The importance of finding a good mentor is often impressed upon young coaches, and rightfully so. It can be a colossal difference maker. At the same time, it can be challenging to gain access to individuals who are willing and able to provide the mentorship young coaches seek.
Fortunately, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had access to world class minds that were willing to mentor me as soon as I was interested in becoming a coach.
How did I gain access to the ideas of these individuals?
Perhaps not the expected answer.
Regardless of who you are, there are countless individuals with world-class expertise who would love to mentor you. In fact, they are so eager to mentor you that they have documented their expertise and made it available to you for free, or next to nothing. They’ve written books, articles, made videos, and performed research about the specific problems you’re looking to solve.
Here are some options for aspiring coaches who do not have access to a desirable mentor. Even if you do, these are resources every swimming coach should be exploiting if they wish become the best coach they can be for the swimmers they coach.
Any book you could ever want to read can be purchased online at www.amazon.com. Most can be purchased used for a fraction of the list price. If you don’t want to pay for a particularly expensive book, it’s probably available at your library for free. Or you can find a cheaper substitute.
If you want to expand your knowledge about a give topic, buy a book. An expert, would-be mentor has taken the time to write down everything they think you should know about what they know…for $20 or less. You can become an expert in almost any topic for a very small amount of money. The only investment is time and energy.
Some subject areas you may want to consider exploring-
Every book ever written on swimming
If you are struggling with recruiting? Buy some books on sales. Recruiting is sales.
Don’t understand technique? Buy some books on swimming technique.
Understand technique, but struggle to teach effectively? Buy some books on motor learning.
Struggling with getting your team moving in the same direction? Buy some books on psychology, leadership, or cultural development.
Are all of the answers in books? No. At the same time, book can provide insight as to how to best navigate the challenges you face. Somewhere, someone has faced the same problem you are currently facing, solved it, and then wrote a book on it.
The vast majority of the World Championship and Olympic Finals from the past 15 years are available on www.youtube.com. In addition, USA Swimming posts the most of their championship final swims on their Youtube channel. This website has frame by frame underwater footage from international championship winning swims from the late 90’s through 2012.
If you want to be become an expert on technique watch what the best swimmers do in championship races. Study what happens over the water. Study what happens under the water. Watch races at full speed. Watch races in slow motion. Watch races frame-by-frame. You develop a ‘coaching eye’ by working on it.
What are the commonalities amongst champions? What do the best do differently? How does this compare to what is deemed ‘good technique’? Can you explain the biomechanical advantage of what these swimmers are doing? Can you see why it works? Can you see the opportunities for improvement?
Need help interpreting what you are seeing? Buy a book on swimming technique. Buy a book on biomechanics. Used in conjunction, you can understand what successful coaching are teaching, and what successful swimmers are doing.
While books can provide a great overview on any topic, diving into research can help create an understanding of the gritty details for any given subject.
A brief summary of just about every exercise and performance related research study from the past 50 years is available for free at www.pubmed.com. For those who work at universities, most of the full text studies can be found for free through your school. For everyone else, may papers are published for free at www.researchgate.com. For those that aren’t available, requests for copies are often honored by most researchers. Just ask.
There are literally thousands of research articles specifically on swimming. While some are more useful than others, there is a lot of valuable information. The same subjects listed in the sections on books are worth exploring here. In many cases, these are the specific studies that these books are based on.
A First Caveat
Knowledge is great. However, you must apply the knowledge, observe what works, trouble shoot, and continue to refine your approach.
Books, video, and research all provide ideas.
You only learn when you apply those ideas.
A Second Caveat
I don’t want to diminish the value of actually finding a qualified mentor. My point is not that real-life mentorship is not valuable, but that you must take ownership of your own coaching journey. Instead of waiting for your magical mentor to appear, start using the resources available to you. By doing so, you will be ready when an actual mentor walks into your life.
Mentors can have a huge impact for the following reasons-
Seeing excellence in action can greatly shorten the learning curve. Seeing how it is done leaves nothing to the imagination. It is right in front of you.
Mentors can often provide you with insight through their unique experiences. There are some experiences that don’t find their way into formal documentation.
Access to their network. Successful coaches know successful coaches.
The last point is important. Who you know matters, but the saying ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ is false. It’s what you know AND who you know that matters.
Great mentors are interested in excellence, and they are interested in surrounding themselves with excellent people. Who are these individuals interested in mentoring? Great mentors are looking for skilled apprentices.
You have to be ready for any mentorship opportunity that might come about. You have to be ready to impress someone.
If you are fortunate enough to have access to a world class coach, do you know enough to even ask the right questions? Are you able to understand what they are doing? Are you competent enough for them to want to help you?
To ask the right questions, you have to know what you don’t know.
The only way is through self-education utilizing the resources described above.
While this article is about mentorship, it is just as much about personal empowerment and taking control of your future, rather than letting circumstance dictate your opportunities.
‘You wasted $150,000 on a Harvard education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.’
-Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting
Just as not everyone gets to go to Harvard, not everyone gets access to a world-class mentor.
However, anything you would ever want to know is available for free, or close to it. If you have a problem, someone else has already solved it, documented how to solve it, and put it out into the world to help others.
Take initiative and find the answers. If you don’t, someone else will.
It’s a choice.