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Coaching with Style Part I

There are two critical coaching skills that are complementary, yet contradictory. The challenge is that both skills are critical to successful coaching, yet being in strong in one area tends to lead to weakness in the opposing area.

Most coaches have a tendency towards one of these skills based upon their natural inclinations, and as such, rely on that tendency in their coaching. That doesn’t necessarily become a problem until it does. If coaches rely too much on one skill, they may be less than optimally effective.

In this article, I’d like to explore these traits, the dynamics of their interaction, and what coaches can do to leverage their strengths while marginalizing their weaknesses, ultimately providing the best opportunities for swimmers to go fast.

Natural Strengths

I’m going to briefly touch on the strengths of each approach, as they are pretty straightforward. Most coaches don’t need to be convinced about the effectiveness of their approach! As such, I’d like to spend more on the less appreciated weaknesses of each approach, as well the solutions coaches can implement to marginalize these weaknesses. These strategies will help coaches make the most of their strengths, while also protecting themselves from the potential downsides of their natural tendencies.

It is important to emphasize that these coaching styles largely emerge from our natural tendencies. I am NOT arguing that one approach is better than the other. All coaches will be most successful when they work with their natural style, rather than work against it. The idea is to create awareness of this dynamic, and then manage drawbacks so that coaches can be even more effective.

In terms of designing and implementing training and practice sessions, coaches must be able to effectively design training sessions that allow swimmers to develop the skills and abilities needed to win races. To do so, coaches must rely on two primary skills. They must be able to-

  • Effectively plan out which skills and abilities need to be developed over time to ensure fast swimming.

  • Adjust those plans on a day to day basis, as determined by what their swimmers are ready for during any given practice.

Most coaches have a natural inclination towards one skill as opposed to the other. This is typically the case because the attributes that lend one to rely on planning often lead one to be less flexible, and vice versa. By understanding these dynamics, we can leverage natural strengths to lead to more effective coaching.

Natural Strengths of Flexible Coaches

The primary benefits of being a flexible coach are simple. They can more easily adapt to the changing ebbs and flows of life, and how these changes manifest in practice on a daily basis. The strength of a flexible coach is the ability to adjust to the day to day variations in readiness that swimmers present. When done well, these coaches can read a group and then determine what needs to get done on a daily basis.

At the extreme level, these coaches will literally not have a plan about what they’re going to do until they get on deck and read the situation. As we move down the spectrum, coaches will have a loose plan and then formalize what they are going to do once they being to interact with their swimmers.

The common attribute between coaches along this spectrum is that their practices are highly influenced by the day to day readiness and behavior of their swimmers. The value in this is approach is that this readiness CAN deviate significantly on a daily basis. On any given day, swimmers may be more or less ready to work in certain areas, and they may be more or less ready to be challenged.

Intuitive and flexible coaches are best able to read the situation and provide what swimmers need TODAY.

Natural Strengths of Planners

With planners, work gets done. With good planners, the right work gets done. The primary value of planning is that the right work gets done when it needs to get done, and there are rarely lapses. Planners know what needs to be accomplished, and they create a plan for accomplishing those tasks. Whether we’re talking about physical development or technical development, all of the relevant areas

Of course, there can be disagreements about what types of work need to get done and how to do it. If there is a planner involved, they will ensure that the all of the work THEY believe is important gets done. That is the common strength of a planner, regardless of what work is chosen to be implemented.

Over the course of a season, there are a lot of skills and abilities that need to be developed. Further, there are some skills and abilities that are best developed in a sequence as some serve as the foundation for others. It is very challenging to ensure that this all happens in an organized manner. While there are many different ways of doing so, planning this out in some manner is the most effective way to ensure that it happens.

Coaches that plan well excel in this regard.


The challenges that flexible coaches and planners experience are more or less the opposite. These challenges are often the direct result of the natural strengths of each coach. By understanding how are natural styles may be creating some issues in our coaching, we can work to create solutions to mitigate these effects.

Challenges for the Flexible Coach

The strengths of the flexible coach inevitably lead to weaknesses that reflect those same strengths. The more that a flexible approach is taken to the extreme, the more that these weaknesses become apparent. With an awareness of what those weaknesses look like in practice, the flexible coach can realize when they have moved too far in one direction.

A lack of structure. As detailed before, there are a lot of skills and abilities that need to be developed to ensure that swimmers achieve their potential. It is REALLY hard to ensure that all of these aspects of the training process are incorporated over time, unless there is a specific plan for doing so. There is simply too much to keep track of.

Beyond getting all of the required work done, some types of work are more or less compatible with others. It makes a lot more sense to pair work that is complementary as opposed to contradictory. As an example, performing sprint work after a 3,000m threshold set doesn’t make whole lot of sense. Managing all of this without a plan is really, really hard to do. This is where a lack of consistent structure can become problematic.

Swimmers like to know what to expect. For the most part, swimmers appreciate some degree of routine. They like to know what type of training they’re going to be doing on any given day. They’re always asking ‘what are we doing tonight?’ or ‘what are we doing today?’ Ambiguity always seems to drive them crazy for whatever reason. Some might just like to mentally prepare for training sessions they don’t enjoy, or it might satisfy their need for certainty. Regardless, swimmers like to know what to expect in a general sense, and training schedules that provide no consistent routine can be challenging for some.

Incongruent training flow. Some might argue that ‘coaching what you see’ allows you to seamlessly flow from one practice to the next. By seeing what’s in front of them, these coaches can do a great job of providing the right stimulus on the day. However, if you’re not paying attention to what’s COMING, and only paying attention to what you saw in the past and are seeing in the present, choices can be made that ultimately are less effective.

Sometimes we can make the best decision for today, and do so in a manner that compromises training for several days. This is more likely to happen if there is not attention given to longer timeframes. ‘Don’t let today’s workout ruin tomorrow’. While a reactive planner can always adjust, it’s often more efficient to avoid needing to constantly adjust through better planning.

Excessive repetition. I’ve noticed that coaches that tend to ‘shoot from the hip’ often tend to shoot in the same way every time. We all have our habits and coaches will tend to fall back to patterns that they are comfortable and familiar with. Personally, it’s often when I am forced to come up with different training structures due to planned changed that I actually develop a novel solution.

I know that when I am put on the spot to come up with a set, there are certain patterns that I will fall into. This isn’t necessarily a problem when it happens infrequently, yet it will become a problem when it happens every day. ‘Spontaneity’ often leads to repetition because you are not FORCED to come up with something different. Unless coaches are actively restricting themselves from their preferred options, they are going to implement those choices, particularly when they need to make decisions under pressure.

This is my primary criticism of a flexible approach. While proponents argue that it allows them to meet the needs of their swimmers on a given day, I’ve found that these individuals simply repeat very similar training sessions over and over again.

Challenges for the Planner

While planning is essential, it can also come with some major limitations. These limitations stem from the same aspects of planning which make it so effective. The strength of planning is its structure, and it is that structure and the personality traits that value structure, which can occasionally impair the flexibility that is required for day to day coaching.

Excessive rigidity. Planning can help ensure that what needs to happen happens. However, planning is basically trying to predict the future. When taken to the extreme, and training sessions are planned out months ahead of time, there is no ability to adapt to how the season is progressing. If there is one certainty we can plan for, it’s that the season won’t go as planned. If the planner is unable to adjust, problems are going to accumulate.

Planning can become problematic when it becomes fixed. When there are obvious indications that the plan is not working, planners can be unable to deviate from their plan. This is when it becomes problematic. The purpose of a long-term plan is to facilitate the creation of better practices. When there is an inability to deviate from the plan, it will actually lead to worse practice outcomes.

Predictability. The routine becomes routine. While swimmers do like to know what’s expected, they generally don’t like to know EXACTLY what’s coming. Further, everyone will eventually kids get bored with the same old thing day after day. While everyone has varying tolerances for predictability and needs to for uncertainty, most swimmers will need some unpredictability.

Some planners struggle to appreciate this as it might conflict with the predictable plan they like to implement. In some cases, emotions supersede ‘perfect’ training plans. Most individuals appreciate some degree of routine. Few individuals appreciate being bored.

Forecasting short-comings. Predicting performance and readiness is like predicting the weather. It’s difficult to do in the short-term and impossible to do in the long-term. The day to day ability to perform in training is such a dynamic process that attempt to predict what swimmers will need a week, month, or year from now is going to be a real challenge.

The further out plans are created, and the more detailed and rigid these plans are, the more likely there will be a mismatch between what is planned and what is needed. While plans can provide security for coaches, if they don’t match reality, they’re not particularly useful. This becomes even more problematic when coaches are unwilling to deviate from those plans.


Coaches must be able to effectively plan training, while simultaneously be willing and able to effectively adjust those plans. While most individuals are able to consistently perform one of these skills, few are able to execute BOTH over time. This can lead to problems in the training process.

In part II, we’re going to explore what coaches can do about it.


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