my primary responsibility, and I try to interact with as many athletes as I can. Even if it is just in passing on deck, I try to show interest in them to spark that connection. In addition, most of our staff members have roles in the senior and age group programs. My second group is the coaches. I check with them frequently.

SW: We all learn in different ways. How do you connect with athletes when you see you are not getting through?
IM: I try to provide as many ways for them to learn and understand as possible. Each lane gets a written workout, but I also usually write each set on a whiteboard, and we go over it together. Multiple forms of communication usually reach most of the group—and then I handle questions individually. We use technology a lot, giving swimmers examples to watch on their phones or a TV; we use iPads for video analysis frequently and Poolside Live stations during most practices. This is a visual generation. We must connect with athletes that way.

More broadly, I try to treat all athletes the same by coaching them differently. What a 15-year-old female freshman needs from me is likely different than what an 18-year-old male senior needs. I focus on coaching the person and training the athlete. I have learned over time that I am not always the voice an athlete needs to hear. I use my assistant coaches to help with communication when I know the message will be received better from a different person.

SW: Coaches have busy lives. How do you assist staff members in maintaining positive mental health?
IM: We have tough jobs with difficult and odd hours. When we are on deck or in the office, the level of engagement and professionalism must be very high. After all, we are dealing with people’s children, time and money. I also expect a high level of collaboration amongst our coaches. We bring out the best in each other. But I also ask for personal routine so they can step away from the work environment and make time for themselves and family. We regularly discuss how to take care of ourselves and grow personally because that helps us when we are on deck.

If issues arise, I hope our staff feels comfortable coming to senior staff for help. Likewise, if I am worried, I will pull a coach aside to see if there is something we, or I, can do to help. We begin each staff meeting with a Winners Circle. We celebrate each other by sharing something positive we have seen from a fellow staff member since our last meeting. It always sets a good tone.

SW: Two key Dynamo team values are grit and growth. How do you instill that into your swimmers?
IM: Growth requires struggle—and struggle is healthy. My job as a coach isn’t to make things easier for athletes, but to provide them with tools and experiences that force them out of their comfort zones as they work to achieve goals. It is OK that the process is hard and that athletes fail on first attempts. Perseverance and grit go hand in hand with growth. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t growing.
If the initial process doesn’t lead to the desired result, we rework the process. When trying to master a craft, one must love all of the process—the ups, the downs, the peaks, the valleys, etc. That means embracing the struggle as well as the triumph. That’s what grit and growth are to Dynamo.

SW: Talk about the power of “and.”
IM: I don’t want a program that is good at the 50 OR the 1500. I want a program that is good at the 50 AND the 1500. We want success for females AND males. We can give a great experience to an athlete who will never qualify for a LSC championship meet AND to an Olympic hopeful.

Words have power. And whether we are using AND to describe our program or to help athletes understand of what they are capable, AND has significantly more meaning and power. You can be a great athlete AND a great student. You can have speed AND endurance. You can be strong AND mobile/flexible. You can be a great teammate AND still want individual success.

SW: Recently, Dynamo had one of the highest numbers of Scholastic All-America athletes on its roster within all of USA Swimming. How do you promote that within the club?
IM: Student-Athlete. Student is first for a reason. Back to the power of AND. Our athletes aren’t going to swim forever. Ultimately, what we are really teaching at Dynamo isn’t about the swimming. We are shaping young people to be champions of life. That starts in the classroom.

SW: USA Swimming bestows financial awards on Gold Medal teams like Dynamo. You have apportioned those funds among your three sites for dryland equipment and other necessities. How has something like Sideline Scout benefited your swimmers?
IM: This is a visual generation of athlete. To have the ability to give real-time video feedback to athletes is a must. ALL technology on deck isn’t appropriate, but if we can find things that impact all levels of the program on a daily basis, with ease of use, then we find ways to make it happen. Our athletes love using technology and, in most cases, can set it up themselves. That is good for culture. When athletes take the lead in getting the practice ready for the group, that is healthy for the team and their growth.

SW: What learnings have you gleaned from your two USA Swimming junior national staff experiences?
IM: Anytime you get to work with the best coaches and athletes in the country, it is a lot of fun. The greatest strength we have as a swimming nation is our ability and willingness to share and collaborate. On these trips, coaches and athletes work together for something bigger than themselves, and that produces a larger sense of purpose.

I have tried to be a sponge on those trips. Seeing how other coaches interact with their athletes is cool. I would say the same for working with athletes and seeing what successful routines they have. I have learned that athletes and coaches don’t operate tremendously different at that level. One of the keys to success is relying on what you know works. People who use their routine to calm themselves, respond to challenges instead of reacting to them and then control the controllables are in a good place for success.

SW: What new coaching insights did you get because of your head coach experience at the USA Swimming National Select Camp?
IM: They were like my experiences on deck during national junior team trips. Something that always fascinates me is difference in backgrounds of the athletes at National Select Camp. Some have extensive training backgrounds and others do not. Get them in the same pool, however, and they immediately size each other up. You are told not to make it a “training camp” because of the limited time at altitude, but you don’t have to worry about that. The athletes take care of the effort all on their own.

SW: You are very active with the GAIN Network. How has the association with Vern Gambetta and Chris Webb helped you become a better coach?
IM: Chris Webb and I are great friends. I was fortunate to spend my first three years at Carmel with him, and he has been a big part of my life since. Few people challenge me the way Chris does. If I present an idea to him, he forces me to consider alternative perspectives. We need people like that to grow individually and as coaches. Chris brings out the best in me because he challenges me to not be comfortable. As Chris has taken over more of a leadership role in GAIN Swimming, he is my go-to for many things in and out of the pool. He has a great athletic mind.

Vern Gambetta is one of the best coaches I have ever met. He doesn’t have a background in swimming, which makes it really cool to talk shop with him. I vividly remember his first visit to Carmel and the beginning of GAIN Swimming. My mind was blown after spending four days with him. Vern taught me how to look at our sport from a land AND water perspective. The athletes I work with are healthier and performing better because of GAIN. How I coach people and train athletes have drastically improved because of Vern’s guidance. Having mentors who are involved in other sports or professions is a huge plus.

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

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