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Coaching is Acting

One of the most under-appreciated skills in coaching is that of being a great actor.

Who do I need to be right now to get done what needs to get done?

Coaching is a performance and great coaching is a great performance. While we all have our innate personality traits, we have to be able to behave in a certain manner in specific circumstances. Many times, we need to fake it and take on a persona, an alter ego.

Beyond the general situations that require specific behaviors, all of our swimmers have different needs and respond differently to the same coaching style. Each swimmer may need us to be someone else for them. Many times, this is subtle, while others require a dramatic shift. To help each swimmer reach their potential, we have to be able to master these nuances.

We all innate personality characteristics that tend to dictate our general tendencies. When it comes to coaching behavior, it can be very effective to structure your practice environment to take advantage of your natural tendencies and play to your strengths. The more you can make this a reality, there more natural your behavior will be and the more sustainable your coaching will be, as trying to be someone you’re not can be exhausting.

At the same time, it’s critical to be aware of your liabilities and the situations where your natural inclinations may not be best serving your goals. The more you can understand your weaknesses, the more you can be readywith a plan to mitigate them.

This is where it becomes critical to be a supreme actor.

Be who you have to be to get done what has to get done.

As behavior is a choice, we can influence that behavior with awareness and intention. Sometimes, we have to fake it with energy and engagement.

Some Examples

In the face of devastating failure and significant, swimmers will look to their coaches for reassurance. While we may be equally devastated, we need to summon our strength and ACT confident that the future will be better and goals are still possible.

At 5.30am, most individuals are not innately high energy, caffeinated or not. Swimmers are certainly no different. Clearly, excitement and engagement make for better practices. As coaches, it then becomes our responsibility to bring the energy and excitement to the pool deck to facilitate a better practice, whether we feel like it or not. You have to bring it. That takes a conscious effort, not divine inspiration.

There are many more situations where coaches need to behave in a certain manner to be most effective. For some, the required behavior may be natural, while for others, it will require a concerted effort to behave in a specific manner. All coaches will find specific circumstances where they thrive due to their natural inclinations. At the same time, all coaches will find situations where their natural instincts prove to be counter-productive. How can we know the difference?


The first step in modifying behavior is becoming aware of how we are behaving. How to do you tend to behave in specific circumstances? Does that behavior serve your coaching goals and the needs of your swimmers? Would a different approach have been more effective?

If there is a disconnect between how we behave and how we would like to behave, it’s time to summon our acting skills. Once we come aware of actions and their effects, we can start to create change. The first step is to evaluate the situation. How did the swimmer(s) respond immediately, as well as over time? With continued awareness, we can recognize patterns of effective behavior and ineffective behavior.

At first, coaches might not be able to effectively manage those behaviors. The first step is to become aware of what they are doing; then the ability to effect changes comes soon after.

Getting Better

Learning to modify our behaviors starts with the awareness described above. If you don’t know how you’re behaving, or you don’t realize whether your behavior is serving your goals, it’s not going to change. Once coaches are aware of their behaviors, they know have the choice as to how to behave in each situation.

This is where acting comes. In most cases, behaving differently will be a challenge. If it was easy, we’d already be behaving in an ideal manner. The mistake most coaches make is that they wait to feel like behaving in a certain way. This type of thinking is exactly backwards. To get behavior change, one simple strategy is most effective.

Act the way you want to feel.

While the old saying ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ has relevance, the more appropriate saying would be ‘fake it ‘til you feel it’.

Actions dictate attitude.

Motions dictate emotions.

Movements dictate mood.

It all starts with action. The feelings will follow.

If you want to feel a certain way, act as if you already feel that way. With time, your actions will start to shift your internal state and that will manifest itself in your external behaviors. There have been MANY times where I was not excited to at practice for whatever reason. I would fake it and all of a sudden, I was having a blast.

The challenge?

It’s hard to do this, especially when you really don’t feel like doing something. Here are some strategies that can improve acting skills, and ultimately coaching effectiveness, particularly when it’s hard.

Do it any way. Some things in life are hard. Figure it out. How good do you want to be?

Acknowledge the difficulty and look for support. This is not a pity party. It is simply expressing the challenge and then overcoming it. Many times, a simple acknowledgement of the challenge is all that it takes for us to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and do what needs to be done. Your fellow coaches can likely relate at 5am, and could use the support as well.

Make it a habit. The more you fake it, the less you have to fake it. It becomes a habit. You get better at shifting gears, and the transition happens much faster because you know it will.

Anticipate. We all have triggers and we all situations that move us in the wrong directions. Know what these situations are for you, and have a plan for what you are going to do in the situation. The more you are ready, the easier it will be to act.

Recognize. When you’re in the middle of a situation where your behavior is not aligned with your goals, the ability to recognize that behavior will determine how long you’re stuck in it. Recognition will come before the ability to effectively change your behavior. With practice, your ability to recognize behavior issues will improve, as will your ability to do something about it.

Reflect. How long did it take for me to realize a change was needed? Was I able to make the change? Was the change productive? Was my approach appropriate for the individual(s) it was targeted towards? What could I have done better? All of these questions serve the same purpose of continually working toward getting better. With execution and reflection, we get better over time.

A Warning

Swimmers don’t necessarily understand that coaches are playing a role to help facilitate their goals. When taken to far, or taken in the wrong direction, are actions are not seen for their intent, but for their impact. If we continually behave in way justifies the means by the ends achieved, there can be long-term consequences to the relationships we establish. This is true even if our behavior is no reflective of ‘who we are’.

While behaving in a specific way may get the desired response, be aware of how that behavior may have a longer-term impact that is not intended or desirable.

Moving Forward

Our internal states, how we feel and how we prefer to act, are difficult to change and influence. In contrast, our external states, our presence and how we choose to act, are very much a choice. While our internal states can make these choices more or less difficult, they remain a choice.

Fortunately, we learn to develop context-dependent personas that display behaviors that support our coaching goals. They become habits over time. With awareness of how we are behaving in specific circumstances, and whether those behaviors are productive, we can start to change our behaviors.

The easiest way to do that, is just to act as if. Fake it until you feel it. You won’t regret it.

Thanks to Dr. Rob Gilbert for some of the specific ideas in this article. Check out Dr. Gilbert here.

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