Learning to Coach
The craft of coaching requires many skillsets to be effective. Learning to coach effectively is a lifelong process that only ends when you decide for it to end. At its root, coaching is about identifying, labeling, solving, and skipping problems. These problems emerge in numerous forms and consistently novel ways. Over time, coaches become more and more effective at working through the problems that emerge for swimmer and coach on the road to achieving their goals. At the same time, improving expertise simply allows coaches to better identify and label potential problems to solve. As expertise grows, the problems don’t shrink in magnitude, the nature of those problems simply change.
In developing skill as a coach, I’ve found great value in the thought that you don’t read to learn, you read to get ideas. You learn from the process of actually applying these ideas in practice. As a coach, I have found this to be very true. Learning takes place by implementing an idea, observing the effect, and then reflecting upon what happened. With that process comes learning. Reading and education have utility in that they can steer coaches towards better ideas worth experimenting with, implementing, and exploring. This creates a shortcut on the path of mastery.
For each subsection, I’ve listed some articles that distill what I’ve learned so far into simple, useful, and practical information. They represent a shortcut toward identifying some of the critical concepts and ideas that can be useful as starting points when engaging in the practice of coaching, where the skill of coaching is ultimately learned. Beyond the specific ideas and articles referenced, the resources page of this website lists many texts that most coaches will find to be invaluable in improving their coaching.
The most important skillset is the ability to work with people. Coaching is about people first. It is about leading, it is about inspiring, it is about facilitating learning. The ability to interact and to relate to other human beings is the fundamental skill in coaching. The best coaches are simply the best at working with and engaging young people during their pursuits in the pool
If you are unable to effectively relate to the swimmers you coach, all of the technical and training knowledge in the world will be useless. Swimmers must be motivated, inspired, excited, and engaged in the process of improvement for that process to unfold effectively. While it’s easy to get caught up in the latest ideas about training and technique, coaches are very well served in creating self-awareness about how their interactions with others are serving their coaching practice.
Coaches may find value in the following articles, all of which explore various aspects of the social, cultural, and psychological aspects of coaching.
Being able to establish a sound understanding of technical excellence is critical for coaching success. Swimming is a skill sport. The fastest swimmers are more skilled than slower swimmers. As such, great coaches must have a great understanding of what great technique consists of. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our appreciation of technique needs to be as simpleas possible. With simple yet inarguable concepts, coaches have great flexibility to adapt these concepts to the specific needs of individual swimmers.
For a head start on the critical points for each stroke, take a look at the following articles. While the information may be more or less useful to you, I encourage all coaches to look for their own foundational technical tenets, as I have done. If you disagree with what I have outlined, why do you do disagree? If you agree, why do you agree? Can you defend your position?
The vast majority of swimming technique research is available for free. Read it. If you were to buy all of the swimming books written by coaches, you can get all of them used for a relatively small amount of money. What are the best coaches saying about technique? Buy introductory anatomy and biomechanics books. How do the basic laws of physics apply within the context of what the structure of the human body allows?
Watch the best swimmers swim. Race footage from every major championship is available on youtube.com. USA Swimming puts all of their senior level meets online. What are the common elements? What stands out? What makes sense to you? What seems to WORK?
Lean on the current research, coaches’ opinions, and what you see. Figure it out for yourself.
Once you have an appreciation for the critical aspects of technique, coaches must have the ability to help swimmers learn these skills.
While possessing a strong technical foundation is critical for coaches, it’s useless if that knowledge is not translated to improved learning outcomes in swimmers. If the swimmers’ skills aren’t improving, there is a gap between what they you know and what they are learning. Improving your skillset in this area will help your swimmers improve their skillsets.
Unfortunately, this area of coaching is typically unexplored by swimming coaches in particular and the coaching community as a whole. While coaching has traditionally focused on instruction-based teaching paradigms, more effective approaches may exist that focus on providing learning opportunities for swimmers. Moving forward, a shift towards learning as opposed to teaching will facilitate more consistent, more permanent, and more dramatic changes for a broader spectrum of swimmers.
The following articles can be a source of ideas that may be useful developing this skillset. More texts are referenced in the skill acquisition section of the resources page of this website.
While training is often the first area coaches look to expand their coaching skillset, I believe that it is most likely the least important skill set for coaches to be truly excellent at. For coaches with a truly exceptional ability to design and assign training tasks, these skills will not be relevant if coaches can’t work with people, understand technique, and help swimmers learn to swim with more skill.
The purpose of training, is to develop the ability to sustain effective skills and/or execute these skills at a higher level of physiological output. If swimmers aren’t engaged and motivated, nothing else matters. If swimmers aren’t working on the right skills, it doesn’t matter. If swimmers are working on the right skills, but aren’t given the appropriate tools to learn them, it doesn’t matter. Training matters most when these other elements are in place.
1. Understand training theory, independent of its application to swimming. What seems to be common to all sporting disciplines? What are the foundational elements and principles? How are they best applied to swimming?
2. Then understand how different sports, all facing different constraints, generally train their athletes. How do different sports apply the foundational principles? Are these approaches useful in swimming? How are they best applied to swimming?
3. Then understand the different approaches used within the sport of swimming. What approaches do different coaching experts advocate? Again, what are the common elements? What approaches are more appropriate for which situations?
Whatever principles are carried through all three levels of investigation, these are the principles that are relevant for training swimmers. As long as your training design is aligned with these principles, there are no rules. If you need to violate the principles, that’s fair game as well, as long as you have a reason.
By gaining a more global perspective as to what constitutes effective training practices, coaches are less likely to make training mistakes. Further, they will have many more options at their disposal to effectively solve problems that are presented to them. It you only have one or two options for organizing training, you’ll be grossly limited in your ability to design training that will be effective for all of the swimmers you coach.
Once coaches are able to identify the critical principles of training, how do they apply to the various aspects of training, such as endurance, strength, speed and power, and mobility and health? In what areas do you need to expand your skillsets? How can this information help you appreciate every aspect of performance and how they relate to each other?
Check out these articles for some ideas that are less often considered in training. Further, the resources section of this website has several books that provide a great overview of training, each from a different perspective.
Find a mentor. This relationship can greatly accelerate your learning process, point you in the right direction, and help avoid the mistakes that others have already made. Mentors can be found in many different places, and you can learn anything from anyone, even without direct interaction. Whatever problem you are trying solve, someone else has probably solved it. Save yourself the trouble and find a way to learn from the experience and errors of others.
Up or Down
When deciding how to approach becoming a better coach, there are three approaches that can be taken. You can work from the top down or the bottom up. There are advantages and disadvantages of both approaches.
The top down approach is characterized by learning what the best coaches and swimmers are currently doing, with less emphasis on the underlying reasons such decisions are made. You are starting with the currently accepted best practice and educating yourself about what is actually done on a daily basis. The advantage of this approach is that you develop an understanding of which coaching practices have survived the test of time and will likely work for the majority of swimmers you coach. Further, you have tangible information that you can directly apply to your coaching practice that will likely result in positive outcome.
The downside of this approach is that experts can be wrong. Just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean it works, and it doesn’t mean it will work for you. Further, not all opinions are created equally and where you get your information matters. If you don’t understand the underlying principles, you may have less ability to weigh the arguments of experts. In short, your BS detector may not be as finely tuned as you’d like if you don’t have a strong grasp on WHY decisions are being made.
An understand of the basic sciences can provide opportunities for innovation that may be missed by long-standing coaching practice. If your only source of information about how to coach is based upon what has already been done, it can be challenging to identify what needs to be done in the future to help the sport move forward.
The second approach is more of a bottoms-up approach where the focus is on learning the basic sciences in their pure form, or loosely applied to sport, and then using these ideas to determine how best to coach. This would entail learning more about biomechanics, physiology, psychology, training theory, etc…The value of this approach is that is relatively free from the historical bias of what has been done before. Of course, this is also a limitation of this approach as the coaching practices that have survived have typically survived for a reason; they work. There are many strategies that don’t ‘make sense’, yet work very well.
With a bottom up approach, coaches can rely on basic principles to create their own training strategies. This can result in great innovations that move the sport forward and provide a competitive advantage as no one else is using these approaches. However, this strength is also as a weakness as many of the novel ideas and theories you develop may seem novel because no one else is doing them. The real reason no one does them is because coaches have already realized they don’t work. Needless time and effort may be spent working in areas coaches have already identified as useless.
The value of understanding the underlying sciences is that it can provide you with an excellent understanding of what is happening, as well as developing a filter to apply when learning from others. It provides a framework which can allow for a better evaluation of the ideas of others, reducing the likelihood of using poor information. On the other hand, there is the danger that your BS detector can be too finely tuned and dismiss otherwise valuable information because it doesn’t seem accurate.
Of course, coaches are not limited to choosing one path. The best approach is a combination of the two. When coaches who understand the underlying principles can weigh them against current coaching practice and look for overlap and opportunity for improvement.
Currently accepted coaching practice provides great insight into what has worked and what has passed the test of time. The basic sciences provide a sound basis for how the human body works, how individuals learn, and how humans generally interact with each other. A healthy respect for both sources of information will best guide coaches along the path of improving their coaching.
For better or worse, the quest to become a better coach is ultimately a self-directed one. While this can be frustrating in that it is difficult to know what direction to take while learning the craft of coaching, it is also liberating in that you can choose what information to value.
When presented with an idea, consider how it might be useful, or not, to you. The broader your sources of information, the more easily you’ll be able to discern whether specific ideas have merit and relevance. Of course, actually implementing that idea will be the true test of its relevance.
With a little curiosity, any coach can become better.